News Column

Pac-12 Men Still Not Among College Basketball's Elite

Jan. 2, 2013

Jeff Faraudo, Contra Costa Times

Clearly better than a season ago, Pac-12 Conference basketball still hasn't made the case that it belongs with the elite.

Progress is obvious: Unbeaten Arizona is ranked No. 3 nationally and UCLA has won five in a row, including a victory Saturday against then-No. 7 Missouri.

A year after the Pac-12 went 0-11 in nonconference play against Top-25 opponents, the league is 6-14 vs. ranked teams.

But there also is evidence of lingering vulnerability: Pac-12 home losses to Towson State, Cal Poly, Albany, Sacramento State and Harvard.

"Arizona is very good," Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. "UCLA is potentially very good. I think Oregon is legit."

And the Bears, who were picked third in the Pac-12 preseason media poll?

"Until we get healthy," Montgomery said, "we can't say we're with the upper echelon teams."

Here's how we envision the Pac-12 race unfolding:

1. Arizona (12-0): One of four unbeaten teams in Division I, the Wildcats are loaded. They have depth, experience and a great freshman class, led by Oakland native Brandon Ashley. They shoot well, are improved defensively and have a leader in senior point guard Mark Lyons, the Xavier transfer who made the winning plays at the finish in one-point victories over Florida and San Diego State.

2. UCLA (10-3): The Bruins are young, boast little depth and haven't shown yet they can play coach Ben Howland's brand of defense. But after a couple early stumbles

(including to Cal Poly) and two defections (including big center Josh Smith), they have won five in a row. The freshman class is dynamite: Shabazz Muhammad, Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson have combined to average nearly 57 points the past four games.

3. Colorado (10-2): The Buffaloes are 3-2 against top-50 teams in the RPI ratings and boast one of the top home-court advantages in the West. The backcourt duo of Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker has combined to provide nearly 30 points per game and junior Andre Roberson has 31 career double-doubles. Free throw shooting is an issue and CU must prove it can win on the road.

4. Oregon (11-2): The Ducks are among the deepest teams in the Pac-12 with six players averaging at least 9.2 points, including freshman point guard Dominic Artis of Oakland. They turned some heads early with an impressive road win over UNLV. Otherwise, their tepid schedule raises questions.

5. Cal (8-4): The Bears were tough enough to peg before losing at home to Harvard. Guards Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs are the league's highest-scoring duo, but backcourt injuries are chipping away at Cal's already limited depth. The Bears will be challenged by physical frontcourt opponents and need another

scorer.

6. Stanford (9-4): The Cardinal has challenged itself with four games vs. top-50 RPI teams -- and lost all four. Junior forward Dwight Powell is having his best season. But guards Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright -- both excellent perimeter shooters a season ago -- have combined to make just 23 of 101 from 3-point distance.

7. Washington (8-5): The defensive buzzsaw that was UW basketball in recent years is gone. The Huskies, led by junior C.J. Wilcox (18.5 ppg), still can score. But they rank last in the Pac-12 in steals, where they once made their living. The grabber was a home loss to Albany.

8. Arizona State (11-2): Sophomore point guard Jahii Carson has made the Sun Devils better -- even if ASU fans had to wait

a year for him to become eligible. He has eight games of at least 18 points. Center Jordan Bachynski's 59 blocked shots are more than seven Pac-12 teams have total.

9. Oregon State (10-3): The Beavers have been something of a disappointing tease in recent seasons, unable to deliver after encouraging starts. A home loss to Towson State didn't alleviate those doubts. The Beavers entered play Monday with an embarrassing RPI strength of schedule rating of 340. Their issue: defense.

10. USC (5-8): The Trojans have played the Pac-12's toughest schedule, but have been devoured by the likes of Illinois, San Diego State, Minnesota and New Mexico. The top players are all transfers -- Eric Wise (UC Irvine), Jio Fontana (Fordham) and J.T. Terrell (Wake Forest). Is cohesiveness an issue?

11. Washington State (9-4): The Cougars have won seven of their past eight, dropping only a two-point decision to regional rival Gonzaga. Senior Brock Motum has scored at least 23 points in five of the past seven games. But there isn't enough else here.

12. Utah (8-4): The Utes are getting better, but they had so far to climb. They will rely on defense and hope that freshman forward Jordan Leverage continues to improve.



Source: (c)2013 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.) Distributed by MCT Information Services