It’s the second week of March and we’re already mad. Saturday night, Keith Hornsby opened the doors of the asylum and Buddy Hield locked us in. Because this is college basketball, this week’s conference tournaments will drive us crazier. The SEC is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Kentucky is Nurse Ratched. The Big 12 is Arkham Asylum. The Pac-12 may not be sane, but compared to other power conferences its tournament lacks story lines and intrigue.
The Pac-12 received six teams into the NCAA Tournament last season — Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, Oregon, Stanford and UCLA — and, aside from Colorado’s first-round flop, they did well. Stanford made a surprise run to the Sweet 16. Arizona missed the Final Four by two seconds. This year, the conference will be lucky if four teams go dancing. Colorado, Arizona State and Stanford went belly-up. The only schools that can make the NCAA Tournament without a miracle run in Las Vegas are the Pac-12’s top four seeds. Last week, we discussed on the Keg Tap how predictable the conference was. That’s where we’ll start today, with the four teams that have the day off when the tournament tips Wednesday afternoon. Then, we’ll move on to the first-round games that could be largely inconsequential, and, finally, to the CUI’s picks for Pac-12 honors and the all-conference teams.
The first-round byes: No. 1 Arizona (28-3, 16-2), No. 2 Oregon (23-8, 13-5), No. 3 Utah (23-7, 13-5), No. 4 UCLA (19-12, 11-7)
Behold the Pac-12’s entrants in the 2015 dance. Arizona and Utah are locks. The Wildcats are rampaging toward a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament. They’ve won seven straight games since their Feb. 7 loss at Arizona State. The only victory in that streak that’s come by less than 20 points was at Utah. In fact, that game is Arizona’s only conference win that wasn’t by double digits. The Wildcats have a potential top-five pick in the NBA draft, Stanley Johnson, and the Pac-12’s best defender, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Their length and athleticism are overwhelming on defense and in transition. It’s not hard to see them making the Final Four.
Utah, like Arizona, is an elite defensive team. The Utes are 10th in the country in scoring defense and seventh in opponent field goal percentage. Point guard Delon Wright is the best player in the conference. He is second in the Pac-12 in defensive win shares and has the size and length to guard either wing position. Wright isn’t a top-level scorer, but he’s a good one, and he’s a superb rebounder and distributor. Utah is stocked with shooters — the Utes hit 40 percent from deep as a team, 15th in the country — and Wright excels at getting them open looks. There’s little reason to think that Utah won’t play Arizona in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The only thing that could hold the Utes back is a cold night beyond the arc- in their seven losses, they shot just 30 percent from the three.
Oregon is the only team in the conference, other than Arizona and Utah, that can feel comfortable about its NCAA Tournament chances. The Ducks were predicted to finish eighth in the Pac-12 before the season- that happens when a team loses 10 players to graduation, transfer and dismissal during the offseason. Instead, Oregon has thrived behind an explosive offense led by senior guard Joseph Young, who leads the conference with 19.1 points per game. Young is the Pac-12’s best heat-check player, a dynamic inside-out scorer and terrific isolation threat. He’s the kind of guy who can propel a team through a deep March run.
UCLA will need to at least make the semifinals of the conference tournament to punch its ticket to the dance. The Bruins are too inconsistent. They have no depth; all of their starters average double figures in scoring but after that the production completely drops off. UCLA will get some credit from the selection committee for its strength of schedule- its murderous non-conference slate included match ups against Oklahoma, North Carolina, Gonzaga and Kentucky. The committee’s goodwill will only go so far because the Bruins lost all of those games by double digits. That Kentucky contest is the most memorable game UCLA has played this season, and it was a spectacular flameout in which the Bruins trailed 41-7 at halftime. A road loss at Colorado won’t help either, and their only quality win came at home against Utah. UCLA’s resume right now just isn’t good enough.
After these four, the Pac-12 doesn’t have any teams even on the bubble. Any of these squads playing Wednesday will probably need to win the conference tournament to get into the dance.
No. 8 Cal (17-14, 7-11) vs. No. 9 Washington State (13-17, 7-11) — 1 p.m. Mountain Time
Expect Cal’s productive trio of guards — Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Matthews and Jabari Bird — to propel them past the Pac-12’s worst defense. Bird missed the team’s first game, which Washington State won by three points despite 24 points and seven rebounds from Matthews. Bird returned for the rematch, which the Bears won comfortably- he dropped 12 points and eight boards, Wallace had 26 and seven. Cal is dangerous because any of those guards can go off for 20 points a night, but inconsistent because they never seem to do it on the same night.
No. 5 Arizona State (17-14, 9-9) vs. No. 12 USC (11-19, 3-15) — 3:30 p.m. MT
USC has been awful for two years under former Florida Gulf Coast wizard Andy Enfield. The Trojans are just so young. They have no seniors and only two juniors, and they rank in the bottom three in the conference in points scored, points allowed, turnovers, free-throw percentage and field goal percentage. Arizona State is anemic offensively — the Sun Devils are last in the Pac-12 in three-point shooting and they have no players averaging more than 11 points per game. Against USC, that won’t matter.
No. 7 Oregon State (17-13, 8-10) vs. No. 10 Colorado (14-16, 7-11) — 7 p.m. MT
Oregon State strangled Colorado’s offense in their lone matchup this season, a 72-58 Beavers victory. The Buffs shot just 35 percent as a team, and Gary Payton II terrorized them to the tune of 24 points, five rebounds, four steals and seven blocks. Seven blocks from a 6-foot-3 point guard. He held Askia Booker to 2-of-14 shooting. Colorado also let the Pac-12’s worst offensive team score 17 points above their season average and allowed them to hit 49 percent from the field and 38 percent from deep. Josh Scott is coming off of his best back-to-back games of the season — the Buffs will need another big effort from him, because Payton will likely shut Booker down again.
No. 6 Stanford (18-12, 9-9) vs. No. 11 Washington (16-14, 5-13) — 9:30 p.m. MT
Washington’s rotation was thin before it dismissed center Robert Upshaw, the NCAA’s leading shot-blocker. The Huskies have also been without forwards Shawn Kemp Jr. and Donaven Dorsey for several games, and there is no indication if they will be back for the conference tournament. In their absence, coach Lorenzo Romar has played walk-ons and end-of-the-rotation guys significant minutes. Washington upset Utah in the regular-season finale, but two days before that the Huskies lost to Colorado by 17 points. They also lost twice to Stanford, and the Cardinal’s Chasson Randle torched them for over 20 points in both games. Randle isn’t an efficient volume shooter but he does a lot of damage at the free-throw line, and Washington committed more fouls than all but two Pac-12 teams this season.
Really, it’s tough to see any of these teams making it past the second round of the conference tournament. You get a predictable bracket when the regular season is as lackluster as this one was. The Pac-12’s lack of solid teams this year overshadowed some very good performances, but Arizona, Utah and Oregon should dominate the end-of-season awards because their stars pushed them over the top.
Pac-12 Player of the Year: Delon Wright- Sr. PG, Utah — 14.7 ppg, 5.3 apg, 4.7 rpg, 2.1 spg, 1 bpg, 52 % FG, 32% 3PT, 84% FT
Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell has gathered momentum in this conversation. That’s ridiculous. McConnell is the third-best player on his own team. Wright is one of the most complete guards in the nation. He leads the Pac-12 in win shares and Player Efficiency Rating, he’s third in assists and steals and fourth in free-throw percentage. He is an elite defender who can guard the one through three and he is a good scorer inside and out. Few players could drop the kind of line that Wright did in Utah’s win over Washington State on Mar. 5 — 18 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, two blocks and one steal on 4-of-6 shooting from the field, 2-of-3 from deep and 8-of-8 from the free-throw line. He is the lynchpin of the Utes’ stifling defense and its bombs-away, three-point gunning offense and Utah wouldn’t be close to the top 10 without him.
Runners-up: Joseph Young; Sr. PG, Oregon, Stanley Johnson; Fr. SG/SF, Arizona
Defensive Player of the Year: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson- So. SF, Arizona — 1.1 spg, 1 bpg, 85.8 Defensive rating, 2.5 Defensive win shares, +7 Defensive plus/minus
Had Washington not dismissed Upshaw, he would take this award easily. Instead, it narrowly goes to Hollis-Jefferson over Payton and Wright. Hollis-Jefferson looks and plays like the Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green — a long, strong, lanky wing who can neutralize anyone from a point guard to a power forward. Their stats over two years are almost identical. Hollis-Jefferson is the key to Arizona’s suffocating defense. His length, skill and versatility let the Wildcats trap or switch ball screens however they want with little adverse effect, and no one in the Pac-12 can shut down a perimeter player like he can.
Runners-up: Gary Payton II; Jr. PG, Oregon State, Delon Wright; Sr. PG, Utah
Freshman of the Year: Stanley Johnson- SG/SF, Arizona — 13.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.5 spg, 45% FG, 35% 3PT, 74% FT
Johnson, the seventh-ranked recruit in ESPN’s Top 100, has been everything Arizona had hoped. He led the Wildcats in scoring and rebounding. He and Hollis-Jefferson formed the Pac-12’s best wing-defending duo. Johnson needs work as a passer and a ball handler, but he’s a top-notch slasher and he finishes through contact and draws fouls well. He’s a good outside shooter and a guaranteed lottery pick.
Runners-up: Kevon Looney; SF/PF, UCLA, Jakob Poeltl; PF/C, Utah
Most Improved Player: Josh Hawkinson- So. PF, Washington State — 14.7 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 1 apg, 1.1 bpg, 50% FG, 85% FT
Hawkinson played only six minutes per game as an end-of-the-bench guy his freshman year. This season, he rewarded coach Ernie Kent for starting him. Hawkinson led the Pac-12 in rebounding — he grabbed 31 percent of available defensive boards while he was on the court. Hawkinson was the only player in the conference to average a double-double, and he was 10th in field goal percentage and third in free-throw percentage.
Runners-up: Askia Booker; Sr. PG/SG, Colorado, Jordan Loveridge; Jr. SF, Utah
Coach of the Year: Dana Altman- Oregon
Altman did a remarkable job in Eugene this year. His team was predicted to finish eighth in the Pac-12 after it lost 10 players in the offseason, but Altman guided it to a third-place finish in the conference and a likely NCAA Tournament birth. He did this despite guard Joseph Young being the only established star on his roster and he coaxed meaningful production out of freshmen, junior college transfers and former role-players.
Runners-up: Larry Krystkowiak; Utah, Sean Miller; Arizona
Finally, the all-conference teams. The Pac-12 handles its all-conference teams strangely- 10 players on the first team, five on the second — the 15 best players in the conference, regardless of position.
All-Pac-12 First Team
Delon Wright- PG, Utah
Gary Payton II- PG, Oregon State
Joseph Young- PG, Oregon
T.J. McConnell- PG, Arizona
Chasson Randle- PG/SG, Stanford
Askia Booker- PG/SG, Colorado
Stanley Johnson- SG/SF, Arizona
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson- SF, Arizona
Kevon Looney- SF/PF, UCLA
Jakob Poeltl- PF/C, Utah
All-Pac-12 Second Team
Nigel Williams-Goss- PG, Washington
Tyrone Wallace- PG, Cal
Norman Powell- PG/SG, UCLA
Jordan Loveridge- SF, Utah
Josh Hawkinson- PF, Washington State
Check back at CUIndependent.com throughout the week as we keep you updated with the 2015 Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas. 10 seed Colorado takes on seventh seed Oregon State Wednesday at 7:10 pm, the game will be broadcast on the Pac-12 network.
Contact CU Independent Men’s Basketball beat writer Tommy Wood at email@example.com.