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Beware the Pac-12's big three
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If you haven't already, it's time to take note of the Pac-12. The league is no Big Ten in terms of overall might, but in a season where the SEC and Big 12 rate as even weaker than the Pac-12 in Ken Pomeroy's conference rankings, observers are perfectly willing and able to distinguish between contenders such as Florida and Kansas on the one hand and the lower halves of their respective conferences on the other.
You should do the same in respect to teams such as the Oregon Ducks, Arizona Wildcats and UCLA Bruins. In the conference race, the Ducks have the inside track, a position they've achieved through their performance and some help from the schedule maker. Dana Altman's team already has played all the regular-season games it will have against the Bruins and Wildcats, and has emerged 2-0 against its toughest competitors. Oregon isn't going to run the table by any means, but the rest of the league is still in the position of needing the Ducks to stumble.
That being said, it's quite possible, if not downright likely, that Arizona will receive the highest NCAA tournament seed of any Pac-12 team -- and rightfully so. My colleague Joe Lunardi currently projects the Wildcats as a No. 2 seed, with Oregon a 5, UCLA a 7 and the Colorado Buffaloes a 9. (Joe is optimistic the latter will turn things around after being outscored over the course of their first six Pac-12 games.)
If the conference season were a single basketball game, the Pac-12 would have about seven minutes left in the first half right now. Here is how the league's big three looks in terms of performance at the first half's under-8 timeout, why all three are worth watching in the Pac-12 title race (you can check out Arizona and UCLA going head-to-head Thursday night -- 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2) and why each has the potential to go on a run in the NCAA tourney.
Oregon: The regular-season favorite
Take off your hat to the Ducks, undefeated in conference play and alone in first place. Oregon has emerged as the Pac-12 leader thanks to good shooting (particularly on its rare perimeter attempts) and some very strong defensive rebounding.
About that rebounding. In theory you can give the lion's share of the credit there to 6-foot-7 senior Arsalan Kazemi, currently the No. 2-ranked defensive rebounder in Division I. But can a number that good actually be bad news? I spoke with Altman by phone this week, and he told me there are times when he wishes Kazemi's incredible defensive rebounding percentage (30.2) would go down. It would mean the Rice transfer is getting some help.
"We're putting a lot of pressure on Arsalan," Altman said. And when it comes to improved rebounding, the coach has a candidate in mind: 6-11 senior Tony Woods. "I think there's more there," Altman said of Woods. "His percentages are great, and he's doing a lot of good things offensively. But the one area where I think he can continue to improve is defensive rebounding."
Woods is indeed doing his part on offense. No Duck is more likely to attempt a shot during his minutes, and the senior has drained 56 percent of his 2s this season. In fact, Woods, Kazemi and 6-5 freshman Damyean Dotson are all highly efficient inside the arc.
Solid on both offense and defense, Oregon is a balanced team benefiting from an imbalanced schedule, one that won't require them to play Arizona in Tucson this season. As a result it's likely that the Ducks will win at least a share of the Pac-12 title. Such a title may not earn a lot of respect (ask Washington about last season), but Oregon's good shooting and tough D will serve it well in what projects to be its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2008.
Arizona: The league's best offense
The Wildcats are off to an excellent start to conference play on offense, scoring 1.09 points per possession in a league where the average is right at a point per trip. That marks Sean Miller's team as the class of the Pac-12 on that side of the ball.
In fact, there's a case to be made that Arizona is primed to look better and better as the season progresses. For one thing, its conference opponents have been markedly fortunate in their 3-point shooting. Miller would no doubt emphasize that his team needs to do a better job forcing opposing offenses off the arc and closing out on shooters -- and he's correct. Still, when opponents are making 41 percent of their 3s, you're due for a correction even if your perimeter D isn't uniformly flawless.
When opponents finally do miss a few of their 3s, they'll find it extremely difficult to keep pace with an offense that features Mark Lyons, Solomon Hill and Nick Johnson. That's arguably the Pac-12's best offensive trio right there -- just ask the Arizona State Sun Devils. In the Wildcats' 71-54 win in Tempe, Lyons, Hill and Johnson scored 56 points on 21-of-39 shooting from the floor. And when Kevin Parrom comes off the bench, things get downright unfair for opposing defenses.
What a luxury for Miller, to have freshmen such as Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski and Grant Jerrett in the fortunate position of supporting these high-performance veterans. Derrick Williams led this program to within one possession of the 2011 Final Four, and this group of Wildcats is fully capable of duplicating if not extending that tournament run. The last thing an opposing coach wants to see in his bracket is an offense with this many highly efficient scoring options.
UCLA: The Pac-12's best D?
The Bruins' regular-season Pac-12 title chances took a small but nevertheless measurable hit last weekend when Ben Howland's team lost at home to Oregon 76-67. That game marked the only time UCLA and the Ducks will face each other in the regular season, and it left Howland's team one game down in the standings.
Now the good news, fans in Westwood. (Potentially.) What observers used to refer to as "Howland defense" -- meaning more specifically Final Four-era Howland defense -- may be showing signs of re-emerging. To be sure, the Bruins' season totals in this department are nothing to write home about. (Letting Cal Poly ring up 1.09 points per trip on your home floor tends to ding your numbers.) But thus far in conference play UCLA has featured the Pac-12's best D, one that has limited opponents to just 0.94 points per possession.
The combination of very highly rated freshmen and strong defense is often the precursor of good things to come in March. (John Calipari has fairly made his career at that particular intersection, though granted Kentucky's defense this season is strangely average.) And Howland's freshmen are, for the most part, living up to their billings. Not too long ago I classed Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adams as two of the top eight freshmen in the country in terms of performance. Not to be outdone, 6-9 freshman Kyle Anderson is making 55 percent of his 2s in Pac-12 play. And even an old guy such as 6-2 senior Larry Drew II is making a mark, spraying assists around smoothly and efficiently as a never-shoot point guard in a way that (dare I say it?) can only be termed Kendall Marshall-like.
Big things were expected of UCLA this season, and even when the Bruins have won, they haven't always looked especially impressive. (Howland's men will never be confused with the Michigan State Spartans in terms of rebounding, and five of their past six wins have come by 10 points or fewer.) But a team that plays good defense and takes excellent care of the ball is working from a strong foundation. There's still time for these talented Bruins to deliver on those big expectations.
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Originally Posted by pitching101