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Conference Reset: Promising season not expected for Pac-12

by | CBSSports.com College Basketball Blogger
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Jorge Gutierrez , Allen Crabbe, Brandon Smith and Cal are this year's favorites in the Pac-12. (US Presswire)  
Jorge Gutierrez , Allen Crabbe, Brandon Smith and Cal are this year's favorites in the Pac-12. (US Presswire)  

I will not be kind to this league just because we’re doing a primer. The Pac-12 has become the rebellious teenager that gets in its own way and is hurtling toward a life with no future. Here we are again having the same discussion we’ve been having the past few years. Nothing seems to be changing. This league is putrid yet again, and where’s the hope? Not an overstatement: Three Pac-12 teams making the NCAA tournament will be a genuine achievement, like me getting through Christmas day without downing an entire tin of cookies.

The 84-57 non-con record isn’t miserable, but most of the wins have come against some very, very bad teams. To feel the urge and desire to defend the Pac-12 is to insist black licorice makes for a good dessert. Why the conference is bad and has been for some time is a piece for another day. Today, we prime you on what these teams have (OK, mostly haven’t) done the past seven weeks. And in a stunning turn of ironic events, we look forward to the Pac-12 season not because of the chase for first or multiple bids —- we want to see just how decrepit it becomes. The Pac-12 didn’t feel like a Big Six league in 2010 or 2011. The new year brings that familiar feeling of futility as well. Hurrah!

Maximum Teams Capable of Making the NCAAs (And We're Very Serious About This): Two. And it’s not even a guarantee two will happen, but I’m taking Cal and Stanford as the best hopes.

The League's Most Memorable Moment So Far: It was a loss, naturally, but Washington falling 79-77 to Marquette in Madison Square Garden on Dec. 6 was arguably the third-best game of the season (behind UNC-UK and UK-Indiana). A great spectacle that showed the best of both teams. For a night, a Pac-12 team was actually watchable and engaging on TV!

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The Storyline You Were Too Busy to Notice: Herb Sendek earned a two-year contract extension despite the Sun Devils being absolutely dreadful. Having to redshirt stud frosh PG Jahii Carson is part of the reason why ASU is no good, but being 4-8 is worse than I expected. No matter —- Sendek’s now earning at least a cool $1.2 million per year through June of 2016.

Coach Feeling the Heat: Even though he’s got five-star point forward Kyle Anderson coming to Westwood next year, Ben Howland is still a bit uncomfortable now that his UCLA team is 7-5 and trying to slither out of the 2-5 hole it put itself into. Landing No. 1 2012 prospect Shabazz Muhammad remains a bigger task for Howland than winning any game left on the schedule.

Still Unproven: Oregon, which has a nice 9-3 record, but all its wins came against teams outside the top 100. It’s a great thing a Pac-12 team beat every squad it should have in non-conference play, but the Ducks weren’t competitive at all in losses to BYU, Vanderbilt and Virginia.

Player of the Year and All-League Team: Jared Cunningham, Oregon State (POY); Terrence Ross, Washington; Allen Crabbe, California; Tony Wroten, Washington; Andre Roberson, Colorado.

What I Loved: Watching Oregon State rally and play terrifically in a 100-95 overtime win against Texas in New Jersey on Nov. 19. It’s a game Oregon State would not have won the past five seasons. The Beavers are ascending in the Pac-12, and they’re also a fun team to watch. Good group, good coaches, it’s coming together, finally, for Oregon State.

What I Hated: The Reeves Nelson ordeal at UCLA. Nelson’s now off the team, but it took two indefinite suspensions, a missed flight and plenty of skirmishing between he and the team before the divorce came to be. Nelson is supposedly one of the worst guys to come through a UCLA locker room in a long time. The team needed to rid itself of him, and it became a saga, one that may and probably will prevent the Bruins from recovering this year.

1. California

What's Gone Quite Right: The backcourt play of Allen Crabbe and Jorge Gutierrez has played the way it’s needed to in order to keep the Golden Bears in the top spot.

New Year's Resolution(s): Win at least 14 league games in order to give the Pac-12 a respectable seed. (I think 14-4 and a Pac-12 title game appearance would give Cal a 4 seed).

MVP: Crabbe, though Gutierrez is right there. Step Your Game Up: Richard Solomon, a 6-10 sophomore, needs to bring a little more off the bench, since Cal is a smaller team.

2. Stanford

What's Gone Quite Right: The D! The Cardinal is allowing .88 points per possession, 13th-best in the country as of the time this piece was written.

New Year’s Resolution(s): Chasson Randle has Pac-12 First Team potential. He’s not there yet. He needs to be close by Valentine’s Day.

MVP: Josh Owens has been a delight, shooting an effective field goal percentage of 61.9, one of the better rates in the nation.

Step Your Game Up: Stanford as a whole is turning the ball over too frequently to have long-term success. With a 21.8 turnover rate, the team needs to get the number below 20 in the next few weeks. Pac-12 defenses should oblige.

3. Arizona

What's Gone Quite Right: I think it speaks both to how stable Arizona is and how bad the league is that the Wildcats are 9-4, thoroughly average looking, and still No. 3 on this list. Existing in this conference has gone “quite right” for ‘Zona this year.

New Year's Resolution(s): Play better defense. The Cats are forcing turnovers just 17.8 percent of the time.

MVP: Solomon Hill, who’s the most nondescript “star” on an Arizona team in years.

Step Your Game Up: Frosh point guard Josiah Turner hasn’t turned the corner yet.

4. Washington

What's Gone Quite Right: Washington, at the very least, has remained relevant. Much like Memphis, at least the team loses in interesting ways and on national television when doing so. So that’s … something.

New Year's Resolution(s): Consistency is the key for Washington. The team has all this talent and it’s amounting to mediocrity. The Huskies are the Philadelphia Eagles of college basketball. Lots of talent in a bad league/division and yet they still can’t get ahead of the pack.

MVP: Terrence Ross. Ross is Jeff Goodman’s boy, but he’s a joy to watch for everyone. We thought he’d become a top-20 player this year. He’s almost there.

Step Your Game Up: Abdul Gaddy. Abdul Gaddy. Abdul Gaddy.

5. Oregon State

What's Gone Quite Right: In a down year (you sensing the theme I’m gently prodding at in this column?) Oregon State is taking advantage and aligning itself for a two-or-more-year run. If the league was up to snuff, OSU wouldn’t be No. 5 on this list, but it’s not, so now’s the time to take advantage.

New Year's Resolution(s): Any Pac-12 team could have “make the tournament” in this space, but I’ll emphasize it for the Beavers. Getting to the NCAAs isn’t out of the question; it’s just going to take a killer’s instinct and great coaching job by Craig Robinson.

MVP: Cunningham, who’s a human pogo stick. Step Your Game Up: Angus Brandt scores 1.3 points per possession -- better than anyone on the team -- but he’s not a focus in the offensive end nearly as much as he should be.

6. UCLA

What's Gone Quite Right: Yeah … that win over Richmond was nice!

New Year's Resolution(s): Don’t kick anyone else off the team. Also: keep Josh Smith away from bad food.

MVP: Lazeric Jones, the 6-foot senior guard has kept the team treading in the water for the past month.

Step Your Game Up: Smith, who’s incredibly out of shape yet still shows so much promise. He’s probably playing at a third of his capability right now. Get him to half and UCLA’s a top-three Pac-12 team. So simple, yet not. Cookies and cheeseburgers, you know.

7. Washington State

What's Gone Quite Right: There really hasn’t been much. Wazzu has beaten almost every team it should have, but not defeated a top-100 club yet.

New Year's Resolution(s): Avoid all broadcasts and game recaps of Golden State Warriors games, as to avoid seeing how Klay Thompson is playing and lamenting on what could’ve been for this season, when Thompson would’ve been a senior.

MVP: Fella by the name of Brock Motum. Unless you follow the Cougs, you probably don’t know him, but he’s a junior forward who’s carrying the load for this team right now.

Step Your Game Up: Faisal Aden. The senior guard is doing a solid job on defense and is a reliable passer, but in all other areas he’s not quite playing up to what he should be.

8. Oregon

What's Gone Quite Right: The Ducks have gotten to 9-3 despite Jabari Brown transferring out of the program after two games -- and what a sad move that was. Unless there is a detail to that departure that’s very serious and we haven’t been clued into, leaving a team two games into a season is such a weakling maneuver.

New Year's Resolution(s): Turn Tony Woods into a player known for his on-court performance more than transferring from Wake Forest after assault charges against his girlfriend. Woods has been solid this year but not yet standing out.

MVP: Senior guard Garrett Sim is scoring team-best 12.8 points per game.

Step Your Game Up: Olu Ashaolu is fine on the offensive boards, but Oregon’s not nearly as physical as it needs to be. That starts with Woods and Ashaolu.

9. Colorado

What's Gone Quite Right: I talked with Tad Boyle in the offseason. He was concerned about this team playing without Alec Burks, who’s now in the NBA. The 7-4 start is a very positive thing.

New Year's Resolution(s): Find a primary scorer. The Buffs have done OK for themselves, but don’t have anyone scoring more than 13 points per game.

MVP: Carlon Brown, a senior guard, has been so big for this team. Equal parts reliable shooter and distributor. Step Your Game Up: Nate Tomlinson has been the least effective starter.

10. Southern California

What's Gone Quite Right: The further we go down the list, the harder this gets.

New Year's Resolution(s): Stop the fouling! Opponents are shooting an incredible 76.8 percent at the line against USC, something the Trojans have almost no control over -- unless they stop fouling.

MVP: Maurice Jones, who plays 95.8 percent of USC’s minutes, more than any other player for any other team in the country. Step Your Game Up: All the bench guys, so Mo Jones can sit a little longer and not shorten his lifespan by playing two years’ worth of minutes in one season.

11. Arizona State

What's Gone Quite Right:

I’d say the only basketball-related thing that’s gone right for Arizona State is the fact it’s defending 2-point shots so well. I know: HOW BORING. Opponents are shooting 40.8 percent from inside 20 feet against the Devils, but the bad news is they’re making 38 percent of their 3s, which is why ASU is 4-8.

New Year's Resolution(s): Play well enough to not make Trent Lockett put his name into the NBA draft pool.

MVP: Lockett, who actually isn’t getting the ball as much as he should, all things considered. Step Your Game Up: Chris Colvin, a starter, is scoring .72 points per possession. I’m 30, and fairly confident I could score .70 at the D-I level by accident. .72 is a miserable PPP rate.

12. Utah

What's Gone Quite Right: I am not joking. Getting three wins is a terrific accomplishment for this team, which is one of the worst Big Six teams in the past 20 years.

New Year's Resolution(s): I am not joking. Stealing two Pac-12 wins would be huge for morale, and it says something when you know how bad the league is, yet I’m still tossing out two wins for Utah as a positive sign.

MVP: There is no one else listed in the MVP category in this column that comes close to Josh Watkins, whose usage percentage sits at 38.5 —- by far the highest in the country. The Utes lean on Watkins -— and they’re still terrible. Watkins also has the highest assist rate in the country (54.4), light years ahead of Tim Frazier’s 49.6 rate at Penn State. Without Watkins, Utah cannot win a game.

Step Your Game Up: All those not named Josh Watkins and Jason Washburn (who’s done a good job, all things considered) fit into this category.

And we’re through. If you just read 2,100 words on the Pac-12, my sincerest thanks and sympathy to you. This could be some kind of historic year for the league and for a Big Six basketball conference, but for all the wrong reasons.

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