By: Sean Naylor (Guest Columnist)
The so called “Conference of Champions” appears to have another sub-par showing in the NCAA Tournament if things continue on the current trend. The top three teams have run away with the Pac-12 while the other nine are scrounging for big wins that aren’t possible this late in the season. Once again, the three teams are each on entirely different levels of competition.
The Arizona Wildcats are dominating the Pac-12. The surprisingly top-15 ranked Utah Utes have given the Wildcats a run for their money. Coming out of nowhere, it seems that the Oregon Ducks are poised to make on another run during the NCAA Tournament, even after an underwhelming start. The Stanford Cardinal and the UCLA Bruins need some big wins down the stretch to help their chances. The Pac-12 Tournament could shuffle things up a bit but the teams above seem to be the only teams within the Pac-12 to have a chance to make the Big Dance.
It’s only fitting for the “Conference of Champions”, the Pac-12 Conference to hold its end of year tournament in Las Vegas. Will the Wildcats continue their dominance in the Pac-12 Tournament? Could the Utes or Ducks establish one final push toward knocking off the Wildcats in the tournament? Can the Cardinal or Bruins win a few big games within the tournament to sway their way in the Big Dance? The only thing we do know is that news of what happens in Vegas will not stay in Vegas very long.
#5 Arizona Wildcats
- Record: 28-3
- RPI: 7
- BPI: 4
- Strength of Schedule: 46
- Last Tournament Appearance: 2014, 1-seed, lost to 2-seed Wisconsin in the Elite Eight
- Projection: Elite Eight
With 27 wins, a 15-2 conference record and a six game win streak following a February 7 loss to the Arizona State Sun Devils, the Wildcats look to prepare for another big run in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. Wins against the Gonzaga Bulldogs in early December and a sweep of Utah, the Wildcats have established and continued the gold standard for the Pac-12 throughout the season.
A team effort game after game for the Wildcats seems to be a major factor in their success. Everyone has to contribute for the Wildcats to win. Three players average more than 10 points per game, with freshman forward Stanley Johnson leads the way with 14.1 points per game. Junior forward Brandon Ashley and sophomore forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson each average 11 points per game. Hollis-Jefferson shoots 52 percent from the field. The Wildcats also have a tremendous balance of youth and experience. Senior guard T.J. McConnell tacks on close to 10 points and six assist per game, McConnell leads the offense for Arizona. Inside, junior forward Kaleb Tarczewski anchors a top-20 defense in points allowed per game. Not to mention 7-foot freshman center Dusan Ristic and freshman guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright play important roles on offense and defense. The Wildcats have productive depth, an absolute necessity for teams looking to contend for a national title.
#13 Utah Utes
- Record: 23-7
- RPI: 16
- BPI: 12
- Strength of Schedule: 35
- Last Tournament Appearance: 2009, 5-seed, First Round loss to 12-seed Arizona (Utah was then a member of the Mountain West Conference)
- Projection: Sweet Sixteen
A team unfamiliar with the NCAA Tournament since 2009, the Utah Utes have recorded 23 wins and placed themselves in tremendous position leading up to the 2015 NCAA Tournament. An overtime victory against the Wichita State Shockers on December 3rd and only losing four games in conference has helped this dream turn into reality for the Utes as the season ends near.
The Utes have certainly put together a successful season with some “middle of the road” type of players who continue to grind day in and day out. Led by senior guard Delon Wright with 14.3 points per game, the Utes need some of the other players to step up. Junior guard Brandon Taylor and junior forward Jordan Loveridge both average 10 points per game. Freshman forward Jakob Poeltl has put on a performance throughout the season averaging 8.5 points per game with 7.1 rebounds per game. Poeltl is shooting a remarkable 67% from the field. With this squad, the Utes are on the right path leading up to the NCAA Tournament.
Utah’s biggest weakness is their greatest strength. For everything Delon Wright does right, he is still only one man. If Wright were to get in foul trouble, Utah loses their best scorer, assist man and undisputed floor general. If Wright plays his best basketball in March, Utah might be hanging a Final Four rafter at the start of the 2015-2016 season.
- Record: 23-8
- RPI: 31
- BPI: 47
- Strength of Schedule: 69
- Last Tournament Appearance: 2014, 7-seed, Second Round loss to 2-seed Wisconsin
- Projection: Second Round
With a three point victory over Stanford on March 1st, the Oregon Ducks have 22 wins and are inching closer to another NCAA Tournament appearance. A big win on February 22nd at home against the Utah Utes has led to a four game win streak for the Ducks as the end of the season approaches.
When younger players’ off-the-court allegations led to three dismissals and threatened to unravel the Ducks before the season began, it was up to the upperclassmen leadership to keep the team together. That is what has put the Ducks where they want to be this late in the season. Phenom senior guard Joseph Young averages 20.0 points per game; meanwhile junior forward Elgin Cook averages 13.0 points per game.
The Ducks have a core group of players who have been consistent throughout the season. Winning five in a row and 11 of the last 13 have the Ducks flying high for third in the Pac-12. I last year’s NCAA tournament, Oregon had a double digit lead on Wisconsin before Badgers’ coach Bo Ryan earned a technical foul and sparked his team’s comeback. Currently projected as a 10-seed, the Ducks should win at least one game in the Pac-12 tournament in order to solidify their spot in the tournament.
- Record: 18-12
- RPI: 58
- BPI: 44
- Strength of Schedule: 54
- Last Tournament Appearance: 2014, 10-seed, lost to 11-seed Dayton in the Sweet Sixteen.
- Projection: IF the Cardinal make it in; Second Round
Stanford is a school filled with the some of the brightest college kids in the country. Safe to say the Stanford team is smart enough to know what a loss to the Oregon Ducks on March 1st did to their tournament chances. Add a loss to Arizona State on Thursday and their chances are almost zero without winning the Pac-12 entirely. The Cardinal needs to win in Tucson, advance deep into the tournament and hope for some help to make an appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Early season wins against UNLV, Texas and Washington have lost a lot of meaning given each of those three teams struggles.
On paper, the Cardinal look great but something clearly has lacked throughout the season. Four out of their 10 losses have been by three points or less. Senior guard Chasson Randle leads the Pac-12 in scoring with 19.4 points per game. Senior guard/forward Anthony Brown tacks on 15.2 points per game, 7.3 rebounds per game and shoots 45 percent from the three point line. Senior center Stefan Nastic averages just below 14 points per game, 6.6 rebounds per game and shoots 47 percent from the floor.
The talent is there for a team that was the NIT champions in 2012 and made the Sweet Sixteen last season. The execution is not there for Johnny Dawkins’ squad. This team is built to win now, with all three of the aforementioned players in their senior season. An NCAA bid is a lot sweeter than an NIT bid, a place where Stanford may very well end up.
- Record: 19-12
- RPI: 51
- BPI: 51
- Strength of Schedule: 34
- Last Tournament Appearance: 2014, 4-seed, lost to 1-seed Florida in the Sweet Sixteen.
- Projection: IF the Bruins make it in; Second Round
Hanging onto a thread of hope, the UCLA Bruins now have as many conference wins as the program has NCAA championships. Two of the 19 wins include close victories over the Utah Utes on January 23rd and the Oregon Ducks on February 14th.On the other side, losses in conference to the Arizona State Sun Devils the Colorado Buffaloes, and the Washington State Cougars will not seem to help their chances.
Yet another team that looks good on paper, the Bruins have struggled for consistency throughout the season. Senior guard Normal Powell leads the team with 16.5 points per game. Sophomore guard Bryce Alford averages 15.2 points per game, 5.1 assists per game and shoots 84 percent from the free throw line. Freshman forward Kevon Looney tallies 12.3 points per game and 9.4 rebounds per game.
The Bruins of today certainly don’t impose the fear that Ben Howland’s mid-2000 teams did. They definitely do not have the stature of any of John Wooden’s legendary teams. It would be unfair to expect such stature from Coach Steve Alford’s young team at this point. This is a team built to continue to build. The Bruins will be out of hibernation soon, and bears are always hungry after a long hibernation.
*Note: All team records and statistics are as of 3/8/2015