Pac-12 basketball is kind of like Big Ten football. Each has a proud history dating back to the beginnings of the sport (Oregon won the first NCAA tournament and Minnesota won the first AP national title in football) and each has two of the best programs in the country (UCLA and Arizona; Ohio State and Michigan). But in recent years, each conference has also turned into a bit of a punch line. Wisconsin has lost three straight Rose Bowls, and even though Ohio State has dominated Big Ten football over the past decade, the Buckeyes' reputation outside the Midwest is that they lose to SEC teams in big bowl games. Similarly, Pac-12 basketball has lost a good deal of its luster.
Statistically, the Pac-12 has been the worst of the Power Six conferences over the past 10 years. Only the SEC had a lower percentage of its teams make the NCAA tournament in that period,1 but the SEC also won three national titles and had four different teams make the Final Four in that span. Since 2004, the Pac-12 is tied with the Big 12 for last among the Power Six in number of Final Four appearances (three), last in title game appearances (one), tied with the Big Ten for last in national championships (zero), and last in the number of different programs to make the Final Four (one). In other words, the Pac-12 has not only struggled to get teams into the tournament in recent years, but outside of UCLA's three straight Final Fours from 2006 to 2008, the conference also doesn't have much to show for the teams that did make the field. The Pac-12's flagging performance, along with the rise of the Mountain West Conference (and, to a lesser extent, the West Coast Conference) and the media's East Coast bias, explain why the college basketball world thinks of the Pac-12 as a kid trying to sit at the adult table.
That said, the conference could finally be on the rise. UCLA had the country's best recruiting class a season ago, Arizona seems to be back on track after a rocky transition from Lute Olson to Sean Miller, Colorado and Oregon had decent seasons last year and figure to be better this year, and Arizona State has one of the best players in America. I doubt the conference will get a ton of teams into the NCAA tournament, and as of now Arizona seems like the only national championship contender, but at least the Pac-12 should be worth following this season.
Top Three Teams
Arizona lost several guys from last year — Mark Lyons, Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom, Grant Jerrett, Angelo Chol (a.k.a. "Cholberg"), and most importantly the Ooh Aah Man — but many college basketball fans think the Wildcats might be better than last season's Sweet 16 team. Count me among the believers. That's because Hill is the only guy who will really be missed in Tucson this year (other than the Ooh Aah Man, of course).
Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell will take over at point guard, and, unlike his predecessor, Lyons, McConnell is an actual point guard and not just a guy who plays the position because he's short. McConnell will probably be disappointing early in the season just because Arizona fans have been irrationally excited to see him play for well over a year now, but by March he'll be a better fit for Arizona than Lyons ever was. Meanwhile, I'm guessing a huge reason why Jerrett declared for the NBA draft after his freshman year — even though he averaged 5.2 points and 3.6 rebounds — is that he knew he wasn't going to have any chance of playing over freshman Aaron Gordon. That should give you an idea of how good Gordon is.
As for Chol, well, he'll be missed more for the nickname I tried to give him (it never stuck) and for his awesome hair flying around on the court than for anything of substance. I mean, he played well occasionally and provided energy. But if I were to describe Chol to someone who's never seen him play, I'd say that he's the kind of guy who would show up to a street fight with nunchakus, psychotically wave them around to intimidate the opposing gang, and then accidentally knock out all of his guys and himself before the fight starts. Anyway, Arizona will miss Hill's versatility and Parrom's intangibles, but the Wildcats' combination of size, depth, and talent is enough for me to consider them the biggest lock to win a power conference this season.
The battle for the second-best team in the Pac-12 should be a lot closer than the battle for the top spot, as Colorado, UCLA, Oregon, Arizona State, and Cal all could conceivably finish right behind Arizona. Even though Andre Roberson's shoes will be tough to fill, I'm giving the nod to Colorado because the Buffaloes return four starters from a team that would've finished with the same conference record as Arizona last year if not for the worst call of the season. Beyond that, if I had to bet on someone to win the Pac-12 player of the year award, I'd go with Colorado's Spencer Dinwiddie, who is good enough to carry the Buffs to the Sweet 16 and beyond, even though he can be inconsistent and he laid an egg in last year's tournament. And I'm going with UCLA to finish third in the conference because it still has a ton of talent with guys like Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson, the Wear twins, and Tony Parker.
Best College Player — Jahii Carson (Arizona State)
I know that I just said Dinwiddie would be my pick for Pac-12 POY, but that's more because I think voters will reward him for Colorado having a better season than Arizona State. Carson, however, is significantly better than Dinwiddie, and for my money he's the best point guard in college basketball not named Marcus Smart. He's phenomenal with the ball,2 he has a great feel for the game, and he has no problem sharing the rock even though he averaged 18.5 points per game last year. Carson is the most athletic player in the country, which is a claim that admittedly can't be proved but that I stand by anyway because I want to emphasize what an athletic marvel he is. He can get to the basket seemingly at will, and once he's there he can throw down with the best of them. Arizona State fans don't want to hear this, but if Carson had gone to Arizona he'd probably be a household name right now.
Now that he has a year of experience under his belt after redshirting his first year in Tempe, I expect Carson to be an even better version of former Baylor point guard Pierre Jackson (who put up absurd numbers last season — 19.8 ppg, 7.1 apg, 3.8 rpg). To do that, he'll have to develop his jump shot so he can punish defenders who try to contain him by going under ball screens. But even if he doesn't develop into an outside threat, Carson's explosiveness and understanding of the game should be enough for him to be the most exciting player in the conference. That is, unless …
Best Pro Prospect — Aaron Gordon (Arizona)
Unless Aaron Gordon lives up to the hype. I'm a firm believer in the philosophy that a highly touted prospect can't possibly be worth the hype unless he has at least one great YouTube mixtape of him dunking on 5-foot-10 white kids accompanied by an awful rap song. It's possible to have a great mixtape and actually suck, but if I don't say "holy shit" at least once while watching, then you're not that great and I don't care what the scouts say. Good news for Arizona fans: There was a lot of "holy shitting" going on while I watched Gordon's highlights.
(Make sure you're paying attention at 3:27 so you don't miss him dunk so hard on a kid that he probably gave him a concussion.)
Again, I know that he did all of that against high school kids who are probably doing keg stands and majoring in "wasting my parents' money" right now, but the people who dismiss highlight mixtapes are just as bad as those who think every high school phenom is the next Jordan. I get it: "Anyone can look great against Avon High School, but can they do it against Duke in the Final Four?!" But who in their right mind would think that Gordon will bring the ball up against Duke in the Final Four, cross over Jabari Parker, spin off of Rodney Hood, and dunk so hard on Rasheed Sulaimon that Sulaimon gets a concussion? (Arizona fans just scanned the room for something to put on their laps to hide their collective erection.) That's not the point. The point is that in watching Gordon's mixtape you can see how much potential he possesses. If he can be even 75 percent as good as he's expected to be, Arizona fans are about to witness Derrick Williams on steroids.
Most Underrated Player — Jordan Adams (UCLA)
Shabazz Muhammad was the marquee name for UCLA last season and he was unquestionably their most talented player, but if you asked Bruins fans to name the most important player, I'm guessing they'd say Jordan Adams. I mean, look at what happened when Adams broke his foot in the Pac-12 tournament last season. UCLA fans basically conceded the rest of the season as soon as they heard the news. Hardly anybody said: "We still have one of the most talented teams in the country. We got this!" Instead, they heard that Adams was out and said, "Wake me up in November or when we fire Ben Howland, whichever comes first." And they ended up being right — UCLA lost to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship the next night before getting blown out by Minnesota in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
I watched fewer than 10 UCLA games last season, so I won't pretend that I know their team as well as their fans do. But I will say that when I sat courtside to watch UCLA beat Arizona in Tucson, one thing that stood out was that Adams had a certain maturity about him. Muhammad was a stud that night, David Wear played really well, and Kyle Anderson did a little bit of everything. But their body language all said something different. Muhammad carried himself like a future lottery pick who was looking forward to the day when he would no longer be coached by Ben Howland, which is to say that he didn't have a bad attitude as much as he had an "I'm going to do what I do and my teammates can figure out the rest" attitude. Wear looked like he was thinking Don't screw this up to himself all night, and Anderson had an "I can't believe we're blowing out a top-10 team on the road!" look of excitement.
I'm not criticizing those three players. I'm just saying that what made Adams different was that he seemed poised and relaxed throughout that game as well as every other UCLA game I watched. He has fantastic leadership qualities and a level-headedness that was particularly impressive in a freshman. He never gets too excited when things are going well and he never gets defeated when he or the team is struggling. On top of this, he's remarkably skilled and versatile for a guy who isn't going to wow you with athleticism or strength. In short, he's everything you'd ever want in a college player, which is why I expect him to have a huge year. And this season, unlike last year, he will be the first name out of people's mouths when they mention UCLA.
Best Senior With a Slim Chance at an NBA Career — C.J. Wilcox (Washington)
Of all the seniors I plan to write about in these previews, Wilcox is the one guy who has the best chance of proving me wrong by having a lengthy NBA career. He's not a great athlete, he turns 23 in December, and he has a history of stress fractures (he underwent surgery in May to fix the latest one), which is why he'll be drafted in the mid-to-late second round. But if you were to ignore the combine numbers and just focus on what he does on the court, he would seem to have a shot at being a first-rounder. That's how good he can be.
Wilcox redshirted his first year at Washington, then played second fiddle to guys like Isaiah Thomas, Terrence Ross, and Tony Wroten during his first two seasons. Last year he finally became the Huskies' go-to guy, and while he forced things a little too much and his shooting percentage didn't reflect how good of a shooter he is, he still managed to rise to the occasion in some big moments. He's the only returning Husky to have averaged more than eight points per game last season, but All-American recruit Nigel Williams-Goss will take over the point guard responsibilities, so it will be interesting to see how much Wilcox is asked to carry the team on offense. If he and Williams-Goss can mesh to the point that Wilcox doesn't have to force things but still gets plenty of touches in the flow of their offense, Wilcox should make a run at the Pac-12 player of the year award.
Players Who Best Fit the Label "Loose Cannon" — Arizona's Returning Big Men
In fairness to Kaleb Tarczewski3 and Brandon Ashley, the only reason I'm calling out Arizona's bigs is that last season's quartet of Zeus, Ashley, Jerrett, and Cholberg was inconsistent at best and I-just-accidentally-knocked-everyone-out-with-my-nunchakus at worst. Half of the reason for blame is now gone and in its place is Aaron Gordon, so I don't expect Arizona's front line to be as frustrating as it was last season. That said, Zeus and Ashley arrived in Tucson as two of the most sought-after recruits in the country last season, and I think it's fair to say that neither performed at the level that other top recruits did.
Now, it should be noted that being a young big man in college basketball is especially hard because they can't just drop-step dunk on opponents like they did in high school. Perimeter players basically do the same thing they did in high school, only now they do it against better competition. A lot of big guys have to learn basic things like how to fight for post position and how to make actual moves on the block because they've never really had to do it before. There's a reason the phrase "he's still pretty raw offensively" was used ad nauseam to describe Greg Oden, Anthony Davis, and Nerlens Noel during their college years. On top of that, Zeus and Ashley's struggles were partially because they were trying to figure out how to mesh with three senior teammates and Nick Johnson. So I'll cut them some slack and say that I expect both of them to make huge strides this season. At the same time, I wouldn't be shocked if Zeus were the same robotic player he was a year ago, or if Ashley frequently looked lost on the court.
Most Intriguing New Coach — Andy Enfield (USC)
UCLA hiring Steve Alford is probably the most intriguing new hire in the country, but I don't want to waste time discussing whether a guy who brushes rape under the rug and struggles in the postseason will find success at a program that has fired or requested resignation from each of its last five coaches. I think we can all guess how that will play out.
Instead, I'd rather talk about Andy Enfield at USC, who further proves my theory that at least 80 percent of the value of any given season is placed on the NCAA tournament. Although I have no definitive proof, I'd guess that on March 20 there wasn't a major program in the country that wanted to steal Enfield away from Florida Gulf Coast. Four days and two wins later, Enfield had done enough to grab USC's attention. It seems crazy to place so much emphasis on a few games, but I guess that's just the result of March Madness morphing from a basketball tournament into a cultural phenomenon. The regular season provides entertainment to get us through the winter, but very little of what happens before March matters to fans, coaches, players, the media, or athletic directors. Just ask Kansas fans if they think 2010 was a successful season. Ask Ohio State fans the same about 2011. Ask all the experts who put Mitch McGary on their preseason All-America teams to explain their reasoning. Ask UCLA fans why they're not in love with the Alford hire, even though he won four Mountain West titles and 75 percent of his games at New Mexico. Hell, ask the Celtics why they hired Brad Stevens. This might come as a shock, but I doubt Boston wanted him because he took Butler to the top of the Horizon League.
Look, I don't necessarily think Enfield was a bad hire for USC. Truth be told, I have no clue how well he'll do, which is the point I'm trying to make here — hiring a head coach based on two games is insane. I understand why it happens and I don't have a problem with it. If I were an athletic director I'd probably do it too. But it's truly insane. When I take a step back and think about how this happens every year, it makes me wonder what the hell I'm doing with my life. Why am I writing about basketball when I could go get a coaching job at a tiny school, grab an upset or two in the NCAA tournament, get hired by a big program, collect my millions, get fired after three years, and then spend the rest of my days counting my money? Todd Lickliter was on to something.
Coach on the Hot Seat — Johnny Dawkins (Stanford)
When Dawkins took over for Trent Johnson in 2008, Stanford had made 13 of the last 14 NCAA tournaments and hadn't finished worse than sixth in the Pac-10 since 1993. During Dawkins's five years in Palo Alto, Stanford has made zero NCAA tournaments and finished sixth or worse in the conference every season. This becomes even more embarrassing when you consider that the three-year stretch from 2010 to 2012 might have been the worst in conference history.
There are two ways of putting Dawkins's struggles into context. The first would be to acknowledge that before Mike Montgomery took over the Cardinal in 1986, Stanford was pretty much the Northwestern of the Pac-10. Sure, it won a national title in 1942 and Northwestern has still never made an NCAA tournament, but just about everything even slightly significant that Stanford did pre-Montgomery happened before the end of World War II. With that in mind, you could argue that Stanford doesn't have a great program historically, it just had a good coach for 18 years. So perhaps expectations shouldn't be that high for Dawkins.
I'd rather look at it the other way — in five short years, Dawkins basically took a dump all over everything Montgomery and Casey Jacobsen's frosted tips accomplished.4 Stanford fans have believed this for a couple of years now, and it seems like the athletic department is finally starting to agree, which is why there's a good chance this will be Dawkins's last year at Stanford.
Most Compelling Story Line — Referees
Pac-12 officiating is so bad that I'm not even sure where to begin criticizing it. Maybe the Sabatino Chen buzzer-beater at Arizona that was called off? Maybe the technical foul called against Sean Miller because he said "He touched the ball"? Maybe the fact that said technical was probably called because the head of Pac-12 officials offered a reward to any ref who rang up Miller? Even the football refs in the conference are awful, if the Arizona State–Wisconsin fiasco is any indication. What's especially terrifying is that all of that happened in just the past 10 months.
"But," you might be saying, "you bitch about Ted Valentine all the time. If other conferences' refs are better, why is Valentine the only ref you ever call out by name?" The answer is that there's a distinct difference between Valentine and the Pac-12 officials. I go after Valentine because most Big Ten refs are actually really good, and he's the turd in the punch bowl. I know his name because he stands out. I don't know a single ref in the Pac-12 because they're all terrible. Beyond that, I think Valentine could actually be good if he wanted. That's not exactly a good thing, but it's not something I think I'd be able to say about the Pac-12 guys. There's a difference between trolling and just being incompetent. Valentine is what you would get if Paul McCartney chose to not play "Let It Be" or "Hey Jude" at his concerts and instead just stood onstage and made fart noises with his armpit. The Pac-12 refs, on the other hand, are William Hung.
Water Cooler Comment That Will Make You Sound Like You Really Know What You're Talking About
"I'm cheering for Washington State to win the Pac-12 this year only because I don't want their coach to get fired. There aren't enough good porn names in sports, so Ken Bone getting axed would be a huge loss."