Five weeks ago, I was flummoxed on how to pick the Pac-12 basketball race. To me, the pre-conference results suggested there were six teams to name for the first division, and there wasn’t a lot of separation between any of them.
Well, that was right. And it wasn’t. Indeed, what has transpired is a contentious (but not very high-quality) horse race, with nobody emerging as the obvious stud team.
But two games into the conference season, I went to the Washington-Oregon game, and I told somebody that Oregon was going to be a first-division team (that wasn’t one of my original elite six). Shortly after, Colorado proved itself capable of running with the lead dogs in this league. Another club I didn’t have in the top six-pack.
I went like this: 1, Cal. 2, Arizona. 3, Stanford. 4, Washington. 5, Oregon State. 6, UCLA. 7, Oregon. 8, Washington State. 9, Colorado. 10, Arizona State. 11, USC. 12, Utah.
The apparent grossest misjudgment was Colorado, although the Buffs still haven’t proven they can win on the road. Still, the poorer teams in the league are so vulnerable at home, CU could carve out an 11-7 or 12-6 record.
I overrated Arizona, although I think the Wildcats played better before January than they’ve played since. My major concern in late December was UCLA and its potential to put a run together and win a “down” league, just because it’s UCLA. I suppressed the urge to conclude that, and sixth looks like close to what’s going to materialize for the Bruins.
Enough of the rear-view mirror. Here’s what will happen in the second half:
Cal will win the regular season with a 14-4 record by a game over Washington. And the Huskies, without any real non-league cred, will need to get to the Pac-12 final to make the NCAA tournament. The most logical number for NCAA teams from the Pac-12 is two. But I wouldn’t bet a whole lot of money today that it gets more than one.
Arizona will continue struggling to find the happy medium between toughness and discretion. The Wildcats have had players thrown out of games on three straight Thursday nights. I don’t think Sean Miller really likes this team.
Oregon State will be as feisty as anybody in the second half. If I had to pick a darkhorse team to win the Pac-12 tournament, this might be it.
UCLA’s Josh Smith will continue to confound. As long as he values a pizza as much as his next rebound, the Bruins will underachieve.
Washington State fans will look to next year, when some urgency will be attached to Ken Bone’s future. The Cougars were spotty even with Faisal Aden, but now they have to do without his instant offense, and there just isn’t enough there for them to be post-season-worthy this year. But next year, they get more help up front and welcome touted Demarquise Johnson in the backcourt.
Observers will continue to wonder just where Arizona State is going. Yes, the Sun Devils drew a bad hand when freshman point guard Jahii Carson came up ineligible. But that kind of thing happens. Herb Sendek, whose contract was extended in December, is 19-33 the past two seasons.
USC will simply try to put out a healthy body at five positiions.