Pac-12 Basketball: An Arizona Runaway?

The Pac-12 hasn’t been renowned for the quality of its basketball in recent years, but it has been known for its competitive and exciting conference races. Arizona is hoping to change both of those recent trends. At #8 in the country, the Wildcats are hoping to make some national noise, and based on early national rankings, we might conclude the Sean Miller’s Wildcats will run away with the league’s regular season title.

Arizona is very good around the perimeter, and strengthened by senior transfer Mark Lyons. You might remember Lyons as a part of Cincinnati’s teams the past three years, and one who got into a highly publicized brawl against Xavier last year. He’s a good outside shooter, excellent from behind the arc and gives the Wildcats some senior leadership in the backcourt. He’s joined by sophomore Nick Johnson, who runs the offense, distributes the ball and is an above average shooter, both inside and outside the arc.

Johnson and Lyons are both undersized, but Solomon Hill, a 6’7” junior, can match up on the perimeter and mitigate any advantage taller backcourts might have. Hill is averaging 12 ppg and hits 45 percent of his three-point shots. The Johnson-Lyons-Hill trio is, by itself, sufficient to make Arizona the best team in the Pac-12.

How high this team can climb on the national ladder will depend on the development of two freshmen down low. Brandon Ashley goes 6’8” at power forward and seven-footer Kaleb Tarczewski mans the idle. The early returns are positive for both players, as they’ve hit the glass, and Tarczewski is providing a shot-blocking dimension to the defense.

Arizona’s first big national test will next Saturday night in a home game against Florida. However it goes, we’ll be talking about Sean Miller’s team a lot more between now and March.

There’s no one in the Pac-12 I’d consider a realistic challenger to the Wildcats right now and a slew of teams could make a case for themselves as decent runner-ups. Oregon & Colorado are drawing votes in the Top 25, although Colorado’s 90-54 loss to Kansas yesterday might end that. But here’s a brief look at the Ducks and Buffaloes, along with UCLA & Cal, representing the conference’s traditional power and a team that’s contended for the conference title consistently in recent years…

Oregon: E.J. Singler can go both inside and out at 6’6” and with a decent supporting cast around him, this team can make sure the Pac-12 remembers Oregon is more than just football. They’ve blown out Vanderbilt and the only loss is to Cincinnati. The NCAA Tournament is a realistic goal in Eugene.

Colorado: It’s been an up-and-down early season, with a loss to Wyoming joining the smashing they took at Kansas. But the Buffs have also beaten Dayton and Baylor—both of whom have wins over quality SEC contenders. Spencer Dinwiddie is averaging 16 ppg in the backcourt and hits more than half his treys, while Andre Roberson at forward is as good a player as there is in the Pac-12. I think the Buffs will round into form.

UCLA: Saturday’s win over Texas might have been an early season-saver. The Bruins have lost key players—notably Joshua Smith, and lost games—notably a two-point defeat to Cal-Poly. But they’ve got a very good freshman in 6’5” guard Jordan Adams and the Wear brothers, Travis and David can both hit the boards—is it a bad pun to say they can “Wear” opponents down? Yeah, it is.

Cal: The Golden Bears faded last season and let the conference title slip in the closing days, then lost a “First Four” game in the NCAA Tournament. This season they’ve lost by 25 at Wisconsin, a team who is not very good right now. There’s a lot of work to be done in Berkeley, but with an explosive backcourt of Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobb, they have the foundation to do some reconstruction.