The Pac-12’s Five Contenders To Move Off The NCAA Bubble

No conference race has as many good scenarios for the final week than the Pac-12, as the league begins its usual run of Thursday night games that set the stage for the weekend. The championship is in play, five teams are on the radar for the NCAA Tournament, and only one can really feel secure about its position in the Dance. So if you don’t feel like following the controversy that’s flared up at UCLA about whether Ben Howland is or isn’t in control of the program, there’s still plenty of on-court action to keep up with in the Pac-12. TheSportsNotebook will look at the five relevant teams.

We can break them down into three groups. Washington/Cal are still playing for the league title and will probably make the NCAA Tournament, though only Cal can really feel safe. Arizona is likely to make the NCAAs, though out of the championship mix. Oregon and Colorado are right on the bubble. Here’s the rundown…

Washington (20-8, 13-3, projected #10 seed): If they get road wins at USC and UCLA, the Huskies lock up an outright Pac-12 championship in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Lorenzo Romar’s program. The core of the lineup is a trio of players who run 6’5” and 6’6” and can control the wings. Tony Wroten, Terrence Ross and C.J. Wilcox have ppg averages of 17, 15 & 14 respectively. Wilcox is lights-out from behind the arc. Wroten is a good playmaker. Ross crashes the boards. The best news for Romar is none of these kids has hit their junior year. Of course for the short-term prospects in big games, maybe that’s also the worse news. I’ve been saying for at least the last year that if 7’0” center Aziz N’Diaye really becomes a force in the post, the Huskies can make a big run on the national stage. But I’m tired of waiting. N’Diaye is a respectable rebounder, but not a dominator.

Washington deserves to be more secure than bracketologist Joe Lunardi projects them, but Lunardi is trying to track with the Selection Committee will do, not what teams deserve, and there’s a good chance he’s right. While most of the Huskies are losses are “good”—no shame in Marquette or Duke, you can live with St. Louis and Nevada. But dumping a 19-point game to South Dakota State at home? That game would be the reason Washington could be a rare champ of a power conference still needing at least one win in their league tournament.

Cal (23-7, 13-4, projected #9 seed): There’s only one game left for the Golden Bears’ regular season and even if Cal loses at Stanford and again in the league tournament, they’re probably still in. The non-conference losses to Missouri, San Diego State and UNLV are respectable enough and Cal had won six in a row prior to a loss at Colorado.

This is a team that’s very good at the guard spots. Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobb both can shoot the trey, and the 6’6” Crabbe contributes some board work. Jose Gutierrez is a solid point guard and while not a three-point threat, his does shoot well enough from the floor that defenses can’t sag in too much to stop him off the dribble. Harper Kamp is a decent scorer at power forward. There’s not a lot of depth, nor much muscle, but if you have a point guard who can control tempo, others who can get hot from downtown, and a head coach in Mike Montgomery who knows what he’s doing, you can win some games in the NCAA Tournament. It all depends on the matchups, but in general, I like Cal’s chances to advance.

Arizona (21-9, 12-5, projected #11 seed): Sean Miller’s team struggled against good teams in December as they tried to rebuild after the loss of power forward Derrick Williams to early entry in the NBA draft. The Wildcats fell to Mississippi State, San Diego State, Florida and Gonzaga. But there were no South Dakota State-esque defeats, and as Arizona came together the wins started coming. While Miller had to break two freshman into the starting lineup, seniors stepped up with forward Jesse Perry and guard Kyle Fogg playing well, along with junior forward Solomon Hill. The team lacks a true post presence and the depth is not great, but not only have they won games in the Pac-12, three of the losses have come by two points or loss (contrasted to only one win by that margin). Arizona is playing as well as anyone in this conference and deserves to make the field.

Oregon (20-8, 11-5, projected  to miss field by 5-8 spots): Oregon is a very finesse-oriented team with no one taller than 6’6” able to make any real contribution. Forward E.J. Singler is the “big man” and he’s better suited to step out and hit the outside shot. Fortunately he’s a good shooter inside the arc and a respectable one outside it. The offense is ultimately led by senior Devoe Joseph, who scores 17 ppg a night and can shoot the ball from anywhere on the floor, with Garrett Sim a solid supporting player in the backcourt. Kudos to head coach Dana Altman for keeping a team with this little depth and size in the race. If they win their home games this week against Colorado and Utah they deserve to make the field and I’m optimistic that they’ll be the fourth team out of the Pac-12 to have its name called on Selection Sunday.

Colorado (19-9, 11-5, projected to miss field by 5-8 spots): I know Lunardi has them basically even with Oregon, but I don’t see it. They’ve been blown out four times in league play. Colorado lost to Stanford by 20-plus points twice, including just last week. They lost by 17 to UCLA and  14 to Arizona. The non-conference schedule is filled with losses to shaky teams on the NCAA bubble—Maryland, Colorado State and Wyoming, along with a more understandable losses to Wichita State. I was a defender of this team’s NCAA prospects, but the most recent tank job against Stanford leaves even me thinking a lot of work has to be done.

The Buffs have the talent. Andre Roberson averages an 11/11 each night and will be high on TheSportsNotebook’s list when conference player of the year honors are given out next week. Carlon Brown can open it up from outside, and Austin Dufault and Spencer Dinwiddie can both fill supporting roles effectively. I can see this team winning the Pac-12 tournament. What I can’t see is how this current resume is NCAA Tournament-worthy. To my way of thinking, Colorado needs to win at Oregon tonight, at Oregon State to close the season and then at least win their quarterfinal game in the Pac-12 tourney, presumably against Oregon or Arizona. Do all that, and maybe we can talk about getting them in the field.