Washington Leads Up Improved Pac-12 Basketball Race

Thursday night is when the Pac-12 plays all its midweek games and the conference has a compelling race shaping up and expansion has helped make it tougher in the midsection. Colorado-Arizona is a good game among NCAA Tournament contenders tonight at 9 PM ET on ESPN2, and frontrunning Washington has a tough road trip to Oregon. Today we’re going to take a look at the surprising Huskies, who’ve overcome youth to rise to first place, and as well as the five challengers giving chase. Next to each team below is their overall record, conference record, and seeding in the NCAA Tournament by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi. Please note that the latter is not a prediction, but based on what Lunardi (whose work is as close to accurate as anyone’s in this subjective area) would expect if the season ended today.

Washington (16-7, 9-2, 11th): You can look at the disparity in non-conference record and Pac-12 performance to see how much Washington has improved. The 11-seed projection is a byproduct of the slow December. Since a close home loss to Cal, the Huskies have won five straight, including a big road win at Arizona. Head coach Lorenzo Romar has done a great job bringing around a backcourt led by freshman Tony Wrote and sophomore Terrence Ross. The Wroten-Ross combo has been the key to Washington’s success. Over the course of the five-game win streak, Wroten’s averaged 17 ppg and Ross right behind him at 16. With Wroten going 6’5” and Ross at 6’6” they can create matchup problems for opposing backcourts with their size. C. J. Wilcox adds an effective third guard to the mix, averaging 14 ppg for the season, and he’s the team’s best three-point shooter.

What Romar needs is more consistent frontcourt play. The forwards haven’t given much, and 7’0” junior center Aziz N’Diaye remains an enigmatic X-factor. He averages eight rebounds a night, which is at least competent, but he shows flashes of real dominance. If Washington wants to go beyond being a good Pac-12 team and into something more N’Diaye has to take them there. But really, with the entire backcourt and one of the forwards (freshman Desmond Simon) being freshmen or sophomores), this wasn’t supposed to a big year for the Huskies. The fact they’re leading the way in the Pac-12 and have the potential to do more is a credit to Romar and should put him in the National Coach of the Year discussions.

Giving chase to Washington we have…

Cal (18-6, 8-3, 10th): The Golden Bears were the preseason favorite and looked ready to live up to that. In late January they lost forward Richard Solomon to eligibility issues, but the team was still built around guards Allen Crabbe and Jorge Guiterrez, along with forward Harper Kamp. An inexplicable home loss to Washington State upset the applecart and then Cal lost to Arizona, quickly going from leader to chaser. Mike Montgomery takes his team to Hollywood this weekend to play USC tonight and UCLA on the weekend.

Arizona (16-8, 7-4, 12th): I’m surprised Lunardi has Arizona sneaking into the field at this point. I thought they might need some more work, but they’ve got key road wins at Cal and Stanford, and the recent losses actually provide even better evidence that this team is improving. Defeats to Oregon, Colorado and Washington were by a combined five points. A mostly young lineup is anchored by seniors in guard Kyle Fogg and forward Jesse Perry, and tonight’s game with Colorado is a must-win.

Colorado (16-7, 8-3, 1st Four Out): A Buffalo win over Arizona tonight likely means Lunardi flips them into the bracket and Arizona into the category of being one of the first four teams to miss. Colorado forward Andre Roberson is perhaps the best player in this league, averaging 11 points/11 rebounds a night, the backcourt is steady and the team has won five of the last six. Frankly, I expect both Colorado and Arizona to make it into the field regardless of how projections show things right now.

Oregon (16-7, 7-4, NA): I’m surprised to see Dana Altman’s Ducks aren’t on Lunardi’s radar at this point, but there’s still time to change that. Oregon’s got a very good guard-forward combo in Devoe Joseph and E.J. Singler, with Garrett Sim being a reliable third prong in the backcourt. What they lack is a steady post presence, as Singler is only 6’6”. What Oregon’s also got going for them is current form, where they’ve won five of seven and one of the losses was a one-point heartbreaker to Colorado. This might be pushing my luck, but I think Oregon gets into the field as a fifth Pac-12 team before it’s all over.

Stanford (16-7, 6-5, NA): Stanford and Oregon are two ships passing in the night. The resumes look identical right now, but while Oregon’s been winning, Stanford has dropped four of five after a strong start to conference play. The backcourt has two nice young players in Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright, but not only are they young, they’ve very small, at 6’0” and 5’11” respectively and making it possible for opposing two-guards to take them down low. Josh Owens is a good player at forward, averaging a 13/7, but I think the Cardinal’s recent slump is a case of a team’s shortcomings being exposed, not just a temporary downturn.

As you can probably tell, I like this league, more so than in recent years and I do think the top five teams are going to make the NCAA Tournament, and I further think the Pac-12 has a good shot to at least go 3-2 in the first round, pending what kind of matchups they get. Who will survive and win the regular season title? I guess in the end, I’m staying with Cal, but whether Washington finishes first or second, Romar deserves a lot of credit for his coaching performance this year.