Thursday, December 29, 2011

Conference Catch-ups: The Pac-12

Over the course of this week, we will spend a few minutes catching you up on how some of the best conferences in the country currently look. With conference play starting up, its time to get into the basketball spirit.

You can find the rest of the Conference Catch-ups here.

Favorite: Oregon State

Yeah, I said it. I'm going with the Beavers, and it all starts with Jared Cunningham, who, for my money, is the best player in the Pac-12 this year. He's a sensational defender and impossible to keep out of the paint offensively. The rest of his offensive game is still developing, but there may not be a more difficult player in the conference to slow-down when they decide to put the ball on the floor and go to the rim. Ahmad Starks and Roberto Nelson are both underrated and effective playmakers in the back court so long as they keep their decision-making under control. What Oregon State's front line lacks in size they make up for in versatility -- Devon Collier and Eric Morehouse are long, athletic bigs; Joe Burton is a nimble post-scorer that really understands how to pass the ball; Angus Brandt is a lights-out shooter. Most importantly? I believe there is a reason for the dud they threw up against Idaho: it came 36 hours after Fred Thompson, an OSU football player and a friend to a number of players on the hoops team, passed away.

- And-1: Cal has to be considered right up there with the Beavers as the favorite in the conference. For starters, they have the best perimeter attack in the league with Jorge Gutierrez and Allen Crabbe. Gutierrez is as underrated a player as you are going to come across nationally, while Crabbe has picked up where he left off scoring the ball last season. Justin Cobbs has come into his own in his first season in Berkeley, averaging 12.5 ppg and 4.5 apg with a 2.5:1 assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting 65.2% from three. My concern with the Bears is on the front line. Harper Kamp has had a slow start to the year while Richard Solomon, who was already suspended for a game for violating team rules, is now out with a stress fracture. This wasn't a deep team to begin with, either.

Biggest Surprise: Stanford

At least we knew that Oregon State had Jared Cunningham. With Stanford, I don't think anyone truly knew to expect this kind of season from the Cardinal, at least not yet. It will be interesting to see what happens with this group heading into league play. The Cardinal's strength right now is on the defensive end of the floor, where they force turnovers and rebound the ball well. Where they have struggled a bit this season is offensively. As good as Josh Owens is, he's not really a back-to-the-basket scorer in the post. Dwight Powell may be one day, but he is still a long way from being much more than just a project. Stanford does have a talented back court with Aaron Bright and Chasson Randle, but neither of them are true point guards. That said, this team has a couple of nice wins (NC State, Oklahoma State) and took Syracuse down to the wire. In a wide open Pac-12 race, who knows?

- And-1: How about the Buffaloes? With conference play kicking off, Colorado has shaken off the loss Alec Burks and Cory Higgins to start the year 8-4. Carlon Brown seems to be embracing playing the role of leading scorer while Andre Roberson has continued he ascent towards being labeled the next Kenny Faried.

Biggest Disappointment: UCLA

Since I didn't want to put "the league as a whole", I'll go with UCLA over both Washington and Arizona. The Bruins came into the season with quite a bit of hype, as their front line looked to go about six deep and their back court was stocked with young talents that were supposed to make Bruin fans forget about just how much the loss of Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt hurt. Instead, Josh Smith ate his way into mediocrity, Reeves Nelson lost his damned mind and that back court that was supposed to be improving instead looks better suited for the Big West. The good news? The Bruins look like they might have turned a corner, winning four in a row, including a game against a solid Atlantic 10 team in Richmond.

- And-1: Maybe I've just come to expect to much out of Washington given the amount of talent they have on their roster and the success they have in the postseason, but I am truly shocked at how far the Huskies have fallen this season. There's a legitimate chance that they don't make the NCAA Tournament, which is crazy considering they have pieces like Tony Wroten, Terrence Ross and CJ Wilcox. That said, I fully expect this group to get it all together and make a run to the Pac-12 Tournament title. Its what they do.

Something left to prove: Arizona

I don't think Arizona has as much upside potential as a team like Washington simply because I don't think they have the same kind of star power. Josiah Turner is not going to be the difference this season. Maybe down the road, but not this year. Nick Johnson and Jordin Mayes are both players that I would take on my team any day of the week, but neither of them are true point guards. The three best players on Arizona right now are Solomon Hill, Jesse Perry and Kevin Parrom, and none of those three should be considered a star. They are all very good role players, but they shouldn't be all-league caliber players. Arizona also has a lack of size. The Wildcats will get by on Sean Miller's ability to coach and the fact that they do have so many good players. But I need to see more to believe this is anything more than solid.

Player of the Year: Jared Cunningham, Oregon State

With all due respect to Jorge Gutierrez, Cunningham's the best defender in the league and he is leading the league in scoring. What else do you want him to do?

All-Conference Team:

POY: Jared Cunningham, Oregon State
G: Tony Wroten, Washington
G: Jorge Gutierrez, Cal
F: Allen Crabbe, Cal
F: Terrence Ross, Washington
F: Solomon Hill, Arizona

Power Rankings

1. Oregon State
2. Cal
3. Stanford
4. Arizona
5. Washington
6. Colorado
7. Oregon
9. Washington State
10. USC
11. Arizona State
12. Utah

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