Pac-12 gets lift from elevated guard play

The resurgence of the Pac-12 can be directly tied to its guard play, which has been solid throughout the league and often spectacular among the contenders. If the NCAA tournament is a guard’s game, the Pac-12 is in good shape.

California’s Allen Crabbe is the top candidate for conference player of the year, and he and Justin Cobbs form the best backcourt in the conference. You might have been able to see that coming after their play last year, but each has stepped up considerably.

Newcomers have had a major impact. Arizona State freshman Jahii Carson has taken over games with his ability to make plays off the high screen and roll, and he is the primary reason the Sun Devils have almost doubled their victory total in a year.

UCLA senior transfer Larry Drew II is nine assists short of setting a Bruins season record, and his ability to control a game has led Arizona’s Sean Miller to call Drew, not one-and-done freshman wing Shabazz Muhammad, the top player of the year candidate if the No. 23 Bruins win the league. In that scenario, “I don’t even think it is a close vote,” Miller said.

After all, who got Muhammad the ball in good spots?

No. 18 Arizona senior transfer Mark Lyons is not a true point guard, and neither is Colorado sophomore Spencer Dinwiddie, who is handling the ball more this season. But try guarding them.

No. 19 Oregon proved the value of guard play from the other side – the Ducks were vulnerable after freshman point guard Dominic Artis suffered a foot injury in late January, and they are just now returning to form as he works his way back into the lineup.

It is not a stretch to believe that decision-making at the guard spot is the most critical requirement for team success.

“It’s like having a great college quarterback in college football,” Miller said. “They can make up for a lot of things that you don’t have. They have a funny way of making sometimes average players look even better or very good players look exceptional. They have total command of the game. There is no question the value that position has over the other 10, and I think basketball is the same.

“That position has a way of making average players look very good, and it has a way of making things move and run smoother. If you take that person off the court, it would be amazing the difference.”

The all-Pac-12 team could, and should, be dominated by guards. Carson, Crabbe, Drew and Lyons, who is Arizona’s leading scorer, are among the top handful of players, along with Muhammad, Colorado forward Andre Roberson, Arizona forward Solomon Hill, Arizona State wing Carrick Felix and Stanford forward Dwight Powell.

Drew was the best player on the floor in UCLA’s sweep of Arizona this season, and his defense in the final seconds last Saturday helped preserve the Bruins’ 74-69 win. Drew is second in NCAA Division I with a 3.39 assist to turnover ratio, behind only Michigan’s Trey Burke.

“I know as a coach, when you don’t have good guard play, it sticks out like a sore thumb,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “Those are the people who handle the ball and make the majority of decisions for your team. It’s critical. Especially down the stretch, and especially in close games.”

Oregon’s Artis returned to the floor in an 85-75 victory over Oregon State last week, scoring six points in 12 minutes. He is expected to play more this week, coach Dana Altman said, but probably will not get to 20 minutes until perhaps the Pac-12 tournament.

The best guards are the ones able to break down defenses in late-game and late-shot-clock situations.

“He sets the tone for your defense,” Altman said. “Nine times out of 10, he is out front. The other four players are watching him guard the ball as they are bringing it down. He’s critical in setting the tone offensively, but a lot of time he is underestimated in what a tone he sets for a defense.”

WHO’S NUMBER ONE?


The regular-season championship and top seed in the Pac-12 tournament seems headed for a tie-breaker, which puts Oregon in the driver’s seat entering the final week. The Ducks (12-4) are the only team that controls their own destiny, although they have perhaps the most difficult final stretch with games at Colorado and Utah.
 
Oregon’s victory at UCLA (12-4) gives it the edge if there is a two-way tie between the schools at 14-4 or 13-5. The Bruins also finish on the road with games at the Washington schools, and their best shot at the No. 1 seed is to have the best record outright.

Streaking California (12-5) is the only other team that can claim the No. 1 seed in Las Vegas, and the Bears, who finish the season at home against Stanford, would win tiebreakers against both Oregon and UCLA if two or more finish at 13-5. In the highly unlikely event that Arizona (11-6) creates a four-team tie by beating Arizona State at home while the others come up empty, Cal wins that tie-breaker, too.

Oregon, UCLA and Cal are locked into first-round byes when the tournament begins March 13 in Las Vegas. Arizona would get the fourth if it beats ASU while  Colorado (9-7) and USC (9-7) lose at least once. Colorado wins the tiebreaker over Arizona and USC if there’s a tie at 11-7.

However it shakes out, the Pac-12 appears to be a lock for four NCAA tournament teams and likely to get five. Arizona, Oregon, UCLA and California are all seeded No. 9 or better in at least two computer brackets out this week, and Colorado appears to be in solid shape.

Arizona State probably needs to beat Arizona and make a good run in the Pac-12 tournament.

GAME OF THE WEEK


No. 19 Oregon (23-6, 12-4) at Colorado (19-9, 9-7), Thursday. What has become one of the most competitive series in the short history of the Pac-12 will have a major say in determining the conference winner this year. Colorado has won all four meetings between the two since joining the conference last year, three by one point, and all of those decided in the final seconds. The Buffs knocked No. 3 seed Oregon out of last year’s Pac-12 tournament with a 63-62 victory in the quarterfinals and beat the Ducks, 48-47, on Feb. 7 this season, scoring the final eight points and holding the Ducks scoreless over the final four minutes.

Dominic Artis, whose loss hampered the Ducks in the February game, returned last week against Oregon State, but he is unlikely to play starters’ minutes, coach Dana Altman said. Colorado coach Tad Boyle is prepared for a battle. “They bring a toughness to the basketball court that you better be ready to match, or they will whip you,” Boyle said of the Ducks.