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Pac-12 hoops: Stronger, deeper, unpredictable

Surprising Sun Devils emblematic of deeper, more unpredictable Pac-12 at midway point.

At the midway point of the Pac-12 season, a few things have bubbled to the surface.


The league is markedly better than in the recent past. The influx of top-tier freshmen and transfers has made it so. If the rest of the continent has not caught on, perhaps at least the NCAA selection committee has taken note.


The home court is not the advantage it usually has been, at least so far. The home team has won only 57 percent of conference games at the break, a remarkably low number, and co-leader Oregon is the only team to go unbeaten at home against its Pac-12 brethren. Even better for Oregon — it has played only four home games, having opened the season against rival Oregon State in Corvallis.


The peripherals also point to the Pac-12’s improvement. Arizona, Oregon and Colorado are ranked among the top 27 in several mock RPI indices, and the conference has four teams ranked in the top 33 in faux power rankings, with UCLA and Arizona State joining Arizona and Oregon.


“The teams that make it out of the conference and into the NCAA tournament will be better because of the parity” in the league, UCLA coach Ben Howland said.


With that, our mid-point honor roll.


BEST TEAM


Arizona. The Wildcats are tied for the conference lead at the midway point and also have the best nonconference resume thanks to the solid play (and leadership) of senior Solomon Hill, the big step forward taken by athletic sophomore Nick Johnson and the ability of senior transfer Mark Lyons to thrive in pressure situations. An aggressive defense does not hurt, either.


Honorable mention: Oregon.


MOST SURPRISING TEAM


Arizona State. The preseason pollsters can be partially forgiven for picking the Sun Devils to finish 11th in the conference. After all, they had only read about Jahii Carson, not seen him play. Senior forward Carrick Felix and junior center Jordan Bachynski are having career years, and some of that is due to the Carson effect.


Honorable mention: Oregon.


MOST DISAPPOINTING TEAM


Oregon State. The Beavers were dealt a blow when post player Angus Brandt suffered a season-ending injury four games in, but that should not have been so burdensome. Oregon State lost four of five home games in the first half, and, down three points in the final seconds of Thursday's loss at Cal, had non-shooter Joe Burton on the floor. Guess who ended up with the ball.


Honorable mention: UCLA.


TEAM MOST LIKELY TO IMPROVE


Colorado. The Buffaloes came within an official's blown call of a victory at Arizona in the first game of Pac-12 play and were the victims of a non-call in the final seconds that could have changed the outcome of a loss at Utah on Saturday. The Buffs are better with freshman Xavier Johnson in the starting lineup, and five of their final nine games at home. Four of the remaining games are against the Oregons.


Honorable mention: Washington.


TEAM MOST LIKELY TO SLIP


California. The Golden Bears got guard Brandon Smith back last week, a good thing for a thin roster, but with gritty Jorge Gutierrez and underrated Harper Kamp gone via graduation, they face a fight every night in the paint. Four of Cal’s next five games are against Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and Oregon, and only the UCLA game is at Haas Pavilion.


Honorable mention: Arizona State.


BEST PLAYER


Jahii Carson, G, Arizona State. He did not enter the league with the hype of Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson or Arizona’s three freshmen big men, but Carson has become the league’s top candidate for the national freshman of the year award with his assertive and at times spectacular point play. Carson leads the Pac-12 in scoring (19.1) and is fourth in assists (4.7) in league play, and his assist-to-turnover ratio is better than 2-to-1. For a guy who handles the ball on every play, that is a good thing.


Honorable mention: C.J. Wilcox, Washington; Allen Crabbe, California.


BEST COACHING PERFORMANCE


Herb Sendek, Arizona State. Sendek loves his matchup zone defense, so it was not easy to abandon that for a man-to-man this season, but he did it because it fit his personnel. Same with the offense, which with Carson is as hurry-up as it has ever been. Sendek also brought in former NBA coaches Eric Musselman and Larry Greer as assistants to give the program a pro feel, and the players have responded. The season could not have gone much better.


Honorable mention: Sean Miller, Arizona. Dana Altman, Oregon.


BEST NEWCOMER


Mark Lyons, G, Arizona. Before rejoining Sean Miller for a final season of eligibility, Lyons played in big games as part of three Sweet 16 teams at Xavier, not to mention the hot-blooded city rivalry with the University of Cincinnati. He has carried that swagger and seeming immunity to pressure to Arizona. He beat Florida on a layup with nine seconds to play, beat San Diego State with two free throws with 13 seconds left, hit two free throws with nine seconds to play to send the Colorado game into overtime and had 24 points against rival Arizona State in Tempe. Where would the Wildcats be without him?


Honorable mention: Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA. Kyle Anderson, UCLA.


MOST IMPROVED PLAYER


Carrick Felix, F, Arizona State. Felix had a daughter in the offseason, and it changed his life and his commitment to the process greatly. He has increased his scoring average by almost 50 percent, from 10.4 points a game to 14.6, while improving his field goal percentage from 42 percent to 53 percent. Then there is his tenacity and his leadership.

 

Honorable mention: Nick Johnson, Arizona. Jordan Bachynski, Arizona State.


GET READY TO DANCE


Arizona and Oregon appear to be locks for the NCAA tournament, provided the Ducks can return to the form they showed with point guard Dominic Artis, whose foot injury has sidelined him for three games and left his status for this week in doubt, according to Altman.


Arizona has the most impressive nonconference resume, having beaten ranked teams Florida, Miami and San Diego State. Oregon has a quality win at UNLV as well as a home victory over Arizona and a road win at UCLA.


UCLA has beaten Arizona and Missouri and will be a tournament team if its young players learn how to better handle success down the stretch. Arizona State is good enough for NCAA consideration at the turn, and defending NIT champion Stanford, Washington and Colorado could play themselves into consideration with strong second halves.