Pac-12 basketball midseason report card

mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman"">For a league that has no victories

over ranked teams and might have trouble placing three teams into the NCAA

Tournament, the Pac-12 is not without competition or suspense in its first

year.

Seven teams are within two games of the league lead at the midway point of the

season, and arguably the hottest team in the league — Oregon State — is not

one of them.

A closer look at the first half:

BEST TEAM

California: The Golden Bears entered the season with the most returning

starters, a strong on-court leader in Jorge Gutierrez and one of the best

coaches in the conference in Mike Montgomery. They play well as a team, and the

addition of sophomore lead guard Justin Cobbs, a transfer from Minnesota who

sat out last season, has enabled them to push the ball up the floor more.

“They can slice you up and make you look bad, even when you are playing

good defense,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said.

Honorable mention: Washington

MOST SURPRISING TEAM

Colorado: The Buffaloes entered the Pac-12 with little fanfare, but they have

shown that a mid-level Big 12 team can compete well in this league. The

Buffaloes, picked to finish 11th in a preseason media poll, shoot the ball well

and are treacherous at home, where their boisterous crowd gives them an

advantage similar to the ones enjoyed by Arizona and Washington. Coach Tad

Boyle would like them to learn to play a more physical game, but opponents have

been impressed by their work. “They don’t beat themselves, and they are

very consistent in what they do,” Arizona State assistant coach Dedrique

Taylor said.

Honorable mention: Oregon

MOST DISAPPOINTING TEAM

UCLA: There’s no obvious choice here, but the Bruins get the nod simply because

of what they could have been. Reeves Nelson, an all-league forward last season,

was booted off the team after behavioral issues, and big center Joshua Smith is

in no better condition that he was last season, when his immense potential was

obvious. The Bruins have regrouped, but their season may be defined by what

happens in their remaining games against Washington (two), California and

Arizona.

Honorable mention: USC (injury division).

TEAM MOST LIKELY TO IMPROVE

Washington: The Huskies already are tied for the first place, so there is

not that far to go. Their top three wings — Tony Wroten, Terrence Ross, C.J.

Wilcox — comprise the best perimeter trio in the conference, and the

shot-blocking presence of 7-foot junior Aziz N’Diaye on the inside enables them

to play pressure defensive and still not worry about giving up many easy hoops.

“I think Washington has a chance to take off and be a high, high level

team. Lorenzo has done a great job blending Wroten in with the rest of the

guys,” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said

Honorable mention: Arizona

TEAM MOST LIKELY TO SLIP

Oregon: The Ducks have two of the best victories in the league, winning at

Arizona and overcoming a 13-point deficit to beat UCLA at home, but they have

not been able to sustain that level. They are eighth in shooting percentage and

ninth in turnover margin in Pac-12 games and have a tough second half, with a

home game remaining against Washington and road contests at California,

Stanford, Colorado and Oregon State, which bothered them to no end with a 1-3-1

zone defense in the second half of the Civil War at Eugene last Sunday.

“We’ve been inconsistent. There’s not one area I’m really pleased

with,” coach Dana Altman said.

Honorable mention: Stanford

BEST PLAYER

Jorge Gutierrez, F, California — Gutierrez’s fingerprints are all over the

stat sheet in league games — he is eighth in scoring (14.7 points a game), 12th

in rebounding (5.7), third in assists (5.4), second in assist-to-turnover ratio

(2.7) and tied for fifth in steals (1.8). And all that does not describe the

court presence and team-first approach he brings to a game. “The leadership

that he has shown. He is getting stuff done. That has been something to

appreciate,” Romar said.

mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman"">Honorable mention: Jared

Cunningham, G, Oregon State

BEST COACHING PERFORMANCE

Craig Robinson, Oregon State — That the Beavers lead the Pac-12 and are among

the nation’s best in scoring is more a function of their non-league schedule

and their four-overtime loss to Stanford earlier this season. But their tempo

forces action, and Robinson has done a nice job mixing and matching his players

to his schemes. After trying out a man-to-man defense earlier in the year, the

Beavers have produced great results with a return to their 1-3-1 zone trap that

features 6-10 sophomore Eric Moreland at the top of the zone.

Honorable mention: Altman, Oregon

BEST NEWCOMER

Tony Wroten, G, Washington — Wroten remains the best left-hander to come

out of Seattle Garfield High since Jimi Hendrix. Wroten oozes athleticism and

was electric at times, especially when he learned to let the game come to him a

little more. He had highlight-reel slam dunks against Oregon and Arizona State,

and he made the play of the game in blocking Arizona guard Josiah Turner’s

attempted game-tying lay-in with one second to play in the Huskies’ victory in

Tucson on Saturday. “The guy has no conscience. He’s unbelievable. I have great

admiration for that guy,” O’Neill said.

Honorable mention: Cobbs, G, California

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER

Solomon Hill, F, Arizona — Maybe it is a function of opportunity, but Hill

has stepped up in every phase this season in the absence of do-everything

forward Derrick Williams, becoming a bit of a do-everything player himself.

Hill has increased his scoring (12.6 from 8.0) and rebounding (8.3 from 4.7)

averages this year while making 55 percent of his field-goal attempts,

including 20 of 54 from 3-point range, including 10 of 20 in conference games. He

has eight double-doubles, tied for second in the league behind Colorado’s Andre

Roberson. It’s not a surprise to see Hill take the ball off the defensive glass

and lead a fast break, either. “He has stepped up,” Romar said.

Honorable mention: Brock Motum, F, Washington State

GET READY TO DANCE

California and Washington, barring a second-half collapse, should make the

68-team NCAA Tournament field, despite the league being 0-12 against ranked

teams, does not have a signature non-league victory and is ranked No. 9 in the

simulated RPI rankings at the halfway point — below the Mountain West,

Atlantic-10 and Missouri Valley conferences. The league’s best chance at three

NCAA teams is for Cal and Washington to remain hot while another team wins the Pac-12

Tournament.

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