College Basketball Nation: Pac-12

Utah eyeing a place among elites

December, 11, 2014
Dec 11
Utah's first win at BYU since 2005 is one of many "first since" moments it is poised to have this season. And the way the Utes look now, that will include their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009.

For seven straight times, the Utes left Provo with losses since their last win their on Jan. 31, 2005. But Wednesday's 65-61 victory quickly erased those bad memories and has them looking forward to what lies ahead.

No. 10 Kansas awaits the No. 13 Utes in a (not-so) neutral site game in Kansas City on Saturday. It will be Utah's second top-10 opponent in three games. Utah survived then-No. 8 Wichita State last week in overtime.

With a win over the Jayhawks, Utah could conceivably catapult from unranked in the preseason into the top 10 next week. Its current rank is already the highest since being No. 13 in the Associated Press poll on Feb. 21, 2005.

This team is starting to have the look and feel of the Utah teams during the Rick Majerus era: a superstar talent in Delon Wright, who posted a double-double 18 points and 11 rebounds against BYU; a workman-like big man in freshman Jakob Poeltl; and an understated toughness that they are going to keep battling.

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Chris Nicoll/USA TODAY SportsDelon Wright scored 18 points and had 11 rebounds as Utah ended its losing streak at BYU.
So far, Utah is winning the pressure games it wilted under last season.The Utes lost eight games by four points or fewer last season -- including three in overtime -- which contributed to keeping them from receiving an at-large NCAA bid.

The other reason they missed the tournament was a soft nonconference schedule. So far they've solved both of those problems this season. The Utes played a true road game the third game of the season at No. 18 San Diego State, where they suffered their only loss, 53-49.

The tight wins still aren't coming as clean as Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak would probably want them.

Against BYU, the Utes turned the ball over up four with 65 seconds left, but fortunately for them Anson Winder couldn't control it and lost it out of bounds. With a chance to push their lead to six, Brandon Taylor missed a pair of free throw attempts with 43 seconds left. Taylor had entered the game 18-of-19 from the line this season.

Luckily for Utah, the nation's third leading scorer, Tyler Haws, missed a 3-point that could have tied it with 30 seconds left.

Utah can continue to clean up those things. What put the Utes in a position to win was their defense.

Haws, who averages 24.4 points, did manage to secure a game-high 23 points. But the Utes harassed him into just 9-of-22 shooting from the field, which was well below his season average of 51.1 percent.

The Cougars leading 3-point shooter, Chase Fischer, who averaged 43.2 percent from behind the arc, tied a season-low with three points on just 1-of-5 shooting. As a team, Utah held BYU to a season-low 36 percent shooting from the field.

Before the showdown with Kansas, the Utes will savor this one for a minute. It's as big as a December rivalry game can be. The schools didn't meet on the gridiron this season in a clash of the century-long "Holy War" rivalry, so the hardwood has to suffice.

Krystkowiak broke out his good red jacket. BYU dusted off its powder blue uniforms, a nod to its old-school look.

Krystkowiak riled up the Cougars fan base after the Utes upset Wichita State last week. He remarked Utah's schedule hit its stretch of "five elite teams I think. Well, four and a half if you count BYU, I guess."

It turns out Utah is making the bid to be considered an elite team. It's been a while since anyone has said that.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Sometimes a piece of information is so hard to believe that no matter how many times you go back to it, it never gets any more digestible. Greg Maddux's 1995 season, for example. No matter how many times you open Maddux's Baseball Reference Page, no matter how often you shove your iPhone into your friend's face and scream at them -- Ten complete games! A .811 WHIP! 181 strikeouts to 38 walks! *Look at this!* -- it never gets any less insane.

The Pac-12's 2011-12 season is like this. You remember: Arizona's young players struggled in Sean Miller's third season. UCLA was mired in its protracted Ben Howland purge. The rest of the conference was either mediocre (no Pac-12 team finished with fewer than 10 losses) or just plain awful (USC and Utah combined for four conference wins). In overall average efficiency, the league ranked below not only the rest of its power six brethren, but the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West, too. The league was so devoid of nonconference wins and marquee teams that its regular-season champ, Washington, failed to earn an at-large NCAA tournament bid -- an unprecedented brush-off made all the more surreal by the realization that nobody outside the Pac-12 offices really disagreed with it.

Three years later, the Pac-12 has arrived at a vastly stronger place. Arizona is a perennial national title threat. UCLA got back to the Sweet 16 last season and is recruiting top West Coast talent again. Utah has gone from "abhorrent" to "conference title contender" in record time. Colorado, UCLA, Stanford, Arizona State, and even Washington are all realistic tournament hopefuls with either intriguing talent, loads of experience, or both. USC, which finished 2-16 in league play last season, is rapidly trending upward.

The result is a league with one obvious national title contender and maybe seven or eight good outfits.

"I could see where Arizona would be the unanimous pick," Arizona State coach Herb Sendek said. "I think that's clear cut. As for the rest of the league, you could probably put everybody in a hat, shake it up, and have just as good a chance at predicting the order of finish as we are able to do sitting here today."

The current setup might make the Pac-12 hard to predict, but it should also make it very interesting -- not only during conference play but in November and December, too. At the very least, 2011-12 now feels even more removed from the current reality. As the Pac-12 improves, that wild outlier becomes harder and harder to believe.

Four other observations from Pac-12 media day:

2. The arrival of a new season hasn't done anything to quell misgivings about Oregon's tumultuous offseason. In May, three players were dismissed following sexual assault allegations, and coach Dana Altman and the university were criticized for allowing players to play in the NCAA tournament despite an ongoing investigation into those allegations. One of those players, Brandon Austin, had been suspended by his previous school, Providence, for an alleged sexual assault.

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AP PhotoDana Altman's Oregon program had a tough offseason.
Since then, two players (Ben Carter and A.J. Lapray) have transferred, top recruit JaQuan Lyle was unable to enroll at the school, and Elgin Cook was cited for shoplifting. Local media in Eugene soon discovered that Cook, as a teenager in Wisconsin, had been found guilty of assault and battery, disorderly conduct and vandalism.

Altman's summer hasn't just left his roster gutted. It's also left many wondering whether a coach whose squeaky-clean reputation that preceded his hiring deserved to be fired.

On Thursday, the questions continued. Altman reiterated that he did not know the extent of the charges against the three players in March. He stood by his and the university's decision, and pointed to his entire career as an indicator of his judgement.

"Six months have not been good, but the other 25 years have been pretty solid," Altman said.

The Ducks have made one noticeable change off the floor: Altman has now moved all of his players into the same apartment complex, where they live alongside graduate assistants.

"We have our graduate assistants living with them to try to help them with some of the day-to-day decisions they make," Altman said. "Other than that, we haven't made many changes."

3. These days, nothing sinks a bubble team's NCAA tournament hopes more than a weak nonconference schedule. You could hardly blame Utah for its RPI-crushing 2013-14 slate, though: Even coach Larry Krystkowiak didn't expect his team to be as good as it was. The Utes were ahead of schedule.

"Oftentimes a schedule is done a year or two in advance," Krystkowiak said. "We were probably ahead of the curve last year."

There will be no such surprises in 2014-15. The preseason poll slotted Utah at No. 2 in the league projections; star small forward Delon Wright is a returning All-Pac-12 performer. This time, Krystkowiak has scheduled accordingly. The Utes have road games against Kansas, San Diego State, UNLV and BYU. That slate will certainly help assuage the NCAA's road-obsessed concerns, but it also presents major challenges.

"On paper I don't know how intelligent I am to bite off some of that," Krystkowiak said. "I just felt like our team was ready for it."

4. Steve Alford's teams were never known for playing fast, but his arrival at UCLA last season was accompanied by a massive tempo boost relative to Alford's work at New Mexico and Iowa. With the strength of that attack -- an excellent backcourt -- almost entirely gone, will the Bruins maintain that pace? Alford hopes so.

"We want to be able to continue to do the things we've done, with the speed with which we want to play," Alford said. "We want to play fast. ... But there's a fine line. You can only run as hard as you can to where you're also valuing the ball."

5. New coaches are a minor subplot of the 2014-15 Pac-12. The conference has three new men in charge of programs this season: Cuonzo Martin at California, Wayne Tinkle at Oregon State and Ernie Kent at Washington State. Oregon State and Washington State are probably due for extended rebuilding periods. But Mike Montgomery's retirement didn't leave the Bears quite as bereft of personnel, which makes them slightly more intriguing. At the very least, forward David Kravish drew raves from Martin as the two sat at the podium together.

"The guy is just battle-tested," Martin said. "He understands what it means to win. He's probably one of the better leaders I've ever been around."

3-point shot: Will Doug Wojcik recruit?

July, 7, 2014
Jul 7

Andy Katz discusses College of Charleston coach Doug Wojcik's status in recruiting, what UCLA coach Steve Alford needs from son Bryce, and Illinois' offseason training.

3-point shot: Return pays off for Napier

June, 27, 2014
Jun 27

In today's 3-point shot, Andy Katz reports on how returning to school for another year could have boosted the draft stock of Jahii Carson and James Michael McAdoo the way it did for Shabazz Napier, who was taken in the first round of the 2014 NBA draft.

3-point shot: Pac-12 all-star team

May, 27, 2014
May 27

Andy Katz on Larry Krystkowiak running the Pac-12 all-star team, Maryland and Mark Turgeon's interesting spring and basketball decisions at the SEC meetings.
Dana Altman endured a weird season. His Oregon Ducks were 13-0, but then they began to struggle. That unblemished mark preceded a mudslide that dropped Oregon to the bottom of the Pac-12 standings after a 3-8 start in league play.

The Ducks recovered and reached the NCAA tournament. And they looked like a top-25 team entering 2014-15 with Joseph Young, Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis all returning -- a boost for a program that had already lost Mike Moser and Johnathan Loyd. But in the words of Dave Chappelle’s version of Rick James, that was weeks ago.

On Monday, ESPN’s Jeff Goodman reported that Dotson, Artis and Providence transfer Brandon Austin are not participating in team activities. And now, Altman might have to figure out who will run his offense next year. Austin and Dotson would be major losses, too.

This news broke only hours after Oregon State fired Craig Robinson weeks after the conclusion of the early recruiting period.

A coaching search in early May? OK. (Virginia Tech would like a word.)

[+] EnlargeCuonzo Martin
cGrant Halverson/Getty ImagesCuonzo Martin is just one of the new faces in the Pac-12 for 2014-15 in what has become an offseason of upheaval.
But if you zoom out and survey the Pac-12 from a broader perspective, you will notice that Monday’s developments followed a troubling trend in this league. The conference has been plagued by drama and abrupt change in recent weeks.

Cuonzo Martin and Ernie Kent replaced Mike Montgomery and Ken Bone, respectively.

Jordan Adams told the world that he was returning to a UCLA squad that had already lost Kyle Anderson and Zach LaVine, but then Adams changed his mind and entered the NBA draft. The sophomore would have been the anchor on a Bruins squad that will rely on top recruit Kevon Looney next season.

Across town, USC standout Byron Wesley transferred. Andy Enfield has a top-25 recruiting class, though. But Wesley and Pe’Shon Howard, who graduated, were his top scorers last season.

Former Colorado star Spencer Dinwiddie turned pro just months after suffering a season-ending ACL injury. Many figured he would rehab, come back to Colorado for another season and regain his pre-injury draft stock. That didn’t happen. The Buffaloes are still strong, but they would be more forceful with Dinwiddie.

Arizona State’s departures weren’t unexpected. Jahii Carson, Jermaine Marshall and Jordan Bachynski are all gone. Herb Sendek has to hit the reset button again.

With all the recent movement, Utah and Washington are two of the most stable programs in the Pac-12. The Utes might be the sleeper in the conference.

Arizona, which signed McDonald’s All American Stanley Johnson and returned key members from last season's team, and Stanford, a Sweet 16 program that added Johnny Dawkins’ top recruiting class, are obviously strong programs too.

That’s not typical, though. There’s more chaos than certainty in the Pac-12 today. Monday’s news magnified the mess.

So this is a fluid moment for the conference.

Last season, the Pac-12 sent six teams to the NCAA tournament. Three reached the Sweet 16. Arizona lost to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight.

After the Big Dance, the league looked healthy, vibrant and deep again. Nine Pac-12 teams finished with .500 or better records in league play.

The conference might boast similar parity again next season, but it might not have the same overall quality due to personnel changes. Plus, the league’s new coaches joined programs that won’t contend for the conference crown unless they upgrade their respective talent pools. That usually takes two seasons for most coaches.

Every Pac-12 squad dealing with recent changes could benefit in the long run. Martin might be the right guy to elevate Cal. Altman's program could thrive if Artis, Austin and Dotson return. Enfield has a talented young group in L.A. Steve Alford still has an NBA-level prospect on his UCLA roster. Oregon State improved under Robinson, but average just isn’t good enough at this level. The next Beavers coach could be the one who transforms Oregon State into a contender. And Colorado returns key members of a program that reached the NCAA tournament without Dinwiddie.

So there’s hope, just no guarantee.

It’s too early to know exactly how this maneuvering will affect the Pac-12 in 2014-15. Right now, however, things look rocky.

The good news is it’s only May. The bad news is you can’t make trades at this level.


3-point shot: Tough Pac-12 schedules

April, 25, 2014
Apr 25

Andy Katz looks at the impressive schedules for Arizona and UCLA and transfers at Oregon.

Look back, look ahead: Pac-12

April, 25, 2014
Apr 25
Sean Miller seemed to have every tool necessary for the Arizona Wildcats to make a push for the national title as the 2013-14 season approached. His talent pool was so rich that Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a former McDonald’s All-American, was a reserve most of the season.

But Arizona, a team so well-rounded that it reached the Elite Eight without NBA prospect Brandon Ashley’s services in the final two months of the season, wasn’t the best measurement of the conference.

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Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesBrandon Ashley's return from a foot injury should keep Arizona in contention in the Pac-12.
For that, go to Salt Lake City, where Larry Krystkowiak began the season as a campus crime-fighter and continued his heroics by enhancing Utah’s program. This past season, the Utes finished 9-9 in conference play a year after going 5-13 in the Pac-12. They also added six wins compared to last season.

The Utes were one of nine Pac-12 squads that finished .500 or better in league play. Oregon State, 10th in the league, finished 16-16 overall. Only two teams in the Pac-12 finished with sub-.500 overall records.

Arizona and UCLA were the only two squads that separated themselves from the rest of the league, and that can be viewed in two ways: The Pac-12 was packed with a bunch of solid programs, or it was plagued by mediocrity.

The league’s postseason finish -- six NCAA tourney teams, three in the Sweet 16 and one in the Elite Eight -- suggests the former.

What we saw this season: On Feb. 1, the national title race changed. That night, Ashley suffered a season-ending foot injury in a loss to Cal, Arizona’s first loss of the season. How important was Ashley?

Well, the Wildcats were still a powerhouse that maintained its position as the top-rated team in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency rankings. And they maintained enough mojo to win the Pac-12’s regular-season crown and reach the Elite Eight, but they really needed Ashley’s versatility and length in their loss to Frank Kaminsky and Wisconsin in the NCAA tourney.

At UCLA, in Steve Alford’s first season, he found the best position for Kyle Anderson -- playmaker -- and shaped the Bruins into a top-50 defensive unit. After some early bumps, the Bruins finished 11-4 in the final weeks of the season after suffering a four-point loss at Oregon State on Feb. 2. That run included a Pac-12 tourney title and a Sweet 16 appearance.

Both Johnny Dawkins at Stanford and Herb Sendek at Arizona State were on the hot seat entering the season. That wasn’t a secret. Both Dawkins and Sendek bought more time with NCAA tourney appearances. Dawkins reached the Big Dance with the help of a few ambitious and hungry upperclassmen (Chasson Randle, Dwight Powell), and the Cardinal’s rally to the Sweet 16 was a stunning development in the NCAA tournament. It was a big win for Dawkins, whose athletic director had demanded improvement before the season. Sendek, meanwhile, signed Penn State transfer Jermaine Marshall, a reputable Robin to Jahii Carson’s Batman, but the Sun Devils lost six of their final eight games.

Oregon’s 2-8 stretch midseason didn’t define its season. Transfers Joseph Young and Mike Moser led Dana Altman’s program to 24 wins. The Ducks were ahead by 12 at halftime against Wisconsin before losing in the third round of the tournament.

Colorado’s dreams were deferred when Spencer Dinwiddie suffered a season-ending injury in January. The Buffaloes were never the same without him, and a 29-point loss to Pitt in the opening round of the tourney was the final blow in a rough season for Tad Boyle’s crew. Washington finished 9-9 in league play, but that record features more highs and lows. The Huskies, much like the rest of the conference, couldn’t win on the road.

California failed to maintain the swagger it had in that upset win over Arizona in February and ended up in the NIT. Oregon State, Washington State and USC all finished at the bottom of the conference, which wasn’t surprising.

The story of the Pac-12 in 2013-14? The limited separation within the league.

What we expect to see next season: The future is uncertain for a league that could have had an unprecedented seven tournament bids in 2014-15.

Eleven ESPN 100 prospects will enter the league in 2014-15. And the rich will get richer, so the landscape shouldn’t change much.

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Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsSteve Alford will bring a top-10 recruiting class to UCLA.
Miller lost Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, but McDonald’s All-American forward Stanley Johnson is a versatile beast who leads the league’s top recruiting class. Plus, Ashley will return from his foot injury along with T.J. McConnell, Kaleb Tarczewski and Hollis-Jefferson. The Wildcats will contend for the national championship next season, although that would be an easier argument to make if Johnson had decided to return.

Anderson and Zach LaVine left Los Angeles, but Alford adds elite big man Kevon Looney (No. 12 recruit in 2014 class, per RecruitingNation) and 6-foot-11 Californian Thomas Welsh (36th). They’re more talented and athletic than the Wear twins, but Anderson’s departure and the fact that Alford doesn’t have a clear point guard right now makes it difficult to assess UCLA’s potential. A strong nucleus returns, however.

There are questions in Eugene, too. The Ducks return one of the most talented backcourt trios (Young, Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis) in America. Without Mike Moser, what will they do inside, though?

Stanford is in a position to rise in the league after its Sweet 16 run. Reid Travis (27th overall prospect) leads Dawkins’ most fruitful recruiting class, and three of his top five scorers from last season, including Randle, will return. Utah could surge, too. Krystkowiak had only one senior on the Utes’ roster last season.

Things looked brighter for Colorado before Dinwiddie entered the NBA draft. But Boyle will still have a strong group returning, and point guard prospect Dominique Collier could evolve into the young floor leader his program needs.

Cuonzo Martin replaces Mike Montgomery at Cal. The good news? A strong group of players are back. The bad news? He won’t have Justin Cobbs and top rebounder Richard Solomon.

Andy Enfield signed a top-25 recruiting class, but his USC squad, which finished last in the Pac-12 last season, also lost its top two scorers (Byron Wesley will transfer and Pe’Shon Howard graduated). Former Oregon coach Ernie Kent will attempt to change the culture of a Washington State squad that finished 3-15 in Pac-12 play.

Nigel Williams-Goss made the right decision to return to Washington for his sophomore season, but that alone won’t be enough to make Washington a contender in the league. Arizona State could also struggle next season without Carson, Marshall and Jordan Bachynski.

There’s talent coming, but more is leaving.

Although the Pac-12 will boast a handful of teams that will warrant NCAA tourney consideration, it won’t be as deep as it was this past season.
Through five years of basketball under Johnny Dawkins, Stanford went unnoticed on the sport’s biggest stage, failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament after a Sweet 16 appearance in the season before the coach’s arrival.

You could argue it’s been more of the same for Stanford through the first weekend of this tournament, despite upset wins as a No. 10 seed over No. 7 seed New Mexico and No. 2 seed Kansas.

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Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesGuard Chasson Randle, who has averaged 18.7 points per game this season, and the No. 10 seed Cardinal take on No. 11 seed Dayton on Thursday in Memphis, Tenn.
Dramatic finishes at other sites overshadowed the round-of-64 victory. And headlines from Sunday focused more on the circumstances of the second-seeded Jayhawks’ early departure than on what the Cardinal did to force it.

Stanford held star KU freshman Andrew Wiggins to four points on 1-of-6 shooting.

Give Stanford some credit here, primarily senior forward Josh Huestis, a three-time member of the Pac-12 all-defensive team who handled Wiggins for most of the game.

“I challenged him,” Dawkins said of Huestis, “and I thought he really responded. He did a great job defending.”

Stanford, in its first tournament appearance since 2008, remains content to fly under the radar as it prepares for a South Regional semifinal meeting Thursday against No. 11 seed Dayton. The Flyers have grabbed attention already with wins over sixth-seeded Ohio State and No. 3 seed Syracuse. Florida, the top seed overall in the tourney, and UCLA fill out the field in Memphis, Tenn.

Stanford again might go overlooked -- unless, of course, it wins two more games and advances to the Final Four for the first time since 1998.

Don’t count out the Cardinal. Their steady style of play figures to create problems, starting with a frontcourt of 6-foot-7 Huestis, 6-10 senior forward Dwight Powell and 6-11 junior center Stefan Nastic.

Stanford is long and versatile. It beat the Jayhawks without making a 3-point field goal (0-of-9).

Floor general Chasson Randle, who scored a team-high 36 total points in the second- and third-round games, adds an element of creativity. And 6-6 wing Anthony Brown provides another athletic option. He hit five free throws in the final 44 seconds against Kansas.

Powell and Huestis rank atop Stanford’s career chart in games played. Experience, although not in the NCAA tournament -- Stanford won the National Invitation Tournament in 2012 -- has helped carry the Cardinal.

“We’re still in the race,” Powell said, “We’re still playing in March, and it feels great.”

Stanford entered the tournament on something of a roller coaster. It lost 84-59 to UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament semifinal round after three straight wins that had followed three straight losses dating to Feb. 26.

“Every season is like a lifetime,” Powell said. “Obviously, you will have your ups and downs. But from day one, before we even started preseason, we always had a goal to make the tournament and make a run. And we never lost sight of that and lost hope.”

Stanford did lose firepower. Forward Andy Brown, who started 20 games last season as a freshman, has missed the entire season with a knee injury; guard Christian Sanders has sat out with a hip injury.

Additionally, guard Aaron Bright, a 22-game starter in 2012-13, missed all but the first seven games, and forward Rosco Allen went down early in the season.

As a result, the starters accounted for more than 85 percent of Stanford’s scoring through the regular season. Against New Mexico and Kansas, they scored 107 of 118 points.

Count Kansas coach Bill Self among the admirers of Dawkins and the job he has done to rebuild Stanford over six years.

“He epitomizes class,” Self said before Kansas faced Stanford. “He conducts himself in that way, and he always has.

“He was a great hire that Stanford made, and he's going to continue to do well. And everybody in our business that knows Johnny is happy for him.”

Also before that game, Wiggins and Kansas guard Wayne Selden Jr. unintentionally provided extra motivation for Stanford as reporters asked them a series of questions about Randle at the practice-day news conference.

The KU freshmen had no answer, other than a few uncomfortable laughs. Clearly, they weren’t familiar with the name of the Cardinal’s top playmaker -- understandable because the Jayhawks had yet to receive scouting reports from their coaches, but apropos, nonetheless, considering the Cardinal’s somewhat unnoticed run to the Sweet 16.

Randle said after the landmark victory, in which he scored 13 points with six steals in 40 minutes, that he watched footage of the news conference.

“I took it as a challenge,” Randle said. “So did my teammates. It wasn’t just a stab at me. It was a stab at our team.”

Noticed or not, the Cardinal are marching forward.

SAN DIEGO -- Here are five observations from Arizona’s 84-61 win over Gonzaga in the third round of the NCAA tournament on Sunday night at Viejas Arena in San Diego:

Aaron Gordon is ridiculous: Yes, the freshman is a highlight machine. In the first half of Sunday’s win, he hit a 3-pointer and on his next possession, he caught a reverse alley-oop. It all seemed so easy for the 6-foot-9 forward. But those weren’t necessarily his most impressive feats. Those came on defense. How many 6-foot-9 forwards can guard a point guard like Kevin Pangos? Well, Gordon (18 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 steals) did that on multiple possessions. Gordon’s versatility has been vital in Arizona’s run to the Sweet 16. The program’s future was somewhat cloudy after it lost Brandon Ashley for the season due to a foot injury he sustained in early February. Gordon, however, has given the Wildcats an extra push. He’s a special player.

Arizona can win it all: Yes, you know that already. The Wildcats are the last team standing in many brackets, and they’re just as dangerous as Florida and the other contenders right now. They proved that this weekend. They’re still No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy data. They have size and athleticism and they’re capable of competing against any style. The biggest concern for the Wildcats was the possibility that the Zags would come out firing 3-pointers and stretch the floor. But Arizona was tough on Pangos & Co. but didn’t neglect their interior defense as they held the Zags to a 40 percent clip from the field. On offense, they just attacked the rim. They’re relentless and talented enough to win the national championship in Arlington, Texas.

Game says more about Arizona than Gonzaga: So, Mark Few might face questions about his legacy after this loss. This is a program that hasn’t made an Elite Eight run since 1999, and the Zags haven’t advanced to the Sweet 16 since 2009, but Sunday’s loss shouldn’t be used to critique the state of the program or Few’s tenure. Gonzaga is a good team that lost to a squad that might be better than every program in the country right now. There’s a strong chance that any remaining team would have fallen in Viejas Arena on Sunday. The Wildcats shot 49 percent against a Gonzaga team that was ranked top 20 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency numbers. They outscored the Zags 48-28 in the paint and recorded 31 points off their opponent’s 21 turnovers. That’s ridiculous.

Nick Johnson’s leadership: T.J. McConnell and Johnson are the leaders on this team. McConnell seems to lead by orchestrating Sean Miller’s offensive and defensive schemes. Johnson obviously helps with that, too, but he’s also the vocal leader for this team. He’s surrounded by young guys, and throughout his team’s two wins in San Diego, you could see him talking to his teammates and reassuring them. That might seem trivial, but many programs would love to have a player who leads with voice and his game.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson matters: The freshman isn’t hidden anymore. But his standout performance against Gonzaga (18 points, five rebounds, five assists, four blocks and a steal) was another reminder of how important he is to this team and its NCAA national title hopes.

SAN DIEGO -- In the final minutes of UCLA’s 77-60 win over Stephen F. Austin in the third round of the NCAA tournament, a woman in Viejas Arena began to chant Aubrey Williams’ name. Then, other Bruins fans joined her.

Steve Alford inserted Williams and four other reserves into the game with 44.1 seconds to go Sunday.

As Tony Parker walked off the floor and approached his seat, the 6-foot-9, 255-pound big man grabbed UCLA director of operations Tyus Edney, who became a Bruins legend after his miracle shot against Missouri in the 1995 NCAA tournament, lifted him off the ground and held him as though he were a child.

“You know, Tyus Edney is a lightweight, so it was kind of easy,” Parker joked. “Just little Tyus. I’m from Missouri, so I always mess with him. My whole family is from Missouri, so he hit the lucky layup. My grandpop makes sure I mess with Tyus every day. … That layup was the lottery for Tyus. I love him, he’s a great guy.”

For the first time in six years, the Bruins had a reason to smile at this stage of the NCAA tournament, an accomplishment that arrived in Alford’s first season. They’ll face Florida, the tourney’s No. 1 overall seed, on Thursday in Memphis during their first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2008.

“It’s a great feeling,” Kyle Anderson said. “This is what guys come to UCLA for. A storied program, you know, this is what you want here. … This is what I know Jordan [Adams] and myself came to UCLA for.”

[+] EnlargeNorman Powell
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsNorman Powell was part of UCLA's explosive offense against Stephen F. Austin.
The last time UCLA reached the Sweet 16, Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook were a couple of underclassmen. That year, the young duo helped the Bruins reach their third consecutive Final Four.

And all seemed well in Westwood.

But UCLA’s most recent years lacked the same pizzazz and failed to meet the mark that an incomparable history established decades ago. The Bruins are John Wooden, Pauley Pavilion, Bill Walton, Lew Alcindor and 11 national championships.

They’re not three NCAA tourney appearances in the previous five seasons and zero trips to the Sweet 16. But they were that in the lukewarm years that followed the remarkable Final Four streak under Ben Howland, who was fired following last season’s loss to Minnesota in the Big Dance.

It wasn’t just the losing and relative postseason futility that contributed to Howland’s exit. It was also the stream of Cali prospects who left the state -- see Aaron Gordon and Brandon Ashley. Both signed with Arizona prior to Alford’s arrival.

Alford wasn’t charged with rebuilding when he was hired last year. He was asked to reignite a program that had every resource necessary to regain its edge. This year’s Sweet 16 run and Pac-12 tourney championship prove that the former New Mexico coach has already lit the match on that vision.

“Obviously, it’s great steps in the right direction,” said Alford, who will participate in his first Sweet 16 as a head coach since 1999.

It didn’t take much time for UCLA’s advantages against Stephen F. Austin to be revealed and exploited. Brad Underwood tried to use 5-foot-9 point guard Trey Pinkney against Anderson, a 6-foot-9 combo guard. He eventually put 6-foot-6 forward Thomas Walkup on him. Neither option worked.

Meanwhile, Adams (game-high 19 points), Parker, David Wear, Travis Wear and Norman Powell pushed the Lumberjacks around in the lane, where they outscored them 42-22.

Even though Stephen F. Austin had entered the game on a 29-game winning streak that it extended with a win over VCU, it’s no comparison to the Florida squad that UCLA will see next.

Those Gators haven’t lost since Dec. 2. They’re big at every position, too. And they don’t crumble in the final moments.

They’ve had the upper hand on UCLA in recent years, too. Billy Donovan’s program has kicked the Bruins out of the NCAA tournament three times since 2006, when Florida beat UCLA in the national title game.

“That’s some good history,” Parker said. “But we got 11 national championships. So that’s good history, too. We just continue to play. And have fun.”

After the game, Alford had no interest in discussing the Sweet 16 as the pinnacle for a program that’s accustomed to much more. He admits that it’s a significant stride. But -- since this is UCLA -- it’s still not enough. Only a start.

“I’ve known Coach Wooden a long time, since elementary school, and we’re going to wrap around this as a school and we’re going to tackle it and do everything we can to build champions,” Alford said. “We shouldn’t be here if that’s not what we want to do.”

Video: UCLA wins Pac-12 title

March, 15, 2014
Mar 15

Kyle Anderson had 21 points and 15 rebounds to help UCLA upset No. 4 Arizona 75-71 for the Pac-12 championship.

Tournament preview: Pac-12

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11

The Pac-12 has followed the script for the most part.

Entering this season, anyone could recognize Arizona’s perch atop the conference with McDonald’s All American Aaron Gordon joining one of the nation’s best frontcourts.

Steve Alford, meanwhile, had come to Los Angeles to save UCLA.

Oregon, Colorado, Stanford, Arizona State and Cal all looked like potential NCAA tourney teams.

But even though we knew that about this league, no conference is teetering on a bigger platform of uncertainty right now. Maybe this is a three-bid league. Maybe it’s a six- or seven-bid league.

The Pac-12 picked the perfect city, Las Vegas, for this toss-up conference tournament.

[+] EnlargeArizona/Oregon
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsRondae Hollis-Jefferson's versatility has helped Arizona move forward in the absence of Brandon Ashley.
What’s at stake?

On Feb. 1, Brandon Ashley suffered a season-ending foot injury that changed Arizona’s season and program. Ashley, a sophomore, stretched the floor in ways that few big men can.

But Sean Miller’s recruiting spoils in recent years have been a godsend to the program. Freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson gives the starting five a true small forward and creates a mismatch nightmare for every frontcourt that faces Hollis-Jefferson, Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski.

Everything is pointing to Nick Johnson, the Pac-12 player of the year, and the Wildcats earning a top seed and a place in Anaheim. But what could mess that up? A loss to Washington or Utah -- a pair of sub-50 teams in the RPI -- in Thursday’s quarterfinals wouldn’t help.

A quarterfinal loss to Oregon State (if the Beavers were to get past Oregon in the first round) could demote UCLA, too. And it’s not like the Bruins are hot right now (2-3 in their past five games).

But neither has much to worry about right now, it seems. They’re dancing.

As for the rest of the league? Well, that’s not necessarily the case.

Oregon, Stanford, Arizona State, Colorado and Cal are all fighting to lock up berths in the NCAA tournament. Oregon, which defeated Arizona over the weekend, is probably the safest member of the group. The Ducks likely feel secure after defeating the Wildcats, but that buzz will die fast if they lose to Oregon State on Wednesday.

Stanford is searching for its first NCAA tournament berth under Johnny Dawkins. An NIT bid for Arizona State, which enters the conference tourney after suffering back-to-back road losses to Oregon State and Oregon, would be disappointing. The Sun Devils and Cardinal could be matched up on Thursday in a quarterfinal game with high stakes.

Colorado continues to deal with the question, "Who are the Buffs without Spencer Dinwiddie?" Including its Jan. 12 loss to Washington when Dinwiddie suffered his season-ending knee injury, Tad Boyle’s program is 7-8 without the previously projected first-round pick in next summer’s NBA draft. Colorado has a chance to prove it would still be a respectable addition to the field and a solid seed with a run this week. Its overtime road loss to Cal over the weekend didn’t help.

Team with the most to gain

On Feb. 1, Justin Cobbs drove off a pick and connected on a 17-footer that beat the buzzer and then-No. 1 Arizona. Cal fans stormed the court and all seemed well for Mike Montgomery’s program.

That thrill, however, didn’t last. Cal has gone 4-5 since then but enters the conference tournament following a weekend overtime victory over Colorado.

Cal is still alive. The Bears are currently in Joe Lunardi’s "First Four Out" grouping. So a couple wins, beginning with a potential matchup against Colorado in Thursday’s quarterfinals, could be the difference for Cal.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Pac-12 tourney affects the league’s pool of at-large berths once they’re announced on Selection Sunday.

It could be bigger than that, though. Few leagues have faced as much speculation about coaches who might be on the hot seat. This might be a pivotal tourney for Dawkins, Arizona State's Herb Sendek, Washington State's Ken Bone and Oregon State's Craig Robinson.

Top 10 Clutch Performers

March, 6, 2014
Mar 6

It’s March. Championship Week begins Friday, and we’re less than two weeks away from the Big Dance.

We’ll probably see a multitude of thrillers, overtime games and clutch performances in the coming weeks. At least, we hope we will.

With the game on the line, these players should have the ball in their hands.

Here’s a list of America’s most clutch performers:

  1. Sean Kilpatrick: Cincinnati’s defense has been critical in the Bearcats’ rise to the top of the American Athletic Conference. But Kilpatrick has been the offensive catalyst for a team that’s struggled from the field this season. He’s arguably the top shooting guard in America, and his 34-point effort in Thursday’s 97-84 win over Memphis was his 17th performance this season with 20 points or more.
  2. Shabazz Napier: This list wouldn’t be valid without Napier. The senior guard has been clutch throughout his career at UConn. He’s always confident with the ball in his hands during big games. The legend continued when he hit the game-winning shot over Florida in December. He’s averaging 18.1 PPG, 5.3 APG and 1.9 SPG, along with shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc. He’s always ready to show up down the stretch.
  3. Russ Smith: He’s still “Russdiculous.” Sometimes Smith can lose control and force shots, but he rarely shrinks under the spotlight. The senior star just keeps rolling, even on his worst nights. Against Cincy on Feb. 22, he’d missed seven of nine field goals when he caught the rock in the final seconds. He hit the shot, beat the buzzer and won the game for Louisville. The shot alone was impressive, but Smith’s ability to move on to the next play and help his team is rare.
  4. Tyler Ennis: Yep, Syracuse is struggling. But prior to this 1-4 stretch, Ennis was probably the most dependable player in America in the final minutes of a game. Through Feb. 12, he was 8-for-9 from the field and 14-for-14 from the charity stripe with a 6-to-0 assist-to-turnover ratio in the final five minutes of the second half and overtime, according to ESPN Stats & Info. That’s a ridiculous stat line that illustrates Ennis’ reliability in crucial moments for the Orange this season.
  5. Doug McDermott: Perhaps a list like this has to feature a senior who is on the verge of scoring 3,000 points for his career and earning his third consecutive Associated Press first-team All-America honors (he’ll be the first player since Wayman Tisdale and Patrick Ewing in the 1980s to complete that feat). McDermott is also shooting 44 percent from the 3-point line this season and averaging 25.9 PPG.
  6. Traevon Jackson: Wisconsin’s veteran guard can’t match the accolades that other players on this list boast. But whenever the Badgers are in a tight spot toward the end of a game, Bo Ryan usually turns to Jackson, the son of former Ohio State and NBA standout Jim Jackson. Sure, Jackson has missed a few late, but he’s also nailed clutch shots during his time in Madison. He beat Minnesota and Penn State last season with shots in the closing seconds. And his most recent heartbreaker was a last-second dagger that finished Michigan State last month.
  7. T.J. Warren: His blood type? Ice. The 6-foot-8 sophomore plays on a Wolfpack squad that won’t crack the NCAA tournament field without an ACC tourney championship. But he has put together some of the season’s most magnificent performances. His 41 points (16-for-22) in a 74-67 victory at Pittsburgh Monday probably opened some eyes, but he has scored 30 or more eight times this season.
  8. Billy Baron: There is only one player with a higher offensive rating (125.2) than Doug McDermott, per Ken Pomeroy. That’s Baron. But Canisius fans knew that already. Last season, Baron hit a 3-pointer toward the end of regulation to force overtime in a win at Youngstown State in the CIT, capping a comeback from a 45-28 halftime deficit. This season, Baron put together a late barrage during a 40-point night that lifted Canisius to a triple-overtime win versus Siena.
  9. Jermaine Marshall: Arizona State wouldn’t be in the NCAA tourney conversation without the Penn State transfer. He hit big shots in overtime during ASU’s win over rival Arizona last month. In January, Arizona State beat California in overtime after Marshall’s 3-pointer forced the extra period. He hit clutch free throws in a win over Oregon a few days later, too. The senior doesn’t have much time left and is playing with a sense of urgency, an attitude that has helped the Sun Devils compete for an at-large bid.
  10. Nik Stauskas: The versatile sophomore has fueled Michigan’s run to the Big Ten title. He’s averaging 17.3 PPG in a season that could end with All-America and Big Ten Player of the Year honors. His teammates can trust him with the game on the line. In January, two clutch performances stood out. Stauskas helped the Wolverines secure a road win over Minnesota Jan. 2 after Glenn Robinson III missed the second half with an ankle injury. Two weeks later, he knocked down a 3-pointer in the final minutes to help the Wolverines hold on to their lead in a win at Wisconsin.

Video: Arizona 79, Stanford 66

March, 2, 2014
Mar 2

Aaron Gordon had 19 points and 15 rebounds to lead No. 3 Arizona past Stanford 79-66.