College Basketball Nation: Mike Montgomery
BERKELEY, Calif. -- Somewhere in that sea of yellow, he was stuck. Justin Cobbs couldn’t breathe. The curse of victory for a young man who wasn’t wild about being swallowed by a crowd after Cal’s 60-58 upset win over No. 1 Arizona on Saturday.
But that’s what happens when the undefeated No. 1 squad in the country falls for the first time on the opponent's home floor. That’s what happens when a three-game losing streak is ended that way. And that’s what happens when a senior point guard hits a game winner with 0.9 seconds to go, a development so stunning that Bears fans rushed the court early.
Fearing a technical foul that might ruin the moment, team and school officials eventually cleared the floor after Cobbs hit a jump shot from the left corner over 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski.
“I just stepped back and was able to shoot a shot I could make,” said Cobbs, who finished with 19 points and seven assists. “Step back and shot it with confidence and it went in.”
Haas Pavilion, which hosted Cal’s first win over a No. 1 team at the on-campus facility, exploded. Saturday night’s festivities had already started on the hardwood.
There were the fraternity brothers dishing out hugs whether they were wanted or not. There were the cheerleaders maintaining their perfect kicks and pom-pom pumps in the midst of the frenzy. There were the young men fixing their hair and posing for selfies. There were the young women nearby who thought they were fools.
There was the 20-something fan who speechless, yet screaming to a friend she’d put on speakerphone. “Like I don’t even know what to say!”
Cobbs survived the madness. But it had reached his phone by the time he’d returned to the locker room. There were 135 text messages awaiting him just 30 minutes after the win. “I got 89 [Twitter] mentions,” he said.
Cobbs was smiling.
Four years ago, he couldn’t find many reasons to smile.
The Los Angeles native left the West Coast to begin his collegiate career at Minnesota during the 2009-10 season. But he didn’t thrive in former Gophers coach Tubby Smith’s system. And he missed home.
It was bigger than that, though. He wasn’t even sure he still wanted to play.
At Cal, however, Cobbs got his groove back following a transfer in 2010. He’s been one of the top guards in the Pac-12 throughout his career. And he’s a leader who is respected by his teammates and coaches.
In the final seconds Saturday, Cobbs dribbled up the floor. Mike Montgomery had decided to let his team play for the win instead of calling a timeout and attempting to set up something.
Arizona had lost Brandon Ashley early in the game to a foot injury that could end his season. There was a noticeable difference in the Wildcats’ interior defense without him.
Cal exploited that.
“Anytime you lose a starter to an injury during a game, it takes a lot of resolve on your group and team to fight,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
By the time Cobbs had a shot at the game winner, Arizona had already been conditioned to monitor Kravish in space because he’d hit so many jump shots. That potential threat, one that Cal had built up throughout the evening, possibly made Tarczewski react too slowly when Richard Solomon came up to set the screen and give Cobbs some extra time to take the shot.
The Bears entered Saturday’s game on a three-game losing streak. Cobbs had a similar late-game opportunity during an overtime loss to Arizona State on Wednesday. But he missed.
Cobbs’ teammates, however, never doubted him. So as he dribbled up the floor against the No. 1 team in the country, they expected him to make it.
“I already knew,” said Solomon, who had 12 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two blocks and three steals. “The whole team has faith in Justin to knock that shot down. I’m proud of him. I’m happy for him. We gonna celebrate tonight.”
It was just one basket. It doesn’t change everything for Cal.
It does, however, validate so much for Cobbs.
The decision to return home. The toughness to stick with the game even when he was unsure about his future. The courage to take another possible game winner even though the last one didn’t fall.
“[That shot] does a lot of things, because after my freshman year I was questioning a lot of things,” Cobbs said. “Whether this sport was for me, whether I was good enough to play at this level. I’m just blessed. I’m blessed to have this opportunity to come to another program and have another opportunity where I can get on the floor and show what I can do. It’s tremendous for me. I’m just going to embrace it and keep getting better.”
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Can Arizona put it all together?
Is Arizona the most fascinating story in the 2013-14 Pac-12? Probably not! Indeed, the travails of the UCLA Bruins and new coach Steve Alford surely offer more pure intrigue. Alford will step into a breach occupied by the insane subconscious expectations of UCLA fans, who were already in somewhat of an open revolt against their entire athletics program before they were miffed by the hire. Alford has a gigantic, inexplicable contract buyout, so he's not going anywhere anytime soon, and how he handles his first season -- when he will have as talented a roster as he's ever coached -- will set the tone for the next five.
It's interesting stuff, and yet I can't help but feel that UCLA -- like brilliant Arizona State point guard Jahii Carson, like Dana Altman's steadily improving Oregon Ducks, like Mike Montgomery's quiet solidity at Cal -- are mere bit players in this production. In the 2013-14 Pac-12, Arizona's name is the one in lights.
In four seasons at Arizona, Sean Miller's teams have had one defining characteristic: talent. No one on the West Coast has recruited elite prospects as well as Miller. But this season feels different. This season doesn't include a productive but ultimately makeshift option (Mark Lyons) at point guard. It isn't staking its season on a freshman such as Josiah Turner. (Remember him?) It isn't mixing in maybe one too many young forwards with seniors (Solomon Hill) who have to play. This season Arizona doesn't feel like a collection of really good pieces; it feels like a really good team.
Rest assured: There will still be talent. Even without forward Grant Jerrett, who made a surprise move to the NBA this past spring, the Wildcats have one of the deepest and most talented frontcourts in the country. Sophomores Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley are star-level talents willing to bang on the low block, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is the fifth-ranked small forward in the class of 2013. And then there's Aaron Gordon. Go ahead and type his name into the YouTube search field now. The Blake Griffin comparisons are non-stop at this point; Gordon isn't talked about as much as Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle or Jabari Parker, but he has a chance to be better than all three.
But what really separates this year's Arizona team from slightly underachieving groups of the recent past is the backcourt. Last season, Miller turned to Lyons, his former recruit at Xavier, after Lyons' relationship with Chris Mack broke down; that meant putting all that frontcourt talent (along with Hill) on the floor with a point guard whose game would never be described as "pass-first." And don't get me wrong: Lyons had a good season, as did the Arizona offense. But one couldn't watch the Wildcats' fourth-place Pac-12 finish and not feel like much had been left on the table, like everything didn't quite fit.
Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell, who will take over at the point this fall, should snap into place immediately. And his backcourt mate, junior Nick Johnson, is probably the most polished player on the team -- an ideal outside-in college two.
That's why Arizona is (or should be) a top-five team in just about every poll despite losing Lyons, Hill, Jerrett and Kevin Parrom: Because the product of Miller's years of recruiting success are finally taking shape in more ways than mere acquisition. This could be the best team in the country. At the very worst, there will be lots and lots of lobs. Either prospect is worth the price of admission.
2. The new Big East starts up in less than two weeks -- do you know who the next commissioner will be? Well, neither do the athletic directors, who have been left totally out of the loop. The 10 school presidents have been directing the entire operation, and made a number of runs at professional sports candidates before looking once again at college possibilities. The one person a number of administrators want is the NCAA's Dan Gavitt, who was a longtime associate commissioner in the old Big East. But Gavitt reiterated that he is staying put. The presidents should have done everything in their power to get Gavitt. He would have been perfect, since he understands each of the schools better than most. He also knows the difficulties of scheduling in pro arenas. Managing that issue, leading and organizing the league will be the most pressing issues of the job, since a television negotiation is already done with Fox.
3. Cal was an omission when I was looking at some of the top challengers to Arizona next season in the Pac-12. The Bears anticipate they will have one of their best teams even though Allen Crabbe is gone. They return four starters -- everyone except Crabbe -- and bring in Jabari Bird, who headlines what the staff considers its best recruiting class under Mike Montgomery. Cal does get overlooked quite a bit, but has been in contention the past four season. The Bears have studs Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon back from a team that finished one game out of first place, in a tie with Oregon and Arizona, last season before losing to Syracuse in the NCAA round of 32.
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- It's one thing to play good defense. That's when opposing players have low field goal percentages. Syracuse does that, without a doubt. It ranked third in the nation in field goal percentage defense this season.
But what if you need that extra push over the cliff and decide to turn your defense up to 11? That's when, say, the Pac-12 Player of the Year can't even get a shot off, much less make one.
And that's what the Orange did Saturday in their 66-60 victory over California in the NCAA tournament round of 32 at HP Pavilion. Bears guard Allen Crabbe entered the tournament averaging 18.7 points. He'd scored 20 or more points in 15 games this season.
Against Syracuse, he took his sixth shot of the game with five minutes left. At that point, he was 1-for-6 from the field. He finished with eight points on 3-of-9 shooting.
"They keyed in on me," Crabbe said. "The shots that I thought I would probably get weren't there. And they took things away from me. You've just got to give credit to them. They're long and athletic, so I tried to shoot over them a couple of times. They were there, contested it. I was in the air passing the ball, deferring for my shots. You've got to give them credit, they play really well in that zone."
"I thought our defense was really good tonight, the whole game," Boeheim said. "I just thought we played tremendously on the defensive end."
Fourth-seeded Syracuse (28-9) will play the winner of Indiana's game Sunday against Temple in the Sweet 16 in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.
Cal averaged 67.5 points per game this season, but the Orange defense is not just about scoring. It's about frustrating. Making a team uncomfortable. Cal seemed uncomfortable most of the night. Crabbe's No. 2, guard Justin Cobbs, scored just five points on 2-for-9 shooting and had as many turnovers -- four -- as assists.
Cal shot 39.3 percent from the field. It was 4-of-21 from 3-point range (19 percent). The Orange grabbed 1o steals.
"We had a difficult time solving the zone," Montgomery said. "They did a great job of getting to Crabbe, for example, and locating him in the thing and they had us pretty well spread out. Credit to Jim Boeheim. That zone is effective. It's good. It's tough. I'm sure everybody in the Big East will tell you the same thing. It's something you've got to play with for 40 minutes. They're not changing. They have a lot of confidence in it and we didn't come out and attack it very intelligently. And obviously if you go 4-for-21 from 3 against the zone, you're probably going to have some problems."
Cal, the region's No. 12 seed, was forced to go away from Crabbe and Cobbs, who combined to score 1,059 of the Bears' 2,094 points entering the tournament; Richard Solomon led all scorers with 22 points while Tyrone Wallace added 12.
But that's not Cal.
"They moved the ball well, as well as anybody. They really did," Boeheim said. "We just were reacting really, really well. We really had great defensive movement. Our defense was as good as you could ask it to be for a long time tonight. I mean, they weren't getting shots, you know."
Crabbe had five turnovers, most coming when he tried to pass as the Orange converged on him. And even when Cal (21-12) got good looks, those looks didn't last long.
"So by trying to throw it to David [Kravish] and Richard and at the high post, they were having to catch, face, make a decision there," Montgomery said. "And we got some really nice shots off. We had some where we actually got the ball exactly where we wanted it, but we got it blocked. And their size came in and took those away from us. That's discouraging."
As for offense, Syracuse was a bit sloppy at times, but it was aggressive and got the job done. With 18 points, C.J. Fair led four players in double figures. James Southerland scored 14 points on 4-of-8 shooting and grabbed a team-high nine rebounds. He added two assists and four steals.
Syracuse scored 20 points off turnovers, compared to 13 from California. The Orange also had 18 second-chance points, compared to 12 from Cal. Both those numbers add up to meaningful totals when you consider the final score.
So how far can that defense carry Syracuse?
Said Fair, "We can go all the way -- our whole goal is to get to Atlanta."
If Saint Louis, the fourth seed in the Midwest, beats No. 12 Oregon, it will play in the program's first Sweet 16. The Ducks' pedigree, despite winning the first NCAA tourney in 1939, isn't much better, at least not lately. The Ducks had an Elite Eight run in 2007 but hadn't won a tournament game since. Their regular-season record from 2009-10 and 2010-11 was 32-33.
So this is mostly unexplored territory for these players and programs.
"Saint Louis basketball really wasn't on the map, even [in] Saint Louis," he said.
The compelling angle, of course, is that Saint Louis has posted its greatest season after tragedy, as Majerus took a medical leave from the program in August and then died of heart failure on Dec. 1. Jim Crews took over. After a meandering start, the Billikens got hot. Their 28 wins is the most in program history. They entered the tournament ranked 13th in both major polls, having been in the polls for four consecutive weeks, which hadn't happened since 1993-94.
Saint Louis beat Memphis in the second round last year before falling to Michigan State. And, unlike Oregon, this is a veteran team that's seen a lot of action together.
"Last year, we were kind of wide-eyed and just kind of there for the experience, and obviously we were taking on the No. 1 seed, Michigan State. I think there were some nerves there," Evans said. "But this year we're a confident, veteran team. We know how good we can be. And we have bigger goals than making it to the round of 32."
Of course, the Ducks played like a cohesive, veteran unit while upsetting Oklahoma State and All-American guard Marcus Smart. While the Ducks start a pair of freshmen and are transfer heavy, they're a hot, confident team, coming off an impressive run through the Pac-12 tournament.
The Ducks, notorious for their baffling 12th seed, still have something to prove. A Sweet 16 run would prove it.
"Yeah, that would be huge for us, to get more respect," senior center Tony Woods said. "A lot of people didn't predict us to win the game last night. That was big for us, getting respect. We never cared about the 12-seed, we're just happy to be here, happy to stay alive and keep playing."
In order to keep playing, one team will need to dictate the tempo. Oregon likes to run in transition. Saint Louis can run but prefers more half-court sets. Saint Louis isn't very good at rebounding but protects the ball. Oregon is prone to turnovers but is fantastic on the boards. Both teams play good defense. Neither team is terribly good behind the 3-point arc.
Saint Louis will like its chances if the Billikens keep the game low-scoring. Oregon would like to inject a bit of frenzy into the evening.
"They do not give up easy baskets. They know what they want from every possession," Oregon coach Dana Altman said. "It's about as veteran a team as we played. The most veteran team we've played all year ... They have a little better idea what they want out of a possession. So we've got to try to get a few more possessions going. We've got to try to open the floor a little bit. I think at some positions our athletes can make a difference, if we can get them out in the open court."
Both teams are on the cusp of a special season for their program. But they need to win Saturday to make it happen.
SAN JOSE NEWS & NOTES
- California point guard Justin Cobbs was asked about how the Bears can beat Syracuse's notorious zone defense: "Just try not to get stagnant. Usually in zone it's easy to get stagnant and just pass the ball around the perimeter, and not get in the interior of the defense. Just as a point guard, try to penetrate the zone. Obviously in their 2-2-1 or 2-3, whatever you want to call it, the middle is going to be open. They trap the corners and things like that. So try to just get in the interior, try to get the ball to the high post and find shooters like Allen [Crabbe], and try to break the zone from the inside out."
- California coach Mike Montgomery has long been a coach who preferred man-to-man defense, but the Bears used a zone almost exclusively in their win over UNLV. He said, "Ours is more of a 3-2 zone. We started off trying to play a 2-3 zone. And I played 2-3 primarily for years and years and years. And we had the rules down, knew exactly who had what coverage. But we weren't able to get our forwards and center to do what we wanted to do. And a lot of times we weren't able to get our guards to continue to run out and switch the forward down and so forth and so on. So we decided to try the 3-2 zone because Crabbe at the top gave us a 6-6 long-arm guy that was able to do a little bit more than some others."
- Suffice it to say, the subject of zone defense was a big one during the news conferences Friday, as was the friendship between Montgomery and Syracuse's Jim Boeheim. That led to this when Boeheim was asked about Montgomery's newfound love of zone defenses: "Well, he once asked my wife if I was wearing a skirt [when playing zone defenses]," Boeheim said. "So when we were watching last year I think it was, we texted immediately when he was playing zone to see if he was wearing a skirt, as well. But I guess he was. He's a man-to-man coach, he always has been. But I think you see really almost everybody play some zone now, teams that coaches that have never played zone play zone."
- Playing in San Jose means California is practically playing a home game. But Syracuse senior forward James Southerland downplayed that as an issue. He said, "This is California, so the team from the University of California are going to have about 90 percent of their fans here. I feel like it's not going to be much of a problem for us. It shouldn't be because we played in great games like Arkansas, and Louisville and pulled out a win with a No. 1 team. So we are just going to focus on what we need to do."
- Syracuse is leaving the Big East for the ACC next season. Boeheim was asked if he felt like he was representing the Big East or the ACC. He said, "That's a good question. Yeah, you know, right now we're still members of the Big East, and we're representing the Big East right now. But it's kind of, it's a real gray area, there, I think, as well. I think really when we get to this stage that we're representing Syracuse at this stage."
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Sun Tzu, surely laboring over his NCAA tournament bracket, once observed that "He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious."
Mike Montgomery has been coaching basketball in some form or fashion since 1974. He's seen a lot of things. And he knows sometimes you have to surrender to win.
He did that against UNLV in the second round of the East Regional at HP Pavilion.
Montgomery is mostly a man-to-man coach. But he's run more zone this season, particularly late in the season. Further, he saw what Running Rebels meaty super-frosh Anthony Bennett did to his Bears' man defense in December. Bennett trashed it, scoring 25 points on 9-of-17 shooting and grabbing 13 rebounds. All of that counted in a last-second, one-point loss in Berkeley.
So in the rematch, Montgomery ran a zone. It worked. The Bears held Bennett to 4-of-11 shooting, and UNLV as a whole to 32.2 percent from the field in a 64-61 victory that was that close only because Cal was awful from the free throw line down the stretch.
"I think the zone bothered them," Montgomery said.
It did, though things got tense at the end.
Cal held a seemingly safe 60-53 lead with 47 seconds left, but it then decided to make just four of its next 10 free throws, including missing the front end of two 1-and-1s. That was not good. It gave UNLV an opening that it almost slipped through.
Cal started both halves fast, jumping to a 7-0 lead to start the game and opening up with a 9-3 run in the second half. Neither team built a double-digit advantage, but Cal was up by nine with 6:57 remaining.
Justin Cobbs, Robin to Crabbe's Batman, played one of his worst games of the season in the first matchup with UNLV. He scored 13 points and dished six assists this go-around, but his hitting 3-of-3 from 3-point range was crucial for the Bears' offense. Another offensive key: Forward Robert Thurman. The senior averaged just 4.5 points per game this year, but scored 12 in 19 minutes against the fifth-seeded Rebels (25-10). All six field goals were dunks.
UNLV hit just 1-of-9 3-pointers in the second half after a fast start from long range. Montgomery pointed out that he would have abandoned the zone if the Rebels had stayed hot from behind the arc.
UNLV becomes just the third team to lose four consecutive games in the round of 64 as the better seed, joining Clemson (four games from 1998 to 2010) and BYU (four from 1995 to 2009). The Mountain West is now 5-29 in the NCAA tournament against the Power 6 conferences.
Meanwhile, the Pac-12 improves to 3-0 in this year's tourney, with Colorado and UCLA yet to play. Perhaps the much-maligned conference deserved less maligning?
"It shows you that our conference is tough, top to bottom," Cobbs said. "Maybe the bad press we were getting before wasn't true."
Said Montgomery, "It's the only thing you can do to prove you're a good conference."
That would be winning. While the Bears' effort wasn't always pretty, the end result is a tournament victory, which always is. That probably makes any residual pain from a last-second home loss to UNLV in December disappear.
Cal was manhandled by Stanford -- at home, no less -- on Tuesday. UCLA suffered one of the biggest upsets of the conference season by falling at last-place Washington State on Wednesday. Oregon had a chance to clinch at least a share of the title by beating Colorado on Thursday. Instead, the Ducks were blown out in Boulder.
Name another league where the teams at the bottom are outplaying the teams at the top at the end of the season. The Pac-12 tournament can't get here fast enough.
Here is the final edition of the Pac-12 power rankings. With most of the top teams losing their most recent games, these rankings are based on the entire conference season.
1a. Oregon. Despite the tail-kicking the Ducks received at Colorado on Thursday, it's impossible not to be impressed with the job Dana Altman has done with this squad. Oregon -- which starts two freshmen in its backcourt -- can clinch at least a share of the league title by winning at Utah on Saturday. A Ducks victory and a UCLA loss (at Washington the same day) will give Oregon the title outright.
1b. UCLA. The Bruins have come a long way since losing to Cal Poly early in the season and, for that, Ben Howland deserves credit. Howland's detractors, however, received some extra ammunition Wednesday when UCLA lost to last-place Washington State. Performing that poorly in a game with such high stakes -- UCLA would own a share of the league title already if it had won -- is inexcusable.
1c. Cal. The Golden Bears' regular season is complete. Mike Montgomery's team finished league play 12-6 and can only get a share of the title if both UCLA and Oregon lose Saturday. Much like its counterparts, Cal wilted in a high-stakes game Tuesday when it fell to Stanford 83-70 at home. The Cardinal became the first team in 10 games to reach the 70-point plateau against Cal.
1d. Colorado. With six wins in their past eight games, the Buffaloes are the Pac-12's hottest team. Tad Boyle's squad swept its season series with Oregon and is 4-2 against Top-25 teams. Thursday's 76-53 victory came without the services of Andre Roberson, the nation's leading rebounder, who missed the game with a viral illness. Colorado will close the regular season hosting Oregon State on Saturday.
5. Arizona. The preseason pick to win the league, the Wildcats have been the Pac 12's biggest disappointment. Sean Miller's squad is just 1-5 against the top four teams in the conference. Arizona's highly touted freshmen have been slow to develop, and the Wildcats lack a true point guard.
6. Washington. After a month-long lull in which they lost seven of eight games, the Huskies are getting hot at just the right time. Lorenzo Romar's squad has won four of its past five, with the most impressive victory a 65-57 decision over USC on Wednesday. Washington, which gets 17.1 points per game from C.J. Wilcox, has a chance to spoil UCLA's Pac-12 title hopes Saturday.
7. USC. The biggest news surrounding the Trojans this week has revolved around their head-coaching vacancy. UTEP's Tim Floyd and Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins both have spoken with school officials about the position. Meanwhile, interim coach Bob Cantu continues to do a solid job. USC will finish Pac-12 play 10-8 if it can win at Washington State on Saturday. That's something no one envisioned after head coach Kevin O'Neill was fired in January.
8. Stanford. The Cardinal completed the regular season with an 18-13 overall record and a 9-9 mark in Pac-12 play. Unless it wins the conference tournament, Stanford will miss the NCAA tournament for the fifth consecutive year. That has to be disheartening to Cardinal fans, who had high hopes after winning last season's NIT.
9. Arizona State. The Sun Devils' 20 wins are twice as many as they had all of last season, but they've struggled in recent weeks. A painful overtime loss at UCLA was followed by a one-point setback at USC. Arizona State will have had an entire week off when it takes the court for Saturday's regular-season finale at Arizona.
10. Utah. The Utes ended a four-game losing streak by topping Oregon State on Thursday in Salt Lake City. Utah's four Pac-12 wins are one more than last season's total. The Utes will try to spoil Oregon's conference title hopes Saturday. Oregon beat Utah 73-64 on Feb. 9 in Eugene.
11. Washington State. The Cougars, who have been the victim of bad breaks and bad luck all season, finally tasted success Wednesday by defeating UCLA 73-61 in Pullman. Brock Motum had 20 points and 11 rebounds and Royce Woolridge added 19 points. The victory came despite the absence of second- and third-leading scorers DaVonte Lacy and Mike Ladd, both of whom have knee injuries. Coach Ken Bone said Lacy is out for the season.
12. Oregon State. It has been a nightmare of a season for the Beavers, who have now lost five consecutive games. Coach Craig Robinson appears to be safe for another year, but this team has too much talent to only have three victories in a league that, despite its parity, lacks elite teams.
1. Cal. Mike Montgomery’s squad has won six in a row. Included in that stretch are a two-point victory at Oregon and a one-point win at Oregon State. Allen Crabbe (19) and Justin Cobbs (14.9) have combined to average 33.9 points per game for a Golden Bears team that hosts Colorado on Saturday. Cal needs a victory to remain in contention for the Pac-12 crown.
2. Oregon. Thursday’s 85-75 victory over Oregon State was bittersweet for the Ducks. On the same night it welcomed back injured guard Dominic Artis, Oregon lost second-leading scorer Damyean Dotson when he bruised his hip in a nasty fall under the basket. He is listed as day to day. Oregon’s final two league games (against Colorado and Utah) are on the road.
3. UCLA. Would Bruins fans still hate Ben Howland if UCLA won the Pac-12 title? It could happen. UCLA could grab a share of the league lead by defeating Arizona on Saturday night in Westwood. The Bruins beat the Wildcats 84-73 in January. If UCLA beats Arizona again -- and then tops Washington State and Washington on the road -- it will own at least a share of the conference championship.
4. Arizona. Arizona has a gaudy overall record of 23-5, but it seems to have regressed in recent weeks. The Wildcats were whipped 89-78 at USC on Wednesday and nearly lost to Utah two weeks ago. Arizona’s freshmen haven’t developed as quickly as Sean Miller had hoped. And the team lacks a true point guard.
5. Colorado. The Buffaloes have won eight of their past 10 games, with the only defeats coming in a 58-55 upset at Utah and a 63-62 overtime setback against Arizona State. Tad Boyle’s squad faces a huge road test Saturday against Cal, which has won six straight. At this point, Colorado is in good shape to make the NCAA tournament.
6. USC. The Trojans snapped a two-game losing streak by upsetting No. 11 Arizona on Wednesday night and now have won five of their past seven overall. USC (8-7) is in position to finish Pac-12 play with a winning record, which is something no one would have imagined when coach Kevin O’Neill was fired in January.
7. Washington. The Huskies, who are 7-8 in Pac-12 play, have been a huge disappointment. But they still have a chance to finish with a winning record. Washington’s final three games (against Washington State, USC and UCLA) are all at home. C.J. Wilcox averages 17.1 points per game, and Aziz N'Diaye averages 9.5 rebounds.
8. Stanford. A few weeks ago, it appeared the Cardinal were ready to turn the corner, but Johnny Dawkins’ squad has reverted to its old ways and now has lost four of its past five games. The latest setback came in a 65-63 home defeat against Colorado on Wednesday, when Dwight Powell's potential game-tying dunk came one-tenth of a second too late as the buzzer sounded.
9. Arizona State. The Sun Devils’ NCAA tournament hopes were all but shot following back-to-back losses to Washington and UCLA (the latter in overtime). Arizona State struggled to find consistency throughout February, never winning more than two games in a row. Its final two games (against USC and Arizona) are both on the road.
10. Utah. The Utes threw a scare into Arizona and Colorado before being dominated by Cal in Thursday’s 64-46 defeat. Utah plays at Stanford on Sunday before returning home for its final two regular-season games, against Oregon State and Oregon. This team has improved significantly, even though it has yet to surpass last season's Pac-12 win total of three games.
11. Oregon State. The Beavers led Oregon 41-34 at halftime Thursday but couldn’t hold on in an 85-75 loss. Roberto Nelson had 31 points for an Oregon State squad whose only conference wins are against Washington State, Utah and Washington. Nelson is averaging a team-high 17.3 points per game.
12. Washington State. It’s amazing how many bad breaks this team has caught. Seven of the Cougars’ 17 losses are by four points or fewer, and five are by two points or fewer. Two of them came in overtime, and another occurred against Texas A&M on a 25-foot, buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
1. Arizona. The No. 7 Wildcats bounced back nicely from their loss at Oregon on Jan. 10 by defeating Oregon State two days later in Corvallis. Sean Miller's squad hasn't played since, which is probably a good thing as it prepares for another tough road test against upstart Arizona State on Saturday. Point guard Mark Lyons is averaging 18.3 points in his past four games.
2. UCLA. The Bruins picked up their 10th consecutive victory Thursday in a 10-point win over Oregon State. UCLA, which hasn't lost since Dec. 1, is getting 8.9 rebounds per game from Kyle Anderson and 18.2 points per game from Shabazz Muhammad, both of whom are freshmen. Oregon will be UCLA's toughest Pac-12 opponent to date.
3. Oregon. E.J. Singler did a little bit of everything to help keep the Ducks undefeated Thursday night. He had 14 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds in a 76-74 victory at USC. Freshman guard Damyean Dotson also had 14 points for Oregon, which could seize control of the Pac-12 race by beating UCLA on Saturday.
4. Washington. Now that everyone is healthy, Lorenzo Romar's squad looks like a completely different team from the one we saw early in the season. The Huskies beat Colorado by 10 points at home Wednesday and should get another W this weekend against last-place Utah. C.J. Wilcox is averaging 26 points in his past two games and 19.4 on the season.
5. Arizona State. The Sun Devils are a good basketball team -- but no one knows how good. Their nonconference schedule was weak and they couldn't beat Oregon in their only marquee Pac-12 game to date. That's why Saturday's tilt with Arizona in Tempe is so pivotal. A victory could enhance Arizona State's national image and do wonders for its resume come Selection Sunday.
6. Colorado. I'm shocked that the Buffaloes are 1-4 in league play. There is too much talent on Colorado's roster for that kind of a mark. Granted, the schedule hasn't been all that kind. The Buffs opened league play on the road against Arizona and Arizona State and also have lost at Washington, which is never an easy place to play. There's no reason they shouldn't win their next four games (against Washington State, Stanford, Cal and Utah).
7. Cal. The Golden Bears haven't played since last weekend's 67-54 win against Washington State. So they should be well-rested for Saturday's road game against rival Stanford. Allen Crabbe is averaging 20.1 points for Mike Montgomery's squad, which plays its next three games away from home.
8. Stanford. The only conference win for the Cardinal thus far came against Washington State on Jan. 9. They performed admirably in a 65-60 loss to league-unbeaten Washington three days later and are now preparing for Saturday's showdown against Cal. Dwight Powell averages 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds.
9. USC. Even though I think it's ridiculous to fire a coach in the middle of the season, the Trojans certainly looked re-energized Thursday with a different coach calling the shots from the bench. Longtime USC assistant Bob Cantu was named interim coach after Kevin O'Neill's dismissal Monday. His team showed a ton of fight before bowing to Oregon 76-74.
10. Oregon State. Things are getting ugly for Beavers coach Craig Robinson, whose team fell to 0-4 in the Pac-12 following Thursday's loss at UCLA. If Oregon State doesn't bounce back with a win at USC on Saturday, Robinson's job security will no doubt come into question. Improvements have been made in the program, but unfortunately it's not showing up on the scoreboard.
11. Washington State. The Cougars picked up their first conference win Wednesday against Utah, but they could really turn some heads by beating Colorado on Saturday. A victory certainly isn't out of the question. The Buffaloes are struggling, and Washington State boasts one of the better home courts in the Pac-12.
12. Utah. The Utes' first three Pac-12 losses came by a combined eight points -- but their last two defeats both have come by double digits. Is Utah regressing? Things won't get any easier Saturday when it plays at red-hot Washington, which has yet to lose a conference game.
1. Arizona. The Wildcats open play against East Tennessee State in the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu on Saturday and could face a tough test against an underrated Miami squad in the second round. If the bracket holds form, Arizona would play San Diego State in the title game on Christmas Day.
2. Colorado. UCLA, Oregon and Cal have all been in the No. 2 slot at some point this season -- and so has Colorado, which is making its return despite a 36-point loss to Kansas on Dec. 8. Spencer Dinwiddie is a finalist for the Cousy Award. Andre Roberson averages 12.3 rebounds, which ranks third nationally.
3. Oregon. The Ducks lost at UTEP on Wednesday in three overtimes, but Dana Altman still has to be encouraged with the direction of this team -- and this program. Arsalan Kazemi has three double-doubles in his past five games.
4. UCLA. There is too much talent in Westwood to write off the Bruins this early. UCLA has won four of its past five games, with the only setback coming against San Diego State. A victory over Fresno State on Saturday seems likely. Shabazz Muhammad (17.8 points) and Jordan Adams (17.5) are both putting up impressive offensive numbers.
5. Oregon State. What has happened to Ahmad Starks? The point guard who had 25 points in a single-digit loss to Kansas on Nov. 30 is averaging just 7.5 points in his past four contests. Oregon State should beat its next three opponents (San Diego, Towson and Texas-Pan American) before opening Pac-12 play at home against Oregon on Jan. 6.
6. Cal. Last weekend's loss to Creighton marked the third loss in a three-game skid (since snapped with a win over UC Santa Barbara) for Mike Montgomery's Golden Bears, whose best victory is against Georgia Tech at the DIRECTV Classic.
7. Stanford. The Cardinal have played four upper-level teams (Missouri, Minnesota, Belmont and North Carolina State) and lost each time. In other words, unless you count Northern Iowa, Johnny Dawkins' squad has yet to win a game that will impress the NCAA tournament committee.
8. Washington. The Huskies have won five of their past six games thanks, in large part, to C.J. Wilcox. Washington's leading scorer averages 19.2 points. Even more impressive are his figures from the Huskies' last two games: 21 points, 4.5 assists, 2.5 blocks and 2 steals.
9. Arizona State. I still can't shake the image of the Sun Devils getting destroyed at home by DePaul. But hey, everyone has a bad night, right? There is still plenty to like about this team -- mainly point guard Jahii Carson (17.9 points, 5.3 assists), forward Jordan Bachynski (4.8 blocks) and small forward Carrick Felix (15.1 points, 7.5 rebounds).
10. Utah. The Utes avenged an early-season loss to SMU by defeating the Mustangs 62-53 Tuesday in Salt Lake City. Jarred DuBois averages team-highs in points (13.8) and assists (3.2). Jordan Loveridge averages 11.7 points and 7.2 rebounds.
11. Washington State. The Cougars have won five of their past six games. Brock Motum (20.4 points) and DaVonte Lacy (10.1) form a nice 1-2 punch. Going .500 in Pac-12 play might be enough to save Ken Bone's job.
12. USC. The Trojans have way too much talent to be playing as poorly as they did in Thursday's home loss to UC Irvine. Wake Forest transfer J.T. Terrell, who was supposed to be USC's savior, has been benched for his poor defensive effort.
1. Arizona. Even without an attention-grabbing victory, putting the Wildcats in the top slot was an easy decision -- mainly because UCLA is floundering. Mark Lyons and Solomon Hill each average 14 points, and freshmen forwards Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley are grabbing a collective 13.8 rebounds.
2. Cal. The Golden Bears are 6-0, but we'll find out a lot more about Mike Montgomery's squad in the coming weeks. Cal plays at Wisconsin on Sunday before hosting UNLV (Dec. 9) and Creighton (Dec. 15). Allen Crabbe (22 ppg) and Justin Cobbs (20) have been huge on the offensive end.
3. Colorado. The undefeated Buffaloes may have been a notch higher if they didn't need double overtime to defeat Texas Southern on Tuesday. Forwards Andre Roberson and Josh Scott generate the most headlines, but guards Askia Booker (16.8 ppg) and Spencer Dinwiddie (14.8) lead the team in scoring.
4. Oregon. The Ducks' win over then-No. 18 UNLV was one of the top two victories for the Pac-12 this season, with Colorado’s upset of Baylor being the other. Rice transfer Arsalan Kazemi got on track in Thursday’s win over Texas-San Antonio. His line: 20 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks, 5 steals.
5. Stanford. Last season’s NIT champion went 1-2 at the Battle 4 Atlantis, but there were still plenty of reasons to be encouraged. Setbacks against Missouri and Minnesota -- both of whom are ranked -- came by single digits. Guard Chasson Randle averages a team-high 15.4 points but shoots just 35.6 percent from the field.
6. UCLA. Two Bruins players (Tyler Lamb and Josh Smith) left the team during the past week. The departures may actually help the chemistry on a squad that lost to Cal Poly on Sunday before bouncing back with a convincing win over Cal State Northridge on Wednesday. Freshmen Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson combined for 29 points.
7. Arizona State. Sun Devils coach Herb Sendek is known for his slow-paced, low-scoring offenses. But this season Arizona State is pushing the ball thanks to the addition of freshman point guard Jahii Carson, who leads the team in scoring (19 ppg) and assists (5.5). As a team, the Sun Devils are averaging 77.2 points and own a nice win over Arkansas.
8. Oregon State. Could this be the year the Beavers make the NCAA tournament? Craig Robinson’s squad boasts quality wins over Purdue and New Mexico State, and it came within three points of Alabama. Ahmad Starks is averaging 14.6 points -- but only 7.3 in his past three games. Oregon State has a huge opportunity to prove itself Friday, when it plays Kansas in Kansas City.
9. USC. The Trojans’ roster is filled with transfers, so it's understandable that the cohesion just isn't there yet. Still, USC's two most recent losses (to Marquette and San Diego State) came by an average of seven points, so it's not as if Kevin O'Neill's squad isn't competitive. This could look like a completely different team in a month.
10. Washington. Last season’s regular-season champion was decimated when two players (Tony Wroten and Terrence Ross) left school early for the NBA draft and showed it in a home loss to Albany. Forward Aziz N'Diaye is averaging a double-double with 11.3 points and 10.5 rebounds. The fact Washington, coming off a quality win over Saint Louis, is No. 10 in these rankings speaks to the competitiveness of the Pac-12.
11. Washington State. The Cougars' season was basically over the day Ken Bone kicked point guard Reggie Moore off the team. Washington State didn't have a replacement. Kansas transfer Royce Woolridge is trying his hardest, but he's averaging just 6.9 points while shooting 35 percent from the field. He should be a role player, not a starter. Bone, though, doesn't have any choice.
12. Utah. The Utes are better than last season, but they're still considered the worst team in the league along with Washington State. Utah lost to Larry Brown's SMU squad 62-55 in Dallas on Wednesday. Dallin Bachynski, a 7-footer from Calgary, averages 11.5 points (second on the team) and 9.0 rebounds (first).
Anyway, let's talk about this basketball tournament, huh?
The basics: Nov. 22-25, Anaheim Convention Center, Anaheim, Calif.
The set matchups (Nov. 22): Pacific vs. Xavier, 2 p.m. ET; Drexel vs. Saint Mary's, 4:30 ET; Rice vs. Georgia Tech, 9 ET; Drake vs. Cal, 11:30 ET.
Xavier: Major caveat alert: I could make a reasonable argument for Saint Mary's, Cal or even a banged-up Drexel, because I'm not really sure there is one clear favorite in this group of teams. But if I have to pick, I suppose I'll take the squad that shut down Butler just one week before Butler beat Marquette and drilled North Carolina in Maui. The transitive property is a fickle siren, but this early in the season it has to mean something.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary's: The Australian Olympian and four-year senior is the undispusted leader of this Gaels team in ways both measurable and otherwise, and his offensive output will be (as ever) a huge key to his team's chances of getting out of Anaheim with three consecutive wins.
Dee Davis, Xavier: It's early yet, but sophomore guard Davis appears to be just the latest in the Musketeers' long line of starter-minutes-ready young players to emerge after former stars depart. Through three games (including the aforementioned Butler romp) Davis is averaging 15.3 points and 6.7 assists, with a 132.2 offensive rating.
Frantz Massenat, Drexel: The Dragons suffered a big-time loss this week when guard Chris Fouch lost the rest of his season to ankle surgery, but the good news is that Massenat -- a versatile point guard who drives, dishes and shoots with near-equal skill -- remains.
Kammeon Holsey, Georgia Tech: When Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory dismissed Glen Rice Jr. in mid-March, he not only made a statement about the importance of attitude and chemistry in his program. He also left Holsey as his only notable returning scorer. Thus far, Holsey has delivered, though this tournament will be the Yellow Jackets' first real test, and we'll see if they'll be more than an ACC punching bag this season.
FIVE BIG QUESTIONS
Is Xavier for real? The Musketeers were written off at the start of this season, and understandably so -- Tu Holloway and Kenny Frease graduated, Dez Wells was (possibly wrongly) kicked out of school, Mark Lyons transferred to Arizona, and what remained were guys most hoops fans had never heard of. So the Musketeers were picked to finish ninth -- ninth! -- despite the fact that this program has missed exactly one Sweet 16 (2011) since 2008. When Xavier tossed Butler around in the Musketeers' home opener, the write-offs looked premature. But now, outside of their own building, the young Musketeers have a real chance to prove they're not going anywhere.
Is Cal a Pac-12 contender? The Pac-12 was bad last season. We've established this ad nauseam (especially for Pac-12 fans, I'm sure) throughout the past 12 months. But for as bad as the league was, on a per-posssesion basis Cal was perfectly respectable (and pretty clearly the best team in its league), even if that respectability didn't always translate into wins. Despite the turnover, would you bet against Mike Montgomery making a run at the top of a still-volatile league this season? I wouldn't.
Does Saint Mary's miss Rob Jones? Jones was a drastically underrated player last season. Not only was he a versatile scorer, but his rebounding anchored the Gaels on both ends of the floor, particularly on defense, where he posted the nation's 16th-best defensive rebounding rate. Forward Brad Waldow is the chief successor to Jones, and will have to have a nice season for Saint Mary's to wrest another West Coast Conference title away from a very good Gonzaga team.
Is Drexel still Drexel? Bruiser Flint's team was brutally close to an NCAA tournament appearance last season, and had a fair quarrel when all was said and done. With all but one starter returning, and a Virginia Commonwealth-less Colonial Athletic Association, this season was set up as a redemption campaign. It has not gone as planned. The Dragons lost their first two games (to Kent State, which is a bad loss, and Illinois State, which is a good one) and then lost Fouch to a season-ending injury soon thereafter. A title run in Anaheim -- or at least a couple of resume wins, beginning with Saint Mary's -- would be a nice way to get this season back on track.
Who's the upset candidate? There are some solid teams in this field, but no truly great ones. Which means we could see a few wacky results. That Rice-Georgia Tech game is anyone's guess, and who knows what happens if either of those teams get hot? What if Drake springs an upset on Cal? In a week in which Texas lost to a Division II team and another dude scored 138 points, I'm not discounting any possibilities.
First round: Xavier over Pacific; Saint Mary's over Drexel, Georgia Tech over Rice; Cal over Drake.
Semifinals: Saint Mary's over Xavier; Cal over Georgia Tech.
Championship: Saint Mary's over Cal.