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Pac-12 Basketball: Preview and Predictions as Conference Play Begins

Josh MozellContributor IIINovember 16, 2016

Pac-12 Basketball: Preview and Predictions as Conference Play Begins

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    The Pac-12 looks to be a one-team race to the top, with Arizona finishing first. However, with UCLA's surge and the improvement of the conference as a whole, the path for the Wildcats is not as clear as one might think.

    The teams are better—having already knocked off five ranked teams—as are the individual players, with several McDonald's All-Americans and high-profile transfers.

    This preview covers the major awards and the all-conference team, as well as predictions for where each team will fall.

Coach of the Year: Sean Miller

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    The knock on Miller winning this award is that he has so much talent that he doesn’t have to do any coaching for his team to be great. Yet at the season's end, his team will likely walk into the NCAA tournament with more than 30 wins, a Pac-12 championship and a handful of victories over ranked teams. Any coach that puts together a season like this deserves conference, if not national honors.

    Add to this that Miller is bringing together three star freshmen, a transfer senior point guard with a checkered past and is mixing it with a veteran core. Despite this challenge, the team looks seamless and has marched to an undefeated record, playing with his trademark tenacity and running over all the roadblocks so far. This looks like it is Miller's season to shine.

Player/Freshman of the Year: Shabazz Muhammad

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    Inside the Pac-12 Conference, and maybe the nation as a whole, there is not another player who compares with Shabazz Muhammad. After missing the first three games because of eligibility issues, Muhammad has not disappointed.

    He had a relatively slow start, but he has been on a tear ever since. With scoring performances of 25, 21, 27, 27 in his last four, Muhammad has raised his scoring average to 19.6—which leads the nation’s freshmen.

    As the Pac-12 season progresses, he will only get better and should single-handedly lead the Bruins to a number of victories. By the end of the year, there wont be a Pac-12 freshman, or player for that matter, that can impact a game more than Muhammad.

All-Conference Team

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    The Pac-12 All-Conference first team will be:

    G: Mark Lyons, AZ, Sr.

    G: Allen Crabbe, Cal, Jr.

    F: Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA, Fr.

    F: Solomon Hill, AZ, Sr.

    C: Brock Motem, WSU, Sr.

12. Utah

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    Current Record: 8-4

    Best Wins: Boise State

    Worst Losses: Sacramento State, Cal State Northridge

    Projected Conference Record: 2-16

    Already this season the Pac-12 has suffered some bad losses (UC Irvine twice, Albany, Pepperdine, Towson), but none worse than Utah’s loss to Sacramento State. Utah then lost to Cal State Northridge a few games down their schedule.

    Despite Utah’s decent record of 8-4, all victories came against very weak competition. This is a rebuilding year for the Utes and wins will be hard to come by in a much-improved Pac-12.

11. Washington State

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    Current Record: 9-4

    Best Wins: a two-point loss to Gonzaga

    Worst Losses: Pepperdine, Kansas (by 37)

    Projected Conference Record: 3-15

    Washington State has nine wins, but not a single one came against a team with a winning record. The Cougars have losses against Pepperdine and by nearly 40 points to Kansas. The only reason this team will get any wins at all is Brock Motum, who is the second-best player in the conference.

    Even with Motum playing at his highest level, WSU is not getting more than three or four conference wins.

10. USC

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    Current Record: 5-8

    Best Wins: Texas

    Worst Losses: UC Irvine, Illinois (by 30)

    Projected Conference Record: 5-13

    USC is not going to be as bad as last year, but it will still be terrible. Coming into the year, with the addition of a couple talented transfers, it was thought that USC could actually pull some upsets here or there. And maybe, just maybe might be able to put together a relatively solid season.

    Those hopes are long gone. On some nights, it looks as though the Trojans don’t even show up. They lost to UC Irvine, to Illinois by 30 and have dropped eight of the last 10. On other nights, they beat Texas.

    With inconsistency of effort like this, Kevin O’Neil will be looking for a new job when the season is over.

9. Arizona State

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    Current Record: 11-2

    Best Wins: Texas Tech

    Worst Losses: DePaul

    Projected Conference Record: 8-10

    Many ASU fans have been very encouraged by the Sun Devils’ start to the season. Jahii Carson has been spectacular, Jordan Bachynski blocks everything that enters Tempe and the team has raced to an 11-2 record.

    While the start is great and therefore the encouragement is warranted, it is no reason to get carried away. This isn’t a tournament team and it is not going to beat archrival Arizona as it did last year.

    Of ASU’s 11 wins not one has come against a good win. It also lost miserably to one of the worst teams in the Big East. Give this team two years to compete for the Pac-12 crown. For now, Sun Devil fans should settle for being encouraged.

7. Oregon State

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    Current Record: 10-3

    Best Wins: Purdue

    Worst Losses: Towson

    Projected Conference Record: 9-9

    Is Oregon State the team that took a great Kansas to the wire early in the season or the one who lost in overtime to Towson? It is too early to tell. Throughout the conference season, I suspect there will be a little of each.

    On one night the Beavers may play with the beasts in the league and take down an Arizona or UCLA, but then might turn around and give Utah one of the only league wins the Utes will pick up. As far as the season’s result, this means an even 9-9 record and possibly an NIT birth.

7. Washington

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    Current Record: 8-5

    Best Wins: Seton Hall, Saint Louis

    Worst Losses: Albany, Colorado State

    Projected Conference Record: 9-9

    Again Lorenzo Romar will disappoint. This coach consistently does so little with so much and this year will be no different. Yet year after year there isn't even a whisper of his seat being hot.

    His 2012-13 team isn’t as talented as the one from last year with two first-round draft choices (and which didn’t make the NCAA tournament), but Romar still has lots of tools. C.J. Wilcox is a first-round pick and great shooter, Abdul Gaddy is a heady playmaker, and Aziz N’Diaye is a massive 7' center.

    Regardless, this team will underperform with Romar at the helm and will miss the tournament once again.

6. California

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    Current Record: 9-4

    Best Wins: Georgia Tech

    Worst Losses: Wisconsin (by 25), Harvard

    Projected Conference Record: 10-8

    California is a hot and cold team. For periods it will play very well and look like a team that could make a run at the NCAA tournament. At other times it looks like a team that would lose to an Ivy League school, which it did, at home.

    To make the tournament, the Bears would need to get 12 to 13 conference wins. This just isn’t going to happen with their inconsistency. I see them finishing at 19-12 and sixth in the league.

4. Stanford

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    Current Record: 9-4

    Best Wins: Northwestern

    Worst Losses: Belmont

    Projected Conference Record: 11-7

    Stanford’s most impressive performances have come in the losses it has suffered. It battled a top-10 Missouri team to the final moments, and only lost to the now ninth-ranked Minnesota Gophers by three.

    Beyond those games, there isn’t much to judge Stanford on. The Cardinal have a deep team with three stars at the top: Dwight Powell, Chasson Randle and Josh Huestis.

    As the season closes, Stanford will be competing with Oregon, Colorado and California for the third to sixth spots in the conference. I think the Cardinal will beat out Cal, fall short Colorado and have the same conference record as Oregon.

    If Stanford wants to make the NCAA tournament, it must put a marquee win on its schedule. That means a victory over UCLA or Arizona.

4. Oregon

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    Current Record: 11-2

    Best Wins: No. 18 UNLV

    Worst Losses: UTEP

    Projected Conference Record: 11-7

    Oregon will be the surprise this year in the Pac-12. It has bolted out to an 11-2 start and have a win over a top-20 team. Its freshman backcourt is one of the best in the conference and fits nicely with the experience of Tony Woods and E.J. Singler.

    With the addition of Arsalan Kazemi (transfer from Rice), the Ducks have good size and should be able to mix it up with Arizona and UCLA in Eugene. If the Ducks were not so reliant on their freshmen, they would finish third in the conference.

    However, in a tight conference race, the freshmen will inevitably hit a wall and the Ducks don’t have much to pick up the slack. After all is said and done, the Ducks will slide into the NCAA tourney as an eight or nine seed.

3. Colorado

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    Current Record: 10-2

    Best Wins: No. 16 Baylor

    Worst Losses: Wyoming, Kansas (by 36)

    Projected Conference Record: 12-6

    At the beginning of the season, Colorado was the dark horse to win the Pac-12 conference. After playing a third of the schedule, it is clear there is only one team which is the cream and the rest is part of the crop.

    Colorado, at least, is one of the best in the crop. Its loss to Wyoming is looking less befuddling each and every day as Wyoming is undefeated and a good team. The blowout loss to Kansas is still a head-scratcher, but every team will have a bad day every once in a while.

    At the end of the year, Colorado will be within arm's reach of UCLA for the second seed in the Pac-12 tournament, but will probably fall a little shy. The Buffs will be the third team placed in the NCAA tournament by the selection committee.

2. UCLA

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    Current Record: 10-3

    Best Wins: No. 7 Missouri

    Worst Losses: Cal Poly

    Projected Conference Record: 13-5

    The Bruins started the season with a loss to Georgetown and then a very bad loss to Cal Poly. Since that point, the Bruins have won seven of eight and have hit their stride. They finished the pre-conference schedule with a thrilling OT victory over then seventh-ranked Missouri.

    Shabazz Muhammad is starting to play up to the hype and the team has scoring from all over the court. If they can play at this level, which I think they will because Muhammad is so good, they will push Arizona, but end up second at 13-5.

    Their 23-8 record heading into Pac-12 tourney play should give them a top-20 ranking and a four or five seed in the tournament. 

1. Arizona

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    Current Record: 12-0

    Best Wins: No. 5 Florida, No. 17 San Diego State

    Worst Losses: None

    Projected Conference Record: 15-3

    Arizona will win the regular-season Pac-12 title and likely the Pac-12 Tournament. In its first 12 games, the Wildcats have shown they can compete with any team in the country and at moments have looked unbeatable. Yet during others they have performed like a team not worthy of a top-10 ranking.

    In the end the Wildcats are the best team in the Pac-12 Conference, but their path won’t be unimpeded. They will finish the conference schedule with three losses, which will put them at 27-3 for the season.

    With this record, even if they don’t win the conference tourney, they should garner a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

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