2016-17 Pac-12 NCAA Basketball Primer, Power Rankings Heading into League Play

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistDecember 28, 2016

2016-17 Pac-12 NCAA Basketball Primer, Power Rankings Heading into League Play

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    Stephen Lam/Getty Images

    Now the real work begins.

    The college basketball season began in mid-November, but so far teams have been able to play who they choose and thus it's hard to gauge who is better than whom. That changes now that the calendar flips to conference play. In the Pac-12 that means the next 10 weeks are devoted to the league's 12 schools squaring off against each other as they jockey for position in the standings.

    Oregon is the defending regular-season and Pac-12 tournament champion and was picked to win the league again this season. That prediction may end up coming true, but now it's without a fight as the conference is quite top-heavy with challengers who in addition to winning the title could make a deep run in March in the NCAA tournament.

    Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, here's a quick recap of how the Pac-12's teams have fared so far and what is on tap for the next few months of league competition.

Power Rankings

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    Leon Bennett/Getty Images
    1. UCLA (12-0). Three more wins and the Bruins will match their total from all of last season. The addition of freshmen Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf have transformed them into a high-scoring powerhouse, one that knocked off then-No. 1 Kentucky on the road in early December.

    2. Arizona (11-2). Sophomore guard Allonzo Trier has yet to play this season for undisclosed reasons, one of many player absences that have left the Wildcats with only seven active scholarship players and losses to ranked Butler and Gonzaga teams.

    3. USC (12-0). Off to its best start since 1970-71, the Trojans have helped make Los Angeles the most dominant city in college basketball so far.

    4. Oregon (11-2). Early losses at Baylor and to Georgetown were before star Dillon Brooks was back at full strength. Expect the Ducks (and their 33-game home win streak, third-best in Division I) to remain a tough out.

    5. Colorado (10-3). Former Division II standout Derrick White has paced the Buffaloes through a solid non-league slate with wins over Texas and Xavier.

    6. Utah (9-3). The Utes are a team in flux with midyear transfers Sedrick Barefield and David Collette just becoming eligible in mid-December and right before Kyle Kuzma hurt his ankle over Christmas in Hawaii.

    7. California (9-3). The Golden Bears lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense, at 59.3 points per game, despite half the players in their rotation missing at least one game this season.

    8. Stanford (8-4). First-year coach Jerod Haase is getting the most out of Reid Travis but needs better guard play to compete.

    9. Washington (7-5). Freshman Markelle Fultz may be the top pick in the NBA draft in June, but his team has work to do in order to end a six-year NCAA tournament drought.

    10. Arizona State (7-6). Coach Bobby Hurley's squad can score but hasn't been able to defend, allowing 81.7 points per game with four opponents scoring at least 96.

    11. Washington State (7-5). Senior Josh Hawkinson is well on his way toward averaging a double-double for a third straight season, but the Cougars are 39-66 in his career.

    12. Oregon State (4-9). The Beavers dropped nine straight to Division I teams at one point, losing to the likes of Lamar and Savannah State along the way.

Biggest Lessons Learned From Nonconference Play

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    UCLA is the team to beat

    Coming off one of the worst seasons in school history, particularly in Pac-12 play where it went 6-12, UCLA has been a completely different team so far in 2016-17. The Bruins' perfect record has been legitimized by the win at Kentucky and is the product of a run-and-gun offense where six players are averaging double figures.

    Point guard Lonzo Ball has made everyone else around him better his passing and floor vision including fellow freshman TJ Leaf. The 6'10” forward is a matchup nightmare with his ability to drive and hit jumpers from all over not to mention strong rebounding and defensive skills.

    The Bruins' nation-leading 55 percent shooting (including 42.8 percent on three-pointers) isn't likely to remain that high, though, which will mean needing to get crisper on defense and in the halfcourt to maintain their momentum.

    USC is for real

    After numerous players either transferred or turned pro from last year's NCAA tournament team, there was a strong chance USC would take a step back this season. Instead, those departures have enabled who remained to thrive in coach Andy Enfield's wide-open attack.

    Even with sophomore forward Bennie Boatwright missing the last eight games because of a knee sprain, the Trojans have held it together thanks to the play of junior guards Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart and rising sophomore big man Chimezie Metu. Louisville transfer Shaqquan Aaron and several other guards have also contributed well.

    USC has played the eighth-toughest schedule in the Pac-12, per Ken Pomeroy's ratings, but that includes wins over SMU and at Texas A&M.

    Depth doesn't exist for most Pac-12 teams

    Division I programs are able to give out 13 scholarships each year, but for many Pac-12 teams even that many isn't enough because of various injuries and other circumstances leading to incredibly thin rosters heading into conference play. Arizona, Arizona State, California and Oregon State are among the schools that have had starters or key contributors missing multiple games so far this season.

    A total of 30 Pac-12 players are averaging at least 30 minutes per game, six more than in 2015-16.

Top Storylines to Watch

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    Allonzo Trier
    Allonzo TrierChris Coduto/Getty Images

    Can Markelle Fultz do it all himself?

    It's not uncommon for a college basketball team to be carried by one player though ideally having a balanced approach is the better way to achieve success. In Washington's case, even having arguably the best freshman in the country—and a potential No. 1 draft pick, according to DraftExpress—may not be enough to even be competitive in the Pac-12.

    Washington's 7-5 record has included home losses to Nevada and Yale as well as lopsided results to Gonzaga and TCU (twice). That's despite Fultz filling up the stat sheet as the Huskies' leading scorer (22 points per game) along with 6.2 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. He's also one of only three Washington rotation players who have a defensive rating of better than 105.4, which is what its team rating is to rank 261st out of 351 Division I teams.

    The Huskies are giving up 80.2 points per game and 38.8 percent shooting on three-pointers, both of which are in the bottom 50 nationally. Five opponents have shot at least 44.4 percent from deep.

    Will Allonzo Trier return?

    Trier is Arizona's top returning scorer at 14.8 points per game and he was expected to be the focal point of this year's squad. However, the sophomore guard hasn't suited up once in 2016-17 and the school has yet to explain why. His absence has been exacerbated by injuries to point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright and wing Ray Smith, forcing the Wildcats to lean heavily on their newcomers.

    The 6'5” Trier would give Arizona an experienced ballhandler and someone who could draw attention away from 7'0” freshman Lauri Markkanen, who has played all five positions at one point or another this season.

    Arizona is currently down to seven available scholarship players, four of whom are playing more than 30 minutes per game. Fatigue and foul trouble are major concerns for the Wildcats.

    How many teams make the tourney?

    The Pac-12 was one of four leagues to land seven teams in last year's NCAA tournament but only one (Oregon) made it out of the first weekend. The Ducks ended up reaching the Elite Eight.

    It hasn't been a banner performance by the conference so far in 2016-17, outside of what UCLA and USC have done. CBSSports.com's Jerry Palm has it ranked sixth overall, just ahead of the Atlantic 10, and projects five teams to make the NCAA tourney.

    That's one more than ESPN's Joe Lunardi has the league getting into the field, while BracketMatrix.com's aggregate of projections also lists four Pac-12 schools as part of the mix in March.

Rivalry Games and Can't-Miss Matchups

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    Chris Coduto/Getty Images

    UCLA at Oregon (Dec. 28)

    The Pac-12 title could be partly decided on the first day of action, as unbeaten UCLA opens on the road against the Oregon schools with a trip to Eugene right out of the gate. The Ducks started 2-2 but have won nine straight since; their home win streak is up to 33 games.

    Oregon's last home loss came Jan. 8, 2015, against Arizona.

    UCLA won its only true road game this season, at Kentucky, but hasn't been victorious at Oregon since March 2014. This will be the first time since 2013 that both teams are ranked when they face off.

    Arizona at UCLA (Jan. 21)

    UCLA is the Pac-12's all-time leader with 31 regular-season titles, more than any other two teams combined, yet Arizona's five conference-tourney championships are the league's most and one better than the Bruins. One or the other tends to be in the hunt for first place.

    Arizona has been ranked each of the last nine meetings with UCLA, but March 2013 in the Pac-12 tournament was the last time the Bruins were in the Top 25 when playing the Wildcats.

    UCLA/USC (Jan. 25 at USC, Feb. 18 at UCLA)

    UCLA has dominated this crosstown rivalry with a 116-48 record against USC since 1949, but the balance has shifted of late. Last season the Trojans swept three meetings with the Bruins, including in the Pac-12 tournament, which was the first time they'd ever won three times against UCLA in the same season.

    If they're both in the Top 25 when UCLA heads to the Galen Center in about four weeks, it will be their first matchup as ranked foes since February 2007.

Freshmen to Watch

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    Lauri Markkanen
    Lauri MarkkanenChristian Petersen/Getty Images

    Lonzo Ball

    Praised by some as the savior of UCLA basketball, what Ball has really been is someone capable of getting the best out of his teammates. Though he's capable of taking over a game on his own, the 6'6" point guard's 13.7 points per game are fifth-best on the Bruins.

    Ball's 108 assists are the most in Division I, but he's only accounting for 35 percent of UCLA's dimes. His sharing has rubbed off on the rest of the team, and he's also contributing 5.8 rebounds per game while shooting 53.4 percent overall and 43.3 percent from three-point range.

    Markelle Fultz

    Fultz is tied for 15th in the country in scoring and one of just two freshmen averaging better than 20 points per game (the other is Kentucky's Malik Monk). He's first or second on Washington in almost every statistical category, but even with lacking help around him, no team has managed to slow him down.

    Sadly, the Huskies haven't done well as a team and don't project to do so, meaning the 6'4" Fultz could end up going as high as No. 1 in next year's NBA draft without getting a shot at playing in the NCAA tournament.

    TJ Leaf

    If not for Ball we'd be praising Leaf as the answer for UCLA's year-over-year improvement. Instead he's just part of the equation—but a big one—since he's capable of doing so much more than the average 6'10" forward.

    Leaf is the Bruins' leading scorer at 17.5 points per game and second in rebounding at 9.2 per contest. Though he struggles from the foul line (59.4 percent), he's quite accurate everywhere else, shooting 65.5 percent overall while making 15 of 30 three-pointers.

    Lauri Markkanen

    A 7-footer from Finland who first drew attention during international competition in the summer, Markkanen has been a huge part of Arizona's success so far despite a thin rotation. He's leading the Wildcats in scoring (16.1) and rebounding (7.3) on just 10.5 shots per game thanks to a 43.5 percent three-point shooting clip and 83.3 percent from the foul line.

    Markkanen is on pace to be Arizona's first freshman to average better than 15 points per game since Derrick Williams 2009-10 and just the sixth since 1993-94.

Top Pac-12 Player of the Year Candidates

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    Markelle Fultz
    Markelle FultzTed S. Warren/Associated Press

    Lonzo Ball

    He's the straw that stirs UCLA's potent offensive drink, a freshman point guard who can excel as either a distributor or scorer depending on the situation. The Bruins are strong up and down the lineup but without Ball directing traffic it would just be a bunch of scorers trying to create their own shot.

    Markelle Fultz

    If records didn't matter Fultz would probably be the major frontrunner because of his dominant play for Washington. But the freshman guard is going to need his team to at least finish in the top half of the league standings to be a legitimate candidate, and that's not looking very promising based on nonconference play.

    Elijah Stewart

    The junior guard has made a huge leap this season after being more of a role player in his first two years of college. If USC is really going to compete for the Pac-12 title it will be via Stewart's heady play.

    Reid Travis

    Injured most of last season, the 6'8”, 240-pound junior is showing his true potential by doing the dirty work. His 17.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game have come via strong work on the board, leading the Pac-12 with a 14.1 offensive rebound percentage, while his 104 free throw attempts are 20 more than anyone else in the league and he's drained more than 70 percent of them.

Predicting the 2016-17 Pac-12 Awards

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    Lonzo Ball
    Lonzo BallTim Bradbury/Getty Images

    Player of the Year: Lonzo Ball, UCLA

    Because fellow freshman TJ Leaf has been a big part of its improvement as well, you could take Ball away and UCLA would still be better than a year ago. But he's the reason they're not just unbeaten but winning by an average of 21.8 points per game, fifth-best in the country.

    Freshman of the Year: Markelle Fultz, Washington

    Rather than give Ball both awards, as he'd be more than deserving of, in the interest of fairness, we're turning to Fultz for this one because his play on an otherwise bad team shouldn't be ignored. If he keeps up his numbers, he'd be the first player (regardless of class) in at least the last 24 seasons to average 22 points, six rebounds and six assists.

    Coach of the Year: Andy Enfield, USC

    A mass exodus of transfers and other departures last spring put USC in a potentially perilous situation entering 2016-17. Instead, Enfield has led the Trojans to their first 13-0 start in 73 years and a shot at their first Pac-12 title since 1985 is looking very possible.

Pac-12 Favorites and Dark Horse

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    Bryce Alford
    Bryce AlfordTim Bradbury/Getty Images

    The Favorite: UCLA

    The Bruins' Dec. 3 win at Kentucky was by far the Pac-12's top nonconference result and opened the rest of the country's eyes to what coach Steve Alford's team was doing. Since then, under a bigger spotlight, UCLA still won their next four games by an average of 21.3 points.

    UCLA could very well start out league play with an 0-1 record since it opens at Oregon, but it doesn't have to go on the road to the Bay Area schools (California and Stanford) and eight of its 18 games are against the four lowest-rated schools (Arizona State, Oregon State, Washington and Washington State) in the conference, according to kenpom.com. Unless the Bruins forget how to shoot and stop making any effort on the defensive end, they're going to be at or near the top of the standings throughout the season.

    The Dark Horse: USC

    The league's biggest positive surprise to this point, USC could very easily fall back to Earth now that half of its remaining games are on the road and two-thirds are against top-100 teams. But the Trojans showed great mettle in outlasting Wyoming in overtime on Dec. 23 in Las Vegas, a game they could have mailed in right before the holiday break and with a conference-opening road trip to the Oregon schools looming.

Who Makes the NCAA Tournament?

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    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

    Shoo-ins: Arizona, Oregon, UCLA, USC

    BracketMatrix.com currently has 29 different projected NCAA tournament brackets logged on its site, and that number will more than double before the official field is announced in mid-March. As it stands, the quartet of Arizona, Oregon and the Los Angeles schools are among the 25 schools that are included on every bracket.

    UCLA is the Pac-12's best shot at a No. 1 seed, but the other three could all climb up there by winning 14 or more games in league play. At the very least, expect them all to be the higher seed for at least their first NCAA tourney game unless one struggles during conference play.

    Arizona may be the most tenuous of this group because of its thin rotation and the uncertainty surrounding Allonzo Trier's return.

    Hopefuls: California, Colorado

    Cal had its 27-game home win streak snapped just before Christmas when it lost by four to Virginia, making it 0-3 against top-100 teams. The Golden Bears will have plenty of opportunities in the Pac-12 to get quality wins but may need at least 12 victories in conference play to make up for the lack of success in the preseason.

    Colorado has some better wins on its resume but also damaging losses to BYU and rival Colorado State, with the latter at home. The Buffaloes will have to protect their home court and win some on the road, where they're 8-19 (including 4-14 in the league) since 2014-15.

    Long shots: Stanford, Utah

    Stanford has faced the toughest schedule of any Pac-12 team, per Ken Pomeroy, and the 40th-most difficult in Division I. But other than beating Seton Hall in Orlando, Florida, the Cardinal have failed to beat any strong opponents.

    The same goes for Utah but more because of the lack of opportunities. Take away Butler and Xavier and the Utes haven't faced another team in the top 150, while they've beaten three sub-300 teams and two non-Division I schools. That's resulted in the country's No. 336-rated schedule (out of 351).

    Long story short: Winning the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas in March is these teams' best shot of getting into the NCAA tourney.

Predicting the 2016-17 Pac-12 Standings

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    Tim Bradbury/Getty Images
    1. UCLA
    2. Arizona
    3. Oregon
    4. USC
    5. Colorado
    6. California
    7. Utah
    8. Stanford
    9. Arizona State
    10. Washington
    11. Washington State
    12. Oregon State

    All statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted, and are accurate through games of Dec. 25. All recruiting information courtesy of Scout.com, unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.