Gold: Pac-12 basketball midseason report card
No, it’s not looking like a banner season in the Pac-12.
The conference appears headed to a 2-bid NCAA Tournament, albeit 2 good bids in UCLA and Arizona. In the second half of the conference season, Arizona State, USC and Utah will all vie to put together a nice enough resume to be that 3rd or possibly 4th Pac-12 team to get a March Madness invite.
Before we get too far ahead, here’s a look back at some highs and lows from the first half of the conference campaign.
Best team: UCLA
The Bruins started conference play 8-0 before collapsing offensively in a 58-52 loss to Arizona on Jan. 21 (see below).
That does little to stain UCLA’s terrific first-half romp through the conference. The Bruins have looked good under Mick Cronin before — you don’t advance to the Final Four without looking really, really good — but they may be more complete this year than at any point in Cronin’s successful 4-year tenure.
Getting Amari Bailey back and rolling heading into the postseason is a big priority for the Bruins, who could benefit from his length and scoring ability. Even without him, UCLA has been pretty darn good, led, of course, by Jaime Jaquez, Jr., who is going to go down as one of the most beloved Bruins in history.
Worst team: Stanford
Three league teams have just 2 conference wins so far — Stanford, Cal and Oregon State — but Stanford has the more embarrassing defeats in their 3-way series. Oregon State beat Stanford by 21 and Cal beat the Cardinal by 22. That ain’t pretty.
It’s looking like Stanford might pull the plug on Jerod Haase, who hasn’t been able to get the program back over the hump.
After winning 19 games with 11 wins in Pac-12 play in 2017-18, good enough to finish in a tie for 3rd in conference, and winning 20 games in 2019-20, Stanford flirted with .500 the past past 2 seasons and has regressed in a major way this year. The Cardinal are off to a miserable 7-12 start and unless things turn around quickly, Haase may be shown the door.
Biggest surprise: Utah
Despite a poor ending to their nonconference slate and a recent 3-game slide to Oregon and at UCLA and USC, the Utes have been one of the brightest surprises in the sport.
Craig Smith inherited a team short on talent and went 11-20 and 4-16 in Pac-12 play last season; they’ve nearly doubled their conference win total from a year ago at 7-3 with 8 games left.
Utah scored one of the biggest upsets of the Pac-12 season in early December, beating Arizona at the Huntsman Center. If the Utes can knock off Arizona in Tucson in their Feb. 16 rematch, we’ll know they’re for real.
Biggest disappointment: Washington State
The Cougars have been up and down and all around this year, with 4 losing streaks of 2 games and another of 3 games — including their current 2-game slide. Kyle Smith, whose advanced brand of basketball analytics has led to an impressive start up in the Palouse, hasn’t found the right algorithm for this squad.
And speaking of rithm — err, rhythm — Washington State still hasn’t found its stride. The team is shooting just 36.1 from behind the arc and 71.6 percent from the free-throw line, and the Cougars have an 11.5-to-12.8 assist-to-turnover ratio per game.
In other words, they’re not taking care of the ball, and even when they do, they’re not making efficient use of key opportunities.
Biggest conference win: Arizona over UCLA, 58-52, Jan. 21
Leave it to Arizona to be the giant killers in the Pac-12. With their decades-long rivalry with UCLA nearing its end before the Bruins bolt for the Big Ten in 2024-25, the Wildcats scored a big home win on Saturday by shutting down the outside game.
UCLA hit just 4-of-20 from deep, including 0fers for David Singleton (0-3), Dylan Andrews (0-2) and Will McClendon 0-2). Jacquez (1-for-4 from outside, 5-for-17 overall and Jaylen Clark (1-for-3 from outside, 4-for-13 overall) weren’t much better.
Neither was Arizona, scoring a season-low 58 points. But the Cats got it done and saved not just their conference season, but Utah’s, Arizona State’s and USC’s, as well. Sure the Bruins could still run away with it, but an undefeated first run through conference with Arizona pasted with 4 losses would’ve basically handed the thing to UCLA.
Now it’s at least a fight.
Worst conference loss: Washington State over Arizona, 74-61, Jan. 7
How strange that the Cougars are simultaneously the biggest disappointment and scored the biggest upset of the season. That’s says a lot about their inconsistency.
Kyle Smith’s squad had a great turnaround the past 3 years, going from 16-16 to 14-13 to 22-15, while advancing to the NIT Semifinals last season.
The Cougars have not had great post play this season, shooting just 43.1 percent from the field with just one inside threat, Mouhamed Gueye, averaging in double figures.
Against the Wildcats and the league’s best player, Azuolas Tubelis, Gueye had 24 points and 14 rebounds in one his best individual performances of the year. The Cougars held the Cats to 31.7 percent shooting and 4-or-25 from 3-point range.
For Arizona, it snapped an 8-game winning streak — which included victories over No. 14 Indiana and No. 6 Tennessee — and portended bad things to come. Just a week later, the Wildcats again fell at Oregon, 87-68, before rebounding with a sweep of the L.A. schools last weekend.
Best stretch: UCLA’s 8-game winning streak
You don’t win 8 straight conference games without drawing some kudos, and the Bruins deserve all the praise.
UCLA has bounced back in a big way since a pedestrian 3-2 start, when it lost back-to-back games to No. 19 Illinois and No. 5 Baylor. Forget winning 2 straight against No. 20 Maryland and No. 13 Kentucky. Winning 8 straight in league play might be more impressive.
UCLA PG Tyger Campbell: Campbell hasn’t exactly become the Steph Curry-like figure that Cronin talked about at Pac-12 Media Day, but the undersized guard has certainly taken on more of a scoring load, particularly in conference play. Campbell ranks tied for 10th in league play in scoring at 14.33 points per game and second in assists at 5.11 dimes per game. He’s also hit 2.11 3-pointers per game, ranking 8th, but more important, he’s improved his outside shooting to 45.2 percent, good for 5th.
Arizona State SG Desmond Cambridge Jr.: Cambridge has made an immediate impact for Bobby Hurley in Tempe, leading the league in 3-pointers made in conference play while ranking in the league’s top dozen in scoring, assists and steals. Along with his brother, Devan, he’s a main reason the Sun Devils are off to a nice 6-3 start in league play.
UCLA SF Jaime Jacquez Jr.: UCLA’s emotional leader leads the team in scoring despite only being the high scorer in 5 of UCLA’s 20 games this year. What does that mean? It means that Jacquez is consistently one of UCLA’s top performers.
But that shouldn’t be a surprise by now. Jacquez has steadily improved game in his 4 years on campus, and he’s currently on pace for career highs in scoring (16.1 ppg, 5th in league), rebounding (7.2 rpg, 7th in league), blocks (0.9) and steals (1.8 spg, 4th). If UCLA keeps winning and Jacquez continues to lead the way, Tubelis is going to have a hard time fending him off for player of the year.
Arizona PF Azuolas Tubelis: Tubelis leads the league in scoring, rebounding, defensive rebounding and offensive rebounding. Simply put, he’s been the most prolific player in the league this year, by far.
A year after playing second fiddle to Bennedict Mathurin and sometimes third fiddle to Christian Koloko, Tubelis has come into his own this year.
Utah C Branden Carlson: Much of the credit for the Utes’ success goes to Smith for getting the absolute most out of Branden Carlson, who, if not for Tubelis and Jacquez, would be a good candidate for player of the year. Carlson is averaging 17.0 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks and is shooting 57 percent from the field and 43.8 from 3-point range. It doesn’t get much better than that.