Best Team / Team You Wouldn’t Realize Was Good If You Haven’t Been Following College Basketball For the Past Few Years — Cal
The luxury of writing my Pac-12 piece after a handful of games have already been played is that I can make my picks based on a little bit of evidence, as opposed to blind speculation, like I’ve been doing with some of the other conferences. Had this post been written two weeks ago, I probably would’ve gone with Arizona as the team to beat in the Pac-12, but after watching the Wildcats’ first two games and being completely underwhelmed (especially with their frontcourt guys), I decided that maybe UCLA was the best team in the conference. But then the Bruins received an atomic wedgie from Loyola Marymount in their season opener and lost by 11 at home (and now Reeves Nelson has been suspended indefinitely), which prompted me to again change my mind and go with Cal. So now — I’ve been saying it for a while (Read: three days) even though nobody wants to listen to me — the Cal Golden Bears are the best team in the Pac-12 this season.
The truth is, picking this year’s Pac-12 champion right now is more of a crapshoot than picking the most sane Republican presidential candidate. The way I see it, the race for the Pac-12 title this season is the most wide-open of any of the six major conferences in college basketball. (The only one that’s even close to being as wide-open as the Pac-12 is the Big 12, with Kansas, Baylor, and Texas A&M all having a legitimate chance to win.) So since it’s impossible to tag a conference favorite at this point or distinguish which team is the best, Cal actually seems to make a lot of sense. It is the most experienced team of all the four Pac-12 title contenders (UCLA, Arizona, and Washington being the other three), and that has to give it a slight advantage over everyone else. Leading the way with their experience are seniors Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp, who both seem to have been at Cal for almost a decade now. Gutierrez, who was Cal’s leading scorer (14.6 points per game) and best player last season, is one of the best on-ball defenders in the country and is a lock to make the all-conference team at the end of the year (and possibly even win POY), while the 6-foot-8 Kamp was Cal’s second-leading scorer last season (14.2 ppg) and is one of the most underappreciated players in all of college basketball.
Also returning from last year is super sophomore Allen Crabbe, who was Cal’s third-leading scorer with 13.4 points per game and was named the conference’s Freshman of the Year last season. And let’s certainly not forget that the Golden Bears welcome 6-foot-9 junior Bak Bak back, which isn’t really that big of a deal since he averaged only 2.6 points and 2.5 rebounds a game, but is noteworthy nonetheless because it gives me an opportunity to use the phrase “Bak Bak back” and point out that I can’t read or hear his name without think of “Chickenhead,” sung by Three 6 Mafia (featuring Project Pat). Throw in Minnesota transfer Justin Cobbs with the rest of the talent and experience the Golden Bears have back this year, and it’s easy to see that Cal is just as good a pick as any other team to win the Pac-12 this season.
Best Player — Terrence Ross (Washington)
My guess is that not too many people east of the Mississippi know much if anything about Ross, most likely because he was a role player in his freshman season last year and averaged only 8 points in 17 minutes per game. But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s probably the most talented player in the Pac-12 and is certainly the best pro prospect in the league. A season ago, Ross had to defer to Isaiah Thomas, who was the conference’s second-best player behind Arizona’s Derrick Williams, and was primarily used as a spot-up 3-point shooter. This year, though, with the departure of Washington’s top three scorers, Ross will no doubt take on a much bigger role and have the chance to showcase his all-around game that will likely make him a lottery pick in the NBA draft whenever he chooses to turn pro.
Much like Vanderbilt’s John Jenkins, the first line of most people’s scouting report of Ross probably mentions that he’s a shooter with unlimited range, even though calling him a “shooter” undervalues the rest of his game. While he certainly is a good shooter, Ross’ size, athleticism, and quick first step make him so much more. The main criticism of Ross’ game is that he settles for 3s too much and doesn’t take the ball to the hole nearly enough (which in turn means he doesn’t get to the free throw line very often), but I don’t expect that to be as big of an issue this season for two reasons. First of all, Thomas was the designated penetrator for the Huskies last year, so Ross typically just spotted up around the 3-point line, let Thomas do his thing, and made it rain when the ball was kicked out to him. With Thomas gone this year, Ross will surely be called upon to be more of a creator, which means more penetration from him is likely.
And second, my guess is that Ross often took ill-advised shots last season because as a 6-foot-6 shooter with long arms, he felt like he could shoot over smaller guards even if they crawled up into him on defense. I’m going to give Lorenzo Romar the benefit of the doubt (this probably isn’t the best idea) and say that over the offseason the Washington coaches explained to Ross that when that sort of thing happens this year, he should use his athleticism and relatively good ball-handling skills to blow by the defense or at least create separation for a better shot. It might sound pretty basic and obvious, but guys who are used to being able to shoot whenever they wanted when they were in high school often come in as freshmen and don’t know how to tell when they’re open and when they’re not. (The same thing happened to Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas last year.) With a year of experience under his belt and an entire offseason of workouts and watching film, I trust Ross will have a better understanding this year of when to rise up and shoot over smaller guards and when to put the ball on the deck and get to the hole or create space for an even better shot.
Overrated Team — UCLA
This pick is kind of cheating, since I probably wouldn’t have picked UCLA as the Pac-12’s most overrated team before the Loyola Marymount game, but then again that’s why I chose to make the savvy play and wait for some games to be played before writing this. Either way, in hindsight, the Loyola Marymount upset shouldn’t have been that big of a surprise. I mean, even without Reeves Nelson, UCLA still has far and away the best frontcourt in the Pac-12 with Joshua Smith and the Wear twins (David and Travis), but it also has a virtually nonexistent backcourt. Loyola Marymount found success by spreading the floor and penetrating on UCLA’s big guys all game long, which is a strategy that all teams that play the Bruins will no doubt try to emulate moving forward. Meanwhile, on the other end of the court, UCLA’s lack of any notable outside shooting threat means teams can just pack it in on defense and force the Bruins to shoot a bunch of 3s, which is something they’re less than stellar at doing (2-15 against LMU).
Further complicating things is the fact that there isn’t a whole lot of experience on this year’s UCLA team. Obviously, some of the best teams around the country rely heavily on freshmen and sophomores, but those same teams also have seniors who play major roles and serve as leaders. The Bruins, though, have only two seniors who will play significant minutes for them this year, and one of those seniors (Lazeric Jones) is a junior college transfer who is in only his second year of playing Division I basketball, while the other senior (Jerime Anderson) missed the Loyola Marymount game because he was serving a one-game suspension for stealing a laptop. (On the bright side, there’s a good chance Anderson will win the Heisman and lead Auburn to a national title in a couple of years.)
Sleeper Team — Washington
Because I actually do think the Huskies have a legitimate chance at winning the conference title, Washington doesn’t exactly fit with the rest of my sleeper picks. But the Huskies were picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 by people who watch much more Pac-12 basketball than I do, so I think the sleeper label still applies here.
Washington is like the exact opposite of UCLA from the standpoint that it has a bunch of talented guards who make up the best backcourt in the Pac-12, but its frontcourt, led by Aziz N’Diaye and Darnell Gant, isn’t exactly going to give the rest of the teams in the conference fits this year. (In that regard, Washington is like the Florida of the West.) And like UCLA, Washington doesn’t have all that much experience when compared to a team like Cal, as its four best players are a sophomore (Ross), a junior who is essentially a sophomore because he missed most of last season with a torn ACL (Abdul Gaddy), a redshirt sophomore (C.J. Wilcox), and a freshman (Tony Wroten). Still, it’s common knowledge that to win in college basketball, you must first and foremost have good guard play, which is something that shouldn’t be much of a problem for the Huskies this year. (It’s obviously awesome to have good big guys, but if you don’t have good guards to feed them the ball and stretch the floor to give them room to operate, it doesn’t really matter how good they are.) So while they might be a little young and will probably get upset in a few games this year because of their inexperience, they also are plenty talented enough at the guard position to run circles around the rest of the Pac-12 and win the conference title.
Team to Cheer For If You Don’t Already Have a Favorite — Arizona
Arizona is picked by some to win the Pac-12, and it made it to the Elite Eight last year before losing to eventual national champion UConn, so at first glance, this selection might seem to contradict my philosophy of picking a team that won’t make you look like a frontrunner. But Arizona is still the team to cheer for in the Pac-12 for a variety of reasons. The biggest of these reasons is that the Wildcats lost essentially their entire team from last season when Derrick Williams decided to enter the NBA draft (where he was selected by the Timberwolves with the second overall pick), so they really aren’t even the same team as they were from a year before. It’s bad enough to lose an All-American who averaged 19.5 points a game, but Arizona also lost its second-leading scorer, Lamont Jones, who transferred to Iona during the offseason to be closer to his family. As a result, this year’s team consists of a bunch of guys who most college basketball fans have probably never heard of, which gives it a bit of an underdog feel even though Arizona has a good deal of talent.
When you also consider that this past offseason Arizona coach Sean Miller turned down an offer to return to his East Coast roots and coach at Maryland (Fun fact: He’s from the same Pennsylvania town as the guy who originally played Doink the Clown) because he apparently believed in the program he was building, at least some small part of you can’t help but cheer for the Wildcats this season, even before you factor in Kevin Parrom’s personal story. (By the way, this is as good a time as any to mention that Arizona has the no. 1 recruiting class in the country for next year, so jump on their bandwagon now so you won’t look like a glory hunter next year.)
Player to Cheer For If You Don’t Already Have a Favorite — Kevin Parrom (Arizona)
If I had to make a list of the worst things to happen to me this summer, it would look a little something like this: ran out of beer at the Indy 500, had diarrhea for four straight days in July, was a Cubs fan. Meanwhile, if Kevin Parrom made the same list, my guess is his would look like this: grandmother died, mother died, was shot in the hand and the knee when a guy tried to f’ing murder him. Yes you read all of that right — I really did have diarrhea for four straight days and Parrom really did have the worst offseason imaginable.
Not long after his grandmother passed away, Parrom received word that his mom’s breast cancer had gotten pretty bad. So he returned back to New York to visit his mom in the hospital one last time, and after a long day at the hospital, Parrom went back to his father’s apartment in the Bronx, where a gunman approached at one in the morning and opened fire. Following the shooting, Parrom instantly dropped to the fetal position and bawled his eyes out for the next two weeks over the fact that a guy, ya know, tried to murder him. No wait, I got that wrong — he didn’t do that at all, and instead actually joked about it on Twitter. My mistake. Anyway, capping off the offseason from hell, Parrom’s mother eventually succumbed to her fight with breast cancer and passed away just a couple of days after official college basketball practice started. But don’t think for a second any of this was ever going to slow Parrom down. Less than two months after getting shot and less than one month after burying his mother, Parrom returned to the court Sunday and scored six points in 18 minutes. And to make the story even more emotional, on Thursday, Parrom returns back to the same city where he said goodbye to his mom and he almost lost his own life, as Arizona takes on St. John’s in Madison Square Garden.
Throw in the fact that he’s the heart and soul of Arizona who is known for playing his balls off and leading by example with his incredible work ethic, and it’s impossible to not cheer for the guy not only on the basketball court, but also in life in general.
Previously By Mark Titus:
Club Trillion’s Only Partially Biased SEC College Basketball Spectacular
Club Trillion’s Only Partially Biased Big Ten College Basketball Spectacular
Club Trillion’s Only Partially Biased ACC College Basketball Spectacular
Club Trillion’s Only Partially Biased College Basketball Preview Spectacular Part II
Club Trillion’s Only Partially Biased College Basketball Preview Spectacular
Why Ohio State Will Win the National Championship
Let the (Midnight) Madness Begin
In Defense of Wussing Out in the NFL
OK, Ohio State Fans. Maybe We Don’t Have This
Read more of The Triangle, Grantland’s sports blog.
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