Dave Pasch and Bill Walton were discussing the Pac-12 conference on ESPN during an Arizona telecast and when Pasch asked Walton who the best team in the Pac-12 was. Walton responded by asking “who is playing at home?”
That’s been the driving force during an extremely unstable and unpredictable Pac-12 season. Mega-talented teams like Oregon, UCLA and California have looked like dark horse Final Four teams some nights while young and rising teams like Washington, Oregon State and USC are providing the conference with serious depth.
Just when it looked like Oregon was the team to beat in the Pac-12, they lost by 20 to Cal Thursday after Cal had lost five of their last eight games. Arizona could have made that claim at multiple points during conference play, but suffering back-to-back losses multiple times this season has stopped them in their tracks. Even UCLA was making a case for the top when they beat Kentucky, Gonzaga and Arizona in the early part of the season.
After Sunday’s games, it’s still anyone’s conference to win. Arizona and Oregon have both been able to build off successful seasons in 2014-15 and are both 9-4 in conference play. Colorado and Utah are not far behind at 8-5 and with the way this season has gone so far, USC and Cal are not out of it at 7-5.
The pandemonium of the conference keeps increasing, but the Wildcats are starting to find their consistency and are heading in the right direction for tournament play.
The new, offensively charged Arizona has won five games in a row after Sunday’s win over USC, including eight of their last 10. Like past Sean Miller teams, they have yet to be blown out in a game, with only one of their five losses coming by more than four points.
The team was able to do this without one of their best players Allonzo Trier, who got hurt right as the Pac-12 schedule got underway and only just returned Feb. 6.
His absence allowed Ryan Anderson to finally attain the form that most expected to see the entire season.
Since scoring only five points in the four-OT loss to USC that Trier was injured in, Anderson has averaged 18.1 points per game and 10.2 rebounds per game, shooting an absurd 63 percent from the field in those 10 games.
His partner down low Kaleb Tarczewski is always having an impact on both ends of the floor, making simple, yet monster plays to close out games for the Wildcats. He may not be a tremendously vocal leader, but Tarczewski has proven doubters wrong by setting the example for the rest of the team with his two-way play.
Arizona also found their lockdown defender in Kadeem Allen, and while he doesn’t have the body to guard NBA size on the wing, he’s continuously improved over the season and is one of the best defenders in the country.
The concern heading into March has to be the consistency of seniors Gabe York and Mark Tollefsen.
York is doing his primary job well by shooting 43 percent from three, but seven of his 13 games in conference play have produced box scores when he took 10 or more shots and shot 40 percent or less from the field. Some of those shots will now go back to Trier, but York must be more efficient in other areas of the floor when he decides to score, particularly at the end of games, where he continues to get the ball with the game on the line.
While Tollefsen has had big games, the style of his play makes it vital for him to always make his presence known. There are some nights like Sunday against USC when Tollefsen has 13 points and six rebounds, but when he doesn’t make those plays, he’s having a bad night. Unable to do a lesser version of what Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson and Aaron Gordon did in the past on the wing offensively with energy and athleticism, Tollefsen is leaving Miller in a bind against teams with size on the perimeter.
Those concerns and the large dip in defensive performance aside, Arizona fans have to be thrilled with the way the season has turned out to this point. With a high-powered offense and true size and skill down low, Arizona could make a deep run in March with the right matchups.