Shining some light on the Pac-12’s after-dark basketball series, the midseason edition in 10 transparent pieces:
1. Coach of the Half-Year: Larry Krystkowiak, Utah. It has nothing to do with wins, losses and who’s-done-the-most-with-the-least. Coach K has become a fashion-setter, choosing to outfit himself and the Ute staff in casual (Under Armour) gear that more properly fits the culture of a college basketball game. Who’s next? C’mon, guys, ditch those suits and ties.
2. Player of the Half-Year: T.J. Leaf, UCLA. No one has benefited more from the Bruins’ nouveau Run n’ Gun style than the 6-foot-8-inch “stretch 4” who once committed to Arizona and then switched his allegiance to UCLA in some furtive AAU league hocus pocus. Leaf might be the Bruins’ No. 3 scoring option but he has made the most of it: He is fourth in the league in scoring (17.5), sixth in rebounding (9.2), first in shooting percentage (65.5) and second in 3-point percentage (50.0).
3. Best victory of the Half-Year: Pac-12 teams won 110 games in pre-conference. But only four of those were against teams ranked in the AP Top 25. Colorado had two of those, against No. 22 Texas and No. 13 Xavier, which trumps UCLA’s impressive win at then-No. 1 Kentucky. The Buffaloes are the team you don’t want to play, especially in Boulder. They are the league’s only team that has started the same lineup in every game — old reliables Derrick White, George King, Xavier Johnson, Wesley Gordon and Josh Fortune — and they are probably the most physical team in the league. The Buffaloes have attempted 336 foul shots, most in the league, 40 more than Arizona, which makes its living at the foul line.
4. Worst loss of the Half-Year: The basketball gods have shown mercy to Washington State coach Ernie Kent, whose team does not have to play at Oregon, nor play UCLA and USC at home. But otherwise the Cougars appear to have but one game — a Jan. 4 home “showdown” against injury-ravaged Oregon State — to avoid going 0-18. The Beavers are the league’s biggest disappointment; they lost at home 93-90 to Savannah State, which is ranked No. 338 of 351 Division I teams by Kenpom.com. How bad was that loss? Two days earlier, Savannah State collapsed 128-59 at Oregon and is allowing 104 points per game.
5. Most impressive statistic of the Half-Year: UCLA is averaging 23.6 assists per game. If it holds up, it will break the league record of 22.7, established in 1974 when passing to Bill Walton, Keith Wilkes and Marques Johnson was an almost automatic assist. Arizona never averaged 20 assists in a game under Lute Olson or Sean Miller.
6. The most desperate coach of the Half-Year: Washington’s Lorenzo Romar, who hasn’t coached the Huskies to the NCAA Tournament for six years, hired Missouri women’s assistant Michael Porter to help stop the skid. Porter is believed to be the Pac-12’s highest paid assistant, leaping past Arizona’s Joe Pasternack’s $302,000. Porter is paid a $300,000 base salary, $60,000 for a housing allowance and $15,000 for personal airfare use. Why pay Porter so much? His son, 6-9 prep senior Michael Porter Jr., is believed to be the nation’s No. 2 overall recruit, behind incoming Arizona center DeAndre Ayton. Porter’s son signed with the Huskies last month. All’s fair in love and college hoops recruiting, right?
7. Most anticipated game of the second half: You won’t have to wait long: No. 2 UCLA plays at No. 20 Oregon Wednesday at 7 p.m. Breathe easy, it’s on ESPN2, not the invisible Pac-12 Network. Only twice since the league expanded to 10 teams in 1978 has a potential Game of the Year been the opener: In 1981, No. 2 Oregon State opened at No. 13 Arizona State; the Beavers won 71-67. In the Olson years at Arizona, only once — January 3, 1998 — did an opener draw such attention. The UA’s defending national champs, ranked No. 5, beat No. 9 UCLA 87-75 at McKale Center.
8. Is this the best year ever for Pac-12 freshmen? If the season ended today, the 10-man all-conference team would surely include the Fab Four: freshman point guard Markelle Fultz of Washington, the league’s leading scorer (22.0); Arizona’s Swiss Army Knife offensive tool Lauri Markkanen; UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball; and his freshman teammate, T.J. Leaf. In addition, Cal freshman guard Charlie Moore is No. 8 in the league in scoring (16.1) and has scored more points in a game 38, than any other player. In 2008, the all-conference team had four freshmen and it was legit: ASU’s James Harden; UCLA’s Kevin Love; USC’s O.J. Mayo and Arizona’s Jerryd Bayless.
9. Who’s the best team? Oregon’s Dillon Brooks, whose injured foot has limited him to 20 minutes per game, will ultimately carry the Ducks past UCLA to the No. 1 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament. Brooks is The Man, not someone burying 3’s from UCLA (but it’s close). The only question at Oregon is whether NBA wannabes Tyler Dorsey, Chris Boucher, Dylan Ennis and Jordan Bell will share the ball, defer to Brooks and play in harmony the way they did en route to the Elite Eight a year ago.
10. Is any (possible) addition more important than that of Allonzo Trier at Arizona? It might be a push; Utah added 6-8 junior power forward David Collette at semester break; in the Utes’ three games in Honolulu over the weekend, the transfer from Utah State averaged 17.3 points, shot 71 percent and pulled down 15 rebounds.
He makes Utah a serious contender for the No 3 spot behind Oregon and UCLA. The most interesting competition in the league is likely to be among Arizona, Utah, Colorado, USC and Cal for the No. 3 position, which means the Pac-12 is seven deep in quality teams, especially on the road.
I think Arizona will finish third, 12-6, because it doesn’t have to play at Utah and Colorado, which is the most difficult trip in the league this year — although the UCLA-USC swing will be as difficult as it has been since 2001. That should provide the Wildcats with an edge over Colorado and the Utes for third.