As we push through the college bowl season, let's dive into some Pac-12 basketball and scout the top teams in the conference. At this point, teams are a game away or finished with their non-conference schedules and the most important part of the season kicks off this New Year. Let's explore the teams to beat and build the shortlist of Pac-12 player of the year candidates.
First and foremost, here are the top four title contenders in the conference (in no particular order):
Kaleb Tarczewski (currently injured)
Perennial Pac-12 favorite Arizona comes into conference play with a new roster, but Sean Miller fills holes like duct tape. The Wildcats have built a team around Zeus, the aforementioned Kaleb Tarczewski, who anchors the team in the post. True freshman and five star high school recruit, Alonzo Trier, has immediately contributed and could have an even bigger impact as the team heads into conference play. If it wasn't for Kaleb's injury early in the season, Arizona would most likely have a perfect record. Nonetheless they enter Pac-12 play as the clear conference favorite and are once again poised to make a strong run into tournament play.
Cal made a loud statement this offseason, dethroning Sean Miller's Wildcats as the champion of the recruiting cycle. However, winning the offseason doesn't always translate into championships (where are the Dodgers fans at?). Cal started off conference play struggling to find an identity and concludes with a blowout victory as well as an extremely well played game against #5 Virginia. The non-conference schedule wraps up with a visit from Stephan Curry's alma mater, Davidson, and will be a game the Bears can't afford to overlook. With the team in much better shape and their letdown in Las Vegas in the rearview, Cuonzo Martin's Cal Bears should play a big role in deciding who wins the Pac-12 this year. Ivan Rabb is an absolute stud down low and is starting to make the adjustment to college ball. Jaylen Brown is a popular choice for Pac-12 player of the year and shows us all what it's like to fly. Do not sleep on Cal to win the Pac-12 conference title.
Hoping our Duck family everywhere had a merry and blessed day. #GoDucks pic.twitter.com/FocI8ENEbv— GoDucks (@GoDucks) December 26, 2015
Dylan Ennis (injured)
Is there something in the water at Oregon or do title contenders follow in Phil Knight's literal footsteps. The Ducks have looked excellent in non-conference play and have been excelling despite lacking a major playmaker in Dylan Ennis. The Ducks beat a tough Alabama team on the road Monday to continue their roll towards conference play. Dana Altman has his team in midseason form with four starters averaging double figures, and that doesn't include senior Dwyane Benjamin who has played a lot of minutes off the bench. With the stars aligning, Ennis returning from injury and the team rallying around Altman, the Ducks have their eyes set on the Pac-12 title. The momentum is building in Eugene and Oregon basketball is starting to look like a legitimate tournament contender year in and year out.
Cue the angry comments from the Bruin/Buffalo and every other Pac-12 team fanbase. In all seriousness, the Ute's have been on quite a roll lately and are still waiting on Jimmy Fallon to pay his debts. They beat the top ten ranked Duke Blue Devil's on the road in Madison Square Garden which is the definition of a resume building win for the NCAA tournament. Jakob Poeltl has already won the Pac-12 player of the week award twice and we haven't even reached Pac-12 play. There is something seriously dangerous about this team, and they are primed to play even better as Pac-12 play starts off in the New Year. Coach Larry Krystkowiak is developing a reputation as one of the premier coaches in the conference and will look to 2016 to cement his teams place atop the Pac-12.
Conference player of the year candidates:
Just WOW. pic.twitter.com/Zxjl1JP2bb— Cal Men's Basketball (@CalMensBBall) October 31, 2015
Let's go ahead and get my homer pick out of the way first. Jaylen Brown has all the talent in the world and the biggest question mark is if he can put it all together during conference play. He has the highlight reel to prove his athleticism, but turnovers and inexperience have plagued him early in the year. If he takes his play to another level in 2016, let's put everyone on notice now.
Gary Payton II
Gary Payton not only see's you Jaylen, but raises you a game dunk that was built for the next level. If this prediction was based on high flying ability, Payton II would take the crown. He has nearly averaged a double-double so far this season and as one of the more experienced players on this list, he should be more prepared for the tough task of conference play. He is one of the most electrifying players in the conference and is also stellar on the defensive side of the ball as well. If Oregon State builds a tournament worthy resume by years end, this award should be a landslide.
Poeltl is one of the most complete players in the conference and is an absolute force down low. If you have two minutes in your day, spend them watching him destroy Duke in the paint. He has been compared frequently to Pau Gasol and perhaps offers more on the defensive end than Pau. He has anchored a strong Utah team and already garnered conference player of the week honors twice this year. Outside of Payton II, Poeltl is the safest bet for conference player of the year.
Trier already has a 27 point game under his belt this year and has also wrapped up one Pac-12 player of the week award in the early stage of the season. He has built on his early success and is completely locked in. It's downright impressive how big of an impact he has had on an already loaded Arizona team. He will face a similar challenge as Brown as they head into Pac-12 play and prepare for bigger opponents each week. Arizona constantly produces some of the best players in the conference and don't be surprised if Trier is the next generation.
Cal fans, what four teams do you expect to compete for the Pac-12 title this year? Who do you have as your pick for conference player of the year?