Pac-12 basketball midseason awards
Handing out some halftime hardware
John Routh / Arizona Daily Wildcat
U of A vs. USC Men’s Basketball. UA wins 74-50
With nine games down and nine games remaining, it’s officially the midway point of the conference season for the No. 7 Arizona men’s basketball team. With that in mind, it’s time to dole out some hardware for some of the best, and worst, in the first month of Pac-12 play.
Conference Title favorite: Arizona
While the Wildcats entered Pac-12 play as a co-favorite with UCLA, the UA hasn’t stayed in that top spot the whole time. In fact, the Wildcats just slid back into first as the other three favorites — Oregon, UCLA and, to a lesser extent, Arizona State — all crumbled in the past week.
As the season progresses, Arizona’s nonconference resume continues to improve. As of this week, the Wildcats beat three teams that are either leading or tied for first in their respective conferences, giving the UA a top-5 RPI.
What hasn’t been as impressive is the Wildcats’ play in conference games. They were beaten handily by the two other power players in the Pac-12 (Oregon and UCLA) and squeaked out home victories against Colorado and Utah.
But right now, every other team seems to be hitting a mid-season lull while the Wildcats continue to win.
Senior Mark Lyons isn’t a true point guard and the freshman big men are turning into role players, not difference-makers, but that’s really as far as the complaints go. This team still has the most talent in the Pac-12, a great mix of experience and youth and strong leadership with Lyons, forward Solomon Hill and head coach Sean Miller.
It wasn’t easy, but with a 7-2 conference record (which ties the UA with Oregon), the Wildcats are back to where they started — at the top.
Pac-12 Player of the Year: UCLA’s Guard/Forward Shabazz Muhammad
Right now Shabazz Muhammad is the best player in the Pac-12, and it’s really not even close.
The freshman phenom is second in the conference in scoring (18.4 points per game), the alpha dog on one of the Pac-12’s best teams and he should continue to get better as he gets more college experience.
What truly separates Muhammad from the rest of the field, though, is the ease and efficiency in which he scores. The freshman is shooting 46.9 percent from the floor, 42.6 percent from three and 72.0 percent from the line, all while rebounding well (4.8 boards per game) and avoiding turnovers (1.8 per game).
Muhammad’s performance in the Pac-12’s marquee game of the season thus far (UCLA at Arizona) solidifies his stranglehold on the award. Muhammad shined in the spotlight, scoring 23 points on 50 percent shooting and he changed the entire flow of the game when he was on the court. Unless UCLA collapses, or one of the Wildcats’ big three separates himself, this will be Muhammad’s award when the season ends.
Pac-12 Coach of the Year: ASU’s Herb Sendek
Right now, this is a two-man race between ASU’s Herb Sendek and Oregon’s Dana Altman.
Prior to this past weekend, Altman looked to have the edge. But with the Ducks’ lackluster play (1-2) since losing freshman Dominic Artis to a foot injury, it’s looking like they’ve lost their hold on the conference title and Altman’s award.
The Sun Devils also missed a golden opportunity Saturday, as a close loss to Washington ruined ASU’s chance to be tied for the Pac-12 lead. Still, if things stay where they are, Sendek’s case is more impressive than Altman’s.
Entering the season, Sendek’s coaching seat wasn’t just hot — it was on fire. But thanks to the brilliant play of freshman point guard Jahii Carson (the most realistic player to take Muhammad’s POY crown) and the veteran presences of forward Carrick Felix and center Jordan Bachynski, Sendek has the Sun Devils massively exceeding expectations.
Arizona State already has the same amount of conference wins as last season (four) while playing in a stronger Pac-12 and really only adding Carson to the roster. If this team makes the NCAA Tournament, Sendek will be the COY.
Biggest flop: Colorado
When the regulation buzzer sounded in the McKale Center on January 3, it looked like guard Sabatino Chen and the Buffs had just pulled off a season-defining upset of then-No. 3 Arizona. Instead, the bank-shot three was (questionably) called off and Colorado ended up falling badly, in overtime.
Instead of being 11-2 with a top-5 win, the Buffs fell to 10-3. They’ve never recovered.
A surefire tournament team has gone 4-4 since the UA loss, including a defeat at Utah. Colorado has yet to beat any of the top teams in the Pac-12, and with a tough schedule remaining — three games left against Arizona and Oregon— the Buffs might not even make the NCAA Tournament now.
Colorado wasn’t supposed to be a top 25 team this season, but after a strong non-conference showing, it looked like one. Not anymore.
Things aren’t past recovery, though. If the Buffs can turn it around and stop losing close games (their last three losses were by a combined 16 points), a tournament bid can still be salvaged. Colorado looked like a conference champion for the 39 minutes of the game in Tucson. Now it looks like an average team in a mediocre Pac-12.