Player of the Week:
Lonzo Ball Guard (UCLA)
Lonzo Ball earns player of the week again for his masterful ability to run his team. UCLA had no trouble with a Markelle Fultz-less Washington team on Wednesday, and Ball pretty effortlessly scored 19 points with 8 assists and 7 rebounds. The 6-6 freshman point guard also made 3-4 threes and did not commit a single turnover. Saturday was a bit of a different story for the Bruins, which struggled for much of the game against a porous Washington State team. UCLA won the game 77-68, but they may not have without Ball. On Saturday, he turned in another big-time performance with 12 points and 14 more assists. Ball did have three turnovers, but a 14:3 assist to turnover ratio is pretty spectacular. Saturday’s game was one of UCLA’s worst offensive outings the entire season, and Ball was responsible for more than half of their made field goals. TJ Leaf was out with an ankle injury suffered against Washington, but Ball was still so effective without his leading scorer and by attempting only eight shots from the field. Much talk has been made of Ball’s unorthodox shooting mechanics, but as ESPN analyst Jay Bilas pointed out last week, his release point at the top of his shot is perfect. It is no fluke that he is shooting 42% from beyond the arc. He is also beginning to warrant possible All-Pac-12 defensive team consideration. UCLA has steadily improved on that end of the court as of late, and it has started with Ball. Scouts have raved about his potential on defense with his combination of size, length, and athleticism, and he is beginning to put it all together. Ball has been a force at the top of UCLA’s 3-2 zone and he played a huge role in slowing down Dillon Brooks in UCLA’s win over Oregon. It’s also worth noting that Arizona’s three point guards scored a total of only 12 points in their most recent matchup. UCLA has won nine in a row, they are improving defensively, and they might have the best point guard in America. Look out for the Bruins in March.
Under the Radar Player:
Lorenzo Bonam, Guard (Utah)
Utah has some work to do if they are going to make a case for the NCAA tournament. A loss at Oregon State really did not help, but the Utes have won three straight since that game. Bonam has been quiet all year, but he has broken out these last three games for Utah. Following 12 and 11 point performances against Colorado and California, respectively, Bonam exploded for a season-high 26 points. He made 9-11 field goals, including 3-4 from behind the arc. Bonam also chipped in 4 assists and 3 steals. THe senior guard knows that this season is his last chance to make one final run to the tournament. Utah earned the four seed in the Pac-12 tournament and will play the winner of #5 California and #12 Oregon State on Thursday. That would set up a potential showdown with top-seeded Oregon in the semifinal. Utah is right on the bubble as of now, and if they were to make a splash in the conference tournament, there chances at an NCAA Tournament bid will rise significantly. Bonam needs to continue to be a major factor for them to have a chance.
Kodi Justice, Guard (Arizona State)
Justice has played over 30 minutes per game due to Arizona State’s severe lack of depth. He is only averaging nine points per contest this season, but he has been superb in his last three against some of the best competition in the Pac-12. Against UCLA, Justice scored 19 and made five threes. In his next game against USC, he poured in 22 points with six more threes to stun the Trojans 83-82. The finally on Saturday in a loss to Arizona, Justice maintained his torrid pace, scoring 17 points with four more threes. Arizona State will not be playing for the postseason, but Justice and most of the Arizona State team will be returning next season. With more experience and added depth, they should be much improved. Justice is shooting close to 44% from beyond the arc this season and has been a dangerous weapon from the outside. He is also a decent passer, averaging 2.4 assists per game. The next step for him will be to increase his overall field goal percentage, which is at only 43% now. It will be interesting to see how Bobby Hurley can transform Arizona State next season in his third year as head coach.
Dillon Brooks, Forward (Oregon)
Brooks scored 25 points on Saturday against Oregon, marking the fifth time in his last six games where he has eclipsed more than 20 points. There is no doubt that he should be a first team all Pac-12 selection for this year. The numbers he is putting are impressive, but the efficiency with which he is doing so is absolutely remarkable. For the season his is now shooting 52.6% from the field and averaging 16 points per game. His scoring average would most certainly be a lot higher if not for being injured and seeing limited action for the majority of the early season. He is also shooting over 40% from deep and is an underrated passer as well. Oregon has been seeded as the #1 team in next week’s Pac-12 tournament and they will have a great chance to not only win the tournament, but also make a case for a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. Oregon has a legitimate chance to go to the final four especially after returning most of last year’s elite eight team. Dillon Brooks is their go-to player offensively and is right up there with the best players in all of college basketball. If he is on his game, one has to like Oregon’s chances.
California Golden Bears
California seemed primed for another NCAA Tournament berth, but after losing five of their last six games to close out the regular season, one has to question whether they deserve to be included. The Golden Bears are a terrific defensive team, but to say they have been terrible offensively as of late might be an understatement. Their point totals in their last two games have been 44 against Utah and 46 against Colorado. The team shooting percentages were abysmal at 23.5% and 27.3%, respectively. Those kinds of performances are inexcusable with the talent on their roster. California is averaging under 70 points per game with big time players such as Ivan Raab and Jabari Bird. One of the biggest reasons for that is that they average only 12.2 assists per game, which is one of the worst in the country. They also do not have great complementary scorers to Raab and Bird. Now they really have their backs against the wall going into the postseason. They may actually have to win the Pac-12 tournament to make the NCAA Tournament with the hole they have dug themselves into.
Pac-12 Award Predictions:
Player/Freshman of the Year:
Lonzo Ball, Guard (UCLA)
(See above). There has not been a player in college basketball who has had as large of an impact as Ball has. UCLA was near the bottom of the Pac-12 last season, and Ball has brought them back to being a national power.
Coach of the Year:
Steve Alford (UCLA)
Alford has put together a team, whose offensive prowess makes them one of the most dangerous teams in the country. The Bruins are third in the Pac-12, with a 15-3 record, a monumental improvement from last year’s 6-12 record. Alford has a very talented and skilled team that plays so unselfishly, and one that ranks first in the nation in both points and assists. While the defense has not been great throughout the season, the improvement seen in the last couple of weeks brings optimism for the Bruins’ tournament success.
Most Improved Player:
Kyle Kuzma, Forward (Utah)
Kuzma averages 17 points and 9 rebounds per game during conference play and has been one of the best big men in the Pac-12. This is a huge leap from the 9.8 points and 5.9 rebounds per game he averaged last season. He has been a more than suitable replacement for the void that needed to be filled after Jakob Poeltl left for the NBA. Although it took some time, Kuzma fills that role extremely well. It is due to Kuzma’s improvement in the role of team leader that Utah finds itself with a chance at a bid that seemed impossible after their non-conference slate. They are still not guaranteed to make the tournament, but without Kuzma, there wouldn’t even be a chance.
Defensive Player of the Year:
Jordan Bell, Forward (Oregon)
Jordan Bell has been incredibly efficient in the paint. He currently leads the Pac-12 in block percentage, defensive rating, and defensive win shares. He is also 8th in both steal percentage and defensive rebounding percentage. Even though Bell’s teammate Chris Boucher gets more attention, as he averages over two blocks per game in conference play, Bell has done more to contribute to the team’s defense while on the floor. Expect one of the Oregon big men to take home the award, with Jordan Bell being the favorite.