Shabazz Muhammad doing Las Vegas proud at UCLA

Mar 5, 2013 3:00 AM

There’s the Big 5 in Pac 12 basketball with a string of teams battling for the top spot. Here’s a look at the strengths and weaknesses of some of the league’s best teams.

Arizona

The Wildcats were young and talented last year, now they are just talented. They are getting it done with defense and rebounding behind 6’6” senior Solomon Hill (14 ppg, 5½ rpg) and 6’8” freshman Brandon Ashley up front, with senior guard Mark Lyons (15 ppg) running the break and leading the team in scoring. Arizona is second in the Pac 12 in scoring and third in points allowed, a perfect mix.

U of A started 14-0 before losing in January at Oregon 70-66. Their non-conference slate featured an impressive win over Florida, 65-64. The Wildcats are not under anyone’s radar, 3-8 ATS following a win and 2-6 ATS at home. They can play any style and are tough defensively.

Note: The Cats are on a 17-7-1 run UNDER and have a big edge at the free throw line – second in the conference at 74.2%.

Oregon

The Ducks started 18-2 before a three-game conference slump in early February as the offense went cold, scoring 52, 54 and 47 in losses to Stanford, Cal and Colorado. Despite a non-conference defeat to Cincinnati, they also have wins over Arizona and UCLA, the latter on the road.

Oregon gets it done behind the one-two punch of 6’7” senior Arsalan Kazemi (9 ppg, 10 rpg) and 6’6” senior E.J. Singler (11.6 ppg, 5 rpg). OU is second in the conference in points allowed, fourth in points scored. The Ducks have been money-burners of late, including an 0-6 ATS run at home.

Note: Oddsmakers haven’t caught up to their defense, on an 11-4 run UNDER. Oregon finishes the regular season at Colorado and Utah.

UCLA

Ben Howland used to be all about playing suffocating defense in a slow-down style. No more. Big Ben has a slew of talented offensive kids, leading the Pac 12 in scoring behind the dynamic freshman duo of 6’6” Las Vegas native Shabazz Muhammad (18.5 ppg) and Jordan Adams (15 ppg), while senior guard Larry Drew III dishes out 7.7 assists per contest.

The Bruins can still play defense, tops in the Pac 12 at defending the three-pointer allowing just 30% shooting. Will all that youth be a problem come tourney time? The Bruins coughed up an 18-point lead in a stunning 70-68 loss to Cal Poly.

Note: UCLA has had trouble with tough defensive teams, losing to Georgetown (78-70), San Diego St. (78-69) and Oregon (76-67).

California

The Golden Bears are more defensive-oriented, second only to Utah in the conference in field goal shooting defense, allowing 40%. 6’6” junior Allen Crabbe (19.5 ppg) and junior guard Justin Cobbs (14.7 ppg) carry the offense while 6’9” soph David Kravish (9 ppg, 7 rpg) leads in rebounds.

Cal struggled early when stepping up, losing three in a row to Wisconsin (81-56), UNLV (76-75) and Creighton (74-64), before getting big conference wins over Oregon (twice) and Arizona. That was a concern a year ago, too, as they didn’t play well against top competition, getting blown out by Missouri (92-53) and UNLV (85-68).

Note: Cal is on a 9-3 run UNDER and 21-7-1 ATS in Saturday games.

Arizona State

What a turnaround! The Sun Devils lost 20-plus games last year but have 20 victories this year by winning close games. They are not a big team, but have been on a roll behind local hero freshman guard Jahi Carson (17.7 ppg) and 6’6” senior Carrick Felix (14.5 ppg, 8 rpg). ASU has won a string of close games, including a 3-0 start in overtime contests.

They play excellent defense, 40% shooting allowed (third in the Pac 12). The Sun Devils have been under the radar, on a 9-4 ATS run and a 21-6-1 run UNDER the total. Arizona State ends the regular season with road games at UCLA, USC and rival Arizona.

Note: One weakness that will hurt in March: 62% free throw shooting, dead last in the Pac 12.

Jim Feist, author and leader in sports information for over 40 years, hosts TV’s Proline as well as running National Sports Services since 1975. Reach him at [email protected]

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