The Pac-12 season was a lot of fun, but now is when things get interesting.
First off, I should be blown away by the Arizona representation in the Pac-12 Conference awards that were released on Monday, but I am not. If you have two teams that finished in the top three of the conference, there should be players from both teams littered all over the all-conference teams. The Wildcats ended up with five represented, including Coach of the Year Sean Miller, and ASU had three.
I am very happy for Nick Johnson. Since he arrived in Tucson after a great high school career at Findlay Prep and Highland High School, he has been hearing about what his role on a team should be based on his size and abilities. Being told he is too small and not consistent enough from the outside to be a shooting guard and he doesn’t handle the ball well enough to be a point guard. Been hearing it for three seasons now.What has Johnson done despite all of that. Do whatever his team asks of him night-in and night-out for the most part and have that be that. The Wildcats did not have a go-too scorer on the roster going into the season. That was the big question with all these great athletes, who will they rely on to get a bucket when needed. We had seen Johnson fade down the stretch during each of his first two seasons. He hit somewhat of a freshman wall and then I recall a game at USC late last season where Miller benched him for most of the second half. Sure he wasn’t incredible in every game this season, but when the team needed a basket, when the team needed a defensive stand or when the team needed a leader, he was always there. He’s a major reason why this team only lost three games all year.
On the Arizona State side of things, if Jordan Bachynski wasn’t the defensive player of the year, it would be one of the biggest snubs of all-time in the history of conference accolades. Rarely do you see game winning blocked shots. Bachynski has brought about the phrase, “the walk-off block,” as he did so in three of ASU’s close wins against Marquette, Arizona and Oregon. He leads the nation in blocks per game and set the conference record for most career blocks.
Jermaine Marshall was good enough in conference and this season to land on the second team. I would love to see the final tally of votes because there had to have been a log jam for those who received votes. Hard to leave players like Bachynski, McConnell, Nelson, Young and Wilcox off. Seeing Mike Moser left off tells you how close it had to have been.
With March Madness set to get underway, there are two major keys that stand out to me with both in-state teams for them to have success.
For Arizona, it seems pretty simple but it hasn’t always been the case. Score 70 points.
Here is a fun stat for you, the Wildcats only allowed a team to score 70 points or more on them twice ALL SEASON. The first at Michigan and second at UCLA. Both were still victories. Their defense is absolutely phenomenal. They make teams look like they haven’t practiced offense at all during stretches of games. The Wildcats in their three losses scored 58 at Cal, needed double overtime to get to 66 at ASU and had 57 at Oregon. Yes their offense isn’t always a thing of beauty, but if they can somehow manage to just get to 70 points at least, their defense will take care of the rest.
They will win the conference tournament and maybe also the NCAA Tournament if they score at least 70 points
For ASU it is a little more complicated then just reaching a specific number, but one simple key for them is to get Jermaine Marshall going. They had eight losses in the Pac-12. Marshall played in seven of them (did not play in loss at Arizona). In those seven losses he averaged 12.2 points per game. In their 10 conference wins, he averaged 17.4 points per game. It’s not rocket science that when Marshall is rolling, the Sun Devils are a better team. But I do think there needs to be a concerted effort on ASU’s part to get Marshall good looks early and get him into a groove. He is the most battle tested of anyone on this roster as a senior who knows what it takes to win big games this time of year. So get the ball into his hands.
That doesn’t mean Jahii Carson needs to scale back what he does, but at the same time, the Sun Devils are 13-2 this season when Jahii has five assists or more in a game. Marshall score + Carson assist = Sun Devils advance.
This conference tournament will be a lot of fun. I think the biggest test for Arizona before the championship game will believe it or not, be Utah potentially in the second round. They are playing very well right now.
ASU will have to channel their ability to play at home as opposed to how they do on the road. The home version got the better of Stanford and Oregon but they came up short to both of them plus UCLA on the road. Two of those three teams will be what stands in the way of them reaching the title game.
In the end, I think Arizona will solidify themselves as the conference’s regular season and tournament champions.