The Pac-12 Conference features several of the top freshmen in the nation.
The Colorado Buffaloes already have received an intimate look at three of them. Arizona 7-footer Lauri Markkanen went 4-for-5 on 3-pointers with 22 points in a CU road loss on Jan. 7, and while the Buffs held UCLA standout guard Lonzo Ball to 11 points last week, he still compiled eight assists in a Bruins rout. Same with UCLA’S TJ Leaf, who had a pedestrian night by his standards against CU with 12 points and five rebounds.
Now it’s Markelle Fultz’s turn.
Already projected by many mock drafts as the likely top overall selection in this year’s NBA draft if he decides to leave school, the University of Washington guard will be the focus of the Buffs’ defensive effort Wednesday night as a desperate CU team attempts to end its winless run in league play.
“Markelle Fultz is a much more scoring-minded point guard than Lonzo Ball is, but he can also pass. It’s not like he’s a black hole because he can distribute the ball as well,” CU coach Tad Boyle said. “Terrific player. He can take, and make, bad shots. He’s got that ability to rise up and make tough shots with guys in his face, much like (UCLA’s) Bryce Alford did here.
“He’s a guy we’ve got great respect for. He’s a terrific talent. And he’s got guys around him that are capable too.”
Washington also boasted a pair of standout one-and-done freshmen last year in Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray, both of whom were selected in the first round of the 2016 NBA draft. Yet like last year, the influx of a remarkable individual talent like Fultz hasn’t helped elevate the Huskies into the mix as a league contender. Washington enters Wednesday’s game with a 1-4 mark in the Pac-12, despite Fultz leading the league in scoring (22.2) and ranking second to Ball in assists (6.1).
Speaking of Alford, his career night against CU helped the UCLA senior nab this week’s Pac-12 Conference Player of the Week honor.
Alford, the son of UCLA coach Steve Alford, scored a career-best 39 points last Thursday against the Buffs, matching a UCLA program record by knocking down nine 3-pointers. Alford’s effort helped the Bruins set a school record with 19 3-pointers against the Buffs, a mark that also fell just one short of the record by a CU opponent.
Alford also added 15 points Saturday in UCLA’s one-point win at Utah.
Game of the week
UCLA, Arizona, and Oregon clearly have separated themselves from the pack in the Pac-12, with USC, Cal, and Utah huddled together at the next tier. While Oregon already topped UCLA in a thriller almost three weeks ago, there will be another opportunity for some separation at the top of the league standings on Saturday, when the third-ranked Bruins host No. 14 Arizona at 2 p.m. MST.