Pac-12 power resides in Bay Area

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Pac-12 power resides in Bay Area

With nearly a month of the non-conference season behind us, it's very possible that the top-two teams in the Pac-12 make their home in the Bay Area. Cal, a preseason favorite by many pundits, is expected, but Stanford is the leagues surprise team to date.

If the Cardinal and Bears do end up at the top of the leagues standings, it may not seem all that newsworthy. Yet looking back the last two decades, it quickly becomes clear how rare it is for the Pac-12 basketball power to reside up north.

Stanford and Cal have never finished 1-2 in the conference basketball standings, and the eras of where both programs have even been "good" at the same time are few and far between.

Only four times in the last 20 years have both programs made the NCAA Tournament in the same year (three of those years coming back-to-back-to back in 2000-2003).

This year appears to be different, partly due to the respective strength of both teams and even moreso by the relative softness of many other programs in the league. Early returns show that Cal and Stanford need only to beat out Arizona and Washington at the top of the league standings, and even those teams have their share of weaknesses. (Not buying into Oregon States early 6-1 record yet).

The Bears are not a complete team, the way many Pac-12 title contenders from most years are, but that might not be needed this year. What the Bears lack in experienced frontcourt depth and overall team athleticism, they make up for with a triangle of effective, balanced scorers in senior guard Jorge Guttierez, sophomore wing Allen Crabbe and senior forward Harper Kamp. Transfer guard Justin Cobbs is quickly emerging as another scoring option for the Bears, and is helping Mike Montgomery's team through the stretch without suspended post player Richard Solomon.

Without Solomon, the Bears went small on the road against a nationally ranked SDSU team, starting four guards. Cal jumped out to a 6-0 lead and stood toe to toe for the duration with the Aztecs on the road, before losing a close contest in a hostile environment. Freshman David Kravish is getting valuable experience for the Bears in this stretch up front. All in all, Cal likely comes out of their non-conference schedule 10-3, and a favorite to win the league.

Down on the Farm, the Cardinal have quietly put together the most impressive non-conference resume to date in the league, doing so with a very balanced scoring attack (five players averaging between seven and 12 ppg). Stanford is deep both on the perimeter and up front, they are quick, and they are much better defensively than they have been the last few years.

At 8-1 with wins over Big 12 member Oklahoma State and ACC member NC State, and their only loss a close defeat in the Garden against Syracuse in a game they led until the final minutes, the Cardinal are in great position. They will likely head into Pac 12 play 11-1, with the best record in the league.

Circle Jan. 29 (at Haas Pavilion) and March 4 (at Maples) on your calendars. These games, conveniently the last game on both rounds of conference play, might have bigger meaning this year than ever before.

BAY AREA TEAM OF THE WEEK: Stanford. The Cardinal (8-1) are rolling heading into their two week-long break for finals. A blowout road win at Seattle last Thursday was nice, but the 12 point second half comeback against NC State Sunday was their best win of the year. Stanford has the best record in the Pac 12, three winnable home games before league play begins, and are in prime position for their first Tournament berth since 2007-2008.

BAY AREA TEAM OF THE WEAK: UC Davis. First year coach Jim Les knew he had his hands full this year, but their home game against Idaho Saturday was their best chance for a Division I win heading into Big West play. They lost by 20. It now gets ugly Davis with four road games to end non-conference play, meaning they will likely be 0-11 in Division I games heading into the New Year.
BAY AREA PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Santa Claras junior guard Kevin Foster wins his first weekly award, with a 20 point, 7 rebound, 6 assist performance in Santa Claras 71-58 win over CSUN. Foster was 4-9 from 3-pt land, bringing his overall career made 3s total to a whopping 272, the most ever for a Bay Area college player (ex-SCU great Steve Nash had the previous high at 263). The win moved the Broncos to 5-2 overall, with some nice wins under their belt, and a winnable game at Washington State Sunday up next.

GAME OF THE WEEK (that was): Cals 64-63 loss to San Diego State was a hard fought contest between two quality teams. The Bears were down two late but failed to get a rebound on a miss from the Aztecs and were forced to foul, so never had a last possession to tie or win the game. No team led by more than five points in the second half, and fellow sophomores Allen Crabbe (23 points) and Justin Cobbs (17 points), had 40 of Cals 63 points.

GAME (s) OF THE WEEK (ahead): Light slate this week with many Bay Area teams being in final exams, so Santa Clara at Washington State Sunday gets the nod as the game of the week. The Broncos will try for their third straight win (and five out of six), and with it give the WCC a fifth win over the Pac 12. Cal plays tonight at home against SJSU, trying for their 19th straight win without a loss versus the Spartans, in Berkeley.

NOTABLE: USF won another close game last week at Montana, 65-62. That is 11 wins by three points or less (or overtime) this year or last, against only two losses. Thats four more wins than anyone in the nation has in the same stretch.

QUOTABLE: USF head coach Rex Walters after his teams 65-62 win at Montana last week: "This is a tough place to win. It's a tough flight coming into here. There was a lot of adversity. We had to fight for everything tonight. The guys were on edge and wanted to come here and get a win."

BY THE NUMBERS: The Mountain West certainly has had the best resume of any conference in the west thus far. Their overall league record is 52-14, and they are 4 in early conference power ratings. Every team in the league is over .500.

Dan Shell has been an assistantcoach at the Division I level at three different institutions includingSaint Mary's College. He currently works for IMG College, whichprovides sports marketing services for Division I universities andconferences. Have questions or comments? Emailhim here.

Stanford star McCaffrey boosts NFL Draft stock with special teams skills

Stanford star McCaffrey boosts NFL Draft stock with special teams skills

INDIANAPOLIS -- More and more college coaches are putting their starters and even their stars on special teams as they seek to pile up every possible point in an era of pedal-to-the-metal shootouts and never-safe leads.

Fading fast are the days when superstars would catch their breath on the sideline when the kicker or punter trotted onto the field with the scrubs.

NFL teams love it.

Watching how players handle themselves as a blocker, gunner or returner provides a glimpse into a prospect's range, selflessness and versatility. It also delivers a sneak peek into how coachable he'll be, says Phil Savage, the SiriusXM NFL Radio host who spent two decades as an NFL coach, scout and executive and now oversees the Senior Bowl.

"I think because of the landscape of college football where scoring is at a premium, you've got to figure out a way to put points on the board not only on offense but through your special teams and defensively, as well," Savage says. "These coaches want to get these young players on the field as soon as possible, and a way to do that is utilize them on special teams."

These tapes provide a bonus to pro scouts.

"Now you have a vision of what that player might forecast to in the NFL as a young player and, specifically, as a rookie," Savage said.

Offensive and defensive coaches have a better idea of the types of players they're integrating into their schemes, and special teams coaches no longer get blank stares and blank canvases from the rookie class.

"Not only do you like the fact that they come in and have experience doing it, but you love the mentality if you're a coach and a decision maker that this guy isn't a diva, he's got no ego about it, he understands the team and puts team before self," says ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay.

"And he comes in with the mindset of 'What can I do to help the team and how can I contribute?' Those are the guys that seem to make it and last longer in the league because they're just willing to do different things and whatever it takes."

The prime example in this year's draft class is Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey , a "dynamic player than can do it all," according to Broncos GM John Elway.

McCaffrey gained more than 5,000 yards from scrimmage in his college career and added almost 2,000 more as a returner.

"There's just a lot of big plays open in the return game," McCaffrey says. "You see special teams have such an impact on the game today. Any time I can have the ball in my hands, I feel like I can do something dangerous, and that's really why I love the return game."

Other highly touted draft prospects who polished their resumes on special teams include Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers, LSU safety Jamal Adams, Washington wide receiver John Ross, and USC cornerback Adroee' Jackson, all of whom are projected as high selections.

McShay says "we're seeing more and more programs put an emphasis on special teams and having their key players contribute in one or more areas on special teams."

He pointed to Ohio State, where Urban Myers coaches special teams himself.

"It's a major emphasis there, and so you'll see some more guys typically lined up and contributing that are starters and stars," McShay says. "It's an honor to be on special teams."

Not a burden.

"It is not uncommon now to see people that are going to be picked in the first round having 100-plus special teams plays," suggests NFL draft consultant and former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt.

He pointed to the University of Florida, where Gators defensive backs cover kickoffs as well as they do receivers.

"Everyone's always trying to get their best guys on the field," Brandt says.

That's a change from years past when coaches feared exposing their star players to the extra hits.

The added value benefits the players, whose multiple talents allow NFL general managers to address many needs.

"We're seeing more emphasis on it in college, and I think NFL teams love to see it because if just means you're getting a bit more for your buck," McShay says.

Top talents who bolstered their value by playing special teams:

CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY , RB, STANFORD: He shined at the combine working out with the running backs and was as impressive running routes. Asked if there was anything he couldn't do, the son of former NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffrey said then: "I can't sing."

JABRILL PEPPERS , S, MICHIGAN: He worked out with safeties and linebackers at the combine, where teams talked of him playing RB and WR in addition to returning kicks. "The bottom line is I'm a ballplayer and I'm a hell of a ballplayer," Peppers said.

JOHN ROSS , WR, WASHINGTON: He caught 81 passes with 17 TDs last season but actually posted more return yards (2,069) than scrimmage yards (1,924) in his college career.

ADOREE' JACKSON , CB, USC: One of the best special teams coverage players in the NCAA, Jackson also scored eight TDs on punt and kick returns in college. His punt return averages rose from 6.0 yards to 10.5 and 15.8.

JAMAL ADAMS , S, LSU: Another star in coverage, Adams' defensive mentality extends to special teams. "I love being on the field and just playing football," said Adams, whose father, George, was a first-round pick by the Giants in 1985.

ALVIN KAMARA , RB, TENNESSEE: In a deep running back group, Kamara separates himself with his special teams acumen. "A lot of teams have been bringing up special teams," Kamara said.

DESMOND KING , CB, IOWA: He had eight interceptions as a junior and three as a senior. "I had a really good special teams season," King said. "Not being targeted as much, I still went out there and competed the best I could and was still making plays."

CHRIS WORMLEY , DE, MICHIGAN: Wormley touts playing for Jim Harbaugh as one of his attributes. "Coach Harbaugh came in and ran our program like an NFL program, like he had with the 49ers," said Wormley, who blocked three kicks his senior season.

ZAY JONES , WR, EAST CAROLINA: Like McCaffrey, he has good NFL bloodlines (son of Robert Jones, brother of Cayleb Jones). He caught 158 passes as a senior, but spent his first two seasons in college also making his mark as a returner.

Former Napa star Josh Jackson leaving Kansas, entering NBA Draft

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Former Napa star Josh Jackson leaving Kansas, entering NBA Draft

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Josh Jackson declared for the NBA draft on Monday after one of the best freshman seasons in Kansas history, one marked by plenty of highlights on the floor and a few distractions off it.

The 6-foot-8 swingman, who is considered a certain lottery pick, was the Big 12 newcomer of the year after averaging 16.3 points and 7.4 rebounds. He helped the Jayhawks to a 31-5 record and its 13th straight regular season Big 12 title before losing to Oregon in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.

Jackson signed with former NBA player B.J. Armstrong of Wasserman Media Group.

"After thoroughly consulting with my family, I have decided to enter the 2017 NBA draft and pursue my dream of playing professional basketball," Jackson said in a statement Monday.

"I am very thankful for all of the support I have received from my coaches and teammates at Kansas," he said, "and I look forward to starting my career in the NBA."

Jackson was the nation's No. 1 recruit when he signed with the Jayhawks out of Prolific Prep Academy in California. He immediately earned a spot in the starting lineup, teaming with national player of the year Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham to form one of the nation's top backcourts.

With natural athleticism and ability to slash to the basket - not to mention defensive chops that are rare among freshmen - Jackson quickly established himself as one of the nation's top draft prospects.

His importance was never more evident than in the Big 12 Tournament, when he was suspended by coach Bill Self following a series of off-the-court issues. The top-seeded Jayhawks stumbled in a quarterfinal loss to TCU, ending their run at the conference tournament before it really began.

He returned for the NCAA Tournament and played well in wins over UC Davis, Michigan State and Purdue, but was hamstrung by foul trouble and managed just 10 points in a season-ending loss to the Ducks.

Jackson's suspension came following an incident outside a Lawrence bar in December, when a member of the Kansas women's basketball team got into an altercation with Jackson's teammate, Lagerald Vick.

Jackson followed the woman to the parking lot and the woman said he kicked her car and caused hundreds of dollars in damage. He pleaded not guilty last week in Douglas County District Court to one misdemeanor count of criminal damage to property and a trial is scheduled for May 24.

His attorney, Hatem Chahine, said he was planning to file for diversion.

Jackson also was ticketed in February after he struck a parked car and fled the scene, and that drew Self's ire when he didn't tell his coach about the incident until several weeks later.

His decision to declare for the draft came a week after teammate Svi Mykhailiuk announced he would skip his senior season. But unlike Jackson, the 6-8 sharpshooter has not hired an agent and could withdraw his name by May 24 and return to the Jayhawks.