It’s not as though most conferences in this crazy, cluttered and clamorous college basketball season are portraits of stability and top-to-bottom clarity. Moreover, it’s not as though established powers are uniformly retaining their places in the top tiers of conferences.
Duke is in trouble. Kentucky is clearly not the favorite in a very weak SEC — imagine that.
Michigan State is enduring a particularly rough patch right now. Virginia is beginning to settle down, but the Cavaliers are not that far removed from an ugly week in the ACC. Kansas lost a second straight Big 12 road game by a double-digit margin. It’s chaos out there — everywhere, not just a few isolated areas.
College basketball is nutty this season. We can see it from shore to shore and border to border.
Yet, in the midst of this insanity, one power conference seems to be even less orderly than the others: the Pac-12.
In the ACC, North Carolina is holding down the fort and lending some order to the league race. The SEC’s third through 13th spots are very much up for grabs, but Texas A&M continues to give every appearance that it’s a formidable team. Kentucky is still very likely to finish second. In the Big Ten, Maryland and Iowa are going to be in the race until the end, even if other teams are still mysteries at this point. The Big 12 could get wild, and Kansas could lose its hold on power, but it’s pretty clear that the Jayhawks will be involved in a tight race with Oklahoma, West Virginia, Baylor, and possibly Iowa State. Those teams might not be great, but they’re all extremely likely to make the NCAA tournament.
The Pac-12 doesn’t seem to be moving to the same beat — not yet.
Let’s start with the league’s most established modern-day power, Arizona. The Wildcats do figure to be in the mix until the end of the season in much the same way that Kansas does in the Big 12. That’s a reasonable claim. However (the Pac-12’s scheduling system inspires this next line of thought), getting swept on the UCLA-USC road trip suggests that Arizona could be extremely weak when not playing at the McKale Center.
For those who don’t follow the Pac-12 all that closely, the league has its teams play two-game homestands or road trips each week, if not playing an in-state (or in-region, in the case of Utah-Colorado) rivalry game. When teams get swept on road trips early in the season, a red flag immediately goes up.
Arizona’s defensive impotence against UCLA and USC on that recent Los Angeles road trip is something coach Sean Miller could definitely repair in the next month. However, it’s a harder fix compared to a team which puts forth great effort but doesn’t hit shots on a given night. Arizona lost a majority of its starting five from last season’s Elite Eight group. No matter how proven a program might be, a substantial transition always invites the possibility of a wayward season. Arizona deserves the benefit of the doubt to a certain extent, but the identity of the Wildcats is — as of yet — unknown.
Then the forecast for the Pac-12 becomes particularly foggy — in the Pacific Northwest and the Bay Area, yes (they know what fog looks like), but also in the sunshine-drenched regions of the conference.
Utah 62, Oregon 20 — it was one of the most confusing results of the 2015 college football season. The Pac-12 basketball season might have thrown a similar curveball when Oregon went into Salt Lake City and thumped the Utes, 77-59, last week. Yes, Oregon coach Dana Altman is someone to be trusted in a volatile conference. He offers every indication that he’ll guide the Ducks back to the Big Dance. Yet, what does that result say about Utah?
The Utes are in significant trouble.
It all began rather innocently for coach Larry Krystkowiak’s bunch. Four missed foul shots by quality free throw shooters doomed Utah in a loss at Stanford on New Year’s Night, when college football fans strayed from a lopsided Sugar Bowl to unexpectedly catch some roundball. It was easy for Utah and its fans to blow off that loss as the product of an accident. However, the Utes have been quite ordinary over the past two and a half weeks, the 18-point home loss to Oregon being a perfect example.
The basic formula for Pac-12 supremacy is to sweep your two-game homestands and split most of your road trips, finding a way to sweep one of those roadies over the course of the season. If you can do that and win the road edition of your in-state rivalry game, you’re 15-3 after the 18-game regular season schedule. If you fail to win the rivalry roadie, you’re still 14-4. Utah did win at Colorado in its “rivalry game,” but the Utes have already gotten swept on a road swing (at the Bay Area schools), and have split a homestand (to the Oregon schools). A sweep of the Washington schools this week — in Pullman and Seattle — would immediately reaffirm the Utes as a tournament team. Getting swept by Washington State and Washington would just as clearly reignite a discussion about the Utes’ future.
Speaking of the Washington team the Utes will visit on Sunday… the Huskies have begun the Pac-12 season by doing the very thing Utah has failed to do. Yet, few are convinced that Lorenzo Romar’s team is the real deal… precisely because the rest of the conference doesn’t know how good (or bad) it is.
Did Washington beat UCLA because the Bruins are weak on the road, or because the Huskies have something special brewing this season? Washington came back from a large deficit to upend USC. The Trojans are a much-improved team under coach Andy Enfield — now comfortable in his third season on the job — but just how legitimate are the Men of Troy? If they can split road trips over the next month, it will be a lot easier to say that the Trojans are on their way back to the Dance.
California just learned that leading scorer Tyrone Wallace will be out four to six weeks with a broken wrist. Hyped freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb have not been able to provide as much of a transformative influence as first hoped. They and the rest of the Golden Bears are in pure survival mode for the next month.
Arizona State whacked Texas A&M (a very good team). It lost at home to Washington and is 1-4 in the Pac-12. Will the real Sun Devils please stand up? It might be for worse, but ASU is yet another typical Pac-12 team: a mystery.
You can give Arizona the benefit of the doubt. You can assume that UCLA will get the benefit of the doubt if it’s on the bubble come Selection Sunday. You can trust Dana Altman to get Oregon into the NCAA tournament. Yet, do you know how the next eight weeks will unfold in the Pac-12?
More uncertainty pervades this conference than any other Power 5 league in the country.
It’s fun… but bring your motion sickness medicine and some Maalox as well.