- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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No time to waste with the preamble this week. Anyway, you know the drill. Let's hop right in:
1. California: Just as Cal appeared set to create some separation between itself and the rest of the Pac-12 -- separation it deserves, given its statistical superiority and meaty efficiency margins thus far -- the Bears lost a two-point heartbreaker at Washington State. So why are they still No. 1? Two reasons:
Because Washington State, for all its struggles on the road, is a different team at home. The Cougars have averaged 1.17 points per possession in their four home conference games to date. Ken Bone's team is 3-1 at home. It's tough to beat Wazzu in Pullman.
Because, based on the season to date, Cal still looks like the best team in this league. That's been the case pretty much all season, and a road loss here and there isn't going to change that perception. And rightfully so.
This is hardly a great team, of course, but the Pac-12 is hardly a great conference. You don't have to be great to be the best team in this league. You merely need to be good, and we can safely say that much about this Bears team.
2. Oregon: Let's take a moment and pass some credit in the direction of Oregon coach Dana Altman, who for the second straight season is building his team into a force to be dealt with in Pac-12 play. On Saturday, the Ducks posted a solid, if unspectacular, home win over UCLA. Don't look now, but that's Oregon's fourth victory in a row and one that moved the Ducks into a first-place tie with Cal at 6-2.
3. Washington: The Huskies appear to be rounding into a collective form proportionate to their talent-rich parts. Thursday's home loss to Cal was tough, but UW nearly came all the way back from a 13-point deficit on their way to a near miss in the final moments. Washington handily dispatched Stanford at home Saturday, moving to 5-2 in league play in the process. Has this team turned a corner? Meh. It's hard to say. But inconsistent as they are, the Huskies seem to be piecing together longer stretches of quality performance.
4. Stanford: Tough week for the Cardinal. Johnny Dawkins' team took it in the teeth twice on the road this week, losing 81-69 at Washington State and 76-63 at Washington. We've already established that Washington State is particularly tough at home, and that Washington is improving, so it's not as if either loss is all that damning. Taken together, though, it's hard to fight the impression that Stanford isn't quite good enough to stay afloat when it goes on the road, and if it can't do that, it will struggle to keep pace with Cal at the top of the league.
5. Colorado: This is a big week for the Buffaloes. Thursday and Saturday's home wins -- the latter of which was a 64-63 win over Arizona -- moved them to 5-2 in league play, but the biggest tests lie ahead. Colorado hasn't won a Pac-12 road game yet. This week, it travels to USC and UCLA. How Tad Boyle's team fares on the road will be the defining characteristic of their season.
6. Oregon State: Oregon State's record isn't particularly attractive -- the Beavers are still just 3-5 in the standings -- but they did take care of business at home this week, topping UCLA 87-84 and easily dispatching winless USC. The Beavers, like so many of the teams around them, aren't setting the world ablaze by any means, and they'll have to toughen up in upcoming road games if they want to bounce back from their 1-5 start and make some noise at the top of the league before the season is out.
7. UCLA: The Bruins just can't get over the hump. Every time we think this team is going to get it together, they toss in another uninspiring and/or just plain bad performance, and their still-shaky record (now 10-9) takes another hit. There was some hope that the departure of Reeves Nelson would stabilize this bunch. More and more, it's looking like the Bruins just are what they are -- which is not as bad as their nonconference performance, but certainly not good enough to stage a second-half season redemption.
8. Arizona: Speaking of teams that seem like they should be improving, but probably aren't? The Arizona Wildcats fit that bill. There was some inclination, at least in these parts, that Arizona's highly touted young guards (especially Josiah Turner) would overcome their early setbacks and make good on their immense talent in the second half of the season. That hasn't really been the case, at least not yet, and until it is -- which is still a matter of "if," not "when" -- Arizona doesn't scare anyone.
9. Washington State: Hey, Ken Bone's team isn't half bad! Provided, of course, it is playing at home. Everyone's more comfortable at home, of course, but few teams in the country seem to suffer such a disparity between their play on their own court and their play away from it. That's why I'm not ready to put Washington State much higher than this spot this week. The Cougars have to show some of that efficient offense in another team's building before I'm willing to let the excitement boil over into a thrilling rise to, like, fifth or sixth. These are the conference power rankings, Smokey. There are rules.
10. Utah: Believe it! A few weeks ago, I thought it would be a miracle if Utah got out of last place in these rankings even once. The Utes did that last week. This week, the unthinkable happened again. Yes, it's a move to No. 10. What gives? The Utes are playing some pretty decent basketball. Or, at the very least, they're playing much better than they did for the first two months of the season, when they were easily the worst major-conference team in the country. Since then, though, Utah has played a host of its Pac-12 foes close. This week, it did more than that -- blowing out Arizona State in its own building 64-43. OK, so it's just Arizona State. But compared to where Larry Krystkowiak's team was this season, and considering it just dismissed its best and most frequently used player (Josh "Jiggy" Watkins, the nation's leader in usage rate), a move two whole spots out of the Pac-12 cellar is legitimate cause for celebration. Cheers, Utes!
11. Arizona State/12. USC: For the first two months of the season, the only thing keeping Arizona State from being the undisputed worst team in this league was Utah. Now, it's USC. The offensively offensive Trojans are still winless in this brutally bad league; they inhabit a special area of ineptitude here. Arizona State, meanwhile, is going to struggle the rest of the season. That much was clear in Salt Lake City on Saturday. But at least the Sun Devils have toppled a couple of so-so opponents at home. We can't even say that much for Kevin O'Neill's team.