Can you figure out the Pac-12? Neither can I

January, 6, 2012
1/06/12
2:30
PM ET
What follows is a list of results from Thursday's night Pac-12 play.
This is a list of facts. These facts are not in dispute. The information is not the problem. The interpretation is.

Or, to put it more simply, I have absolutely no idea what's going on in the Pac-12. Either that, or I know exactly what's going on in the Pac-12. It's one of the two.

Allow me to explain.

The causes for confusion are many. Colorado has looked like a middling team for much of the season, both at home and on the road. Washington has looked like the most talented team in the conference, albeit one struggling with chemistry issues and prone to major defensive breakdowns. Still, with Tony Wroten improving, Terrence Ross providing great wing play, and the rest of the talent on Lorenzo Romar's roster, the Huskies should be a frontrunner in this league. Washington won its first two Pac-12 games -- versus Oregon and Oregon State -- by a combined margin of 31 points. But on Thursday night, they gave up 87 points to Colorado.

Stanford and Cal, the two putative league favorites and the only two teams in this league with adjusted efficiency rankings among the top 40 in the country (Cal even ranks No. 23!), both lost in the state of Oregon. Neither game was a major upset; Oregon and Oregon State both showed flashes of effective basketball throughout nonconference play. But Matthew Knight Arena is not a bastion of road difficulty; to paraphrase the ogre in Happy Gilmore, Virginia accomplished that feat no more than three weeks ago. Again, Washington beat both Oregon and Oregon State last week. Then it lost by 18 in Boulder.

Meanwhile, UCLA -- which has spent the past two months in utter disrepair -- beat Arizona, one of the league's most consistently solid teams, at the Honda Center in Anaheim. Just last week, UCLA lost two games on the road, 60-59 at Stanford and 85-69 at Cal.

[+] EnlargeColorado's Carlon Brown
Ron Chenoy/US PRESSWIREColorado leading scorer Carlon Brown and the Buffaloes sit on top of the Pac-12 standings.
Arizona State has been putrid all season, boasting one of the nation's highest turnover percentages and one of its most anemic defenses. Even worse, on Thursday ASU suspended two starters and one reserve, Keala King, Kyle Cain and Chris Colvin, respectively, and none of the three made the trip to play USC Thursday night. But the Sun Devils, 4-9 upon their arrival, overcame USC's combination of stalwart defense and atrocious offense in time to secure a 62-53 win.

And then there's Utah. (I still think this should be the alternate title for my Pac-12 power rankings, by the way.) The Utes rank among the country's worst teams, period. Not in the high-major classification. Not in a "everybody but the Great West and the SWAC and Towson" sort of way. No, the Utes rank No. 327 in Pomeroy's rankings, currently one spot ahead of Arkansas Pine-Bluff and one spot below -- yes, below -- UMBC. Tracking the teams adjacent to Utah in these rankings has been one of the more underrated aspects of the season.

But guess what? The Utes got their first Pac-12 victory in history Thursday night, playing the rare efficient offensive game and outlasting a Washington State team that missed 12 of its 22 free throw attempts en route to a two-point overtime loss. For reference's sake, Utah's first Pac-12 result was a 73-33 drubbing at Colorado on New Year's Eve.

What does it all mean? For one, it means college basketball games are hard to win on the road, whether or not you're playing Colorado, Utah, UCLA, Oregon or Oregon State. It also means the Trojans can't, for the life of them, put the ball in the basket, and if you can't score it doesn't matter where you play. You'll probably lose. Even to Arizona State.

It also means this league has no legitimate top contender. There is no favorite. Any of the (apparent) top seven or eight teams in this league -- Cal, Washington, Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA, Arizona and, hell, maybe even current standings leader (2-0) Colorado -- has a chance to win the Pac-12 regular season title. None of these squads has given us any hint that they're significantly better than the majority of their conference opponents, and so any and all of them could rise, or fall, based on how they're playing at any given point in the season.

It also means this league is bad. I hate to say it, but it must be said. This league is really bad. There's a legitimate chance the Pac-12 will merit just one -- one! -- NCAA tournament bid this season. If we were seeding the field today, would you give any of the above teams an at-large invite? And with nonconference play behind us, can you really see that changing before March 18? I wouldn't. And I can't.

Here's the good news: It also means the 2012 Pac-12 tournament has the potential to be at once the strangest and most exciting conference tournament of the last decade. Maybe longer. No team will be able to feel safe about their at-large prospects by that point in the season; everyone will be gunning for the guaranteed bid. The Pac-12 conference tournament will, at least for one season, morph into a mid-major competition: For four days in March, every Pac-12 team -- teams with names on the front of their jerseys that read "UCLA," "Arizona," "Washington," "California" -- will be no different than teams whose jerseys read "UC Riverside" and "Long Beach State" and "Pacific" and "Marist." They'll have their entire seasons on the line. How surreal.

Those are the things I think Thursday night is telling us, anyway. It's still early. More importantly, it's still the 2012 Pac-12. We can think this widespread, top-to-bottom mediocrity is telling us something; we can think our expectations for the rest of this season are soundly rooted in intelligent observation. But in the end, maybe all this means nothing.

On the macro level, I think I've got a few leads on this Pac-12. In general, we know what this league is. I think.

But on a micro level? The one in which we discern which Pac-12 teams are obviously better than the others? Well, your guess is good as mine.

This is your 2012 Pacific 12 conference, ladies and gentlemen. I suggest you buckle up.

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