Monday, December 19, 2011
Conference power rankings: Pac-12
By Eamonn Brennan
Based on results and not preseason expectations, here's my attempt at ranking the Pac-12:
1. Stanford: The Cardinal were No. 1 in the first edition of these rankings, and nothing in the week since has invalidated that idea. Johnny Dawkins' team is far from perfect, of course: Stanford is still turning the ball over on 21.4 percent of its possessions, a trait that has held back this offense for much of the season. But this team really defends. Josh Owens and Co. possess the seventh-stingiest defense in the country per Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings. If that trend continues, the Cardinal won't need to be great on offense. They'll be very tough to beat all the same.
2. California: The Bears have blitzed opponents in the past two weeks, beating San Jose State and Jackson State by a combined score of 154-82 before easily handling a good Weber State team -- and the nation's leading scorer, Damian Lillard -- 77-57 on Friday. In the preseason, Cal's backcourt duo of Jorge Gutierrez and Allen Crabbe was touted as its unique strength, and both players, alongside impressive transfer Justin Cobbs, have delivered efficient, intelligent performances with rare exceptions.
3. Arizona: This is where the Pac-12 starts to get tricky. (It seems safe to assume the middle of these rankings will be as volatile as any conference in the country the rest of this season -- or at least the next few weeks.) I'll stick the Wildcats at No. 3, because while their record (7-4) isn't exactly pretty, this team's last two losses (at Florida in overtime, vs. Gonzaga in Seattle) are hardly reasons to abandon ship. Its other two losses? To Mississippi State and San Diego State. Given how well both opponents have played thus far, Sean Miller's team hasn't yet suffered a truly bad loss. When you factor in this team's youth, the Wildcats' stock should only improve as the season moves forward.
4. Oregon State: Thanks to a rather light nonconference schedule, the Beavers are a bit of an enigma. Craig Robinson's team didn't do much to change that perception in the past week, easily handling cupcake opponents Illinois-Chicago and Howard. The Beavers beat Texas in overtime and lost by just two to Vanderbilt, both on a neutral court, but they also lost by 14 to Idaho at home. Flawed and confusing though they are, the Beavers are forcing the sixth-most turnovers per possession in the country, and they are very good at getting to the foul line. In what appears to be another down season for the conference in general, that might just be enough to keep Robinson's team in the mix.
5. Oregon: Sunday's home game against Virginia was a nice opportunity for the Ducks, who had yet to distinguish themselves with five expected home wins and two forgivable away losses (to Vanderbilt and BYU). With a nice home win over Virginia, Dana Altman's team would have at least inspired a little "Hey, look out for the Ducks, that Virginia win was solid" talk. Alas, the Ducks yielded a series of second-half runs to the Cavaliers, eventually losing 67-54. When you consider UO's somewhat ugly efficiency stats -- barely among the 100 or so best teams in the country per Pomeroy's metrics -- the end result is that I have no idea how good this team is. Right now, I'm leaning toward "meh." But we'll see.
6. Washington: Look, Sunday's loss was ugly. A team as talented as Washington shouldn't give up 92 points to anyone, let alone South Dakota State, let alone at home. But a couple of things are worth remembering here. For one, South Dakota State is a pretty good team. (The mighty Jackrabbits are 10-4 and feature one of the nation's best mid-major guards in Nate Wolters, who averages 20.5 points, 5.9 assists and 5.1 rebounds per game.) Two, this is the same team that went toe-to-toe with Marquette and Duke on neutral courts just last week. Three, the rest of the Pac-12 is hardly better. Yes, this team's record is frustratingly ugly, given its solid efficiency indicators. (Gee, that sounds like ... well, pretty much every Washington team ever.) But I still think the Huskies are much better than the "5-5" next to their name.
7. Washington State: The Cougars moved to 7-4 with Sunday's relatively painless home win over Western Oregon. That's good news, I suppose. To its credit, Wazzu is winning the games it should win. (That's more than we can say for some of the other teams in this league. Yes, Huskies, I'm talking about you.) But Ken Bone's team still hasn't gotten anything resembling a quality win, so it's hard to give the Cougars too much of that aforementioned credit. Their only remaining nonconference game is Thursday's home date with a bad Pepperdine team, so the fact is we won't know exactly where this team stands until the Pac-12 starts to sort itself out in conference play. Until then, this spot -- hardly a league contender but hardly a doormat, either -- seems fair.
8. UCLA: I can practically see your reaction through your computer screen. (Just practically, not actually. That would be creepier than Chat Roulette.) "Wait," you're saying, "how did UCLA jump two spots in a week? All it did was beat Penn, Eastern Washington and UC Davis. Big deal!" Astute observation, Mr. or Mrs. Pac-12 Conference Power Rankings Reader. Thing is, when you get this low in this league, simply beating bad opponents is actually something of an accomplishment. That the Bruins managed to avoid another ugly home loss is more than we can say for some. Whether or not this team will turn a corner in the wake of Ben Howland's decision to (finally) dismiss Reeves Nelson is yet to be seen. But for now, simply "not losing" is enough to move the dial in a positive direction.
9. USC: Believe it or not, at 4-7 the Trojans are the only Pac-12 team with more than six losses. So why aren't they ranked lower? See: Arizona State or Colorado. Sure, the Trojans' two losses since Saturday -- home defeats against New Mexico and Georgia -- aren't exactly confidence-inspiring results. And Kevin O'Neill's team is still atrocious offensively. (The Trojans scored just 41 points in 61 possessions against the Lobos. They rank No. 256 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency. It's bad.) But just as we said in the first version of these rankings, this team does defend, and I'm willing to grant some measure of credit for a) that defense, b) the losses not coming to obviously bad teams, and c) the combined margin of defeat of seven points. It's something, at least.
10. Colorado: Wyoming is far from horrible -- the Cowboys are ranked No. 95 in Pomeroy's rankings, and they've played fantastic defense in their impressive 11-1 start. But when you combine Wyoming's 65-54 win in Boulder with Colorado's other struggles to date, including some revealingly bad efficiency metrics like that No. 217-ranked defense (and a ranking of No. 328 in opponents turnover percentage; the Buffaloes simply do not pressure the ball well), it's clear Tad Boyle's team has much to improve upon.
11. Arizona State: The good news for Arizona State? Utah is now a member of the Pac-12. It's that fact, and that fact alone, that is keeping this 4-6 team -- which just lost at home to Northern Arizona (national Pomeroy rank: No. 286!) -- out of the power rankings cellar. All together, the Sun Devils' six losses are hardly complimentary. They've come at home (to Pepperdine, New Mexico, Nevada and Northern Arizona) and on neutral courts (Fairfield and DePaul). The best win actually came in the team's only road game (at Tulsa). But you get the idea. Herb Sendek's team appears to be undermanned and overwhelmed, and ASU fans who recall the James Harden years fondly must be confused at this program's sudden and precipitous dive.
12. Utah: And then, of course, there is Utah. If there was an alternate title to this little power rankings feature, it would be "Conference Power Rankings: Pac-12, Based on the Novel 'Push' By Sapphire." If there was an alternate to the alternate title, it would be "Eamonn's Weekly Search For New Ways to Politely but Forcefully Assert Just How Bad Utah Is." Then again, let's give the Utes some credit. After all, they did get a win this week. Sure, it was merely a home win over D-I bottom-dweller Idaho State, but a win is a win. If Utah can put a few more of those together, it may be able to avoid the historical depths it has flirted with throughout its 2-8 start this season. At this point, that appears to be Larry Krystkowiak's most realistic short-term goal.