Monday, January 2, 2012
Conference Power Rankings: Pac-12
By Eamonn Brennan
We're still very much in wait-and-see mode in the Pac-12, but we do have a few results to chew on after last week's league-opening games:
1a. California 1b. Stanford
This configuration might be just a tad bit unfair to Stanford, which was No. 1 in last week's rankings and which beat the exact same teams -- UCLA and USC -- that Cal defeated in the first two days of Pac-12 play. So, as a peace offering, I didn't fully relegate the Cardinal to No. 2. Technically, they're still tied for the top spot. To me, the gap between these two teams, based on their nonconference performance and their near-identical first week of play, is too minor to forge any significant distinctions.
Still, I thought Cal looked a bit more impressive in its two season-opening wins (particularly in its 85-69 handling of UCLA), and the Bears have the benefit of efficient offense to go with stifling defense. Right now, Stanford's stagnant offense still looks like it could hold Johnny Dawkins' team back. Until that gets sorted out -- and/or another challenger to the throne emerges -- Cal looks like the favorite to win this league.
3. Washington: Is UW that aforementioned emerging contender? OK, OK, let's not get ahead of ourselves -- the Huskies still have their fair share of issues on both ends of the floor. That said, it was hard not to notice this team's improvement in last week's victories over Oregon State (95-80) and Oregon (76-60). Sure, both came at home, but so did Washington's loss to South Dakota State. The team we saw last week looked nothing like the one that yielded 92 points to the Jackrabbits.
Instead, the Huskies -- led by freshman guard Tony Wroten, who notched 43 points, 13 rebounds and 9 assists in those two wins -- look like they're building the chemistry and defensive toughness that plagued them so frequently in their 6-5 start. There is much more work to be done, of course, but this team could yet round into a bona fide conference title favorite in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.
4. Arizona: The Wildcats had few issues with in-state rival Arizona State in their Pac-12 opener, but that was their only result of the week and ASU is simply not a very good team. So I didn't award a lot of credit here. But the Wildcats handled business, and they, like Washington before them, are still improving in a variety of ways. Buy low, I suppose.
5. Oregon: The Ducks didn't look all that impressive in Saturday night's loss to Washington -- or maybe the Huskies were simply better -- but in either case, they deserve credit for going into a tricky neutral-court venue in Spokane and coming out with an easy win over Washington State. A 92-75 victory over Wazzu doesn't mean much in a vacuum, but on the road, this early in league play, it's still a solid accomplishment.
6. Oregon State: Why is Oregon's win at WSU impressive? In part because the Ducks' sworn enemies -- the hated Beavers of Corvallis, which sounds like an army regiment from the French and Indian War -- were unable to do the same. Instead, OSU went 0-2 in its first two conference games, following up that 95-80 loss at Washington with an 81-76 loss in Pullman. This team jumped out to a 10-2 record in the nonconference, including its efforts to secure the Pac-12's only moderately impressive win (Texas). Still, Oregon State was hardly going gangbusters before league play started, even against a relatively meager nonconference schedule. Was that record a mirage? Or is it simply that tough to win on the road? For now, I'm going with the latter. But we'll see.
7. Washington State: The Cougars had been getting by on offensive efficiency for much of the season, and that trend seems likely to continue going forward. It needs to, anyway. Bone's team simply doesn't defend all that well, and it paid dearly for it in that 92-75 home loss to Oregon. Wazzu's next three games are all on the road, and while the first two opponents (Utah and Colorado) don't strike fear into anyone's heart, a slip-up in either game ahead of Jan. 15's trip to Washington could be make-or-break, at least in terms of perception.
8. UCLA: Bruins fans holding out hope that the Pac-12 season would bring fresh success to this struggling club were left wanting last week, as UCLA began conference play with two consecutive losses. To be fair to the Bruins, those losses were entirely understandable -- both came on the road, one to Cal, one to Stanford. The Stanford loss -- a 60-59 defeat -- was particularly forgivable. Sure, UCLA isn't used to looking for positives in one-point league losses; that's not how this program rolls. But as far as encouragement goes, that's what I've got. Had a possession or two swung in the Bruins' way, they'd surely be ranked much higher than this. That's a step in the right direction at least.
9. USC: The Trojans fell to 0-2 in league play and 5-10 overall last week, but I'm willing to cut them some slack. Like UCLA, USC played on the road in the Bay Area, and its defense -- SC is an excellent defensive team -- kept both games within striking distance throughout. The Trojans lost 53-49 to Cal and 51-43 to Stanford. Expect to see a lot of those kinds of results from this team, which can defend with the best teams in the country. Unfortunately, it just can't seem to score.
10. Colorado: I could see ranking Colorado above USC; after all, the Buffaloes are 9-4 overall and 1-0 in conference play after their opener. But I couldn't pull the trigger, and here's why: USC, for all of its problems, has at least one definable skill: defense. Colorado, at least thus far (and to my eye, which I admit is far from omniscient), doesn't. And, sorry, but I can't move a team up just because they beat poor Utah's brains in (73-33) at home. I mean, a win's a win, and you play your schedule, and so on ... but I still need to see more.
11. Arizona State: The Sun Devils didn't get Utah-style-crushed in their league opener at Arizona (final score: 68-51), so that's something. And Herb Sendek's team does appear to be improving on the defensive end. But make no mistake: This team is bad. That didn't change in the past seven days.
12. Utah: Alas, as has been the recurring theme of the Pac-12 power rankings, the Sun Devils are bad -- just nowhere near as bad as Utah. (When you think about how ugly ASU's play has been -- and you consider the fact that a player like Chris Colvin is using 25.8 percent of his team's possessions despite a 69.0 offensive rating, and that's just one example -- that's saying something.) On Saturday, the Utes were utterly crushed, 73-33, by Colorado, by my lights the 10th-best team in one of the worst power-six leagues we've seen in years. Last week, Utah ranked No. 313 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings. This week, they rank No. 334. No. 334 out of 344! That's three places below SIU-Edwardsville and two below Maryland-Baltimore County. And it's only the first week of Pac-12 play. Man. It's going to be a long season in Salt Lake City.