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Monday, January 30, 2012
Conference Power Rankings: Pac-12

By Eamonn Brennan

Monday mornings are brutal. You scrape the snow off your car,* trudge to your office or school or wherever it is you trudge to, and you feel yourself fill with dismay and disgust. You think "Jeez, Monday mornings are brutal. If only I had some Pac-12 Power Rankings! Surely the world would seem brighter!"

Fear not, fellow human. The Pac-12 Power Rankings are here to ease your existential pain. (And if that doesn't do it for you, well, there are five more conferences being ranked this morning.)

*And yes, the author realizes that if you're a Pac-12 fan (with a few exceptions), you probably never have to scrape anything off your car, least of all snow. The author also wants you to know he hates you for this, because he lives in a place where he frequently sees people scraping their car windshields like Jerry Lundegaard in "Fargo." You're all soft.

Without further ado:

1. California: With the possible exception of Washington, by this point, Cal has pretty firmly stamped its status as the league's obvious front-runner. That's been true for most of the season, and it was true Sunday night, when the Bears pulled away from Stanford in the second half en route to a 69-59 home win. The Bears' in-conference efficiency margins match their 7-2 record. By all indications, this is simply the best team in the league. Is it as talented as Washington? Maybe not. Is it more consistent? Absolutely.

2. Washington: The Huskies' first few Pac-12 fixtures made it hard to get excited about a team that really should be exciting. But after this weekend's road win at Arizona -- a huge road win for a team that struggled away from home for much of the season -- Lorenzo Romar's team appears to be coming around. Now 7-2 and tied atop the league standings, this team still has plenty of improvements to make. But in the meantime, Washington is showing signs that it can achieve collective success on par with individual talents like Tony Wroten, Terrence Ross, Aziz N'Diaye and the like.

3. Oregon: What to make of Oregon? Last week, on the strength of four straight wins (including a road win over Arizona and a nice home victory over UCLA), Dana Altman's team climbed all the way to No. 2 in these rankings. Then, on Sunday, the Ducks laid an egg. (Sorry. I couldn't help myself.) A five-point loss to Oregon State isn't the worst thing in the world, but Altman couldn't be thrilled to see his improving team turn it over a season-high 23 times and yield a 24-point second half to Oregon State's Jared Cunningham in a 76-71 home loss.

4. Stanford: It's hard to fault the Cardinal for losing at Cal, which they did Sunday night. It's also hard to find reasons to be overwhelmed with excitement about this team, both from a national, NCAA-tournament-related perspective and in the context of this mostly ugly league. The vaunted per-possession defense Stanford played in the nonconference schedule has mostly waned in league play. Stanford is still a solid defensive team, but not anywhere near its early top-15 indicators, and the Cardinal simply can't score the ball well enough to compensate for a defense that is only slightly better than average.

5. Colorado: The Buffaloes got their first road win of the conference season this week, but that win came at USC, so the credit granted here is minimal. Colorado followed that up with a 17-point road loss at UCLA. The credit granted there is, well, nonexistent. Simply put, the Buffaloes will have to improve their road play if they want to keep pace in the league standings (or, for that matter, in these hugely important weekly rankings). Colorado hosts Oregon and Oregon State this week. After that, five of the Buffs' last seven league games are on the road. We'll see.

6. Oregon State: The Beavers' frequent defensive woes showed up early and often in Pac-12 play, but they were made more glaring by the schedule. Four of Oregon State's first six Pac-12 games came on the road. It's easier to win on the road if you can defend, and the Beavers haven't proved they can do so on a consistent basis. But Sunday offered hope. That's when Cunningham & Co. took down hated rival Oregon in the Ducks' shiny Matthew Knight Arena 76-71, notching arguably the biggest win of their season to date. It was also their third straight, which moved their record to a slightly more respectable 4-5. Let's see if this team can pick it up on the defensive end in time to mount a late-season push.

7. UCLA: Just like Colorado, you can't get credit for winning on the road when your only road win is at USC. It doesn't count. Other than that, UCLA is winless on the road in conference play, and this week's results -- a pair of home wins over Utah and Colorado -- don't move the needle one way or the other. The Bruins are thoroughly mediocre. Not good. Not terrible. Just mediocre. Unless something drastic changes in the next few weeks (and this week brings road trips to Washington and Washington State) that appears to be the extent of this team's trajectory.

8. Arizona: Arizona beat up on Washington State at home Thursday, but the good vibes in Tucson didn't last through the weekend. On Saturday, the Wildcats lost the aforementioned home game to Washington, putting them at 5-4 in league play. Similar to Washington and UCLA, yours truly has watched Arizona with some hope that its talent, particularly freshman guards Nick Johnson and Josiah Turner, would have adjusted and even thrived in this weak conference by this point in the season. But another week of Pac-12 play has passed, and Sean Miller's team has another so-so win and another so-so loss to show for it. Since the start of conference games, Arizona's results have gone as follows: win, loss, win, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss. You don't want to still be treading water by February, but that's exactly what Miller's team is doing.

9. Washington State: The Cougars have showed plenty of pluck this season, particularly at home, where they score a significantly higher number of points than in games on the road. But whatever hopes this team had were likely derailed Thursday night, when leading scorer Faisal Aden injured his left knee in a 24-point loss at Arizona. On Saturday, an Aden-less Cougars team lost at Arizona State; if the dictionary had an entry for the phrase "bad to worse," you'd see a picture of Aden on crutches directly adjacent. Brutal break.

10. Arizona State: Sure, I'll give the Sun Devils a slight bump above Utah this week. Why? (First of all, why not? Second of all, if you're splitting hairs at this point in the Pac-12 power rankings, your boss needs to assign you more work.) Because Arizona State won and Utah lost. Pretty simple, right? Either way, the only chance the Sun Devils have of getting out of this ugly bottom three is if Wazzu totally tanks in the next few weeks without Aden. Either way, you get the drift.

11. Utah: I refuse to return Utah to the bottom of the Pac-12 power rankings. Sure, the Utes introduced an ungodly stench into the Galen Center in this week's 62-45 loss at USC. Sure, Utah handed the hapless Trojans their first win in nine Pac-12 tries. Sure, Utah is still ranked in the nether regions of Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency ratings (No. 313 as of this writing, to be exact). But Utah has been more than sprightly in plenty of Pac-12 contests before this week's USC drubbing. The Trojans will have to do more to escape the wooden spoon cellar.

12. USC: Hey, USC's on the board! As you just read, the Trojans finally got a Pac-12 win this week -- a 62-45 whupping of Utah. So why is USC last in the power rankings? Because with one exception (a close game at Oregon), Kevin O'Neill's team was legitimately putrid in pretty much every one of its eight Pac-12 losses to date. At least Utah played Washington close and won a couple of games against teams not named "Utah" or "USC," right? Right? Reasonable minds can differ. Your mileage may vary. The moral of the story: Both of these teams are bad at basketball.