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Monday, February 20, 2012
Conference Power Rankings: Pac-12

By Eamonn Brennan

Don't look now, but we may finally have this league figured out. For the first time since we unleashed these rankings on an unsuspecting hoops populace, almost nothing has changed in the past week of games. Why? Because at this point, we basically know what these teams are: Cal steady and solid, Washington is talented and mercurial, Arizona is the defensive stalwart, Oregon is better than its record but can't get over the hump, Colorado is good but not great, UCLA has been a mess, Stanford is meh, and the rest of the league is just plain ... well, you know. Let's not be mean about it.

1. California: Cal has never been quite as fascinating to me this season as Washington. The talented but inconsistent Huskies have always represented the vague allure of the unknown; they might be the most Free Darko college hoops team in the country. Cal, on the other hand, has been much easier to read, and much less exciting for it. But with just three games left in Pac-12 play, it's probably time to give Mike Montgomery's team its due. On a per-possession basis, Cal has been the best offensive team in the league and the second-best on defense; this team is balanced and experienced and just, well, solid. The Bears were blown out by every good team they played in the nonconference, sure, but that was a long time ago. Since then, they've been pretty good. (Usually, anyway.) They won't blow you away, and I have no idea where their tournament ceiling is, but we probably shouldn't dismiss the Bears just yet. We'll see.

2. Washington: With the exception of what looks like an outlier loss at Oregon on Feb. 9, Washington has won eight of its past nine, including Saturday's nine-point home win over Arizona. The Huskies feel like a team that could -- repeat: could -- make noise in the NCAA tournament. But they have to get there first. Three straight road games (at Washington State, USC and UCLA) will close out the regular season. That's treacherous territory for a team sitting smack dab on the bubble, because a bad loss could be enough to tip the scales in the wrong direction.

3. Arizona: The Wildcats are allowing the lowest opponents' effective field goal percentage in Pac-12 play. It's tough to score on this team, and that's what led to its late-season, five-game winning streak before Saturday's loss in Seattle. But will it be enough for an at-large bid if needed? Zona closes with USC and UCLA at home and rival ASU on the road. Have to win 'em all.

4. Oregon: Poor Oregon. The Ducks have played some pretty good basketball in this league this season, but they have a knack for the brutal close loss. There was that one-point loss at Colorado, the five-point home loss to Oregon State and, of course, Thursday's three-point loss at Cal, which is about as big a resume win as you can get in the Pac-12 this season. The Ducks barely missed out, and their chances of joining this shaky Pac-12 at-large picture were slimmed as a result. Sunday night's win at Stanford was a must and they got it, but there's still work to be done here.

5. Colorado: The Buffaloes are allowing the fewest points per possession of any team in the Pac-12 this season. That's a testament to the job Tad Boyle has done in what was supposed to be a totally down, irrelevant season in Boulder. This team probably shouldn't even be this good. Colorado still has a chance to knock off Cal at home in the coming week, and there is the Pac-12 tournament, but it will require a late push to get this profile the respect of the committee.

6. UCLA: In another season, UCLA's Saturday trip to St. John's would have been a nice bit of national spotlight. In 2012, the Bruins would probably prefer no one notice. (It was a 66-63 loss, by the way.) You know the drill. We're months past the early-season mess, and this team is still just mediocre.

7. Stanford: The Cardinal were once a promising conference title contender, or at least that's what their nonconference performance seemed to indicate. They've faded rather badly since. This season should be a mark of progress for Johnny Dawkins' program -- the Cardinal have improved from last season, no question. Just not enough to contend for the conference crown yet.

8. Washington State: The Cougars have kept on fighting through the loss of Faisal Aden to a career-ending knee injury, and they're still scoring the third-most points per trip in the conference. Their league-worst defense, however, has kept them out of the picture for most of the season.

9. Oregon State: Oregon State got one of the conference's few top-50 RPI wins when it beat Texas on a neutral court in November. But the Beavers haven't done much since. They're on a four-game losing skid now. The good news? Of any of the teams down in this range, Craig Robinson's is probably the lowest-ranked squad that still has a legitimate puncher's chance to win the Pac-12 tournament. I'm not saying it's going to happen. I'm just saying there's a chance.

10. Arizona State
11. Utah
12. USC

When you're this bad in the Pac-12 this season, you're going to be really, really bad. All three teams are definitely that. The biggest question is whether USC will avoid the ignominious fate of ending the season with just one conference win in this league. The Trojans are on the road at Arizona and Arizona State, followed by home games against Washington State and Washington. There are potential wins in them thar hills. If the Trojans could manage more than 60 points here and there -- a barrier they last exceeded in January -- I'd be a little more confident about their chances.