Monday, March 5, 2012
Conference Power Rankings: Pac-12
By Eamonn Brennan
The tallies have been counted. The results are in. The Washington Huskies are your outright 2012 Pac-12 champions, an honor they managed to obtain despite losing at UCLA Saturday. How? Because Cal -- thanks to two straight road losses to end the season, including Sunday's 75-70 loss at rival Stanford -- lost its share of the top position in the league. As conference title races go, this was a rather anticlimactic finish, and it probably says something incisive about the conference in general that its winner was decided via losses.
But give some credit to the Huskies too. UW clearly got better over the course of the Pac-12 season. But for a few detours along the way -- an 87-69 loss at Colorado here, an 82-57 loss at Oregon there -- they've mostly played good basketball, and they've been excellent down the stretch in close games. They earned this title, inefficacious finish and all.
The big question now, of course, is what this final week of the season means for the Pac-12's at-large chances. One thing's for sure, it wasn't good. Arizona's loss at Arizona State may well eliminate the Wildcats from serious bubble consideration. Washington and Cal's losses further dinged what were already weak tournament profiles, which, like the rest of the league's, are devoid of anything resembling quality nonconference victories.
Pac-12 fans will argue that the conference's regular-season champion deserves an at-large bid by default. But why? Because it's the Pac-12? That's not a reason. The more you dive into the resumes on offer here, the more you wonder if two bids won't require deep Pac-12 tournament runs from both the Huskies and Bears. Three bids is specious. Four feels like a huge stretch. And I'm not sure any team should feel entirely safe if it fails to capture the automatic bid on offer in the Staples Center this weekend.
Shortly thereafter, the committee will register its assessment, and we can mercifully stop talking about this forever. Until then, expect plenty of sturm and drang from fans all along the West Coast. It's going to be an interesting week.
1. Washington: We'll leave behind the criticisms of the conference and the agonizing over NCAA tournament selection and instead praise the Huskies for their ability to get wins despite never really dominating in any phase of the game. Per Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency stats, UW was this league's sixth-most efficient offense and its fourth-best defense. Per John Gasaway's most recent Tuesday Truths (which doesn't include the final batch of games, but does include the 17 that preceded them), the Huskies had the fifth-best efficiency margin in conference play. So how did it go 14-4 and win the league title? Much more often than not, Washington won close games down the stretch. That's a skill, too, and if Tony Wroten, Terrence Ross, Abdul Gaddy & Co. do get to the NCAA tournament (and no guarantees, but I'd guess they will) it's one that should serve them well.
2. California: Two season-ending road losses will obscure an otherwise excellent conference run by the Bears. That's a bit of a bummer, because this team was the league's statistical best for most of the season. They led the league in efficiency margin pretty much wire to wire, and they had one of the league's best offenses throughout. Alas, the Bears will have to settle for second place. The good news? Theirs is the league's only top-40 RPI, which should come in handy if the Bears falter in the Pac-12 tournament. They aren't a guaranteed tourney inclusion by any stretch, but they're the closest thing this league has.
3. Oregon: Oregon has been a different team since former Minnesota transfer Devoe Joseph found his stride in Pac-12 play. The Ducks have played especially well lately, winning their last four games, including potential resume-killers at Stanford and Oregon State last week. As a result, they finished 13-5, tied for second in the league. Given where this team appeared to be early in the season, that's a major sign of improvement.
4. Arizona: To this Bubble Watcher's mind, the Wildcats' profile was already very shaky before Sunday. After Sunday, it may be too shaky for the selection committee after all. That's because Arizona lost 87-80 at Arizona State, which ranks No. 246 in the RPI. It was a rare Sun Devils win in a typically one-sided rivalry, and it couldn't have come at a worse possible time for Sean Miller's team.
5. Colorado: The Buffaloes were always a fringe bubble candidate, but their back-to-back, season-ending road losses at Oregon and (especially) Oregon State are sure to end any hopes of an at-large tournament selection. Even so, some credit is deserved. Tad Boyle lost Alec Burks (a first-round NBA draft pick) and Cory Higgins (the team's senior leader) at the same time his team was relocating to a new conference replete with new and unfamiliar opponents and road venues. Despite all that, the Buffaloes finished 11-7 in the league and played themselves into the tournament conversation for weeks at a time. This season may not end in Dance glory, but it was an unqualified success all the same.
6. UCLA: When George Dohrmann's now-famous Sports Illustrated expose dropped last week, it could have been an unmitigated disaster for the Bruins' program. In some ways, it was, revealing Ben Howland as a distant, difficult personality who allowed talents like Reeves Nelson to behave rather horribly for years as his program's success disintegrated around him. But on the court, UCLA responded with what may have been its best week of the season. On Thursday, Howland's team was comprehensive in its win over Washington State; on Saturday, the Bruins played temporary spoiler to Washington at home. If Howland survives this mess to coach another season in Westwood, the positivity and solidarity exhibited by these besieged players and coaches -- who will now have to be the foundation of a top-down reworking of this entire program's modus operandi -- may count as a major reason why.
7. Stanford: The Cardinal may not have lived up to the potential they flashed in their 11-1 start (and their near-upset of Syracuse in Madison Square Garden in November), and they won't be heading to the NCAA tournament this season (barring a Pac-12 tourney title, obviously). But Dawkins' team did take a major step forward from last season's 15-16 finish. What's more, they beat Cal on Sunday, and spoiling their rivals' share of a Pac-12 title has to feel pretty good, too.
8. Washington State: Ken Bone's program hardly had a banner season, but let's keep it positive. Washington State center Brock Motum emerged almost from nowhere, establishing himself as a major force to be reckoned with this season and one to be feared in 2012-13. You can make a very cogent player of the year case for Motum. At the very least, his performance was all-conference-worthy, and he'll be one to watch next season.
9. Oregon State: Oregon State closed out its Pac-12 slate with two straight home wins, but the victories were just the sixth and seventh of the season. It's clear Craig Robinson's program -- despite the consistent excellence of guard Jared Cunningham, for whom you can also make a pretty convincing POY case -- has a long way to go before the rebuilding project is through.
10. Arizona State: Tough year for the Sun Devils, but at least it ended well. If rival Arizona falls off the bubble picture in the days to come -- and it probably should -- it will have Sunday's 87-80 upset at ASU to thank. Arizona State fans haven't had much to smile about this season, but serving as a potential death knell for their hated (and usually dominant) rivals has to provide some solace.
11. Utah: The Utes were putrid in 2012, particularly in the nonconference, and they didn't improve much once Pac-12 play began. But they did compete. Given how bad this team looked in November and December, and the fact that it dismissed do-everything guard Josh Watkins midway through the season, Utah's scrappy competitiveness against obviously superior Pac-12 rivals is, if anything, a credit to Larry Krystkowiak's leadership. Here's to brighter days ahead.
12. USC: The Trojans ended their season the way they lived it: being almost unfathomably bad on the offensive end. Their point totals in this week's home losses to Washington and Washington State (58 and 38, respectively) added yet two more data points to a rather remarkable stat: The Trojans scored more than 60 points just twice in conference play. Some of that is pace, but most of it is the 82.7 (adjusted) points per trip. It also pales in comparison to the greatest data stat of them all: In this year's Pac-12 -- the worst year in this league in quite some time -- USC went 1-17. Blech.