College Basketball Nation: Cal Bears

Conference Power Rankings: Pac-12

December, 27, 2011
The Pac-12 only gets more convoluted and confusing with each passing week, but the conference power rankings, like any good Broadway show, must go on. Here's my latest attempt to make sense of this muddled West Coast landscape as the Pac-12 prepares to commence league play this week. (Spoiler alert: The Pac-12 is bad.)

1. Stanford: Surprised? So am I. After all, Stanford's only result since last week's rankings was a 71-66 home loss to Butler, which came after the Cardinal allowed the offensively bereft Bulldogs to streak to a downright shocking 45-point second-half. Considering Stanford has no great wins, and much of its early ranking hinged on that close contest with Syracuse in November, you'd think Johnny Dawkins' team would take a tumble in the conference power rankings. When I sat down to write these rankings, I didn't think Stanford stood any chance of staying in the top spot. But as you dig in to the rest of this league, you realize that Cal remains the only other contender for this spot, and I find it difficult to move Stanford below the Bears when Mike Montgomery's squad was so thoroughly trounced by UNLV last week. So Stanford remains. Someone has to be No. 1, I guess.

2. California: The Bears may well be the best team in this league. Ken Pomeroy's advanced metrics indicate as much. But Cal isn't doing anything to inspire confidence that its efficiency in wins over inferior opponents can be replicated against top competition. Consider Friday's drubbing at UNLV. The Bears entered Friday's game having outscored their last four opponents 301-189. Then, in Vegas, Montgomery's squad looked absolutely dreadful -- stagnant offensively, weak defensively and arguably timid in many respects -- as the Rebels blitzed for 40 minutes en route to an 85-68 blowout. This was Cal's second game against a ranked opponent. Its first, against Missouri, ended 92-53. Add it all up, and you get a team that has 10 wins against inferior opponents, one forgivable one-point road loss to San Diego State, and two absolute blowouts at the hands of top competition. So, yeah, maybe Cal is the best team in this league. But if they only look good against bad teams, what does "good" even mean, anyway?

3. Arizona: The Wildcats didn't do much last week, but they'll hold steady at No. 3 if only because they didn't lose. Rather, Zona got past a tricky Oakland team at home and put 100 points on Bryant two nights later, and that -- plus their promising if uneven performances throughout the nonconference schedule -- doesn't offer any obvious reason to move them below any of the teams that follow.

4. Oregon State: OSU is now tied for the best record in this conference, with its 10-2 mark matched only by Stanford. And that record isn't all fluff, either: A Nov. 19 win against Texas might in fact be the best nonconference win the league has (as sad as that is). But since Dec. 9's home loss to Idaho, Oregon's State's four wins have come against Illinois-Chicago, Howard, Portland State and, this week, Chicago State. Those are some of the worst opponents in Division I hoops. For that reason, it's hard to trust that gaudy record, not until the Beavers can test this apparent improvement against someone ranked higher than No. 230 (that would be Portland State) in the Pomeroy rankings.

5. Oregon: The Ducks notched three wins in three days last week, but all three (NC Central, Prairie View A&M, Stephen F. Austin) were cupcakes. Meanwhile, last week's missed opportunity -- when Oregon let Virginia escape from Matthew Knight Arena with a second-half comeback win -- is still a cause for concern. Given Dana Altman's track record as a coach, and the way he got the maximum from his first team in Eugene last season, it's fair to expect some improvement in Pac-12 play. But the Ducks still have a long way to go.

6. Washington: The Huskies looked much sharper in a home win over Cal-State Northridge last Thursday, but really, there's nothing new to report here. The Huskies still look like the most talented team in this league. They should still be considered a favorite to contend for the regular-season crown. Unfortunately, they're still maddeningly inconsistent, confused about their offensive roles, defensively porous and, to paraphrase Washington coach Lorenzo Romar's words, missing that distinct, hard-to-define chemistry all good teams must develop before they can become more than sum of their parts. The talent here is undeniable, but league play starts this week, so the clock is already ticking. This could go either way. We'll see.

7. Washington State: The lack of movement in these rankings is the theme of the week, and Ken Bone's team is no different. The Cougars are getting decent play out of senior guard Faisal Aden and aggressive interior work from junior forward Brock Motum, but they remain sloppy and turnover-prone and have spent their December racking up five wins against decidedly inferior competition. This team isn't bad, per se. But we can't exactly call it good, either.

8. UCLA: If you can't always tell by my tone, yours truly tends to get a little frustrated when teams spend huge stretches of their nonconference schedule toasting cupcake teams. Go out and play somebody, you know? But UCLA's December of inferior competition couldn't have come at a better time. After a November that featured blowout home losses to Middle Tennessee and Loyola Marymount, a disastrous trip to the Maui Invitational and the eventual dismissal of forward Reeves Nelson, UCLA needed some comfortable, confidence-inspiring victories, and it appears to be paying dividends. At the very least, this record -- 2-5 through a Dec. 3 loss to Texas -- is back above .500 in time for the start of Pac-12 play. We don't know if UCLA is actually better, or just beating up on bad teams, but either way, it doesn't really matter. This is why (or at least partially why) coaches schedule so many cupcakes. Sometimes, your team just needs a few wins.

9. USC: Unlike most of the Pac-12, USC actually had an important fixture on its calendar last week, a date with Kansas at the Galen Center in LA. And USC was essentially USC. The Trojans played a slow-paced game and held KU to 63 points, a product of the rapacious defense Kevin O'Neill's team has played so often this season. The only problem with this, of course, is that SC just can't score. The Trojans scored a mere 45 points against the Jayhawks. They rank No. 245 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency. You should expect O'Neill's squad to stifle more than a few of their Pac-12 opponents in the coming months, and they'll no doubt steal a few wins against allegedly superior squads between now and March. But this putrid offense is like an invisible ceiling. Without at least some offensive output -- something, anything! -- this team can only go so far.

10. Colorado: The Buffaloes' 7-4 record is better than the Trojans' and Bruins' and the Huskies'. So why does Tad Boyle's team still rank so low in this league? Because unlike those teams, the Buffs don't do any one thing particularly well. For the sake of brevity, Colorado is average offensively and awful defensively. I wouldn't be surprised if this team shows real improvement in the weeks to come, but with per-possession numbers this pedestrian, I'm hesitant to make that prediction.

11. Arizona State: If Herb Sendek didn't have more pressing things to worry about -- namely, how to get his apparently awful team moving in a positive direction -- he could some spend time lavishing everyone responsible for bringing Utah to the Pac-12 (conference commissioner Larry Scott, Utes brass, even Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany) with gifts. For yet another week, only Utah's near-historical ineptitude is keeping this Sun Devils squad out of the power rankings cellar. In any other season, we'd look at this team -- now 4-8 with three straight home losses to Northern Arizona, Southern Miss and Fresno State -- as the "worst power-conference team in the country" contender it would have been. Either way, Arizona State is in a bad way, and if the current trend continues into league competition, the nascent questions about the "future of the program" (read: Sendek's job security) will only grow more vociferous.

12. Utah: And then there's Utah. (Last week, I tried on a few alternate, Utah-related headlines for this column. But I think "And then there's Utah" might be our winner.) The good news first: The Utes topped Idaho State and Portland two weeks ago. Wins are wins. The bad news? Both teams are ranked outside the top 225 or so teams in the nation in adjusted efficiency. Even worse, Larry Krystkowiak's team followed those meager signs of progress with an 80-51 road loss to Weber State, a thrashing at the hands of a team that, for reference's sake, lost by 20 to Cal. In the meantime, the 3-9 Utes are ranked No. 316 in the country in adjusted efficiency; the list of teams in their statistical vicinity (The Citadel, Radford, Mount St. Mary's, Texas Pan-American, et al.) is comprised those for whom a trip to the NCAA tournament play-in game is a basketball season's ultimate hope. This is some historically bad basketball coming from Salt Lake City. With Pac-12 play commencing this week, where do the Utes go from here? I don't know. But it could be fascinating to behold.
LOS ANGELES -- Washington’s season looked as if it was already over midway through its conference schedule. Following a loss to USC, gathered in the Trojans' visitor's locker room just two miles up the road from the Staples Center, Quincy Pondexter got up and told his teammates it was only uphill from here.

The Huskies had dropped five of their last seven games and had just lost by 26 points by a team ineligible to play in the postseason.

“The landmark moment for us was after the USC game,” said Pondexter. “At the end of the game guys knew it couldn’t get any worse. And we started playing the right way. ... I think we’ve bought into everything offensively and defensively since then and we’ve been playing much better basketball.”

Since its Jan. 23 loss to USC, Washington (23-9) has won 11 of its last 13 games and six games in a row heading into today's Pac-10 Tournament championship game against Cal (23-9). After being left for dead as late as last week, the Huskies can now claim the conference’s automatic bid or at least make a case for an at-large berth with a strong showing on national television.

The marquee final between the two best teams in the conference is the first bright spot of what has been an otherwise down year for the Pac-10, which was perceived as a one-bid league when the tournament started after sending six teams last season. Washington and Cal split the season series, winning on each other’s court by double digits. Both were perceived as the class of the conference in the preseason, when they were ranked in the top 14 the first week of the season.

“These are two teams that have really, really competed,” said Washington coach Lorenzo Romar. “I think [Cal] is better from the first time we’ve played. I think they’ve gotten into a great rhythm were they are playing very good basketball. Those three 1,000-point career scorers have been through a lot of games and a lot of situations and they play with great calm and don’t get rattled. They do a tremendous job.”

Romar was referring to Cal’s senior triumvirate of Jerome Randle, the Pac-10 Player of the Year, Patrick Christopher and Theo Robertson. A fourth senior, Jamal Boykin, will likely reach the 1,000-point plateau as well before his career wraps up.

“When you look at their seniors, they have scored 5,600 points combined between the four guys, I think the next closest in the Pac-10 is about 2,500 points for graduating seniors,” said UCLA coach Ben Howland. “Those guys are special.”

The game will feature five of the top ten scorers in the league (Pondexter and Isaiah Thomas for Washington and Randle, Christopher and Robertson for Cal) and California and Washington are ranked in the top two in the conference in scoring offense and scoring margin. Judging from their first two games the Pac-10 final could easily turn into a rout for whichever team feels more at home. Cal has certainly made it a point to run teams off court as of late, winning nine of its last 10 games by double digits.

“We have a lot of similarities,” said Pondexter. “It’s always a tough battle and whoever executes better wins. We’re both competing for a championship so that adds a great dynamic to this series, but it’s always fun playing against them.”

Halftime: UCLA 39, Cal 35

March, 12, 2010
LOS ANGELES -- Cal is the only Pac-10 school in a comfortable position to secure a NCAA Tournament bid and there were times during the first half of its semifinal game against UCLA where it looked as if the Bears were content to let another Pac-10 team join them at the dance.

Cal never led in the first half and fell behind by as many as 10 seven minutes into the game. Senior guard Michael Roll led the Bruins with 16 points, hitting 3-of-5 three-pointers and grabbing three rebounds.

Jerome Randle, the Pac-10 Player of the Year, scored 14 points for the Bears and scored five straight points to cut UCLA’s lead in half when it appeared as if the Bruins would run away with the game early.

Reeves Nelson is once again providing UCLA with a much-needed presence in the paint, scoring 6 points and grabbing 3 rebounds, but he is clearly frustrated by the goggles he has to wear following laser eye surgery to repair a retinal tear in his left eye. He takes off the goggles during every stoppage and threw them down on the floor when he was called out of the game.

“I don’t want to wear them,” Nelson said yesterday. “But I have to if I want to play.”

Hoyas have grown up

December, 12, 2009
Georgetown coach John Thompson III put together this week's schedule to re-create a Big East-like week.

Mission accomplished.

The Hoyas beat Butler in New York at the Jimmy V Classic on Tuesday, then stayed on the road and went West to Anaheim, where they dismantled Washington at the Wooden Classic.

The Hoyas weren’t in an exempted tournament like Syracuse, Villanova or West Virginia. If Georgetown was going to prove it was a Big East title contender it had to come this week.

Beating Butler and Washington on neutral courts doesn’t mean the Hoyas can knock off the aforementioned three, but at least it proves the Hoyas have matured from a year ago. Sophomore center Greg Monroe is playing like a deserving lottery pick, a player that won’t just be placed their on potential, but rather on what he has earned. The depth of the bigs on Georgetown’s roster is also going to give the other big three in the Big East pause during scouting. The guard play has also been solid.

As for Washington, this was not only a discouraging loss for the Huskies but also for the Pac-10, as it whiffed again on beating a ranked team. The Pac-10 fell to 5-17 against teams from the other five power-six conferences and 0-10 against ranked teams. Washington has one more shot to beat a ranked team and that comes next week at home against Texas A&M.

The Pac-10 will be shut out of the Top 25 this week, or at least it should as Washington hasn’t done enough to be ranked. They dropped to 6-2 without a win they can shout about. Cal is not the same team without Theo Robertson and Harper Kamp. Getting Robertson back will at least give the Bears a shot.

The Pac-10 title race is still likely going to be between Cal and Washington, with Arizona, Washington State, Oregon State, UCLA, Arizona State, Oregon and USC following in some order. An order that will find a few of them likely in the NIT or CBI, not the NCAA.

Hey, don't forget about these games!

December, 2, 2009
The Big Ten/ACC Challenge will dominate the news cycle in the sport tonight, but there are other significant games that must not be ignored.

Washington State at Gonzaga: The Cougars won the Great Alaska Shootout and were led by Klay Thompson's 43 points in the win over San Diego. Gonzaga, UCLA and others passed on Thompson and it turned out to be a mistake. The Zags are coming off a Maui Invitational win over Cincinnati. The Cougars could be the sleeper team in the Pac-10 if this keeps up. I've been to this game before, and it's an intense rivalry between two schools separated by 70 miles of rolling hills.

Butler at Ball State: I know it doesn't sound too tough, but the Bulldogs are coming off two losses at the 76 Classic in Anaheim. Going to a MAC gym isn't exactly an easy task for anyone, especially with the Bulldogs desperately needing a win. This will be a big deal for Ball State, but Butler needs this game to stop the bleeding. Butler didn't have a bad loss at the tournament in Anaheim. But this would qualify as a bad loss.

Siena at Georgia Tech: The Saints desperately need to win this game if they have any chance at an at-large berth. Siena hasn't won a quality nonconference game yet. The Yellow Jackets are hardly the type of team that will gladly bow down. Siena will have to earn this win down to the final seconds if it wants to pull off the upset. The Yellow Jackets' interior may be too tough for the Saints, though.

UNLV at Arizona: The Runnin' Rebels are fresh off a win over Louisville at home. I had a number of coaches tell me that the UNLV newcomers, notably the freshmen, are much better than projected. Arizona didn't fare all that well in Maui, but the squad is still trying to find itself with so many new parts and a new staff. This would be a huge win for the Wildcats as they seek to be relevant throughout the season.

Cal at New Mexico: I wrote about this game in my Daily Word but I can't emphasize enough how critical this is to the Lobos. If UNM can pull off the upset over Cal, it would signify to the rest of the MWC that the Lobos are a real player for the league title. Cal could use a true road win to improve its national standing. This will be one of the toughest road games it plays all season.

Dayton at Miami (Ohio): The RedHawks nearly beat Kentucky. Dayton took out Georgia Tech. This is a dangerous road game for the Flyers. It should be counted as a quality win because of how hard it has been to win in Oxford, Ohio.

Old Dominion at Richmond: ODU was the preseason favorite to win the Colonial, but the Monarchs didn't pick up a high-profile win over Missouri or Mississippi State in South Padre Island, Texas. Richmond was the sleeper pick in the Atlantic 10 and has won four straight after losing to what now looks like a solid William & Mary team. This is one of those rivalry games that gets no national pub.

Western Kentucky at South Carolina: The Hilltoppers could use a win like this to improve their stock. South Carolina should count this as a quality win if it can land it. This is a tough game for Darrin Horn, who used to coach at Western Kentucky.

Oklahoma State at Tulsa: James Anderson is on display for Oklahoma State in a rivalry game that gets no national pub. Tulsa has Jerome Jordan in the post as its stud. This should count as a quality win for whoever can land the W.

Ole Miss at Arkansas State: Yet another dangerous road game for a "power six" team with NCAA aspirations. ASU coach John Brady is always crafty and the Rebels won't get out of Arkansas State easily.

Arkansas at Oklahoma: Willie Warren is back for Oklahoma. Arkansas is reeling. But the Sooners need to play a good, sound game after the debacle in the Great Alaska Shootout. The Razorbacks haven't proven they can be consistent.

Rice at Harvard: Any time an Ivy League team can get a home game against a Conference USA squad, it is significant. And hey, Rice is known as the "Harvard of the South." This game is a natural.

BYU at Utah State: The Cougars are the favorites in the Mountain West. The Aggies are the top pick in the WAC. The two schools are bitter rivals. This should be good.

San Diego State at San Diego: The Toreros have better wins so far this season than the Aztecs. Beating San Diego State will only enhance the profile of the WCC. San Diego State needs something positive before it gets into the MWC, and losing to the nearby rival wouldn't help.

Portland State at Portland: This is the type of game the Pilots must win -- you can't lose to Portland State after knocking off UCLA and Minnesota and getting ranked in the AP Poll. There will be a lot of eyes on this one.

Missouri at Vanderbilt: The Commodores were just OK in Maui, but are still an NCAA-potential team and could contend for a top three finish in the SEC East. Mizzou is a difficult out no matter where the game is played. This will be a extremely tough game for the Commodores.

Utah at Weber State: The Utes shocked Illinois in Las Vegas but now come back to reality with a tough, in-state rivalry game. Winning this game would say a lot about the Utes' improvement.

Northern Iowa at Iowa State: Huge game in the state for both squads. UNI beat BC in the Paradise Jam while Iowa State is projected to be a top six Big 12 school. The Cyclones are in the midst of a major three-game lineup. After this game, theygo to Cal and then host in-state rival Iowa.