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.