Pac-10 struggled badly in nonconference play

Lute Olson sounds more realist than optimist. Scoreboards can do that to a man, even one with parking privileges and knowledge of the members' secret handshake at the basketball Hall of Fame.

"I think all of us [were] disappointed a lot of ways in terms of how our teams played in the [nonconference schedule]," Olson, in his 23rd season directing Arizona's program, said. "It's not the case that losses to lesser teams are quickly forgotten by the [NCAA Tournament] committee."

Bad losses. Brutal ones in some cases.

Sorting through some of the major mishaps:
• The former junior college turned new Division I team Utah Valley State over Arizona State
• Portland and Portland State over Oregon
• Portland over Oregon State
• The UC combo (Irvine and Davis) over Stanford
• Cal State Northridge and Oral Roberts over USC
• Eastern Michigan over Cal

Pac-10 play began last week and it's a good thing for those within the conference hoping to overlook the embarrassment of such collapses. There are some things in life deemed unforgivable by most: A faulty TiVo player, owning a Dream Theater CD, and teams from a major conference routinely losing to those from non-major ones with RPIs higher than Pavarotti's weight.

"I get asked, 'Do you think your [conference] can get five teams into the [NCAAs]?' " said Olson. "It would probably have to mean five teams being able to dominate. But if it's a case where everyone is knocking each other off, it's going to hurt in terms of the number we get in. There have been some very, very disappointing losses, especially when teams lose at home. That could end up hurting our conference.

"We are the defending [regular-season conference] champion and I think we are capable of defending. I don't think anyone has a better chance of winning it than we do."

The separation Olson speaks of might not be difficult to realize, given the (lack of) talent and (poor) health state of some lower-tier conference teams like ASU, Stanford and Oregon State. Oregon opened conference with a victory against OSU, but the Ducks are still 7-6 overall with much to prove, given how those Portland powers beat them.

The conference's upper echelon is more easily recognized. Arizona and UCLA have top-20 RPIs and the Wildcats on Saturday looked like the league's best, for now, by winning in double-overtime at Washington. The Huskies are a top-50 RPI team. Washington State hovers around 54 and Cal around 70, although the Bears opened league play by sweeping the L.A. schools on the road. There are five teams with credentials -- some more notable than others -- but qualifications all the same.

Still, it's not even the second week of January. So much can go right or wrong for a conference that received four NCAA bids last season but for long stretches was looking at three.

If there is an unknown this season, a team that could replace one of the top five as a viable NCAA candidate, it's USC. The Trojans opened with those forgettable losses to Northridge and Oral Roberts but then won nine straight (including a home victory against North Carolina) before splitting with the Bay Area schools last week.

"I'm still very guarded about who we are," said first-year Trojans coach Tim Floyd. "We really didn't beat any [nonconference] teams of notoriety other than North Carolina and we caught them with a bunch of freshmen playing on the road where we had to be at our best to win. I'm a little hesitant to anoint our team because I have vivid memories of our first two games, where we didn't do anything well. We're just growing and building."

There are reasons for even the best Pac-10 teams to be guarded, as well. UCLA is an injury waiting to happen, having spent the nonconference schedule with as many key players on the training table as the court. Washington is off to an 11-1 start, but has played 10 games on its home court and has left the state just once. Before its dramatic win Saturday, Arizona had at times appeared more beatable than it has in years.

"I've always had the feeling that where you are picked to begin a season doesn't matter," said UCLA coach Ben Howland. "The nonconference gives you needed experience. But that is all done now."

How soon a few results will be forgotten by a certain selection committee, however, is anyone's guess.

Kings of the Mountain?
Dale Layer likes his team. It plays well together. It shares the ball. It has one of the country's more skilled big men in sophomore forward Jason Smith and is receiving terrific play from a host of guards.

It's obviously a heck of a lot better than eighth in the Mountain West Conference.

Colorado State has, to this point, made a mockery of a preseason media poll that picked the Rams eighth out of nine teams. CSU is 11-2 and opens conference play at San Diego State on Wednesday against an Aztecs team picked to the win the league back in October but has struggled to a 7-5 record.

"Our confidence is high, but our guys are smart enough to understand everything is out the window now and it all starts over with league play," said Layer, in his sixth season as head coach. "Our biggest improvement from last season had been our guard play. And it has helped that we have won four times away from home. We know we can go other places and step away from the white jerseys and compete and have a chance to win."

It's pretty much this way in the Mountain West: CSU and Air Force (11-1 and defending out of its minds under first-year coach Jeff Bzdelik) are the only teams to have put themselves in contention for at-large NCAA bids should each produce significant conference records. They are the only two entering league play with top-100 RPIs, and the only two that consistently impressed in the non-conference schedule.

Ed Graney of The San Diego Union-Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ed.graney@uniontrib.com.