The line for coffin nails was long and filled with giddy analysts last season.
Burying the Pac-12 as a has-been league that had plummeted in the national view was one of college basketball’s main storylines during the 2011-12 season. Washington was a large contributor to the narrative, finishing the year as the only regular-season Pac-12 champion not to make the NCAA Tournament. To top it off, the Huskies were one of seven schools to have multiple players taken in the first round of the NBA draft. Four of those teams made the Elite Eight. Washington went to the NIT.
The conference is better this year. Six Pac-12 teams have posted 10 or more wins this season, led by 12-0 and third-ranked Arizona. Only three teams posted 10 or more wins entering Pac-12 play last year. Yet, it will still be a challenge for the conference to place more than three teams in the NCAA Tournament.
When Utah, a surprising and misleading 8-4 after a 400 thread-count soft non-conference schedule, travels to Arizona State on Wednesday night to open conference play, just Arizona will be ranked. UCLA (6) and Oregon (3) are at the back end of others receiving votes and that trio appears the clear group to make the NCAA Tournament, at this point.
The Wildcats will be the hunted by the rest of the conference out to tack on a big win for tournament consideration. The Bruins may not end up far behind them. Star freshman Shabazz Muhammad is in shape and lethal after missing the first three games of the season because of an NCAA investigation. He’s allowed the Bruins to shift the Wear twins, David and Travis, into supporting rather than starring roles. UCLA has won five in a row and scored more than 90 points in three of its last four games. The Bruins scored more than 90 points just once last season.
Colorado is right in the mix, too. The Buffs have the conference’s leading rebounder (Andre Roberson) plus the eternal advantage of playing home games 5,435 feet above sea level.
With that said, let’s look at some of the highs and lows of non-conference play:
Biggest win: Arizona over Florida. The Wildcats had no right winning this game, which head coach Sean Miller admitted afterward. Florida had a meltdown against Arizona’s press in the final minute allowing the Wildcats to make up a six-point deficit in the final 56 seconds. Transfer Mark Lyons drove and scored the winning basket to give Arizona one of its two one-point wins over ranked opponents. It beat then-fifth-ranked Florida 65-64 and then-17th-ranked San Diego State 68-67 last week.
Biggest disappointment (team): Washington. Only USC (5-8) has a losing record after non-conference play. That leaves the Huskies (8-5) with the second-most losses in the conference. Though Washington was expected to be in the middle of the conference pack, it already has three losses — versus Albany, Nevada and Connecticut — that should have been wins.
Biggest disappointment (player): Jio Fontan, USC. At Pac-12 media day, USC head coach Kevin O’Neill called Fontan the conference’s best point guard. Even when accepting this is typical coach hyperbole about his own guy, Fontan’s performance following knee surgery has been disappointing. He’s averaging 8.2 points per game, 5.3 assists and 3.0 turnovers. Worse, he’s shooting just 29.6 percent from the field. Fontan shot 41.1 percent in his first full year after transferring from Fordham.
Biggest loss: Josh Smith. The big man from Kentwood departed UCLA and is now a mystery. As the Bruins get their act together, UCLA has won five consecutive, Smith has been linked to Washington and Seattle U as possible transfer destinations. The Redhawks had not talked to Smith as of last week and it would be very difficult for the Huskies to land him since nine schools within the Pac-12 would have to approve the intra-conference transfer. There is also a question of how much a team wants a player who never got in shape then quit the team at UCLA.
Biggest loss, part II: Oregon State at home versus Towson. The Tigers of the Colonial Athletic Association had lost six of seven heading into Corvallis and beat the Beavers 67-66 in overtime when Marcus Damas hit an open jumper with 0.8 remaining. The win snapped a five-game winning streak for Oregon State, which led by 19 points at one point, and left Craig Robinson with this to say: “This was a good comeuppance for us prior to Pac-12 play.”
All-random team: Once again, Dana Altman has pulled together a band of transfers and newcomers to go with a few holdovers and form a tough group. Oregon is 11-2, has no one averaging more than 11.1 points per game (Damyean Dotson) and has six guys averaging 8.5-11.1 points per game. Dotson is a freshman from Houston who is shooting 49.6 percent from the floor. The Ducks are better than last year’s 24-10 version and have a good shot at the tournament.
Points taken: Washington State’s Brock Motum is well-positioned to defend his conference scoring title. The Australian lefty is second in the conference at 19.7 points per game. Cal shooting guard Allen Crabbe tops the Pac-12 at 20.9 points per game and Muhammad is charging hard, elevating his average to 19.6, good for third. Washington’s C.J. Wilcox is fourth at 18.5 per game