LOS ANGELES — In another era, this one would have been a highly anticipated, nationally televised clash: the road-tested Utah Utes trying to steal a win in USC's hostile Galen Center with a late tipoff so all of the Trojan faithful could make it out.
Saturday night's game between Utah and USC was anything but that. Only 2,826 fans showed up to see the Trojans beat the Utes 62-45 in the Pac-12 Toilet Bowl, an ugly skirmish of a basketball game, a battle that inched USC one game closer to getting out of last place. You could have heard a pin drop but neither team cared. This game was more for pride than anything else. The Utes were looking for their first road win in almost a year and the Trojans were looking for their first conference win of the season.
"They're no worse than we are," Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said after the loss. "Sure, they haven't won a game but we're not elitists. We've got a long way to go."
Utah, USC and Arizona State are the Pac-12's cellar dwellers, not altogether unexpected by the media who didn't pick any of those three teams to finish above seventh place in the preseason poll.
The dearth of quality and consistency across the conference, however, has taken everyone by surprise. The preseason AP poll had three Pac-12 teams in the top 25 with another receiving votes. Now, in week 12, none of Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott's once-proud basketball programs are ranked in either poll nor is any team receiving votes. The latest edition of ESPN Bracketology has only two Pac-12 teams receiving invites to the NCAA Tournament, neither higher than a No. 9 seed.
Perhaps the abysmal state of the conference is a good thing for the Utes.
It serves as a masking agent to cover up one of the worst seasons in recent memory. In fact, by the transitive property, Utah can claim to be top dog.
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The Utes beat Washington State on Jan. 5 who, in turn, beat first-place Cal last weekend.
But make no mistake, another road loss to 6-16 USC in the Pac-12's "lowdown," a game that the Utes thought was winnable, will sting for a while.
"We came in here expecting to win," junior center Jason Washburn said. "We were really looking forward to going home with a win and it just didn't work out."
Washburn's coach was more blunt.
"They all hurt," Krystkowiak added. "I just hoped for a better effort than this."