After the first chunk of the conference season, parity is probably the word that best sums up the state of college basketball in the West, including the Pac-12, Mountain West and West Coast conferences.
Arizona has clearly established itself as head and shoulders above the rest at this point, but after the Wildcats, nothing is concrete.
San Diego State really has made the best case for the No. 2 spot, but even then the Aztecs, on their home court, trailed a mediocre Fresno State team with 10 minutes to play on Wednesday. This came after beating Air Force by seven and Boise State by just three.
Oregon, the previously ranked No. 2 team, needied overtime to beat Utah on Jan. 2 and has now lost three straight, including home losses to Cal and Stanford.
Colorado has lost two straight games and also lost its best player for the season in Spencer Dinwiddie.
Utah scored just 46 points in a loss to Washington State, a team that lost to Stanford by 32, Arizona State by 19 and that scored just 25 points in a 35-point loss to Arizona.
Meanwhile in the WCC, Gonzaga got handled by Portland, and Saint Mary’s lost at home to Santa Clara. BYU, on the other hand, rattled off four straight wins and is suddenly second in the conference standings as the rest of the WCC teams knocked each other off. Pacific, which at one point found itself cracking these power rankings, is 1-4 in conference play.
In the Mountain West it’s no better, either. Nevada, which looked weak in non-conference play, is second in the conference standings at 4-1 with wins over Utah State, UNLV and Wyoming. The Wolf Pack lost to Boise State at home in their last game, right after Boise had lost at home to Wyoming.
New Mexico just lost at home to UNLV after struggling to beat mediocre San Jose State, Wyoming and Colorado State. UNLV’s win at New Mexico came after ugly home losses to Nevada and Air Force. Utah State has been inconsistent as well.
While parity is great in some sports, like the NFL, it’s not such a good thing in college basketball where there are more than 300 Division 1 teams and NCAA Tournament bids are so hotly contested. All of these conferences would like to see an upper echelon separating itself from the rest of the pack. Outside of Arizona, however, that really is not happening.
Here is the sixth edition of the Pac-12/MWC/WCC power rankings (games through Jan. 16).
Nate Gagon is a published sports, music and creative writer. He is also a wholehearted father, grateful husband and ardent student of life. He shoots roughly 94% from the free-throw line and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or @nategagon.
The Wildcats, off to their best start in school history at 18-0, are a very deep, balanced team. Most of the time they win big, but when games have been close they have pulled those out, too.
In addition to blowout wins by 23, 20, 35, 33, 26, 26, 21, 28, 50 and 34 points this season, Arizona also has wins by just four (Drexel), six (Duke), five (UNLV), two (Michigan) and four (UCLA), each of which hung in the balance until the end.
The Wildcats win mostly with their defense, length and toughness. Their second-leading scorer averages just 12.4 points per game, but they have seven guys averaging more than seven. The ’Cats win because they are solid and balanced in every phase of the game.
While Arizona (5-0 in conference) will most likely stumble at some point and lose, the Pac-12 Conference is looking far from intimidating right now, and the ’Cats should have a fairly easy path to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The Aztecs (15-1, 4-0) keep winning and are pretty close to the Mountain West’s version of Arizona in that they keep going while the rest of the league mostly fades.
After a big win at Kansas on Jan. 5, the Aztecs have beaten Boise State, Air Force and Fresno State, all of the victories by single digits.
Right now, San Diego State is projected as a No. 3 seed in ESPN’s latest Bracketology offering. Looking at their upcoming schedule, the Aztecs should be able to get by fairly unscathed and should be in great shape for the NCAA Tournament, barring injuries.
The Bruins (14-3, 3-1) nearly completed an epic comeback versus Arizona on Jan. 9 when they came back from 13 points down in the final 5½ minutes to take a lead with 1:44 to go. Unfortunately for them, the ball bounced the Wildcats’ way after that and the game slipped away.
Despite that tough loss to Arizona, however, UCLA has mostly impressed lately. The Bruins trounced USC by 34 and Arizona State by 15 and then won at Colorado by 13.
The Bruins travel to Salt Lake City to play the Utes on Saturday. The Utes will see a player putting up phenomenal numbers in 6-foot-9 sophomore Kyle Anderson. The guy has a ridiculous stat line, averaging 14.8 points, 9.1 rebounds, 6.5 assists, two steals and a blocked shot per game, while shooting better than 50 percent from the field, 44 percent from long distance and 75 percent from the foul line.
The Bears (13-4, 4-0) have enjoyed an outstanding start to conference play. They get the nod at No. 4 over Colorado due to the Buffaloes' injury woes.
Cal has won at Stanford by seven, at Oregon by 13, at Oregon State by five and at home over Washington by 26. That same Washington team had just pounded Colorado by 17 and also beaten Utah and Arizona State.
The Golden Bears are currently projected as a No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament and are getting votes in both major polls. Like Arizona, Cal is extremely well balanced with six players averaging between 8.4 and 14.9 points per game.
Feb. 1, when Arizona visits Hass Pavilion to take on the Bears, is shaping up as one of the big dates on the remaining Pac-12 schedule.
The Bulldogs (15-3, 5-1) probably deserve to fall further than one spot for losing quite handily at Portland (their first loss to the Pilots in 21 games) but with Colorado losing Dinwiddie and Oregon falling apart, the Bulldogs still look like a top-5 team from among these conferences.
Outside of the Portland stunner, the Bulldogs have been dominant in conference play, beating Santa Clara by 14, San Francisco by 28, Saint Mary’s by 21, Pacific by 22 and Pepperdine by 17.
Despite the one bad loss, Gonzaga could still be considered the WCC’s version of Arizona as a team that should dominate a mediocre conference and cruise into the NCAA Tournament with a high seed. Currently, Gonzaga is projected as a No. 7 seed.
The Ducks (13-3, 1-3), after needing overtime to beat BYU and Utah, have lost three straight, including home losses to Stanford and Cal.
Their next three games should be very interesting as the Ducks play at Oregon State, at Washington and at Washington State. Those no longer look like easy wins for Oregon, which could soon find itself on the outside of the NCAA Tournament picture looking in if something doesn’t turn around quickly.
If the Buffaloes (14-4, 3-2) hadn’t lost Dinwiddie for the season versus Washington, they would have been ranked at No. 5, ahead of Gonzaga and Oregon. Losing their star junior guard is a massive blow, however.
Even with Dinwiddie, the Buffs had been struggling somewhat after needing overtime to beat Washington State on Jan. 8.
Currently projected as a No. 6 seed, it will be interesting to see if Colorado can remain in the NCAA Tournament picture without its best player. The Buffaloes have a high RPI due to a great strength of schedule, which should work in their favor.
The Lobos (12-4, 3-1) are struggling and are fortunate to remain in the top 10 here with other teams also fading.
The fact is there just does not seem to be much separation between teams in the Mountain West Conference this year. Trailing San Jose State, a team that got blown out by Weber State earlier this season, with three minutes left in the game is not encouraging.
Right now, the Lobos are projected as a No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament thanks to their high RPI (No. 36) and strength of schedule.
The Cardinal (11-5, 2-2) followed up their road win over Oregon with an 80-48 annihilation of Washington State on Wednesday. The Cardinal continue to be an incredibly talented team with a high level of inconsistency.
Currently, Stanford is projected as one of the last teams in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 12 seed. The Cardinal really can look like anything from the second to tenth-best team in the Pac-12, depending on the day.
The Sun Devils (13-5, 2-3) have been blown out in their last two games, both on the road versus UCLA and Arizona. You would have liked to see them at least be competitive in those games to solidify their status as an NCAA Tournament team.
As it stands now, ASU is projected as one of the first four out, along with BYU.
Preseason Pac-12 MVP Jahii Carson has been disappointing lately, failing to shoot 50 percent in a game since Dec. 14 while hitting just 34 percent over that seven-game span. Additionally, he has only averaged 2.3 assists over his last six games.
BYU (WCC): The Cougars (12-7, 4-2) are close to crawling back into the NCAA Tournament projections after a surprising four-game winning streak. The Cougs are No. 36 in RPI despite their seven losses but they will need to play a lot better than they did in beating San Francisco Thursday night, or they will be back outside the NCAA Tournament picture quickly.
Boise State (MWC): The Broncos (12-5, 2-2) have been extremely competitive in every game this season with the exception of the Dec. 10 loss to Kentucky. With a few lucky bounces, they could quite easily be ranked with a gaudy record that would include wins over top-10 teams Iowa State and San Diego State. As it stands, instead, they are currently on the outside looking in on the NCAA Tournament projections.
Utah (Pac-12): The Utes (15-4, 2-3) are looking quite similar to the most recent version of their football counterparts right now — able to beat BYU and pull out the occasional Pac-12 win but not quite ready for the big-time, or the NCAA Tournament for that matter. The Utes are still much improved this season and could surprise, but right now with the lowest RPI in the Pac-12 at No. 151, the Utes simply don’t deserve to be ranked any higher than this.
Saint Mary’s (WCC): The Gaels (13-5, 3-2) fell out of the NCAA Tournament projections with a home loss to Santa Clara. They followed that up with a 15-point win over San Francisco, however, and should still compete with BYU for second in the WCC.
Washington (Pac-12): The Huskies (11-7, 3-2) are making a push in the Pac-12 with wins over Arizona State, Utah and Colorado. Their embarrassing 26-point loss at Cal was a setback, but upcoming games versus Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State and Washington State should help cement their place in the conference, either for good or bad.
The Aggies have an RPI ranking of No. 95 right now and a BPI of No. 70. The Aggies do look improved after their home loss to Pacific on Dec. 7. Air Force and Nevada, which the Aggies have lost to in conference, don’t look as bad as they once did. The four-game stretch coming up with Boise State, UNLV, SDSU and UNM will be telling.