Pac-12 men’s hoops nonconference wrapup: ‘Conference of champions’ loses national prestige

mhoops_justice-delos-santos_seattle_staff-1.jpg
Justice delos Santos/Staff

Related Posts

Forget hindsight. Forget what we know now. Let’s have a legitimate moment of honesty — no one thought the Pac-12 was going to be this bad. For those saying otherwise, that you thought the state of affairs would be this horrid, I’d be inclined to call you a liar.

From Bol Bol to Kris Wilkes to Luguentz Dort to Jaylen Nowell, on paper, this conference oozes talent. Before all hell broke loose, Oregon, UCLA and Washington were ranked, while Arizona, Arizona State and USC received votes for the top 25. Simply put, the Pac-12 was supposed to be good.

Heading into conference play, that hasn’t been the case. Quite the opposite. The “conference of champions” has been horrendous. Historically atrocious. This is not hyperbole, this is not subjective, this is not up for debate. It is fact.

In December, this conference as a whole finished a combined 40-36, good for a winning percentage of .526. This marks the single worst nonconference winning percentage by a Power Five conference in a single December in the past 20 seasons.

There have been too many forgettable moments to count. Actually, scratch that. Let’s run it back. In no particular order, here are the top 10 worst moments of the Pac-12 so far. This will be a fun trip down memory lane.

  1. UCLA losing four straight games, then firing Steve Alford
  2. Cal losing to Yale in China
  3. Arizona State losing to Princeton
  4. Vante Hendrix leaving Utah, Jordan Usher leaving USC
  5. USC and Washington State losing to Santa Clara
  6. Bol Bol, Kenny Wooten and Kevin Porter Jr. (among others) going down with injuries
  7. Arizona failing to score 50 points against Baylor at home
  8. USC losing to TCU by 35 points
  9. Oregon losing to Texas Southern despite being 24-point favorites
  10. No teams being ranked going into conference play

In short, it hasn’t been a fun season thus far. While there’s an outside shot of it happening, if things get bad enough, the Pac-12 might only send one team to the NCAA tournament come March.

Up to this point in the season, all 12 teams have had roller-coaster seasons, some more mild and tame than others. As with all things in life, context is necessary (e.g Colorado’s 9-3 record isn’t the same as Arizona State’s 9-3 record).

For the sake of organization and readability, these teams will be divided into multiple groups based on a combination of expectations and performance. Each team’s MVP of nonconference play will be listed, and the final power ranking will be listed below as well. Godspeed to the “conference of champions.”

 

More flub than strength (of schedule)

Colorado (9-3)
Nonconference power ranking: 5
MVP: McKinley Wright IV — 13.8 PTS, 5.6 TRB, 5.7 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.1 BLK

The following team’s shiny records cannot be discussed without alluding to their strength of schedule, or lack thereof. Colorado’s strength of schedule ranks 300th in all of college basketball, according to kenpom.com. That 9-3 record especially doesn’t look as impressive when two of those losses came to Indiana State (neutral ground) and Hawai’i (away). Colorado’s only real defensible loss came in the form of a 70-64 loss to San Diego on the road. Lucas Siewert and Tyler Bey have taken steps forward since last season, but star point guard McKinley Wright IV has roughly been the same player since last season. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — he’s one of eight players in college basketball to average 13/5/5 this season — but Colorado taking a step forward hinges mainly on his future development.

Oregon State (8-4)
Nonconference power ranking: 8
MVP: Tres Tinkle — 19.8 PTS, 8.7 TRB, 4.2 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.7 BLK

The Beavers are one of the more experienced teams in the Pac-12, and it makes their inability to close out close games so puzzling, especially with a big three in Tres Tinkle, Stephen Thompson Jr. and younger brother Ethan Thompson. As mentioned in the most recent power rankings, Oregon State is 2-4 in games decided by 6 points or fewer. While Tinkle is looking like a player of the year candidate and Ethan Thompson has taken a step forward, Stephen Thompson Jr. isn’t quite having the grand send-off he imagined, currently averaging the fewest points since his freshman season along with the lowest true shooting percentage of his career. The surprise of the season for Oregon State has been Kylor Kelley, who might just give Matisse Thybulle a run for Defensive Player of the Year with his 4.1 blocks per game, the second-most in all of college basketball.

Washington State (7-6)
Nonconference power ranking: 11
MVP: Robert Franks — 22.1 PTS, 7.9 TRB, 2.9 AST, 0.5 STL, 0.6 BLK

Only Pittsburgh, South Alabama, American, Central Michigan, North Carolina State, South Florida, Fordham and East Carolina have weaker schedules than Wazzu. Two of its losses (Seattle and Santa Clara) came without leading scorer Robert Franks, and it speaks to Washington State’s lack of depth and its unhealthy reliance on both Franks and C.J. Elleby. Even with Franks missing two games, he and Elleby account for 41.7 percent of the Cougars points. If there’s a night when either struggles or is out of commission, Washington State simply doesn’t have firepower waiting in the wings. Yet, it’s having a dynamic duo in Franks and Elleby, two players who could drop 20 points each on a given night, that keeps Washington State out of the bottom.

“I’m not mad, just disappointed”

Oregon (9-4)
Nonconference power ranking: 3
MVP: Bol Bol — 21.0 PTS, 9.6 TRB, 1.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 2.7 BLK

With multiple five-star prospects and Payton Pritchard — someone considered a potential player of the year — running the show, Oregon was the clear choice to be the Pac-12’s cream of the crop this season. Those expectations fizzled out quickly. Losing to Iowa at Madison Square Garden stung, but it wasn’t a death blow for the season. Quality opponent, any given night, yada, yada, yada. But Texas Southern, whew boy, easily a contender for the worst loss by a Power Five conference this season. It was that moment when the Ducks’ national standing took a nosedive, and the team hasn’t been ranked since. On top of all that, Oregon caught the injury bug. Kenny Wooten broke his jaw and will be out for an extended period of time, while the status of Bol’s left ankle remains up in the air. With Louis King still getting back his sea legs and Pritchard having yet to become the true alpha dog in Bol’s absence, the Ducks desperately need Bol to be healthy. If not, this season is curtains.

Washington (9-4)
Nonconference power ranking: 2
MVP: Matisse Thybulle — 9.2 PTS, 2.9 TRB, 1.8 AST, 2.9 STL, 2.0 BLK

Oregon, UCLA and USC may have had the blue-chippers, but Washington was far and away the most interesting team heading into this season. It’s rare that any program will bring back two or three core players from a given season, not to mention the entire core. While the entire pack of Huskies returned, the results haven’t been all that impressive. Even with the near upset of Gonzaga, it feels Washington’s next level up has yet to be unlocked. Wins against San Diego, Santa Clara, Seattle and Cal State Fullerton haven’t inspired confidence. The losses have come against quality opponents, but somewhere along the line, Washington, particularly Jaylen Nowell, Noah Dickerson and the rest of the core, will need to unlock that next level and take down someone of quality. Assuming Washington doesn’t win the conference championship, it’s one of the favorites to make the tournament based on its elite defense alone, but as seen with USC’s snub last season, it’s best to not leave things up to chance.

USC (7-6)
Nonconference power ranking: 9
MVP: Bennie Boatwright — 15.0 PTS, 6.4 TRB, 2.5 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.3 BLK

There are two sides to every story. One side tells the tale of how a team has been ravaged by injuries from the jump. Bennie Boatwright missed the first two games of the season and is still trying to work his way back to 100 percent. Kevin Porter Jr. is recovering from a right quad contusion and hasn’t played in the last five games (six games if you include the mere four minutes he played against Nevada), and Charles O’Bannon Jr. had left pinky surgery Nov. 13. Plus, Jordan Usher has now announced his intent to transfer. Those injuries have forced players such as Nick Rakocevic, Derryck Thornton and Shaqquan Aaron to take on much larger roles. The other side tells the tale of a team that has endured some inexcusable losses. The 15-point smacking by Texas Tech. The 35-point slaughter by TCU. And, most infamously, the double-overtime loss to Santa Clara. The talent that has propelled USC to 71 wins over the last three seasons just isn’t there right now, for one reason for another, and Andy Enfield is going to have to conjure up some magic and get the most out of whom he does have on the floor.

Arizona State (9-3)
Nonconference power ranking: 1
Co-MVPs: Zylan Cheatham (11.3 PTS, 10.1 TRB, 3.8 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.9 BLK) and Luguentz Dort (18.1 PTS, 5.4 TRB, 2.4 AST, 1.7 STL, 0.2 BLK)

Arizona State wasn’t supposed to be in this category. Originally, the Sun Devils were in the “pleasant surprise” category down below because they had been the one redeeming team in the Pac-12. Arizona State started the season 7-0, gave Nevada a run for its money and knocked off Kansas for a second straight season. Heading into the final game of nonconference play, ASU was the darling of the Pac-12. All it had to do was beat Princeton, the fifth-best team in the Ivy League, at home. But fans of the Pac-12 by now know better than to have faith in this season. Princeton pulled off the upset, and Arizona State fell out of the rankings. This may not have been the final game of nonconference play, but this loss coupled with the firing of Steve Alford (see below) served as the cherry on top of a December to forget. Even with the loss, the Sun Devils have still been the best team in their conference. Remy Martin and Rob Edwards are still dealing with the residual effects of their respective injuries but have had bright spots. Zylan Cheatham has morphed into a point forward, and Luguentz Dort is looking like a candidate for freshman of the year. Let’s just see if conference play is friendlier this time around.

“I’m both mad and disappointed”

UCLA (7-6)
Nonconference power ranking: 7
MVP: Kris Wilkes — 17.5 PTS, 4.5 TRB, 1.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.5 BLK

We all knew it was going to happen. We just didn’t know it was going to happen this early in the season. Steve Alford, the man with an audience of one, has officially been fired as the team’s head coach. Alford’s tenure ends with UCLA having lost four straight games, and it’s worth running through them. A 2-point loss to Belmont at home. A 29-point loss to Cincinnati on the road. A 14-point loss to Ohio State on neutral ground. And finally, the cherry on top: a 15-point loss to Liberty at home. Alford’s fate was likely sealed after Belmont, but Liberty was the straw that broke the camel’s back and forced athletic director Dan Guerrero’s hand. The craziest part of all of this? UCLA could still go to the tournament. For all their lack of success, the Bruins are still loaded with talent. Maybe the firing of Alford will be exactly what UCLA needs to resurrect the season. Or, maybe this season becomes a wash, and Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands skip town the first opportunity they have. Oh, the possibilities!

They are what we thought they were

Utah (6-6)
Nonconference power ranking: 10
MVP: Sedrick Barefield — 15.0 PTS, 1.5 TRB, 3.3 AST, 0.5 STL, 0.0 BLK

After the conclusion of last season, Utah lost four of its six leading scorers in Justin Bibbins, David Collette, Tyler Rawson and Gabe Bealer. With that much roster turnover from a non-blue blood, Utah was due for a regression. Surprise, surprise, the team has regressed. Also, Vante Hendrix leaving the program four games into the season wasn’t the best of looks. Nearly every loss this season has come against a top-100 opponent, the lone exception being the loss to Hawai’i in Fullerton. The Utes will likely finish the season with a losing record, but there’s some reason for optimism, both in conference play and going forward. During three games as the sixth man, Sedrick Barefield posted a career-high 33 points against Nevada and is averaging 21.3 points on 58.8 percent shooting. More encouraging for the long-term future have been the performances of Timmy Allen, Riley Battin and Both Gach, all of whom are averaging at least 8.2 points per game. But for now, Utah will continue to reside in the lower bowl of the Pac-12 standings.

Cal (5-7)
Nonconference power ranking: 12
MVP: Paris Austin — 14.2 PTS, 2.7 TRB, 5.1 AST, 1.1 STL

In short, the offense has looked much better while the defense is suffering. Click here for a whole bunch of words on Cal.

Pleasant surprise

Arizona (9-4)
Nonconference power ranking: 4
MVP: Chase Jeter — 12.8 PTS, 7.0 TRB, 0.4 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.8 BLK

Easily the worst case of year-to-year roster turnover in the Pac-12. In one fell swoop, Deandre Ayton, Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins, Dusan Ristic and Parker Jackson-Cartwright — an entire starting five — were all gone. Luckily for a blue-blood program like Arizona, there was talent aplenty waiting in the wings. Brandon Randolph went from reserve to leading scorer, Chase Jeter joined the fray after redshirting, Justin Coleman has been solid since transferring from Samford, and Brandon Williams has the makings of a great four-year college player. Even with a considerably less-talented group compared to last season, Arizona has managed to pull out quality wins against Iowa State on neutral ground and Connecticut on the road while also pushing Alabama to the brink on the road. Considering the potential severity of Bol Bol’s injury and the mess down in UCLA, it’s not crazy to envision a scenario in which Arizona finishes in the top three.

Stanford (7-5)
Nonconference power ranking: 6
MVP: Kezie Okpala — 16.8 PTS, 6.1 TRB, 1.9 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.8 BLK

The departure of Reid Travis to Kentucky was easily the biggest storyline surrounding the Cardinal, one that overshadowed the incoming team itself. Much like Cal, Stanford is incredibly young, with an average experience of 0.94 years. The Cardinal’s core will look different when Kezie Okpala likely declares for the draft in several months, but going forward, something special could be brewing in Palo Alto. After a slow start, Daejon Davis has been turning it on over the last five games, averaging 17.6 points, 5.2 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game. There has been no in-between in Stanford’s competition in nonconference play. The five losses have all come against teams ranked in kenpom.com’s top 50, while all victories but one have come against teams ranked 200th or lower. On the road against Kansas and San Francisco, Stanford hung right in there and gave these quality opponents a run for their money.

Justice delos Santos covers men’s basketball. Contact Justice delos Santos at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @justdelossantos.