Take an informal poll of coaches around the Pac-12 Conference, and one conclusion quickly becomes clear.
This is the year the league makes history by sending all 12 of its men’s basketball programs to the Big Dance.
Obviously, that is not going to happen. Yet across the board the powerhouses remain powerful, the typical cellar-dwellers have all improved, and the league’s conference schedule begins with a 7-4 mark for a talented but injury-ravaged Stanford team counting as the league’s worst nonconference record.
Rest assured, this is one season in which there will be no bona fide cupcakes on anyone’s schedule. And everyone is preaching parity.
“I think we’ve had some marquee wins as a conference, which is important,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “As you look from top to bottom, there’s not an easy team on the schedule. I talked to some folks out east, like (ESPN’s) Jeff Goodman and some guys that are involved with college basketball, and they all thought from top to bottom it’s as strong a league as there are in the country.
“A lot of people are taking care of business, and we’ve been really competitive I think against the other elite teams in the country. It appears to be wide-open, and now everybody wipes the slate clean and gets after these 18 games.”
While a few things have held true based upon the form established by preseason predictions, the league also has witnessed a few surprises during nonconference play.
Arizona, widely considered the Pac-12’s preseason favorite, endured injury woes before the season even tipped off but has retained its position as the team to beat thanks to a 12-1 nonconference ledger. Yet the league’s impressive depth is probably more apparent in just how much the rank-and-file have improved. USC went 23-41 in its first two seasons under coach Andy Enfield, but has put together its best start in 14 years at 11-2. Washington State, picked last in the preseason media poll, has gone 8-4.
At the beginning of the week, the Pac-12 ranked second in the nation in overall nonconference winning percentage, trailing only the Big 12 at .779. Only the 15-team Atlantic Coast Conference has produced more wins against teams ranked in the AP Top 25 than the seven recorded by the Pac-12. Highlighting that aspect of the league’s overall resume was UCLA’s win against then-No. 1 Kentucky on Dec. 3.
“The league is really good. It’s really deep,” CU coach Tad Boyle said. “The teams over the past few years that have been in the bottom half of the league are much, much improved. Washington State is a good team. Stanford is a talented team that has had some injury issues. Arizona State has as good a resume as anyone in our league. The league is deep.”
CU’s expectations have risen considerably after getting slotted at No. 7 in the league’s preseason poll. The Buffaloes have exceeded that ranking with their 11-2 start, and Boyle is among the throng proclaiming the league is deeper than it ever has been during his tenure at CU. Still, both of the Buffaloes’ losses occurred in narrow decisions against the only ranked teams on the schedule to date. And, with the possible exception of Brigham Young, the 11 consecutive wins in between were collected against teams not likely to be invited to the Big Dance.
Boyle has stated repeatedly that his squad, when performing at its best, can play with any team in the league on any given night. That notion will be put to the test immediately on Friday night against a Cal team that began the year ranked 14th before a pair of early losses dropped the Golden Bears from the national spotlight.
“We’re aware of other teams and what they’re doing, but really it’s all about what we’re doing,” CU senior forward Josh Scott said. “The conference is…I don’t know if it’s the best it’s ever been, but it’s up there in terms of talent and how deep the league is. It’s going to be a battle night in, night out.”