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December 8, 2011
Worst of the Major Conferences
How Utah Stacks Up

by Kevin Pelton


On Wednesday night, the Utah Utes lost by 31 points at home. Ordinarily, this would be bad news, but not quite the kind of historic event that draws out local celebrity Ken Pomeroy. Wednesday's outcome was notable first because the visiting team was a middling Big West outfit, Cal State Fullerton, whose best win previously came on Nov. 19 at Louisiana Lafayette. Beyond that, Wednesday was one of just two left on the schedule where Pomeroy's rankings made Utah a favorite.

Calling this a rough debut season for first-year Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak would be a gross understatement. Entering their first year in the Pac-12, the school lost a go-to player from a team that went 6-10 in the Mountain West when guard Will Clyburn transferred to Iowa State for his senior season. 7-3 shot-blocker extraordinaire David Foster broke a bone in his right foot during Utah's exhibition (a loss to Adams State), an injury that figures to sideline him through the first half of conference play at best.

Things went from bad to historically terrible on Monday when guard Josh "Jiggy" Watkins, who had been using more of the Utes' possessions (39.2 percent) than any other player in the country, was suspended indefinitely by Krystkowiak for conduct detrimental to the team. So it was that Utah entered its best shot yet at a D-I victory as underdogs and ended it with the worst home loss in the 42-year history of the Huntsman Center (the margin also the biggest road non-conference road win ever for Fullerton).

The Utes do have one win, a three-point victory over NAIA school San Diego Christian at home in their opener. There may not be many more on the schedule. Per KenPom.com, Utah is favored to win just once the rest of the way--next Friday, when 2-6 Idaho State visits Salt Lake City. That's not to say the Utes won't come up with a few upsets, especially if Watkins is reinstated. However, Pomeroy's metrics show a one in five chance that Utah goes winless in its first season of Pac-12 play.

It's not too early to wonder how the Utes stack up to the worst major-conference teams in modern history. Using Sports-Reference.com's Simple Rating System, here are the 10 lowest-rated teams from the six power conferences dating back to the creation of the Big 12 in 1996-97:

School                Year  Conf   CRec    Rec    SRS
Oregon State          2008   P10   0-18   6-25   -6.2
Baylor                1999   B12   0-16   6-24   -5.6
Virginia Tech         2001    BE   2-14   8-19   -5.4
Northwestern          2000   B10   0-16   5-25   -4.9
Wake Forest           2011   ACC   1-15   8-24   -4.4
Colorado              2007   B12   3-13   7-20   -4.1
Texas A&M             2000   B12   4-12   8-20   -3.9
Washington State      2002   P10   1-17   6-21   -3.1
Texas A&M             2002   B12   3-13   9-22   -3.0
Penn State            2004   B10   3-13   9-19   -3.0

Simple Rating System measures relative to the average of all NCAA teams. Naturally, most power-conference squads are far better than this average. Typically, two to three BCS schools per year fall below the standard. Nobody has been farther below it in recent times than the 2007-08 Beavers, who lost more conference games than any other team in modern NCAA history thanks to the Pac-10's 18-game schedule.

The Pomeroy rakings, which date back to 2003-04, offer a slightly different take these teams, putting last year's Demon Deacons at the very bottom (they ranked 251st in the country), with a pair of 2010-11 SEC squads (Auburn, 214th, and Louisiana State, 227th) and 2008-09 Indiana (212th) all rating worse than Oregon State (210th).

Generally, though, the two ratings tell a similar story. For a major-conference team to rank outside the NCAA's top 200 is rare indeed. After Wednesday's game, Utah's Pomeroy rank dropped to 305th. Even before the loss to Fullerton, the Utes' SRS of -14.7 was far and away worse than any of their recent predecessors.

What stands out in studying a list of the worst BCS teams in recent memory is that all of them picked up a few non-conference wins by virtue of cupcake-laden schedules. Wake Forest was 7-8 before conference play last season, including a win over a major-conference foe (Iowa). Oregon State was 6-6, scoring road wins over UC Davis and Cal State Bakersfield. Of all below-average major-conference teams in the last 15 years, the 1998-99 Boston College Eagles had the worst non-conference record at 3-6. Even counting the win over San Diego Christian, Utah will need either improvement or luck to get to three non-conference wins.

Two facts should console Utes fans during what figures to be a long season. First, Utah may have company. Boston College, which lost virtually every player from last year's NIT squad, rates No. 274 in the Pomeroy rankings and -13.0 by SRS. While the freshmen-heavy Eagles have a pair of wins to date (home against New Hampshire and over UC Riverside on a neutral floor), they will face a much more difficult slate of opponents in the ACC than the Utes will in a down Pac-12.

Second, a look at this list shows that hard times are only temporary in major conferences. Texas A&M was the Big 12's doormat at the start of the 2000s, but ended them as an NCAA tournament fixture. Within five years, Baylor went 1-15 in the Big 12 to the Elite Eight. Even Oregon State's rebuilding effort under Craig Robinson shows signs of turning the corner. Eventually, Utah will compete in the Pac-12. It just won't happen this year.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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