After a bitterly disappointing Monday for the conference, the Pac-12 got a chance at redemption on Tuesday. While it wasn't pretty, the three teams playing in preseason tournaments this week salvaged something from their trips.
All season long, the Pac-12 will be wrestling with the shadow of last year's historically poor performance for a power conference. The comparison will always be there, for better or worse. After Arizona and UCLA welcomed two of the nation's top three recruiting classes, conventional wisdom had it the Pac-12 would be closer to normal, at least at the top of the conference. There's no question that the Pac-12 has improved thus far, though in part that points to how far the conference fell a year ago.
When it comes to the national stage, the Pac-12 has been underwhelming. On Monday, three teams from the conference played tournament games on the ESPN family of networks. All three failed their tests. Washington State was blown out by Kansas in Kansas City, barely reaching 40 points. USC got run off the court by Illinois in the opening round of the Maui Invitational. And the Bruins, despite the anticipated debut of No. 1 recruit Shabazz Muhammad, never found a rhythm in a loss to Georgetown at the Barclays Center.
Tuesday went better. USC found enough offense to beat Texas in overtime in a matchup of two struggling teams. UCLA rallied from an early deficit to knock off Georgia. The conference nearly made it 3-0 in marquee games, but Elston Turner's three-pointer in the waning seconds gave Texas A&M a 55-54 win over the Cougars. Still, the two wins over BCS foes give the Pac-12 six in non-conference play thus far against as many losses. That's nearly as many as the conference had in November and December last season, when a 9-19 record against power-conference teams was part of a start that doomed regular-season conference champion Washington to the NIT.
Nobody will confuse this year's start by the Pac-12 for anything impressive. In games against non-power conference opponents, UW was stunned at home by Albany and Stanford fell at home to an underrated Belmont squad (Kenpom.com readers knew that wasn't really an upset). However, it won't stop the conference from putting multiple teams in the NCAA tournament, especially if the teams that have yet to play marquee opponents like Arizona and California fare well.
The Wildcats, who have yet to be seriously challenged in a 3-0 start, will play in the Diamond Head Shootout during late December. Arizona is the favorite among a field that also includes San Diego State, Mississippi and Miami. The Golden Bears begin the DirecTV Classic tomorrow as one of two BCS teams in a field loaded with solid mid-majors like Drexel, St. Mary's and Xavier. Solid performances there will help the Pac-12, which already saw Colorado win the Charleston Classic by taking down a better non-conference opponent (Baylor) than any member of the conference beat a year ago.
During the first two-plus weeks of the regular season, two major concerns have played out for the Pac-12. First, the worst team in the conference doesn't seem to have improved much from last season due to injuries and defections. Utah lost at home to Sacramento State in its opener against D-I competition, an indication that the Utes will again be one of the worst teams in the power conferences. While USC no longer belongs in that group after getting healthy and adding talent via transfers, Arizona State could be back. The Sun Devils are 3-0 but have yet to face a top-200 opponent. They'll be tested more severely in the Las Vegas Invitational this weekend, starting with a matchup against Arkansas.
While the bottom of the conference will affect the RPI and more advanced statistics for the Pac-12's top teams, in terms of the eye test the biggest issue is that UCLA has a long way to go to live up to advanced billing. After adding Muhammad and Kyle Anderson--not to mention Jeremy Adams, the team's leading scorer before Muhammad's eligibility was restored--expectations were sky-high in Westwood. So far, the Bruins' many pieces don't seem to fit together or in Ben Howland's system.
Muhammad's eligibility was a major distraction, and while he was allowed to practice with the team, injuries limited his time on the court. So integrating him will be a process, which Howland started by bringing the star recruit off the bench in Brooklyn. UCLA still hasn't quite figured out the best way to make use of Anderson's unique skills, and all the newcomers demanding the basketball has made it difficult to utilize Joshua Smith like the Bruins have in the past. In time, the combination of the talent and Howland's defensive system should still produce a national contender. That's no longer looking like a sure thing, though, and the Pac-12's bounce-back season belongs in the same uncertain category.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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