Allow me to concur with my colleague, Myron Medcalf, who included the Pac-12's intriguing title race among his five observations Sunday:
2. The Pac-12 race is actually exciting: Let’s ignore the fact this could still be a one-bid league and the overall conference has been bested by multiple mid-major conferences this season. The Pac-12’s title race is compelling right now. Washington beat Arizona on the road last weekend and then overcame a late double-digit deficit to beat UCLA on Thursday. The Wildcats overcame Cal’s early 22-9 lead in one of the better matchups of the week: a 78-74 road win for Arizona, which it followed up with a victory at Stanford. The Pac-12 might end up with the most captivating finish in the country simply because so many teams possess questionable NCAA tourney résumés.
This is entirely true. Sure, the quality of play in the Pacific 12 conference isn't the highest in the country, but so what? If you want to watch the best basketball in the world, played by all of its best players, well, NBA League Pass is right this way. Go wild. If you want your hoops defined as much by imperfection as success, it's hard to do much better than this fascinating and downright weird league.
Anyway, onto the rankings.
1. Washington: For much of the season, yours truly has been pining over the Washington Huskies. Well, not pining, exactly, but at least keeping an eye out. With Tony Wroten, Abdul Gaddy, Terrence Ross and Aziz N'Diaye, Washington has always appeared to be the most talented team in the conference. Of course, talent only goes so far, and for much of the season, this team's talent was undermined by a lack of chemistry and a lack of defense, and not always in that order. Both of those things have changed in conference play. The Huskies are hardly blowing the doors off on offense, but they're allowing the league's third-fewest points per possession on defense, and unlike their mediocre nonconference slate, Lorenzo Romar's team is getting key stops, closing out tight games and winning on the road. As a result -- and thanks to Cal's home loss to Arizona this week -- Washington finds itself alone atop the Pac-12 standings Monday morning. Can the Huskies take that lead to the finish line? It may not matter, this team's at-large tourney profile is still pretty mediocre. But you can't knock Washington's improvement. If things keep going this way, Romar's team will be in excellent position heading into the all-important Pac-12 tournament.
2. California: The Bears have spent the entire Pac-12 season looking like this conference's best, or at least most solid, team. That perception hasn't changed, despite Thursday's home loss to Arizona, which dropped California out of first place in the league standings. Thing is, Cal has reached its ceiling. The Bears are what they are. That's not something we can necessarily say about Washington, which looks capable of greater improvement each time it takes the floor. The Bears are solid (and their total per-possession numbers are solid, if not amazing, particularly in conference play) but unspectacular. Meh.
3. Colorado: Is it time to believe in Colorado? Insofar as "believe in Colorado" means "think they might be the third- or fourth-best team in the Pac-12," then yeah, sure. The Buffaloes are playing solid defense and got a couple of nice wins last week over Oregon State and Oregon (though Saturday night's win over the Ducks featured a controversial last-second foul call on Oregon's E.J. Singler that gave coach Tad Boyle's team two late, game-sealing free throws). In any case, the Buffaloes still need to prove themselves on the road. This team's only Pac-12 road victory came at USC, and five of their final seven games -- including the next three, at Arizona, Arizona State and Utah -- are on the road. We'll see.
4. Arizona: The Wildcats move up the board further than anyone this week thanks to their impressive Bay Area sweep, which began Thursday at Cal and ended Saturday at Stanford. Both were solid wins for coach Sean Miller's improving bunch. The Wildcats are now 7-4 in conference play with the best per-possession defense in the league. Arizona's offense could hold them back (it was uncharacteristically good at Cal, and it didn't prevent a win at Stanford), but the Cats may have found their niche on the defensive end.
5. Oregon: Perception-wise, it's hard to penalize the Ducks too much for losing on the road at Colorado, let alone losing on the road on such a controversial last-second call. Coach Dana Altman's team has an excellent chance to bounce back this week when Washington comes to town, so that's good news. But Oregon has yet to really impress when it comes to efficiency margin in league play, and while Altman and Oregon fans may feel like they are a few missed opportunities away from contention, the Ducks' advanced metrics beg to differ.
6. Stanford: Stanford entered league play with a sluggish offense and what appeared to be the conference's best defense. Since then, coach Johnny Dawkins' team has regressed to the mean on the defensive end, allowing the fifth-most points per possession in Pac-12 play. That wouldn't be so bad if Stanford were playing a bit better on offense. Unfortunately, that's not the case. That's why Arizona was able to win in Palo Alto on Saturday despite scoring well under a point per possession, and that's why Stanford, once a potential title contender, is stuck here at 6-5.
7. Oregon State: It's hard to move the Beavers either up or down after Oregon State lost at Colorado and won at Utah. Guard Jared Cunningham leads an offense that can score in bunches and a defense that is far too permissive both at home and on the road. Last week's win at Oregon was nice, but little else has been impressive.
8. UCLA: Believe it or not, the Bruins score the most points per trip of any team in the Pac-12. Travis and David Wear are providing efficient role scoring, and Joshua Smith remains a load for any defense to handle. Strangely enough for a program that has prided itself on defense in the Ben Howland era, this team is totally mediocre on the defensive end. Losing to Washington on the road, as the Bruins did Thursday, is hardly a crime. But the way UCLA lost -- with a timeout still on the board -- was curious. More importantly, this team hasn't gone anywhere since the turmoil of November and December, and that has UCLA fans questioning the program's future direction.
9. Washington State: Washington State had one thing going for it in early Pac-12 play: home-court advantage. The Cougars were offensively potent at home, and that trait guided them to wins over Stanford and Cal in back-to-back games last month. But Faisal Aden's sad, career-ending ACL injury has robbed them of even that ability, made evident by a meager 60-53 win over USC and a 60-points-in-65-possessions performance in Saturday's three-point loss to UCLA. This was never going to be a tournament team, but that doesn't make Aden's fate, or its effect on this fledgling squad, any easier to swallow.
10. Arizona State: No surprises here. Arizona State had two road games this week -- at Stanford, at Cal -- and lost by 20-plus in both. Those blowouts moved the Sun Devils to 3-8 in league play, good enough to stay atop Utah and USC and no one else.
11. Utah: The Utes will never truly wash off the stink of their horrendous nonconference performance; on a per-possession basis, they've been ranked in the low 300s all season, and they'll be there for the remainder. But they do still own one more league win than USC. Then again, Utah has lost its past four (including at USC), mostly in blowout fashion, and the Utes may return to their seemingly predestined spot at the bottom of these rankings if the trend continues.
12. USC: And then there's Southern California. The Trojans' only win in league play came at home over Utah, and while they kept things relatively close at Washington State (losing 60-53), that's hardly worth much. USC is scoring about 0.83 points per possession in Pac-12 play, a league that hardly specializes in lockdown defense. Unless the Trojans discover a magical way to score the basketball in the next few weeks, their only hopes of avoiding the 2012 Pac-12 wooden spoon award is if Utah somehow plays even worse.