It's the second week of February. The college hoops season's version of crunch time is upon us. Where does the Pac-12 stand?
Exactly where it stood three weeks ago. Or three weeks before that. Generally speaking, this is a league in stasis. Because the various at-large résumés are so weak, we've been waiting for one team -- first Cal, then Washington, and now maybe Arizona -- to congeal toward the end of the season and distinguish itself above the otherwise mediocre fray. It hasn't really happened. But there has been some movement of late, so let's dig in and check it out.
1. California: The Bears are back atop the rankings this week, but not thanks to any sudden surge of brilliance. Rather, given Washington's loss this week (more on that in a second), the fighting Mike Montgomerys get the top nod after sweeping the L.A. schools on the road. Cal hasn't been dominant in league play, but it has the best overall per-possession numbers by far (it ranks No. 15 in Pomeroy's rankings; the closest conference team to the Bears is No. 40 Arizona) and the top efficiency margin within league play. This isn't a dominant team, and I seriously doubt it's anywhere near as good as that KenPom rank, but with minimal exception, the Bears have been the Pac-12's top team.
2. Arizona: Want to know how fluid and open this league really is? Just a few weeks ago, the Wildcats were ranked No. 8 in this space. True story. They seemed dead in the water, trading wins and losses, unable to break out of the early-season struggles and unable to really put it together. But lately, thanks to the Pac-12's top-ranked efficiency defense, the Wildcats have put together a four-game winning streak, beginning with wins at Cal and Stanford and ending with two handy victories over Colorado and Utah last week. The Wildcats' defense is their calling card, but if their offense builds on the recent improvement, Arizona may just get in the tournament after all.
3. Washington: Sometimes you lose on the road. It happens. But Washington's loss at Oregon this week was more than that. It was an 82-57 beating at the hands of the Ducks, and it was the kind of loss that makes you question whether we'll ever be able to believe in this Washington team. The Huskies were No. 1 last week. They were rolling. And they're still, at least to this humble writer's eye, the most talented team in this league. They're also still tied for first with Cal at 10-3 (one game ahead of Arizona, Colorado and Oregon). But the inconsistency lingers, and the thin at-large ice grows ever thinner.
4. Oregon: Were it not for that somewhat mystifying home loss to Oregon State, the Ducks would be 8-1 in their past nine with only a one-point loss at Colorado -- on a disputed last-second foul call, no less. Despite the UW blowout, I can't put them above the Huskies just yet. That loss to Oregon State did happen, after all, and the Ducks, despite their league-leading offensive efficiency, are allowing opposing offenses (at least opposing offenses not named Washington) to do pretty much anything they want. Still, with former Minnesota transfer Devoe Joseph in the fold and playing well, Dana Altman's team certainly seems to be improving.
5. Colorado: This was a big week for Colorado, and the results were mixed. A win at Arizona State doesn't do much for me (does it do much for you?), and a loss at Arizona tends to reinforce the notion that this squad can't beat decent teams on the road. (Its only Pac-12 road wins came at USC and ASU.) Still, when you go down the Buffs' résumé, none of their losses are particularly bad. There is some fringe at-large potential. The question is whether that status can survive the remaining schedule, which goes like this: at Utah, versus Stanford, versus Cal, at Oregon, at Oregon State. Your guess is as good as mine.
6. UCLA: The Bruins are in a dead-end season, but they're not fading nearly as fast as Stanford, so they get a bump up to the No. 6 spot. The vibes are bad in Westwood, the fans are restless, the basketball is substandard (particularly for a program with UCLA's tradition) but not so bad as to call it horrible. Nothing much to see here.
7. Stanford: The Cardinal has lost five of its past seven, with the only wins since Jan. 14 coming at home against Arizona State and at USC. There was a time when Johnny Dawkins' team seemed set to contend for the league title. Remember that? When Stanford held Syracuse to a six-point margin in Madison Square Garden? Back then, Stanford's defense looked like it might be the best in the league. Alas, it is merely mediocre (No. 5 in adjusted efficiency in conference play), and without much offense to back it up, Stanford's wheels have long since come off.
8. Washington State: Is Ken Bone's team as good as Craig Robinson's? I don't know. Probably not, all things considered. But I'm allowing the Cougars to leapfrog the Beavers here if only because Washington State -- having lost leading scorer Faisal Aden to a devastating, career-ending knee injury -- still fought hard enough to take a 10-point win in Corvallis on Thursday. With Aden gone and the Cougars' tournament chances nonexistent, it would be easy for this team to merely trudge toward the finish. That they aren't is worthy of some small commendation.
9. Oregon State: The Beavers played Washington close Sunday night but fell short, making that three losses in the last four, including the aforementioned home defeat to Wazzu. When Oregon State beat Texas in the nonconference, there was some hope that this was the year Robinson's once-bereft program would conquer the letdowns of recent seasons. That hasn't happened, and it doesn't look likely now.
10. Arizona State: As usual, the Sun Devils lead the "I almost feel bad for these teams" portion of the proceedings, and little has changed down here since last week. But ASU does have four conference wins, so it gets the nod at No. 10.
11. Utah: The Utes, winless in their past six games, were at least feisty in two losses in the Grand Canyon State (57-52 at Arizona State, 70-61 at Arizona).
12. USC: Then there are the Trojans, who are scoring well below a point per possession in league play (.83 ppp, to be painfully exact) and, after another sub-50-point performance at home, have still won just one game in the worst power-six league we've seen since, well, I don't know. A long time. The Trojans are just ... actually, you know what? My mom always told me that if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. So let's just end this here.