Making the Bracket Part 1: The PAC-12 is Absolute Trash
Everyone on the East Coast is thinking it, I'm just saying it out loud for the ones in the back: the PAC-12 is trash this season. In fact, the league is in danger of being a one-bid league this season. Let that sink in. The PAC-12, a one-bid league. Something that hasn't happened since the conference expanded from eight to ten teams back in 1978-79 season. We're talking about a conference that features every major university on the west coast. A conference that has a combined 16 national championships and countless All-Americans. A power conference, in jeopardy of only having one of its twelve members qualify for the Big Dance in March. The late great John Wooden must be turning in his grave right now.
To begin my assessment of the PAC-12, let's start at the bottom since there is more bad than good to speak on. Tad Boyles' Colorado Buffaloes entered conference play 9-3, but have since gone 1-3 and don't have a signature non-conference victory to hang their hat on. In Los Angeles, USC's Andy Enfield was able to land the 18th ranked incoming recruiting class, headlined by Kevin Porter Jr., but that hasn't translated into much success. Porter Jr. has missed most of the season with a quad injury and was also recently suspended indefinitely due to a personal conduct issue. At Utah, mediocrity is the keyword. The Utes beat bad teams, lose to good teams, and struggle against the rest. In Palo Alto, Jerod Haase and Stanford can't beat anyone that's even slightly good. The Cardinal are 8-0 in games that fall into Quadrant 3 and 4 but are 0-8 in games that fall into Quadrant 1 and 2. As for Washington State, the Cougars season wasn't going great but absolutely went into free fall when senior leader and leading scorer, Robert Franks (22 PPG), suffered a hip contusion. The Cougars are 0-5 without Franks this season. Furthermore, they've also lost every game they haven't played at home (0-9). Finally, at Berkley, you'll find the bottom-dwelling Bears who haven't won a game all season outside of Quadrant 4. Sorry Colorado, Southern Cal, Utah, Stanford, Washington State, and California, but your teams aren't going dancing without winning the conference tournament and are basically relegated to playing spoiler for the rest of the season.
Now let's look at teams who, at least, have a decent shot at winning the conference tournament. Before we hit another negativity streak, let's start with a team we don't normally expect greatness from, Oregon State (One tournament appearance in 30 years). The Beavers are led by Head Coach, Wayne Tinkle's son, Tres Tinkle (20 PPG/ 8 RPG), and have already knocked off both UCLA and Oregon in conference play. As things currently sit in regards to the making the NCAA Tournament, Oregon State is still well outside the bubble and won't have the nonconference resume to merit an at-large bid without going near perfect in PAC-12 play. If any team is a dark horse with a legitimate shot at winning the conference tournament, its Oregon State.
Before conference play started, it seemed as if Arizona State was the only good team in the PAC-12. The Sun Devils had several signature wins on their schedule (4-2 in Quad 1) culminating with an upset of Kansas. However, since beating Kansas, A-State has lost three of their last five including embarrassing home losses to Princeton and Utah. Bobby Hurley's club can fill up the basket (79.8 PPG) but they also have a tendency to not put teams away when they have the opportunity. Though the Sun Devils have four of the PAC-12's six Quadrant One victories on the season and clearly the best nonconference resume of any team in the conference, Arizona State's at-large bid dreams will live and die during the stretch run of their schedule that will leave five of their last seven games outside of Tempe.
In Eugene, Dana Altman and the Oregon Ducks had high hopes heading into this season and with good reason. The Ducks brought in the third-ranked recruiting class led by the highly touted Bol Bol. The 7'2" freshman stud dominated, averaging 21 points per game and almost ten rebounds per game, but was limited to only nine games before his season was ended prematurely by a nagging foot injury. Though the Ducks still have Payton Pritchard and Paul White, the absence of Bol has been costly (6-3 with Bol, 4-3 without). The Ducks are still trying to find their footing without Bol, but their time to earn themselves an at-large bid is running thin and may be gone before they know it. To call the Ducks season, to this point, a disappointment wouldn't be an unfair assessment, but there is definitely a huge (7'2") asterisk beside it.
From one understandable disappointment to another. Okay, maybe Arizona's season hasn't been that much of a disappointment, but any team that loses stars like DeAndre Ayton and Allonzo Trier is doomed to take a step back. Sean Miller's squad hasn't been horrid, but they also haven't shown the ability to beat good teams. The Wildcats best win all season came during the first round of the Maui Invitational in November when they beat Iowa State by five. Arizona has hit a bit of a stride as of late. Since dropping back-to-back games at Alabama and at home to Baylor in mid-December, the Cats have reeled off six straight victories. Currently, Arizona sits firmly on the bubble; however, with their mix of talent, coaching, and overall health, the Wildcats should be the odds on favorite to win both the PAC-12 regular season title and conference tournament at this juncture in the season.
Now let's talk about real disappointment. That's right. UCLA. After five seasons and nothing more than a few tournament appearances to show for it, the Bruins sacked head coach Steve Alford. For most other programs in the nation, making the NCAA Tournament annually is enough to secure anyone's job. Not at UCLA. Being simply "good" doesn't work with UCLA. UCLA isn't supposed to be good, they're supposed to be great. They're supposed to contend for national titles year in and year out. After this season, it'll be almost 25 years since the last time UCLA cut down the nets (1995). The Bruins have eight players on their roster who were ranked in the top 100 of their recruiting class including Kris Wilkes, Jaylen Hand, and Moses Brown but couldn't beat Belmont or Liberty at home. Alford deserved to be fired and the Bruins don't deserve to make the tournament. Luckily for them, they still can win the conference tournament and have the talent to do it, but at this point, it's their only shot.
After trudging through all this disappointment, there is one team in the PAC-12 currently in the NCAA Tournament field as things are situated today. That team would be the Washington Huskies. All four of the Huskies losses this season fall into Quadrant One, but they have taken care of business against everyone else. Washington plays really good defense and uses it along with a snail-like pace to suffocate opponents. Huskies' Head Coach Mike Hopkins' team is driven by sophomore guard Jaylen Nowell who averages 16+ points, 5+ rebounds, and 3+ assists per game. Nowell is spelled by three seniors, Noah Dickerson, David Crisp, and Matisse Thybulle who all average at least nine points per game. While they don't have the talent to match UCLA or Arizona, the Huskies do have the defense and seem to have the heart to play with anyone in the PAC-12, they'll be a beast to deal with in the PAC-12 conference tournament.
Obviously, there is a ton of basketball to be played between now and Selection Sunday. However, there is no denying the PAC-12's struggles this season. While teams like Oregon, Arizona, UCLA have time to rectify their seasons without needing an automatic bid, the clock is running out. Even if the conference does get multiple bids, the confidence that the PAC-12 will do any damage in the tournament will be at an all-time low.