Fast Break: Pac-12 has major problems
DEC 10, 2012 3:50p ET
The Pac-12 stinks.
The league has one good team, Arizona. Who's the second-best team in the Pac-12? Hello? Anybody?
I thought it was Colorado, which beat Baylor and also beat a solid Colorado State team. But then Colorado lost to Kansas by about a thousand points on Saturday, extending a long tradition of Colorado getting pounded in Lawrence (I was still in the womb the last time Colorado won in Lawrence; I turn 30 this summer).
Washington, the league's defending regular-season champion, has lost to Albany, Colorado State, Ohio State and Nevada. UCLA, which began the season in the top 15, has lost to Cal Poly (at home!), Georgetown and San Diego State. Cal lost to No. 21 UNLV. Arizona State lost to No. 14 Creighton. Oregon lost to Cincinnati. Wyoming beat Colorado.
This is merely anecdotal evidence, of course. But there isn't much tangible, measurable evidence the Pac-12 is among the best six conferences in the United States. It appears the Mountain West has more quality teams than does the Pac-12 — for perhaps the second or third season in a row.
Mountain West teams went 11-3 in head-to-head matchups against Pac-12 teams last season and are 7-4 so far this season. The Mountain West has three Top 25 teams to the Pac-12's one. There simply isn't any real evidence the Pac-12 is better than the Mountain West.
The most interesting questions are always the most difficult to answer, so the questions here — Why has this happened and will it continue? — are speculative at best.
But here's a guess:
The gap between the so-called "major " and "mid-major" conferences has been shrinking for 20 years across all geographical areas. Once underclassmen figured out it was socially and professionally acceptable to leave school for the NBA, the power-conference teams lost a piece of their biggest advantage — raw talent. Since the kinds of players who turn pro early do not tend to play in mid-major leagues, mid-major teams now tended to be more mature, more together, more continuous than their major counterparts.
I realize I am not breaking any new ground here.
A change that might be specific to the region is the perception of the Pac-12's prestige. Pac-12 basketball games are not well-attended, regardless of whether the Pac-12 team is the home or away team. UCLA is drawing 9,200 fans a game. On average, the announced attendance at a game involving a Pac-12 team is 6,514, which is easily the lowest of any of the Big Six conferences and lower, even, than the Mountain West (6,909).
It could be that high school basketball players on the West Coast simply don't perceive the Pac-12 as being particularly prestigious. The games don't seem to be all that popular and you certainly don't need to play in a major conference to get on TV these days.
Maybe this has resulted in a few more players choosing Mountain West schools and maybe that, combined with the evening of the college basketball landscape, has tipped the West Coast ever so slightly in the Mountain West's direction.
Or maybe this is all just a temporary blip and the Pac-12 will be back again next year.
Spelling lesson: There is no ‘O’ in Texas
When I talked to Rick Barnes over the summer, he sounded excited. Not because he had a new Kevin Durant or anything, and definitely not because he had a team full of talent and experience returning.
But it was because of the defense. He felt that had been lost at UT the last few seasons, and it's easy to see how that could happen. The Longhorns tend bring in these amazing recruiting classes full of star players.
Conceptually, this is ideal. Practically, it sometimes causes problems. Too many cooks in the kitchen, you know?
Barnes did not connect these dots for me, but I'm artistic enough to draw a straight line from "We're going to get back to the kind of defense we used to play" to "We don't have much offensive talent."
Nine games into the season, there's a simple little picture being drawn, and it's ugly.
Texas is, indeed, good at defense. At least that's what the statistics show. Opponents are shooting 33 percent against UT, which is easily the lowest number among Big 12 teams. Only Kansas State defends the 3-point line better than UT, whose opponents have shot 24 percent from the arc.
Conceptually, this makes Texas pretty good. In practicality, Texas is not very good at all.
The Longhorns on Saturday lost a game in Houston to UCLA. Texas missed two wide-open, all-alone, fifth-grade-layup-drill layups and lost by two. The Longhorns blew a late eight-point lead, making just two of their last nine shots.
"I thought we gave the game away," Barnes said.
Texas appears to be a hopeless case on offense, but that's partially because of an NCAA case against point guard Myck Kabongo that loses an ounce of fairness with every passing day. Kabongo is UT's best player and he hasn't played all season while the NCAA tries to figure out if he paid his own way to a couple workouts, or lied about it.
Further, sophomore forward Jaylen Bond has an injured foot and has only played in one game.
So while it wouldn't be fair to throw dirt on the Longhorns just yet, Kabongo and Bond aren't exactly D.J. Augustin and Damion James. Not that we know, anyway.
A season that began in the Top 25 of the coaches’ poll has rapidly become all about simply making the NCAA Tournament, which is harder than it sounds when you can't make layups.
Speaking of freshmen …
We have enough to work with now to get to the business of ranking the best freshmen of 2012-13. Because there are too many to rank numerically, I'm selecting a team by position.
PG – Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
SG – Ben McLemore (redshirt), Kansas
SF – Jordan Adams, UCLA
PF – Anthony Bennett, UNLV
C – Nerlens Noel, Kentucky.
Bench: Nik Stauskas, Michigan; Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke; Alex Poythress, Kentucky
That's a team with a great defensive post presence (Noel), great shooting (McLemore and Stauskas) and great size all the way around. I'd listen to an argument that Adams is not really a small forward. We could plug in his teammate, Shabazz Muhammad, in that spot, but Adams has been the more productive player. As for the bench, you've got a wing scorer, a guard and a big guy. That team would win the Pac-12 by two games.
Dunk(s) of the Week
Be sure to send me your nominations on Twitter: @tullycorcoran.
Archie Goodwin on Portland
Travis Releford on Colorado
Daniel Skinner on Tyler Junior College
3 – Times Kansas has shot better than 60 percent in a half this season. All three halves were against members of the Pac-12.
3 – Number of Pac-12 schools drawing less than 4,000 fans per game in home and away games. The Big 12 (TCU) and ACC (Miami) have one each, while the Big Ten, SEC and Big East have none.
They said it
"I'm looking at everybody in the country saying we're probably 50 to 100 right now, but we could be top 10, top 8. Those eight are the only ones that truly have a chance to win the whole thing. Do you want to be those or not? That was my challenge to them. Are you fearful you're not good enough right now?"
—Kentucky coach John Calipari.
"Well, that was an old-fashioned ass-whooping is what that was. There's no other way to put it."
—Colorado coach and Kansas alumnus Tad Boyle, on his team's 90-54 loss at Kansas on Saturday.
"Feel so bad for my only 7 ft friend and his free throw... Give him a break!"
— Appalachian State guard Bennett Rutherford, on Twitter, regarding teammate Brian Okam, whose historically awful free-throw attempt from last week has nearly 2,000,000 views on YouTube.
In case you haven't seen it:
Player of the year watch
1. Mason Plumlee, Duke
There is no clear best player in college basketball this year, but nothing has happened in the last week to make me think Plumlee isn't the best candidate.
2. Doug McDermott, Creighton
He's averaging 22.7 points per game, but he had 29 against Arizona State and 30 against Wisconsin, both Creighton wins. So he's got that "raises his game" thing going for him. Unfortunately, since he plays in the Missouri Valley, he's not going to get enough opportunities to raise his game to get taken seriously.
3. Cody Zeller, Indiana
The Manti Te'o of the other historic sports program in the state of Indiana.
Ups and downs
The Runnin' Rebels have one of the best players in the country in freshman Anthony Bennett, meaning it should be a real battle for the Mountain West title.
No program in America is consistently better at making you feel stupid for believing in it.
The undefeated Wildcats now have wins over two major-conference teams. Granted, those teams are Texas Tech and Clemson, but still.
Conference power rankings
1. Big Ten
It’s going to take a lot for any league to demonstrate it’s better than the Big Ten, which looks like it has at least three teams good enough to win the national title.
2. Big East
The Big East and the Big Ten are the only conferences that appear to have multiple teams good enough to win the title.
Duke might actually be the best team in the country, but there’s a big gap between the Blue Devils and North Carolina and N.C. State, a pair of teams that look to be underachieving.
Florida and Missouri are nice teams, and Kentucky is better than it has played.
5. Big 12
Kansas is still carrying most of the water for the league, but Oklahoma State would do well in any conference.
6. Mountain West
How would San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV do in the Pac-12? None would win it, but they’d probably be second, third and fourth.
• Kentucky beats Louisville on Dec. 29 and wins its first 10 SEC games, setting up a blockbuster at Florida on Feb. 12.
• In keeping with tradition, Kansas blows out Oklahoma State in Lawrence, loses nail-biter in Stillwater.
• Illinois falls out of the Top 25 (timing hazy, but I think I see . . . is that . . . Big Red?).
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