OK, I just finished the most grueling exercise of the year 2011: Trying to pick the Pac-12 men’s basketball race.
Here’s what I came up with:
1, California. 2, Arizona. 3, Stanford. 4, Washington. 5, Oregon State. 6, UCLA. 7, Oregon. 8, Washington State. 9, Colorado. 10, Arizona State. 11, USC. 12, Utah.
I feel fairly confident that the bottom half-dozen is relatively locked in. Maybe Oregon sneaks into the top half, but I don’t believe the Ducks are good enough to make a quantum surge toward the top.
Here was the thought process on the top half:
Before the season, I believed there was a pretty clear top four, in whatever order you might perceive: Cal, Washington, Arizona, UCLA. But since the season began, two surprise teams have emerged – Stanford and Oregon State.
You can reasonably question whether either Stanford or OSU is ready to push toward, say, the top three in the league. But I’d argue the other side – that Stanford’s body of work – while not overwhelming, by any means – is among the best in the conference. And the Cardinal took now-top-ranked Syracuse down to the wire before losing at Madison Square Garden.
OSU beat Texas, lost a two-point game to Vanderbilt, and has been blowing away most of the rest of a (paunchy) schedule, playing an uptempo style.
So I believe Stanford and OSU deserve a hard look at being considered ahead of some of those aforementioned four.
Problem is, that created a logjam of six to try to unravel. My thinking:
Cal: Bears have been solid in the preseason, they’ve got a lot of proven commodities, and they probably have the best bench coach in Mike Montgomery.
Arizona: ‘Cats are undersized, but have a decent unit, and they should get better as freshmen Nick Johnson, Josiah Turner and Angelo Chol do so. If nothing else, the Tucson home court counts for a lot.
Stanford: Looks to me like Johnny Dawkins has something going in Palo Alto. Cardinal have a big rebounding margin, and if they get Dwight Powell playing well, they should be a handful.
Washington: The Huskies have the potential for a quick start because of a forgiving schedule and they have a history of turning around some early struggles. That might well happen again. But they don’t have a lot of inside game, and I’m still skeptical it’s going to magically come together.
Oregon State: I may be lowballing the Beavers, a deep team with a lot of parts. They could easily be better than fifth. But a good bit of their pre-conference schedule has been paunchy.
UCLA: This is the one that could be far off, especially if Josh Smith stays away from the late-night pizzas and freshman guard Norman Powell keeps improving. But if you look at the Bruins’ resume, it’s alarmingly light on anything good.
Bottom line: While the gap between sixth and first may seem mammoth, I don’t see it finishing that way. I envision something like the winner going 13-5, a couple or three teams at 12-6 and a couple at 11-7.