I'll open with a simple question: If you were asked to choose between betting on Arizona or the field to win the Pac-12, who would you pick?
Kenpom's projections have the Wildcats finishing conference play 14-4, a full two games ahead of 2nd place. That's hardly an insurmountable gap, but it's clear that humans and computers agree that Arizona is a strong favorite. They have conference's best win, they don't have a single loss (let alone a bad one), and they have only been legitimate challenged once. They only have to play Oregon once and they avoid the Bay Area road trip. In a conference full of many solid-but-obviously-flawed teams, Arizona appears the most complete.
They've got size and skill inside (Solomon Hill, Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley). They've got guards that can score and facilitate (Kevin Parrom, Nick Johnson). And they've added Xavier transfer Mark Lyons as the potential final piece of the puzzle, a veteran ball-handler who has come up huge so far.
Can anybody top them?
Arizona 69, Miami 50
Utah 62, Southern Methodist 53
Stanford 70, Northwestern 68
UTEP 91, Oregon 84
UC Irvine 61, USC 54
Georgia 64, USC 56
NC State 88, Stanford 79
CSU Northridge 76, Utah 71
Some of these games seem miscategorized. Losing to CSU Northridge is a missed opportunity? Beating a team that has NEVER been to the NCAA tournament is a good win? Admittedly, some of it is a judgment call on my part, and I do grade on a curve; i.e., a good win for Utah is not the same as a good win for Arizona. But mostly I just go by the computer numbers. Northwestern has an RPI in the top 100, and by virtue of playing in the Big 10 their RPI will likely stay in that range. CSU Northridge also has a top 100 RPI, and although they're likely to fall back when they enter conference play, it's still not an awful loss for a team like Utah.
In any case, it was hardly a banner week for the Pac-12, as most of the conference played a series of awful teams. I can understand why - it's that awkward period between finals and Christmas, when players are ready to check out and visit family. That doesn't make it any more interesting. In any case, other than USC's continued implosion, I guess it's a good thing that nobody else really screwed up. Even Oregon's 3OT loss to UTEP wasn't a total disaster from a computer perspective. I'd have classified it as a missed opportunity for a team with lower aspirations than the Ducks.
While we're on the topic of cupcakes: A few weeks back I called out Oregon State head coach Craig Robinson for consistently awful non-conference schedules. We can now check back to find that the Beavers have an RPI schedule strength of 316th in the nation, with two more awful games left before conference play. Also, I found this article from the 2011-12 season, which made me laugh:
Marquee nonconference wins — particularly when they're away from home — go a long way in the eyes of the selection committee.
Craig Robinson understands this, which is why he's said he'll take a more aggressive approach than past Oregon State coaches when it comes to scheduling out of conference.
"Ideally, you play enough good times [in nonconference] to help your RPI," Robinson said. "Then you do well in your conference and you can make the NCAA Tournament."
But prior to this year, Oregon State faced just three opponents from BCS conferences (outside of the Pac-10/Big 12 Hardware Series, which was set up by the conference) in nonconference play under Robinson.
That, Robinson said, isn't his fault.
For the first three years he was at Oregon State, Robinson had to play the games that had been scheduled by Jay John and his staff.
"When I got here, quite a few games had been scheduled [for] the first three years," Robinson said. "We had to finish those relationships and honor those contracts."
Those contracts have all been honored, meaning Robinson can begin hand-picking his nonconference schedule.
Robinson has 'fixed' things by doing things exactly the same as his predecessor.
Arizona vs. San Diego State, ESPN2
College of Idaho at Utah, Pac-12 Network
Missouri at UCLA, 7:00 pm, ESPN2
Coppin State at Arizona State, Pac-12 Network
Hartford at Colorado, Pac-12 Network
Towson at Oregon State, Pac-12 Network
Idaho State at Washington State, Pac-12 Network
Washington at UConn, ESPN2
Harvard at California, Pac-12 Network
Lafayette at Stanford, Pac-12 Network
Dayton at USC, 4:00, Pac-12 Network
The holidays makes for another boring week punctuated by three games of obvious consequence. Arizona/SDSU is the final battle between the Pac-12 and the Mountain West, and considering how even things have been one could reasonably call it a tie-breaker. Missouri will head to Westwood to see if UCLA's recent run is a product of improved play or weaker competition. And Washington heads back east to play a diminished but still solid UConn squad.
Dayton and Harvard are both solid teams that nobody will get excited about. USC will likely lose to the Flyers, completing what would be a 4-9 disaster of a non-conference run for the Trojans. I'm always glad to see a Pac-12 coach schedule aggressively because it tends to help the rest of the conference, but you can over-schedule as well. Kevin O'Neill clearly did the latter. USC has played the 22nd toughest schedule in the nation, something his team wasn't remotely prepared for. I'm sure you're all very distraught over USC's tough time.