Every portion of a Cal basketball season has its virtues. The non-conference season has the excitement of discovery and the sheer novelty of the return of basketball to your daily life. The post-season has the sheer thrill/terror of the single elimination format, and the suffocating pressure of attention as the entirety of the fan base narrows its focus to one game.
But the 18 games of Pac-12 play is what I live for. The ebb and flow as teams pick up home sweeps and try to claw for road wins. The brief sigh of relief when you see that Washington State is next on the schedule, only to be seized by the awful thought of a potential loss. The delight of imagining beating UCLA in Pauley in front of thousands who are currently pretending to like Steve Alford, or handing Kelsey Plum an L in her senior season. The knowledge that it takes 18 games to decide, but that one game in January can, in hindsight, swing the entire race. Cal’s MBB conference title in 2010 and WBB Pac-12 title in 2013 are still some of my happiest moments as a Cal fan, and the MBB failure to do the same in 2013 one of the most painful.
Tonight, WBB Pac-12 play begins with Washington St. at Washington. On Wednesday, MBB Pac-12 play begins with UCLA at Oregon. I’ll probably be watching both games. The Cal men play a gigantic home game against Arizona on Friday, just two days before the Cal women have their own huge road challenge against top 25 Arizona St. Conference play gets real fast, and stays real all season long.
So what’s the state of the conference and where to the Bears fall in that hierarchy?
Why are the women getting top billing? Because this season’s Pac is the strongest Pac EVER.
No, I don’t think that’s hyperbole. By pretty much every metric, the race for a conference title will be a heavyweight battle without precedence.
First, a little history - for years and years, Stanford would recruit nationally, and every single other elite west coast basketball prospect would go back east. As a consequence, the Pac has been Stanford and a bunch of other teams struggling for consistency and relevancy. For a 3 year period in the early 2000s, non Stanford Pac-10 teams combined for exactly ZERO NCAA tournament wins. From 2010-2012, exactly 4 non-Stanford teams earned tournament bids, none of them making the Sweet 16.
Those days are long gone. Cal and Washington both have legit national player of the year candidates. Oregon has a freshman of the year candidate. UCLA has put together multiple top 10 recruiting classes. Oregon State and Arizona State have built consistent contenders with moderately underrated recruits and excellent coaching. Stanford is still Stanford . . . but with actual competition.
Just as importantly, there are no more bottom dwellers. Colorado, Utah, and Arizona jettisoned under performing coaches and have seen quick improvement. Washington State has found success by heavily courting international recruits.
Add it all up, and you have seven teams ranked, with three others receiving votes. The Sagarin rankings place 11 conference teams in the top 60. The Massey power rankings have 11 in the top 50 (and 6 in the top 20!). The RPI has 8 in the top 50, more than any other conference. You get the point, right?
Cal is currently slated to play a ranked team at least once a week for the rest of the entire season. The bad news is that, if you asked a projection engine what Cal’s conference record will be, it would probably tell you 10-8, because when a generic top 25 team plays a whole bunch of games against other generic top 25 teams, they’ll probably go something like .500. The good news is that projection engines don’t decide squat - and besides, 10 Pac-12 wins this year would probably get Cal at least a 7 seed.
Washington, UCLA, and Stanford are considered the favorites, with Oregon St., Arizona St., and Cal seen as possible interlopers. Nobody is exactly sure how good Oregon, Washington St., USC, Colorado, and Utah are, but they’re likely good enough to screw up somebody’s season if they aren’t ready.
For at least this season, west coast basketball is the epicenter of college hoops. Now’s the time to tune in.
Reef has already touched on the topic, so I won’t belabor the point: The Pac-12 is down this year, thanks to a variety of factors, most prominently the twin computer anchors that are Washington St. and Oregon St.
Stanford, Washington, and ASU are also down along with the Cougs and Beavs, and that will reduce night-in, night-out drama. But focusing on those teams distracts from what should still be a pretty high end race at the top.
UCLA, Arizona, and Oregon are all top 25 teams aspiring for much more, and piercing that top three will be difficult. I’d tab Cal as the most likely team to pull it off, although some might look at resurgent USC. Colorado and Utah may have something to say about the conference pecking order, even if it’s just the impact that mountain altitude may have on the final standings.
For my money, it’s all about the presumed top 4: Oregon, Arizona, UCLA, and Cal. All four have likely NBA talent, some of it potentially of the transcendent variety (I already hate Lonzo Ball). All four have some level of weakness, whether it’s UCLA’s defense, Arizona’s depth, Cal’s health/offense, or Oregon’s health.
Each game between these four teams should be appointment television for Pac-12 fans. As much as it pains me, it’s hard to look at UCLA as anything other than the favorite right now, but plenty can change in the next few weeks. And lord knows nothing would be sweeter than watching UCLA fans immediately turn on Steve Alford en masse if he finishes one game behind Arizona.
An in case you need consistency in your life, be comforted in the knowledge that this season will include many Pac-12 hallmarks you’ve come to rely on. Lorenzo Romar is still in Seattle wasting NBA-ready talent. Larry Krystkowiak still improbably has three Ks in his last name. Bryce Alford is presumably still a daddy’s boy. Ernie Kent is still, shockingly, employed to coach rather than make us all pull our hair out as a color man sitting next to Roxy. Stanford is still full of big plodding white dudes running an inefficient offense. Sean Miller is probably sweating through his shirt as we speak. Bill Walton is ready to take the mic and take you on a long strange trip that’s not even tangentially related to basketball, but is still more educational than anything Steve Lavin has ever said.
God, I love this time of year.