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Basketball on the West Coast, and more specifically the Pac-12 hit an all-time low in 2011-12 when the conference sent just two teams to the NCAA Tournament that season. As one of six “power” conferences in college sports, that number was simply unacceptable, especially considering the tradition rich history of the conference itself. From Pete Newell’s great California teams, to John Wooden’s historic dominance at UCLA, to the Lute Olsen era at Arizona, the Pac-12 has always been the envy of college basketball across the country. Then we arrived at the abysmal season of 2011-12 and the Pac-12’s future looked awfully bleak. Just two years later, I’m here to tell you that things out west have changed dramatically, and, in fact, the Pac-12 in 2013-14 might be one of the strongest conferences in the country.
Power at the Top
The resurgence of the Pac-12 starts at the top where Arizona is the No. 1 ranked team in the country. Arizona boasts an outstanding starting five that has a perfect balance of experience, athleticism, and size. The Wildcats were expected to be strong this season, but holding down the No. 1 ranking adds to the strength of the conference as a whole. The Cats feature four players who average double digits in scoring, headlined by junior G Nick Johnson and freshman phenom F Aaron Gordon.
Not too far behind is the Oregon Ducks who come in at No. 13 in the latest AP Poll. Traditionally a football powerhouse, Oregon has revitalized their basketball program under fourth-year coach Dana Altman. Behind the strong play of Houston transfer G Joseph Young and sophomore G Damyean Dotson the Ducks have started the season 9-0 and look to be serious contenders come March.
The last of the three ranked Pac-12 teams is the Colorado Buffaloes who come in at No. 20 in the AP poll. After dropping their opening game of the season to 12th-ranked Baylor, the Buffs have rattled off ten straight wins, including a thrilling home win over then sixth-ranked Kansas. Colorado is led by junior G Spencer Dinwiddie and sophomore C Josh Scott, who combine to average 28 points per game. Up next for the Buffs is a challenging matchup with seventh-ranked Oklahoma State in Vegas.
Outside of the three ranked teams, the Pac-12 boasts another five teams with realistic NCAA tournament aspirations. Traditional blue blood UCLA is the best of these teams, landing just outside of the polls this week after suffering their first loss of the season to No. 23 Missouri. The Bruins are led by first-year coach Steve Alford, who has plenty of talent to work with after the firing of Ben Howland last season. UCLA features a trio of dynamic guards in Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson, and Zach LaVine who all bring different skill sets to the table.
The Bay Area schools Cal and Stanford will likely be battling it out to see who can secure one of the final spots in the NCAA tournament when Selection Sunday rolls around. The Bears had a solid showing in the Maui Invitational and are led by senior PG Justin Cobbs who averages 14 points and 6.4 assists per game. As for Stanford, the Cardinal have a big week ahead of them with games against tenth-ranked UConn and traditionally strong Michigan this week. A victory against one of these two would spring Stanford’s season in the right direction.
Lastly, we have Arizona State and Utah off to better starts than expected. The Sun Devils are led by All-American PG Jahii Carson, who averages 20 points and five assists per game. The Utes are the surprise team of the bunch, with their only loss coming at the hands of a talented Boise St. team on the road. After Saturday’s 17-point home win against BYU, it might be time to take Utah seriously this season.
While the Big Ten and ACC are more talented at the top of their respective conferences, the Pac-12 has certainly closed the gap that was present as recent as two years ago. It is certainly unlikely that all eight teams I mentioned above make the NCAA Tournament, but even if six of those eight get to dance, it will be a banner year for west coast basketball. Throw in a National Championship contender in Arizona and you can see why the Pac-12 is getting back to its old ways in basketball