Pac-12 struggles through nonconference schedule
PHOENIX (AP) — The Pac-12 had a strange 2017-18 season.
Southern California finished second to Arizona in the regular season and lost to the Wildcats in the conference tournament title game, yet didn’t get an NCAA invite. UCLA tied for third but still got into the field of 68, along with Arizona State after finishing eighth during the regular season and losing in the opening round of the Pac-12 Tournament.
This season could end up with a similar result.
Unless a few teams turn it on to join Arizona State at the top or win the Pac-12 Tournament, the self-proclaimed conference of champions could be a one or two-bid league in 2018-19.
“There were a couple of opportunities we maybe weren’t able to take advantage of as a conference. Put us in that as well,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “But after Christmas, everybody has a brand-new slate.”
No. 17 Arizona State was by far the class of the Pac-12 nonconference season. The Sun Devils knocked off then-No. 15 Mississippi State and beat a No. 1 team for the second time in school history with an 80-76 victory over Kansas in Tempe.
After that, inconsistency.
Oregon, at 8-4, is the highest rated Pac-12 school in the KenPom ratings at No. 40, followed by Arizona State at No. 44. The conference five teams 91st or worse. Arizona State is 3-1 against teams in the KenPom 50, the rest of the conference is 2-24.
The Pac-12 has a similar standing in the NCAA’s NET rankings: Arizona State is No. 31, Washington is next at No. 55 and six teams 86th or worst.
Things can still change. A few teams could surge toward the top of the standings, someone outside of Arizona State could win the conference tournament to give the Pac-12 at least two NCAA Tournament teams.
If not, the Pac-12 could have plenty of teams on the outside looking in at the NCAA Tournament bubble.
A few things to look for from the Pac-12 Conference this season:
SUN DEVILS SURGING: Arizona State has followed up last season’s success with another strong start.
The Sun Devils (9-2) beat Kansas for the second straight season and their only losses are to No. 6 Nevada and Vanderbilt, which came on the road two days after beating Georgia.
Arizona State went 12-0 in nonconference play last season before struggling in Pac-12 play at 8-10. The Sun Devils are bigger up front and deeper, so there’s less chance of a conference letdown this year.
NON-DOMINATING DUCKS: Oregon was the preseason favorite with two starters returning and a stellar recruiting class headed by five-star recruit Bol Bol.
The Ducks have yet to live up to those expectations, entering Saturday’s game against Boise State 8-4. Oregon lost to Texas Southern at home and scored 47 points against Baylor in a road loss last week.
Bol, the athletic 7-foot son of former NBA center Manute Bol, missed three straight games with left foot injury and was being evaluated this week. He’s Oregon’s leading scorer with 21 points and rebounder at 9.6 per game. Kenny Wooten also will miss 4 to 6 weeks with a broken jaw.
ARIZONA’S STRUGGLES: Arizona lost its top five scorers from a year ago and its leading returning scorer, Dylan Smith, averaged 4.3 points per game.
The new-look Wildcats were going to need some time to gel and that’s just what has happened so far.
Arizona (9-4) lost two of three games at the Maui Invitational and had its 52-game nonconference home winning streak end with a 58-49 loss to Baylor. The Wildcats also had a hard time putting away UC Davis at home in their last game.
Arizona still has plenty of talent on its roster and could make a run to the NCAA Tournament with a solid Pac-12 season.
TROJANS STRUGGLING: A year after just missing an NCAA Tournament berth, USC will need a big push to earn consideration this season.
The Trojans (6-6) need a win against UC Davis on Sunday just to enter the Pac-12 season with a winning record and have some ugly losses.
USC lost to two good teams in No. 6 Nevada and No. 11 Texas Tech, but also lost at home to Vanderbilt, was blown out by TCU and lost in double overtime to Santa Clara.
BRUINS BOBBLING: UCLA is giving away tickets to men’s basketball games. That’s how tough this season has been.
A year after making the NCAA Tournament, the Bruins have labored and fans have called for coach for Steve Alford’s job.
UCLA (7-5) has played a tough nonconference schedule, but the biggest games on the docket have all been double-digit losses: to No. 8 Michigan State, No. 14 North Carolina, Cincinnati and No. 13 Ohio State.
The Bruins also lost to Belmont at Pauley Pavilion and enter Saturday’s game against Liberty on a three-game losing streak.
Top freshmen Shareef O’Neal (heart) and Tyger Campbell (ACL) are out for the season, depleting the roster, but this is not the kind of season Bruins expect from one of the nation’s top programs.