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The Pac-12 is Burning

The Pac-12 basketball season has descended into chaos and there is little that can be done to save it. Also, a look ahead at the Utes game against the UCLA Bruins

NCAA Basketball: Utah at Southern California Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Pac-12 is burning.

There have been only two constants in the Pac-12 this year, Washington doesn’t lose their conference games and California loses all of them. But other than that, the Pac-12 has been chaos this entire season, especially during conference play. Last night capped off another wild set of games. Over the course of Wednesday and Thursday, every Pac-12 team played, and five of the six road teams won. The only home team, and the only team favored at the start of the game that won was Oregon over Cal. That’s only because beating Cal is a near certainty this year.

Every home team in this last set of games was favored to win, and most were huge favorites. The lone exception was Arizona, who was favored by only 2-points against Washington. The Wildcats were the favorites more because of the boost they get for playing at McKale Center, rather than anyone thinking they were the superior team to Washington. Every other team was projected to win by 6-points or more and four of them lost by more than six points.

If we combine the point spread in all the games this week and compare them to the final scoring margin, the results are startling. The home teams this week were projected to win by 53 points, but they instead combined to lose by 58 points. If we remove Oregon and their 11-point margin of victory from the equation, then the chaos is even more pronounced. UCLA, USC, Arizona State, Arizona, and Oregon State were projected to win their games this week by a combined 37 points. They ended up losing to Colorado, Utah, Washington State, Washington, and Stanford by a combined 69 points in those 5 games. The average margin of defeat was 11.8 points.

You might notice that of the winning teams, five of the six of them were in the bottom half of the conference before these games were played. If we use tiebreakers so each team has a solo position, this is where the teams stood in conference play before their games.

USC (2nd) lost to Utah (7th).

ASU (3rd) lost to Washington State (11th).

Oregon State (4th) lost to Stanford (9th).

UCLA (6th) lost to Colorado (10th).

Cal (12th) lost to Oregon (8th).

Washington was the only winning team in the top half of the conference, defeating fifth place Arizona, and they’ve basically got the conference title locked up by the second week of February.

If you look at the Pac-12 conference standings right now, the middle of the conference is completely clogged up. Washington is in first, they’re 10-0 in conference play, and they have a four-game lead on second place. However, the difference between second place Arizona State, and ninth place UCLA is one freaking game. The Pac-12 has four teams who are currently 6-4 (Utah, USC, Oregon State, and Arizona State) and four teams who are currently 5-5 (Arizona, UCLA, Stanford, and Oregon). Realistically there are still eight teams in play who are in contention for second place in the conference, and I’ll even accept Colorado as a ninth at 4-6 if you want to throw them in. The Pac-12 is burning. Chaos reigns.

The question is what this actually means for the Pac-12. The national narrative this year has almost universally been that the Pac-12 has been having one of the worst seasons in conference history. Hardly anyone respects the Pac-12 as a basketball conference. Joe Lunardi, a bracketology expert for ESPN who I don’t think has ever gotten anything wrong in the history of March Madness, currently only has two teams making the NCAA tournament. He has Washington as No. 8 seed and Arizona State as No. 12 seed playing in the of the First Four games. To put this in perspective, the SEC, ACC, Big 12, and Big 10 all have eight projected teams in the NCAA field right now. Pac-12 basketball is getting absolutely no respect and it’s turning into just as big of a problem as football.

The NCAA tournament field is a good way to measure the success of a conference throughout a college basketball season. I went back through the previous seven NCAA tournaments since conference realignment last changed the college landscaped, and I looked at the number of teams each major basketball conference had in the field each year. I calculated the average number of teams each conference had in the field and I also recorded the worst season each conference had in terms of getting teams into the field.

Big East: 6.4 teams per year. Worst season: five teams in.

Big 12: 6.4 teams per year. Worst season: five teams in.

Big Ten: 6.2 teams per year. Worst season: four teams in.

ACC: 5.7 teams per year. Worst season: four teams in.

SEC: 4.4 teams per year. Worst season: three teams in (3x).

Pac-12: 4.4 teams per year. Worst season: two teams in (2012).

This is the crisis that the Pac-12 is facing in college basketball. Similar to college football, the Pac-12 is failing to get their teams into the most important event of the season. You could argue that the SEC is struggling just as much but there’s a major difference between what Pac-12 teams have done in the tournament and what SEC teams have done since 2012.

Pac-12: 0 National Championships, One Final Four Appearance (Oregon)

SEC: One National Championship, Five Final Four Appearances

The SEC has had more success in the NCAA tournament than the Pac-12 has. You could argue most of that success comes from Kentucky, which is fair. Kentucky holds three of the SEC’s Final Four Appearances and their National Championship. But the two Final Four Appearances from Florida and South Carolina are more than the Pac-12 has combined. Also, it would be fair to counter the Kentucky argument by pointing out the Pac-12 also has a premier college basketball program (Arizona) that recruits at nearly as high of a level as Kentucky and they simply haven’t performed the same in the NCAA tournament.

The Pac-12’s lack of success in basketball and football each year is just making it more and more hollow each time Bill Walton adamantly proclaims the Pac-12 as the “Conference of Champions”. And if you ever watch a Pac-12 game with Bill Walton on the broadcast team, you know that Bill Walton proclaims that about 100 times per game. Seriously, find somebody who loves you the way Bill Walton loves calling the Pac-12 the “Conference of Champions”.

Conference of Champions is a fair title for the conference if you really love championships in Swimming, Cross Country, Track and Field, Water Polo and Golf. The Pac-12 has a lot of titles in those sports. But if you crave titles in sports that actually make your school money, the Pac-12 hasn’t delivered. They have had one college football title this century (USC in 2004, also it was vacated by the BCS) and hasn’t won a college basketball title since Arizona in 1997.

However, I don’t think that criticisms about the Pac-12 are coming so heavily simply based on performance. The reputation of the Pac-12 is worse that it has been since changing from the Pac-10, and a majority of that blame falls on Larry Scott, and the rest falls on the school leadership within the Pac-12 that continues to support him.

Larry Scott is the highest paid commissioner in all of college athletics. He makes $4.8 million each year. That’s more than any other commissioner in college athletics. Meanwhile, the Pac-12 is only paying out $31 million to each of its schools, which is far less than any other Power 5 conference. The Big Ten gets its schools $50 million a year, and the SEC schools get $41 million. Now, in an effort to make more money for the conference, Scott is trying to sell of 10% of the conference to a private investor in a move that sacrifices long-term income for cash now.

Nothing is going right for the conference right now in regard to athletics. The greatest cure-all for these problems would obviously be success on the basketball court and on the football field. That’s the defense that Scott is holding on to, claiming that success is cyclical, and everything will come back around in just a short period of time. In terms of basketball, the Pac-12 has three schools currently in the Top-10 of recruiting rankings (Arizona, USC, and Oregon), and Washington and Utah are both in the Top-30. However, you don’t have to look too far backwards to see a Washington team with a future No. 1 pick in the NBA draft not making the NCAA tournament. These recruiting rankings bode well for basketball but don’t necessarily determine success.

The same thing is also true in football, where recruiting is even more of a factor in team success than in basketball. The Pac-12 had four teams finish in the Top-22 of recruiting classes after national signing day on Wednesday. That sounds nice unless you realize that the SEC had nine teams within the Top-22. The Pac-12 is still getting outclassed on recruiting talent by all the other conferences and they’re going to continue to struggle unless something turns around soon.

Yes, success could fix most things for the Pac-12, but until then, it would be nice to see the people conference in charge of things fix what they can actually control. For example:

The Pac-12 Network not making money and doesn’t look it will be on DirectTV anytime soon.

Pac-12 officiating is a constant joke and a bad look for the conference.

Stop spending $7 million per year on rent for headquarters in San Francisco.

Move the Pac-12 championship game out of Santa Clara.

Find a way to fix attendance problems across major athletic events.

The best way to fix attendance problems: stop making teams like USC and Utah tipoff at 8pm Pacific on a Wednesday in Los Angeles. This is a one game example, but these late-night kickoffs/tipoffs not only kill fan attendance at the games but drastically cut down on those willing to watch on television. Part of the problem is the Pac-12 is at the mercy of television providers due to their current media rights contract. So, this is more of a complaint rather than one that can be fixed anytime soon.

The Pac-12 has major image problems and performance problems that don’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. They’ll most likely have to wait until next football season to try rebuilding the “Conference of Champions” brand. But the image problem can be worked on now if Pac-12 leadership is ready and willing, but it doesn’t seem like they are. And hiring a PR company is not going to save them on this one.

Until then, we just have to sit back and try to enjoy all the chaos in between. The Pac-12 is engulfed in flames right now, and never forget, everything burns.

Well, with that mildly depressing introduction out of the way, let’s focus on the positives. Utah won a basketball game on Wednesday! They defeated arguably the second-best team in the Pac-12 by taking USC down in Los Angeles. The Utes never trailed in this game and although the score was close at the end, Utah blew USC out for most of the game.

The problems arose when Utah did that thing they tend to do in every game they should win. In other words, they went over five minutes without making a field goal, turned the ball over a billion times (okay maybe only a million times), and missed the front end of two straight one-and-ones to allow USC to get within seven points with two minutes left in the game. The Utes were also up 12 with 14 seconds left before turning the ball over twice in the space, allowing USC to make two shots, and thus leading the final seven-point victory.

That was all very frustrating, but other than those (many) errors, the Utes played an incredibly solid game, especially on defense. In the words of Larry Krystkowiak, “It was danged good defense.” There’s no reason to disagree with him either. Although USC’s two top players, Bennie Boatwright and Nick Rakocevic, finished with 17 and 10 points respectively, they were wildly inefficient the entire game. They finished 9-24 from the field and had seven fouls between the two of them. This was probably Utah’s best defensive performance in conference play so far.

The defense was good, but we need to talk about the most exciting and most important interesting development of the USC game. This was when Coach K chose to start Both Gach in place of Parker Van Dyke. This was a fantastic decision and one that I have been in favor of for several games now. Van Dyke has been mostly underwhelming as the starting point guard for the Utes, and he’s been starting since mid-December. Van Dyke is an efficient ball handler, he turns the ball over less than most of Utah’s players, but his offensive game has not been there in Utah’s biggest games. He shot 0-4 against Nevada, 1-7 against Washington, 3-7 against Oregon, and 2-8 against Oregon State. Van Dyke simply has been a solid secondary option on offense. And while he doesn’t turn the ball over on offense, he hasn’t had a game the entire season with more than four assists.

This is why the addition of Both Gach as a starting guard in the lineup is so exciting. Gach is incredibly athletic, he’s not scared to shoot, and the best part is, he’s not afraid to drive on the defense. Van Dyke almost never tries to penetrate the defense. In case you forgot, he’s only shot two free throws the entire year. Gach was attacking from the beginning of the USC game, and it worked. Utah came out to a huge lead because they had wide open shots when Gach drove and opened the defense up. Utah hasn’t had an aggressive ball handler all season, so when a team plays zone it destroys Utah’s chances at getting good 3-point looks. Gach can be that ball handler. He still makes mistakes for sure, he had three turnovers, but he also had two assists.

Utah’s offense was at it’s best when Gach was handling the ball, and it was at its worst when they stopped attacking and settled for a bunch of contested jumpers again. That was the period when they went five minutes without a bucket. Plus, Van Dyke played well off the bench. He can be a senior presence for the young guys in the second unit. This could all work very well for Utah. After Gach only played 21 minutes in his last two games, he could emerge as the most important piece of Utah’s offense for the remainder of the season.

We can’t discuss the implications of last game without also shouting out Jayce Johnson. Johnson had a double-double on 13 points and 13 rebounds. He played well offensively, even though he makes the exact same move every time he’s trying to score, but USC never figured that out so it’s fine. Another side effect of the Gach slashing is that it gives the defense someone else to look at in the paint besides Johnson and allows him to be more effective. Utah has always played its best when the scoring load doesn’t fall solely on Barefield and Allen, so this USC game gives hope that this won’t be the last time we see Gach and company make a difference in the game.

As for UCLA, things did not go so well for them in their previous game. Colorado smoked UCLA by 11 points in Pasadena, mainly because Colorado could not miss from 3. The Buffs shot 13-24 on 3-pointers during the game and 46 percent of their made shots in the game were 3s. UCLA isn’t notoriously bad at defending the 3, teams have shot 34 percent from 3 against the Bruins on the season, which is good for right about average. However, they have been struggling as of late against the 3-pointer. In their last three games, UCLA has allowed teams to shoot 44 percent from deep, 10 percent worse than their season average. The Utah game plan will feature Utah shooting a lot of 3-pointers, I can guarantee that.

If there’s one thing that UCLA dominates at, it’s rebounding the basketball. Despite losing to Colorado, UCLA still had 13 offensive rebounds in the game. On the defensive end, the Bruins rebound at the sixth best rate in all of college basketball. Most of this strength on the boards comes from their C, Moses Brown, a 7’1” freshman from Queens, New York. Moses is currently averaging 8.7 rebounds per game to go along with 11 points per game. That matchup is going to be given to Jayce Johnson and it will be fascinating to see if Johnson will hold his own against someone bigger and more athletic than he is. If Johnson can continue his strong play, he will be able to neutralize one of the Bruins’ biggest threats.

The offensive threat that Utah will have to deal with comes in the form of G Kris Wilkes. Wilkes is listed as a guard, but the dude is 6’8”. He’s a big guy. He is UCLA’s go to on offense as he takes 15 shots per game. Wilkes is shooting 44 percent from the field and 32 percent from behind the arc. He’s a good enough shooter that he’s a threat to score from anywhere on the floor, and he’s big enough to exploit a mismatch if Utah tries to play a smaller guard on him. It’s interesting that during conference play, with the exception of the Bruins loss to Washington, when Wilkes shoots better that 40 percent in the game, UCLA wins. However, when Wilkes struggles with his shooting and is under 40 percent in the game, UCLA has lost every conference game. If Wilkes struggles the same way Boatwright and Rakocevic did for USC against Utah, then Utah will be able to win this game.

We can only hope that Gach stays in the starting lineup and stays aggressive in the way that he plays. After a chaotic Wednesday and Thursday, Utah is somehow tied for second in the Pac-12 again. Each of these teams have a lot to play for, but a win here would be huge for Utah’s hopes to make the Top-4 in the Pac-12. I still can’t believe that hope is alive again so soon. So, if there’s one thing we know about this game, there will be chaos, but you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair.