Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak recognizes where the Pac-12 fits into the college basketball landscape these days. Yet when he studies the teams coming into the Huntsman Center this week, he’s not seeing much evidence of a downtrodden conference.
Oregon and Oregon State are trailing Utah in the Pac-12 standings and are nowhere near the NCAA Tournament field, according to any current projections. Even so, “I look at these two teams as being NCAA teams,” Krystkowiak said Tuesday, during his weekly news conference. “Within this conference, we have an understanding of what it’s all about and how hard it is to win and the quality of teams. We know it’s a great product and it’s good basketball and we’re all fighting for some limited spots.”
The outside world agrees with the last part of that statement. ESPN’s Bracketology gives the Pac-12 only two bids, with first-place Washington as a No. 8 seed and Arizona State (tied for fourth) as a No. 11 seed, playing a First Four game.
That’s a major drop-off from three years ago, when seven schools made the field. Once a national narrative gets going, there’s no stopping it. Arizona’s consecutive losses by 20-plus points at USC and UCLA last weekend damaged the conference, as opposed to the winning teams being boosted by routs of the Pac-12′s flagship basketball program.
The perception of the Pac-12 probably is not helped by the fact Utah (11-8, 5-2) is tied with USC for second place, after losing to the likes of Minnesota, Northwestern and Hawaii in November. The Utes have improved offensively and defensively; they also have thrived against the bottom tier of the conference and have a lot to prove against tougher competition to come.
Disregarding the standings, Utah likely will be an underdog in its next seven games, according to the kenpom.com analytics.
The scheduling upgrade begins Thursday night with Oregon (12-8, 3-4), the conference’s preseason favorite. The Ducks lost freshman center Bol Bol to a season-ending injury and forward Kenny Wooten missed four games, including the start of Pac-12 play.
Louis King, another freshman, has emerged lately and Oregon would have the same conference record as Utah if not for two missed opportunities — blowing a nine-point lead in the last minute of regulation against UCLA and then failing to finish a rally vs. Washington, partly due to a controversial foul call.
Krystkowiak labels Oregon “an extremely athletic group.” The Utes prepared for Oregon’s pressing defense by playing four offensive players against five defenders in Monday’s practice.