Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak seemed fairly upbeat last Saturday left the Huntsman Center after losing by 15 points to No. 6 Nevada. Maybe that’s because by the end of the night, Utah’s defeat would become by far the Pac-12′s most acceptable loss.

That's the Utes' rationalization of their entire nonconference showing, after a day when UCLA lost to Liberty, Arizona State fell to Princeton, Washington State was beaten by Santa Clara and California lost to Seattle.

This is the state of the Pac-12, entering conference basketball play this week: UCLA already fired coach Steve Alford and no team is ranked in the Top 25. Arizona State dropped out after losing to Princeton (following the Sun Devils' upset of then-No. 1 Kansas). No other team is even receiving votes, and the league lacks a ranked team for the first time since the 2011-12 season.

That's a mixed blessing for Utah and everybody else. The league is wide open; that's the positive perspective. But what does it say about that Utes that they're ranked 10th in this underperforming conference, according to the kenpom.com efficiency analysis?

Utah (6-6) opens Pac-12 play Thursday at Arizona State, hoping that losses to the likes of Minnesota, Kentucky and Nevada have helped the team's development, more than hurt it. In the context of his own team's season, Krystkowiak found consolation in the Pac-12's November-December effort.

UTAH AT ARIZONA STATE


When • Thursday, 6 p.m. MST
TV • Pac-12 Network

“We've played as hard a schedule, I'd like to believe, as anybody has in our conference,” he said. “I don't think with the exception of Arizona State, anybody has just shot out of the gate and dazzled anybody and set the world on fire. I'd like to believe there's a bunch of coaches in our conference that feel like they've got a fighting chance to get some things done.”

Krystkowiak is targeting a top-four finish in the conference for a fifth straight season, even with his team picked to finish eighth and not performing at that level, based on the numbers. The Utes also have a mild scheduling disadvantage, playing Stanford and California only once each in the Pac-12′s rotation. Oregon, depleted by injuries, may be healthy by Jan. 31, when the Ducks come to town.

Utah hopes to extend a trend of Krystkowiak's teams improving as the season progresses. Of course, other teams expect similar growth.

“I think all the teams have work to do,” Washington State's Ernie Kent said during a Pac-12 coaches' teleconference last week. “Everybody's adjusting to newness or guys who sat out last year. It's just taken some time, but all of them are developing.”

Arizona State (9-3) is the only team that appears to have locked down an NCAA Tournament bid. The Sun Devils, though, are haunted by last season, when they went 12-0 in nonconference play (with a win over Kansas) and only 8-10 in the Pac-12, still making the NCAA field. Coach Bobby Hurley said his team is better equipped to follow up its nonconference success this year, although he expressed that belief before losing to Princeton.

Oregon (9-4) is the league’s next-strongest candidate, once front-court players Bol Bol and Kenny Wooten return to action. Any other team would require an extraordinary effort in the Pac-12 regular season or a conference tournament title to earn an NCAA bid.

DOWNWARD SPIRAL
Pac-12 men’s basketball team rankings in the kenpom.com efficiency analysis:


Oregon (9-4) • No. 39.
Arizona State (9-3) • No. 49.
Washington (8-4)* • No. 52.
Arizona (9-4) • No. 54.
Colorado (9-3) • No. 76.
Oregon State (8-4) • No. 77.
UCLA (7-6) • No. 80.  
USC (6-6) • No. 88.
Stanford (7-5) • No. 112.
Utah (6-6) • No. 141.  
Washington State (7-6) • No. 171.
California (5-7) • No. 207.  
* Entering a game Tuesday night vs. Cal State Fullerton.