The best part of this Pac-12 basketball season is also the conference's biggest problem.
Having only two games separate the Nos. 2-10 teams in the standings creates some intrigue. That's also a limiting factor in NCAA Tournament selections, with Washington (10-1) as the league's only lock.
The Huskies have a three-game lead with seven games to play. California (0-11) is doomed to finish last. Otherwise, the standings are a delightful mess and the games are wonderfully unpredictable.
Utah (7-4) is tied with Arizona State and Oregon State for second place, going into home games Thursday vs. Arizona and Saturday vs. ASU. Where will the Utes finish? Somewhere between second and 10th is the only sure answer.
Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak can picture “all different ways that the math ends up coming out,” he said Tuesday, during his weekly news conference. “I've never seen that type of parity, for sure.”
Parody might be a better word for what has developed. But there will be considerable drama in the competition for top-four seeds (and first-round byes) in the Pac-12 tournament between now and the March 9 end of the regular season.
ARIZONA AT UTAH
When • Thursday, 7 p.m.
TV • ESPNU.
The latest ESPN Basketball Power Index projects Utah to finish fifth, with 10.1 wins in the 18-game conference schedule, and tiebreakers undoubtedly coming into play. Remarkably, the No. 10 seed in the Pac-12 tournament may have an 8-10 league record. And even Washington State, the likely No. 11 seed, is dangerous now that forward Robert Franks is healthy. The Cougars swept the Arizona schools on the road last week, while contributing to a Wednesday-Thursday sequence when road teams went 5-1 — with only California failing to win.
The Utes joined that trend by beating USC 77-70, and then they came from 22 points behind in the last 12 minutes of a 93-92 victory at UCLA. Utah never led the Bruins before the final buzzer sounded, barely ahead of Parker Van Dyke’s 3-point shot dropping through the basket. The National Association of Basketball Coaches named Utah the Division I Team of the Week.
The Utes are 5-1 on the road in Pac-12 play, with significant rallies at ASU, Stanford and UCLA, but only 2-3 at home in the conference. Van Dyke said the Utes played too tentatively in losses to Oregon and Oregon State last month, and need to adopt their loose, fearless mentality from the road.
They also need to put together a consistent, 40-minute game. Every basketball team has stretches of brilliance mixed with lapses, but Utah is an extreme case. The Utes outscored USC by 23 points in the first 29 minutes Wednesday and topped UCLA by 23 points in the last 12 minutes Saturday. Those opponents outscored Utah by 38 points in the 39 minutes in between.
And that’s why Krystkowiak was able to get his players’ attention Monday, when they returned to practice. Amid the joy of the comeback at UCLA, “The teaching part is we did a lot of bad things for 30 minutes,” Krystkowiak said. “I was blown away by the energy our guys brought to practice. A lot of times, you come in after a game like that and there’s this kind of magical carpet ride that you’re on. We really had an approach as though we lost the game — and for 75 percent of it, we did lose the game.”
SORTING IT OUT
Pac-12 standings, with projected win totals for the 18-game conference schedule, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index:
Washington 10-1 (15.7)
Arizona State 7-4 (10.9)
Oregon State 7-4 (10.2)
Utah 7-4 (10.1)
Oregon 6-5 (10.2)
USC 6-5 (9.5)
Colorado 5-6 (9.1)
UCLA 5-6 (8.9)
Arizona 5-6 (8.7)
Stanford 5-6 (8.5)
Washington State 3-8 (5.2)
California 0-11 (1.0)