The Forgotten West

Over the last several years, one of my favorite pastimes on Thursday nights has been to stay up and watch the 11 PM Eastern time Pac-10 game. Even at this point, well into my college years, that tradition has stayed intact, often at the spurning of late-night get-togethers and others who want to watch the Western Conference TNT game.

This past week, I watched one of the best late Thursday games in my memory. It truly had everything you could want in a late-regular season college basketball game: the inside track towards a conference title for the winner, opposite styles clashing, and shifts in momentum seemingly every other minute. The game, perhaps more importantly, had the organic feeling of two of the best teams in the country playing each other.

My faith in Arizona State, the losers on Thursday, being a top team was somewhat shaken with its loss at streaking Washington State Saturday. The victors, Washington, continue to be criminally underrated, except by those west of Rockies.

A little over a week ago, I browsed upon a chat by everyone's favorite nasally analyst, Jay Bilas, where he was asked, "Why have you guys been paying all your attention to the Big East and ACC, and not to the Pac-10?"

His response, in a truncated manner, if you will was, "It's not the media's fault the Pac-10 is crap and decided not to show up for the tournament last year (sans UCLA)."

Yes, the Pac-10 isn't getting the hype it got a year ago. The conference can't boast that it has three or four top-three seeds at the head of its league like the Big East can or the top-to-bottom quality that the ACC can lay claim to. And it likely will only have one top-four seed in the Huskies, who will not be favored to go to the Final Four.

However, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see Washington get to Detroit, as the Huskies are an extremely balanced scoring team, with four players (Jon Brockman, Isaiah Thomas, Justin Dentmon and Quincy Pondexter) all averaging in double figures scoring, with Brockman, Thomas, and Dentmon all over 15 a game. In addition, role players like Matthew Bryan-Amaning, Darnell Gant, and Venoy Overton have proven themselves able to pick up the slack when one of the higher-profile players is having an off-night.

Because the Huskies play a higher tempo than the other nine teams in a much more half-court oriented Pac-10 than just a few years ago, some of their games can give the appearance that Washington does not play stellar defense. So the Huskies giving up 73.6 points per game in Pac-10 play (ninth in the conference) translates to 0.99 points per possession (second in the league).

Unsurprisingly, the Sun Devils that Washington completed a season sweep over with the game Thursday have the best defense in the league on a possession-adjusted basis. A huge surprise has been the play of UCLA, and not just because the Bruins were prohibited favorites to win the league after three straight Final Fours.

One would be hard-pressed to blame a team for not being world-beaters that lost all the players that UCLA did, especially since UCLA is now in second place after two Bruins wins and the Sun Devils' losses. Rather, it is the way UCLA has achieved its standing.

Ben Howland's Final Four clubs the last few years have been characterized by awesome defense and above-average execution in their half-court offense. This season, that offense has executed even better, to the tune of 1.14 points per possession, one of the best major-conference totals in the nation. The Bruins' defense has been average in league play, giving up 1.03 per possession. Only no one doubts that UCLA is capable of playing the level of defense that has excelled in recent Marches past. If the Bruins can recapture that ability to defend, it could be four in four years for point man Darren Collison.

While the Pac-10 is underrated, it has received Dallas Cowboys-like coverage compared to the Mountain West, a league that could receive a conference-record number of bids with four or five.

And it's easy to see why that has happened. Ever since creating its own network that many with cable or satellite can't receive, and signing a cable deal with a network that many probably can't find (CBS College Sports, or the artist formerly known as CSTV), the Mountain West doesn't get talked about nearly as much as when it had an ESPN/ABC deal.

If you're the type that looks at RPI throughout the season, you've seen Utah in the top 10 in that metric for most of the season, while having not seen them at all on TV. If Utah goes on to claim the Mountain West crown, and emerge as the conference's top NCAA threat, it will be one of the weirdest seasons ever by a champion in a top-7 RPI league.

The Utes started the season with a loss to Division II Southwest Baptist. Only three weeks later, Utah lost to Idaho State, a 12-18 club from the Big Sky on December 6. By the time another month went by, they had turned it around to beat two eventual regular-season conference champions in Gonzaga and LSU, who Utah pummeled by 30.

Utah has one of the best shooting percentages in the country, led by center Luke Nevill, the team's leading scorer, who makes 60% of his shots.

The team that beat Utah on Saturday night, BYU, doesn't have the gaudy computer numbers or resume of its bitter state rival, but is most likely safe for the NCAA tournament with a 10-4 conference record and a non-conference win over Utah State. San Diego State and UNLV rest on the bubble with conference marks of 9-5 and 8-6, respectively. Yet, UNLV is the likelier of the two to have its name called on Selection Sunday, with big non-conference trump cards to the Rebels' name in wins over Arizona and at Louisville.

New Mexico sits at 10-4 along with BYU, but may have to win a share of the conference title to have even the possibility of an at-large, as the Lobos have a middling RPI and no non-conference quality wins to speak of. Luckily for Steve Alford's crew, New Mexico has a home date against Utah on Tuesday in a league in which the top five teams are an incredible 31-3 at home.

Comments and Conversation

March 3, 2009


BYU did not beat UNLV this year.

March 3, 2009


But thank you for giving some attention to the MWC. If people saw them play, they’d see how good this conference is this year.

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