Pac-12 basketball on its way up

WSU head coach Ken Bone thinks three or four Pac-12 teams will make NCAA tournament. (Associated Press)

The jokesters chose different forms of delivery, but the content of the punch line was consistent throughout college basketball’s 2011-12 season.

The Pac-12, quite simply, wasn’t very good. Not at the top, not in the middle. Don’t even mention the bottom.

There was no shortage of national columnists, TV talking heads and non-TV talking heads chiming in with different ways of saying the same thing.

And while the conference hasn’t exactly taken a giant leap forward this year, it has at least ascended from ha-ha territory and into the realm of potential respectability.

“I think a couple of the programs have really gotten better,” WSU coach Ken Bone said, “and when I say that, I don’t only mean last year to this year, but just here the last three, four, five weeks.”

Arizona is carrying the banner, trampled as it is from last season. The Wildcats, winners of their first 12 games, rank No. 3 in both major polls and are viewed by most with a pulse as the clear favorite to win the Pac-12 championship.

The Wildcats are balanced and deep. Point guard Mark Lyons leads Arizona in scoring with 13.4 points per game, and four others – including Solomon Hill (12.7) and Nick Johnson (12.7) – average 8.7 points per game or more.

If Arizona continues winning as expected, it would likely be on the inside track for a top seed into the NCAA tournament. In the interest of contrast, it should be noted that last year’s Pac-12 champion, Washington, became the first modern-era major-conference winner to miss out on the tourney.

But Arizona is, well, Arizona again. And it appears that UCLA, despite a few early setbacks, is finally playing to its capabilities – a win over then-No. 7 Missouri last week may have been the conference’s best win of the season – with heralded freshman Shabazz Muhammad leading the way.

“When Arizona does real well (and) UCLA does real well, they’re good representatives of our conference,” Bone said.

Add in a game Oregon squad (11-2) and a Colorado team (10-2) that features a future first-round NBA draft pick in sophomore forward Andre Roberson, and the top tier of the conference looks as if it could produce at least three or four tournament teams, the number Bone tentatively predicts.

Colorado and Arizona appear in the best shape. Both are ranked in the top 10 of the NCAA’s Rating Percentage Index (RPI). At 43rd, UCLA is the only other conference team in the top 50. Oregon is just outside at 52nd.

Compared to years past, sending three or four teams to the tournament wouldn’t exactly constitute a remarkable triumph. But it would be better than last season, when California and Colorado (winners of the Pac-12 tournament and automatic berth) were the only teams sent dancing.

“I think as a whole it will be pretty competitive,” senior WSU forward Brock Motum said. “Apart from Arizona, I think the rest of the conference is pretty even.”

In theory, USC (5-8) appears the only bottom-feeder. Arizona State (11-2) appears rejuvenated thanks to the contributions of freshman point guard Jahii Carson. Oregon State (10-3) mostly took care of business in nonleague play, as did Utah (8-4), which used a weak schedule to surpass its 2011-12 win total (six) before conference play even began.

WSU (9-4), Stanford (8-4) and California (8-4) have held steady enough.

“It’s just hard to tell how things are going to go throughout the next two and a half months,” Bone said. “The light is at the end of the tunnel. We’ve got some guys that are playing pretty good basketball right now. I think we can get better as a team and if you peak at the right time, you have that opportunity.”

“I think we stepped it up playing really tough teams,” said WSU sophomore guard DaVonte Lacy, referring to the Pac-12 as a whole. “We just need to deliver more in wins.”

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