PULLMAN – It wasn’t all that long ago the Pac-12 conference – OK, the Pac-10 back then – was rated near the top of the nation’s basketball leagues.
But the heydays of the last decade are long gone, along with the players that made the conference’s reputation.
“With some of the games the league has lost,” California coach Mike Montgomery said last week, “it’s going to put a lot of pressure to finish up near the top because that’s what you’re going to have to do to have a chance to play in the (NCAA) tournament.”
When the conference tips its 2011-12 schedule this weekend – the first with an unbalanced look due to expansion – it will do so without a ranked team and little expectation there will be one.
Montgomery’s Bears are one of three schools – Oregon State and Stanford are the others – with 10 nonconference victories, though no one has what could be called a signature win.
ESPN.com recently listed the top 10 disappointing teams of the season. The Pac-12 had three. The league’s schools have played a dozen games against ranked opponents. The record: 0-12.
“It’s just put a lot of pressure on everybody in the league,” Montgomery said. “When everybody was winning and everybody was ranked you said ‘man, we could finish in fifth and get in.’ That’s great but it’s not that way right now.
“We’ve already made our bed and now teams are going to have to finish up very strong to have a chance. Obviously the conference tournament winner goes but after that, all bets are off.”
So who will win?
The media picked UCLA in the preseason poll, but the Bruins are 7-5 and have dismissed all-conference performer Reeves Nelson from the team. Usually solid Arizona is 9-4, Washington is 6-5 and USC, hit by injuries (most notably to point guard Jio Fontan), is 5-8.
Even the teams with the better records have hard-to-explain losses, with Stanford falling to Butler last Thursday and Oregon State losing to Idaho, both at home.
“To me it looks like, if I had to say, Stanford and Cal look like the two best teams, but who knows? It’s hard to compare nonconference schedules,” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said.
“I don’t know what to think,” Washington State coach Ken Bone said of the conference race. “It’s been an interesting preseason. There have been a number of teams that haven’t shown as well as I thought they would. And there have been a few teams, like Oregon State, that have surpassed my expectations this early in the season.”
WSU seemed to be in trouble early, starting the season 2-4. But a six-game win streak and the return of three players who missed time with injuries have bolstered the Cougars’ cause.
“We have done some really good things. I think we’ve progressed about as well as we can under the circumstances,” Bone said. “I still feel like we’re kind of an unknown commodity because we haven’t had our full group healthy for very long.”
The unbalanced schedule will also throw a wrinkle into the regular season, with everyone playing some teams only once. Whether those games are at home or on the road may make a difference.
“It could come down to that,” O’Neill said. “You know, who you play once and who you play twice and all that kind of stuff. To be honest with you, I never even thought about that.
“This is the first year we’ve had an unbalanced schedule, so that could very well decide the race, it really could.”
That is an unknown. But what is certain, there is no clear-cut favorite.
“Every time you start to identify a team that is going to be pretty good, it seems like then they stumble,” Montgomery said. “Then you are not really sure. … I don’t think there is anybody that is head-and-shoulders better than anybody else.
“There are six teams, probably, that have a legitimate chance to compete for the top 1-2-3 spots.”
And that is probably a must to make the NCAA tournament.