By Christian Caple The News Tribune
TEMPE, Ariz. — This basketball road trip to the desert has never been the easiest in this conference, even when Arizona and Arizona State haven’t been as dangerous as they are now.
But with the Wildcats unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the nation, and the Sun Devils enjoying an up-tempo renaissance keyed by sophomore guard Jahii Carson, it’s worth asking whether this trip, with which the Washington Huskies begin conference play tonight at ASU, is now the most undesirable journey in the Pac-12.
To make such a proclamation, of course, would be to ignore how much better everyone else has become, too. And UW coach Lorenzo Romar doesn’t want to do that just yet.
“I was just talking to another Pac-12 coach about that,” Romar said. “Boy, there are some doozies out there. You can’t discount Utah and Colorado. Just both of those places are hard to play. You cannot discount the Bay Area. I don’t know. There are some tough trips out there.”
There are. And that makes Washington’s prospects, after a shaky non-conference slate that yielded an 8-5 record, all the more concerning.
In ESPN’s most recent RPI rankings, eight Pac-12 teams cracked the top 100, with three of them — Colorado, Arizona and Oregon — in the top 12. By comparison — and with the caveat that it is still early — UW ranks 208th.
Improving upon that number will require successful navigation of a much deeper conference than in recent years. The Ducks are still undefeated and benefiting again from Dana Altman’s collection of talented transfers. Colorado has lost only to teams currently ranked in the top 10. UCLA, under new coach Steve Alford, is out to an 11-2 record and is talented enough to qualify again for the NCAA tournament.
Stanford is senior-laden. California can’t be counted out under coach Mike Montgomery, despite an ankle injury to heralded freshman Jabari Bird. Even Utah, rebuilding under third-year coach Larry Krystkowiak, has started 11-1 thanks to a schedule of cupcakes.
“Murderer’s row this year,” Romar said when asked of the Pac-12’s improvement.
“I think it’s going to be a really exciting 10 weeks or so,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller, who is in his fifth season in Tucson. “I think we have anywhere between five to seven teams that I’m sure right now are talking about making the NCAA tournament. The depth of our conference has never been better since I’ve been the head coach at Arizona.”
They have the quality, non-conference wins to prove it, something the conference lacked as it struggled in recent seasons to get teams into the NCAA tournament. Arizona claimed victories at San Diego State and against Duke. Stanford went to Connecticut and won. Colorado beat Kansas.
“It makes it hard, but it’s a good hard,” OSU coach Craig Robinson said. “Because you get more opportunities to get some of those showcase-type wins against ranked competition. For everybody, the conference is tougher, even the guys at the top.”
There may be a bit more star power, too. Miller sees it every day in practice. Freshman forward Aaron Gordon was considered among the five best recruits in the nation, and through 13 games leads the Wildcats in rebounding and is third on the team in scoring.
Arizona’s veteran guards (Nick Johnson and Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell) and productive sophomore big men (7-footer Kaleb Tarcziewski and 6-foot-10 Brandon Ashley) make the Wildcats one of the most balanced teams in the country.
While the Wildcats are the clear favorite to win the conference championship, predicting an all-conference team might be more difficult. Talent isn’t necessarily spread evenly, but most every team has at least one player to whom opponents must tailor their gameplans.
That’s Carson at ASU, and Chasson Randle at Stanford, and Roberto Nelson, the conference’s leading scorer, at Oregon State. UCLA’s Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson present problems. Oregon’s top three scorers — Joseph Young, Mike Moser and Jason Calliste — are all transfers.
C.J. Wilcox, who chose to stay at UW for his senior season, is averaging 20.5 points per game and has found the free-throw line with consistency.
Washington has four players who average double-figure scoring. But its defense (335th nationally in field-goal percentage defense) and ball control must improve if it is to keep up in what looks like the deepest, most talented Pac-12 since at least 2009.
“(There are) just not a whole lot of weak links in the conference,” Romar said. “Much improved, I think. Our league is much improved.”