- This week's Midweek Rebound looks at what's on the line for the Pac-12 in December, Kansas's challenge without injured Udoka Azubuike and more.
Coming into this season, who would have guessed that this Friday’s meeting between Arizona State and Nevada in Los Angeles would be so potentially pivotal for the reputation of the Pac-12 as a whole? But with the Conference of Champions struggling to live up to its power-conference status through the season’s first month, what would normally be a nice opportunity for an upset is instead one of the league’s few remaining opportunities to salvage its national standing.
Among the Pac-12’s dozen programs, only the aforementioned Sun Devils are currently ranked in the AP top 25 poll, entering it this week at No. 20. (Oregon fell out of the newest poll, after sitting at No. 18 a week ago.) While Arizona State, picked to finish sixth in the conference’s preseason media poll, is its last remaining undefeated team, the league’s problems stem from not only the other teams’ losses but also, on the flipside, their lack of impressive wins. In 26 games against the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and American, Pac-12 teams have just six wins, with only three of them coming against teams currently ranked 25th or better in kenpom.com’s overall efficiency rankings. And two of those—Oregon over Syracuse and Arizona over Iowa State—come with the notable asterisk of the opposition missing at least one starter due to injury.
Eight times a Pac-12 team has played a team ranked in kenpom.com’s top 10, and all eight times they have come up short, rarely even coming particularly close: only Stanford’s six-point overtime loss at Kansas this past weekend was decided by fewer than 12 points, and six of the eight defeats have come by 16 or more. All of this comes, of course, just nine months after the conference managed to send only three teams to the NCAA tournament, all of whom promptly lost their opening game. The result is a conference slipping in its status, perhaps on the verge of an even worse season than the last.
Which makes two games this week of particular interest to the Pac-12 and its members: Arizona State’s clash with No. 6 Nevada at the Staples Center on Friday, and the Wednesday meeting between Washington and No. 1 Gonzaga in Spokane. If the league is to boost its collective résumé, its teams will need to pick up some marquee interconference wins before schedules turn inward in January. But opportunities for doing so are few. Arizona State will host Kansas later this month and Washington will host Virginia Tech; UCLA will travel to play Cincinnati and Ohio State; a somewhat struggling Utah team will play at Kentucky and at home against Nevada. If the league doesn’t fare well in those (and avoid more bad losses), come March, the perception of any team that excels in league play will be somewhat hampered by the collective showing against opponents from elsewhere.
There is another intriguing narrative in play. Gonzaga and Nevada appear most likely to make the country’s deepest undefeated runs this season, provided they make it through the next month of nonconference play unscathed. That both play within the Pac-12’s geographic footprint means this week’s games give the league a chance to reassert itself a bit in the pecking order out West.
If the Pac-12 doesn’t start picking up some wins this month, it won’t get another chance to truly improve its stock until March’s NCAA tournament. The question then would be how many teams will be there to do so.
If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, this is the Midweek Rebound, SI.com’s weekly Wednesday column on college hoops. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to share your thoughts on Hootie & the Blowfish’s most overlooked works, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.
Despite some short-lived preseason turmoil, Kansas had sailed fairly smoothly through the beginning of this season, maintaining its No. 2 poll spot while compiling one of the country’s strongest résumés via neutral-site wins over Michigan State, Marquette and Tennessee. But the past few days have been a bit more tumultuous for the Jayhawks. First they needed overtime to put away a middling Stanford team at home on Saturday, then in Tuesday’s blowout win over Wofford they received some bad news that will last beyond this week: forward Udoka Azubuike, who left that game after a fall in the first half, will be out indefinitely with a high ankle sprain.
Losing its primary big man, who entered the game averaging 15.0 points and 6.8 rebounds while making 69.5% of his shots, is certainly a blow for Kansas. (It is made worse by the absence of forward Silvio de Sousa, who has been kept out of games by the school while it determines his eligibility following revelations in October’s Adidas-related corruption trial.) But as The Kansas City Star’s Jesse Newell wrote after the game, while Azubuike is sidelined coach Bill Self could rely more on a four-guard lineup that he typically eschews when both Azubuike and Dedric Lawson are available. While Tuesday’s game against the Terriers was not necessarily a preview of what the Big 12 or upcoming opponents Villanova and Arizona State might offer, early returns on the altered Jayhawks were encouraging, as they were able to spread the floor on offense and create more room for ballhandlers to drive. They’ll need to maintain that initial spark to make up for Azubuike’s absence in the coming weeks.
1. Michigan: As SI’s Jeremy Woo wrote after seeing the Wolverines dismember yet another quality opponent, Michigan has proven itself as more than just a team off to a hot start. Even with Northwestern’s near-upset, this team looks like it is up there with the cream of the crop.
2. Syracuse: Now at full strength with Frank Howard having returned from injury, the Orange picked up a high-quality win at Ohio State and manhandled a Northeastern team that could win the CAA.
3. Louisville: The Cardinals followed last week’s upset of Michigan State by winning at Seton Hall to round out a very tough four-game stretch. A trip to Indiana this weekend will provide another opportunity for Chris Mack’s program to build momentum.
4. Marquette: Kansas State rode one of the country’s stingiest defenses into Milwaukee and left having given up a season-worst 1.08 PPP to the Golden Eagles, highlighted by Markus Howard’s 45-point explosion.
5. Indiana: One-possession wins against Northwestern and at Penn State are a good sign for a team relying on freshmen in key roles in what will be a grueling conference.
Top of the Classes
Senior: Justin James, Wyoming forward
Neither may have been enough for a win, but James put up impressive lines against both Evansville (34 points, 20 rebounds, four assists, two steals) and Northern Colorado (25 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two steals, two blocks).
Junior: Markus Howard, Marquette guard
Howard’s 45 points against Kansas State included 19 makes on 21 free throws; he draws the third-most fouls per 40 minutes (6.5) among Big East players. He also had 21 points and five assists against UTEP.
Sophomore: Milan Acquaah, Cal Baptist guard
Over wins against UC Riverside and Mississippi Valley State, the Washington State transfer averaged 27.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 3.5 assists while shooting 9-for-16 from three.
Freshman: Isaiah Joe, Arkansas guard
The 6’ 5” Joe made 10 of 13 three-point attempts in the Hogs’ 121-89 win over Florida International, finishing with a line of 34 points, three assists, two boards, and two steals.
Bests of the Best
Each week, we’ll get to know one of the country’s best players a little better by asking them what they consider to be the best in various subjects. This week we welcome Furman forward Matt Rafferty, who is averaging 18.7 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 4.2 assists for the No. 25 Paladins. So, Matt, tell us about the best...
...meal that you can cook yourself. “Italian sausage, peppers, a little salad on the side, some potatoes, and some bread as well. We try to eat healthy, the guys on the team, so one summer we tried to all put together a little meal every night. I think it really helped us.”
...gift you’ve ever received. “I’ll make my girlfriend happy and say a vest. Put that in there that I said that. It was for Christmas. I still wear it. It’s a green vest, a pretty nice one that I wear with some dress clothes. She did a good job on that one.”
...decoration in your room. “A Cubs World Series newspaper article. It brings back the good memories. It’s framed and hung up on the wall. I see it everyday, reminding me that baseball season is coming. So I’m excited for that.”
Social Media Post of the Week
One to Watch: Gonzaga vs. Tennessee, Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN
As I mentioned at the top of this column a week ago, we have already been treated to a number of very high-caliber matchups early on this season, and this will be another. The Bulldogs’ offense will face its toughest test yet in the Volunteers, whose defensive efficiency ranks ninth nationally and whose star forward, Grant Williams, will test Gonzaga’s defense as well. The two teams are coming off divergent recent experiences against elite opponents: Gonzaga knocked off then-No. 1 Duke just before Thanksgiving, then Tennessee was edged late by No. 2 Kansas two days later. The Vols will surely be looking to make the best of their crack at the nation’s top team. Rui Hachimura and company won’t make it easy.