Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Power Rankings: Washington State Enters NCAA Tournament Bubble
The most important Pac-12 men’s basketball game this week isn’t what it seems. This isn’t the rivalry game in Los Angeles, where No. 12 UCLA and No. 21 USC face off Saturday night on ESPN.
Rather, it’s Thursday night business in Palouse, where a visit from Arizona is Washington State’s biggest regular-season game since the conference expanded more than a decade ago.
And in case you think the Hotline is indulging in hyperbole, we suggest — no, we urge you to check out WSU’s annual record dating back to the early 2010s.
You’ll find a string of seasons in which the Cougars were either irrelevant in the conference or nearly good enough to sniff out the NCAA Tournament. A lot of those years, they were downright awful.
This season they are both a factor in the Pac-12 race and a contender for the NCAA.
The Cougars (14-7) worked their way into the bubble with five straight wins and a strong NET ranking of No. 36. (The NCAA Rating Tool plays a vital role in determining the overall field. )
A victory over Arizona would provide a signature result in their pursuit of the NCAA program’s first bid since the 2008 season under coach Tony Bennett.
The Cougars mustered a few solid seasons after their trip to the Sweet 16, then descended into a prolonged state of irrelevance that culminated in the firing of coach Ernie Kent in the spring of 2020.
His replacement, Kyle Smith, rebuilt the roster, revamped the style of play and reinvigorated the program.
WSU is the most prolific 3-point shooting team in the conference, but the defense has fueled the rise. The Cougars are 22nd nationally in defensive efficiency, according to the Pomeroy Ratings. They lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense (62.2 ppg allowed) and 3-point percentage defense.
A loose non-conference schedule has made us wary of their NCAA prospects, but this recent winning streak, which includes WSU’s first sweep of the Bay Area since 1993, has pushed them toward the bubble.
While the Cougars have deftly avoided bad league losses, their resume lacks a class-leading win. Alone among the top 40 teams in the NET rankings, they do not own a win in Quadrant I.
Knock down the first-place Wildcats, and WSU would have all the rocket fuel needed for the stretch race.
At nominal powers…
(NET rankings through Monday)
Last week: 2
Results: defeated UCLA 76-66 and USC 72-63, won at ASU 91-79
Next stop: in Washington State (Thursday)
NET Ranking: #3 (last week: 3)
Comment: Powerful neighbor to the Wildcats to scout ASU for that 13-point lead. But in the form of a real rivalry, it was nothing more than a bus full of false hopes.
2. UCLA (16-4/8-3)
Last week: 1
Results: Lost to Arizona 76-66 and ASU 87-84 (3OT)
Next meeting: at Stanford (Tuesday)
NET Ranking: #15 (last week: 10)
Comment: There is no good time for a triple overtime loss to an opponent under .500. But right in the middle of four straight road games, well, it’s a really bad time.
3. USC (19-4/9-4)
Last week: 3
Results: Won to ASU 58-53, lost to Arizona 72-63
Next stop: against the Pacific (Tuesday)
NET Ranking: No. 27 (last week: 26)
Comment: The file is softening from week to week. Of the 19 wins, none have come against teams guaranteed to make the NCAA pool through the at-large pool. Another chance arrives on Saturday evening, dressed in blue and gold.
4. Washington State (14-7/7-3)
Last week: 4
Results: won at Stanford 66-60 and Cal 68-64
Next stop: against Arizona (Thursday)
NET Ranking: No. 36 (last week: 38)
Comment: Note: the stretch stroke we mentioned above is only brutal. The Cougars have USC and UCLA on the road and two dates with Oregon. Of this five-game package (including Arizona), they need at least two wins.
5. Oregon (15-7/8-3)
Last week: 7
Results: Won at Colorado 66-51 and Utah 80-77
Next stop: against Stanford (Thursday)
NET Ranking: No. 49 (last week: 58)
Comment: The loss to Colorado two weeks ago makes less sense every hour.
6. Stanford (14-8/7-5)
Last week: 6
Results: Beat Cal 57-50, lost to WSU 66-60, beat UW 87-69
Next stop: vs. UCLA (Tuesday)
NET Ranking: #89 (last week: 89)
Comment: The fork is in hand, raised and ready to be inserted into Stanford’s at-large prospect. But we’re not quite ready for the final push.
7. Colorado (14-9/6-7)
Last week: 5
Results: lost to Oregon 66-51, beat OSU 86-63
Next stop: vs. Utah (Thursday)
NET Ranking: #92 (last week: 92)
Comment: The win at Oregon two weeks ago makes less sense by the minute.
8. Washington (12-9/7-4)
Last week: 8
Results: Won at Cal 84-63, lost at Stanford 87-69
Next stop: vs. Arizona State (Thursday)
NET Ranking: #131 (last week: 140)
Comment: One or two more wins and Mike Hopkins will be playing with, uh, house money.
9. Arizona State (7-14/3-8)
Last week: 9
Results: lost to USC 58-53, beat UCLA 87-84 (3OT), lost to Arizona 91-79
Next meeting: in Washington (Thursday)
NET Ranking: #136 (last week: 152)
Comment: Huge win over the Bruins, tough loss to the Wildcats and now the longest road trip of the season. We will be monitoring ASU’s energy level on Thursday evening.
10. Utah (9-15/2-12)
Last week: 11
Results: Defeated Oregon State 84-59, lost to Oregon 80-77
Next stop: Colorado (Saturday)
NET Ranking: #125 (last week: 130)
Comment: For the back pocket: The Hotline predicts Utah will beat Arizona later this month at the Huntsman Center.
11. California (9-15/2-11)
Last week: 10
Results: lost to Stanford 57-50, lost to UW 84-63 and WSU 68-64
Next stop: in Oregon State (Wednesday)
NET Ranking: #148 (last week: 128)
Comment: Good thing the Bears banked all those early-season wins, otherwise there’d be nothing for the faithful to get excited about. Oops, check that. We have just been informed that there is absolutely nothing exciting for the faithful.
12. Oregon State (3-17/1-9)
Last week: 12
Results: Lost to Utah 84-59 and Colorado 86-63
Next stop: against Cal (Wednesday)
NET Ranking: #243 (last week: 226)
Comment: The Beavers leave us completely stunned for the second time in 11 months.