The Best In The West: Ranking the Top 20 Teams West Of The RockiesPosted by AMurawa on December 16th, 2013
Roughly a quarter of the way through the year, we’re going to unveil something a little new here, something we’ll check back in on once a month or so. We’re going to take all the schools west of the Rockies (and we’re going to be a bit generous with our geography – basically we’re looking at schools from the Pac-12, Mountain West, West Coast, and Big West and then some of the schools from the Big Sky and Western Athletic Conferences) and give you the top 20 teams. But, rather than just ranking schools 1 though 20, we’re going to divide all these teams up into tiers, in part because calling Arizona #1 and then naming another school #2 just seems wrong, because the Wildcats are just so far ahead of everyone else. Below, you’ll see our Top 20 teams in the West (their overall rank will be in parentheses), with descriptions of what we think the teams in each tier have in common, plus brief comments on the teams in our list.
The Best of the Best – In a league of their own.
Arizona (#1 overall, Pac-12 #1) – The Wildcats are in a class by themselves out West. Even when putting together my national top 25, I wanted to put Arizona at #1, leave spots 2-5 empty, and then have a four-way tie at #6. What they’ve accomplished thus far is unassailable, especially considering how young this team is. Expect somebody (maybe multiple somebodies) in the Pac-12 to put up a serious challenge, but at this point in the season, Sean Miller’s squad is not only the best in the West, but they’re the best by a long shot.
Contenders to the Throne – And all top 25 teams.
Oregon (#2 overall, Pac-12 #2) – The Ducks are the team closest to joining the Wildcats up top, but while they’ve got an undefeated record and some quality scalps, they’re missing the quality of wins that the Wildcats have. But, as good as Dana Altman’s squad has been, they’re not even at full strength yet – Dominic Artis and Ben Carter are due back this week.
Colorado (#3 overall, Pac-12 #3) – After a loss in the opener, the Buffaloes have reeled off ten straight, including an exciting home win over Kansas.
UCLA (#4 overall, Pac-12 #4) – The Bruins’ only game on the national stage was a road loss to Missouri, but this sure looks like a quality team. Nevertheless, they’ve got plenty left to prove. Good news though: they’ve got a big chance to begin proving it on Thursday night against Duke at Madison Square Garden.
Solid NCAA Tournament Team – Just outside the top 25, but all with plenty of upside.
San Diego State (#5 overall, Mtn West #1) – The Aztecs were considered for a tier higher, and they’ve certainly got some nice scalps under their belt, but we’re not sure if their overall ceiling is much higher this season than what they’ve accomplished already.
Gonzaga (#6 overall, WCC #1) – The Zags struck out on their biggest stage in Maui, but they’ve got solid wins under their belt and a fearsome, balanced offense.
New Mexico (#7 overall, Mtn West #2) – Three great scorers and competitors in Cameron Bairstow, Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk, but the Lobos need somebody – anybody – to step up as a fourth consistent contributor.
California (#8 overall, Pac-12 #5) – Two losses in Maui, sans frontcourt weapon Richard Solomon, have taken the Golden Bears out of the national conversation. But if Mike Montgomery can get the defensive effort dialed in, they’ve got enough talent to be dangerous.
Bubble Dwellers, On The Good Side – Missing out on a great resume, either due to weak schedule or bad loss.
Saint Mary’s (#9 overall, WCC #2) – The Gaels haven’t played anybody great, but coming off the Matthew Dellavedova era, that’s just smart scheduling. The fact that Randy Bennett and company are still undefeated and have beaten teams like Akron, North Dakota State, and Boise State on the road this past weekend? Even with the weak schedule, it is sort of unbelievable.
Arizona State (#10 overall, Pac-12 #6) – The Sun Devils’ loss to Miami in Anaheim a couple weeks back is going to look pretty bad on their resume come Selection Sunday. But they’ve got a win over Marquette, a win at UNLV and this team should be an upper division Pac-12 team in conference play.
Bubble Dwellers, On The Bad Side – Each of these teams has plenty of work to do to shape up their resumes.
Boise State (#11 overall, Mtn West #3) – The Broncos did not schedule aggressively this season. And now, here they are sitting at 10-2 in the middle of December and the best win on their record is a two-point home win over Utah. Worse yet, their conference schedule isn’t going to offer them a ton of opportunities to score great wins. They’ve still got the Diamond Head Classic coming up over Christmas, where they hope to get a second crack at Saint Mary’s and possibly Iowa State in the title game. But if that event doesn’t go perfectly, the non-conference slate went quite poorly.
UC Santa Barbara (#12 overall, Big West #1) – There are three losses overall on the docket, but all three are to good teams that you’ll find on this list. The good news is that there are also some good wins, including a couple over some other teams you’ll find on this list. Make no mistake, the Gauchos are no joke.
Utah (#13 overall, Pac-12 #7) – Even just a couple days, we weren’t sure what to make of the Utes. Their early season schedule was shameful, they had won just 21 games in head coach Larry Krystkowiak’s two previous years on campus and they had struck out in a close game at Boise State earlier this month. But on Saturday night, they brutalized in-state rival BYU and made believers out of plenty of observers. They’ve got a couple guys in Delon Wright and Jordan Loveridge who are at least on NBA radars and a solid supporting cast. This team is going to beat some good Pac-12 teams this year.
BYU (#14 overall, WCC #3) – There are no bad losses on the resume (Iowa State at home, Wichita State and Massachusetts on neutral courts and then on the road at Utah), and wins over Stanford, Texas and Utah State are solid. But Saturday night’s game where they were completely uncompetitive against Utah makes it hard to have much confidence in the Cougars.
Stanford (#15 overall, Pac-12 #8) – Johnny Dawkins is fighting to keep his job and the requirements are pretty clear: make the NCAA Tournament. To this point, with a win over Bucknell in the opener the most significant accomplishment, that requirement is not being met. And with senior guard Aaron Bright now out for the season, there’s another strike. But the Cardinal still have a couple quality non-conference games on the schedule – at Connecticut and then against Michigan in Brooklyn – that could make up for the disappointing returns so far. The bad news is, there is nothing in the Stanford back story to suggest that the Cardinal can beat either of those teams.
Utah State (#16 overall, Mtn West #4) – There is some reason to believe that the Aggies are good, but losses to BYU on a neutral court and Pacific at home coupled with the fact that the best win is a seven-point road scalp against Santa Barbara without their best player also gives you reason to be skeptical. And weak non-conference scheduling doesn’t give them much of a chance to make up for those losses.
We Gotta Get To 20 Somehow – Underachieving power conference teams and overachieving low majors.
Pacific (#17 overall, WCC #4) – It’s been a long time since anybody not named Bob Thomason was roaming the sidelines for the Tigers, but in longtime Thomason assistant Bob Verlin’s first year, Pacific’s got a good win at Utah State and a ton of good offensive players. If there was ever a year for the Tigers to try to sneak into the top three in the WCC, it was this year.
UNLV (#18 overall, Mtn West #5) – Honestly, the Rebels probably haven’t even done anything to have earned this high of a ranking; their best win is – what, a three-point win over Nebraska-Omaha? Yikes. But all four of the Rebels losses have come against quality teams (admittedly, a 21-point home loss to UC Santa Barbara is completely unacceptable) and Dave Rice is just now starting to figure out some sort of answer at the point.
Washington State (#19 overall, Pac-12 #9) – Were it not for junior DaVonte Lacy going off for a career year thus far (21.4 PPG, 124.6 ORtg, 42.7 3P%), the Cougars wouldn’t even be sniffing this list.
Oregon State (#20 overall, Pac-12 #10) – The Beavers made be on the verge of coming around a bit. There are bad losses to Coppin State and DePaul, but Roberto Nelson is a scoring machine, Devon Collier is a legit frontcourt threat and Eric Moreland is due back from suspension in, well, yikes – still a few more weeks.
Plus Five More
New Mexico State (#21 overall, WAC #1)
Washington (#22 overall, Pac-12 #11)
Colorado State (#23 overall, Mtn. West #6)
Wyoming (#24 overall, Mtn. West #7)
Weber State (#25 overall, Big Sky #1)