The Best in the West: Ranking the Top 20 Teams West of the RockiesPosted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on January 16th, 2014
Believe it or not, we’re about halfway through the season right now. So, it is time to revisit our Best in the West rankings. We did this about a month back, but to remind you, here’s how we roll. We 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 WAC) 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 of similar quality. 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 some of the teams in our list.
The Best of the Best – In a league of their own.
- Arizona (#1 overall, Pac-12 #1) – Not only are the Wildcats head and shoulders above the rest of the teams out West, the argument can be made that they’re on a tier of their own nationally as well.
Contenders to the Throne – And all Top 25 teams.
- San Diego State (#2 overall, Mtn West #1) – Last time we did this, we had three teams in this tier, and the Aztecs were not among them. This time, the Aztecs are the only team aside from Arizona that should be considered a sure-fire Top 25 team.
Solid NCAA Tournament Team – Just outside the Top 25, but all with plenty of upside.
- California (#3 overall, Pac-12 #2) – These teams are all bunched together by just about any metric. While I think you can make a case for any one of them for something like the #24 or #25 spot in your national Top 25, you can make an equally valid case that all of these teams deserve to be on the outside looking in. That being said, it is likely that if you make a national top 35, every one of these squads should probably be in there. We’ll take the Golden Bears by a hair over the rest of this group on the basis of their hot streak minus a couple of key players, but really, all these teams are very tight.
- Oregon (#4 overall, Pac-12 #3) – Not all that long ago, the Ducks were riding along undefeated and living a charmed life. Now, they’ve lost three in a row and their always shaky defense seems to be in free-fall (1.22 PPP allowed over their three-game losing streak). There’s talent here and Dana Altman is a coaching wizard, so there’s plenty of reason to suspect that the Ducks can bounce back and jump up into the next tier, but for now they belong here.
- UCLA (#5 overall, Pac-12 #4) – There is undeniably a ton of talent on this roster, but the Bruins’ best win on the resume is a home win over Arizona State this past weekend – good, not great. It wouldn’t surprise anyone to see the Bruins in the next tier up, but they’ve got to prove they deserve it first.
- Colorado (#6 overall, Pac-12 #5) – Were it not for the terrible fate that befell point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, the Buffaloes would certainly be a tier up. As it is, however, it is time to move forward. Maybe the Buffs will prove their credentials even without their veteran leader, but until they do, they’re suspect.
- New Mexico (#7 overall, Mtn West #2) – The Lobos slipped up Wednesday night at home, in part because their defense has taken a huge step back from last season’s elite team. Still, with three big-time scorers and a couple of quality role players, count on New Mexico to be in the thick of the Mountain West race late.
- Gonzaga (#8 overall, WCC #1) – With Gary Bell Jr. out with a broken hand and Sam Dower playing through injury, the Bulldogs aren’t at the top of their game, but they’re still pretty darn good. And, odds are, if they can get healthy, they’re going to be much better come March.
Bubblicious – Missing out on a great resume, either due to weak schedule or bad loss.
- Arizona State (#9 overall, Pac-12 #6) – Jahii Carson is suffering through the deepest, most prolonged slump of his relatively brief career (if you can count 14.4 PPG over his last five games a “slump”), and as he goes, so go the Sun Devils. But if he can get back to the Jahii we’ve come to know and love, he’s surrounded by more talent this season and the Devils could jump up a tier real easily.
- Boise State (#10 overall, Mtn West #3) – After a non-conference schedule without any great wins, a 2-2 start to conference play is not exactly what the Broncos were looking for. And last year’s potent offense hasn’t been anywhere near as potent this season. Still, there is talent here and this Broncos team has a puncher’s chance against anybody.
- Saint Mary’s (#11 overall, WCC #2) – Since the last time we did this, when the Gaels were ninth overall in these rankings, Randy Bennett’s squad has gone just 4-5, with wins over Pacific, Portland, San Francisco and somebody or something called William Jessup not quite balanced by those losses to South Carolina, Hawaii, George Mason, Santa Clara and a blowout at the hands of Gonzaga. The overall resume and the history of this program still earn them the benefit of the doubt, but this may not even be a bubble team at this point.
- Stanford (#12 overall, Pac-12 #7) – God knows what you’re going to get out of this Cardinal team on any given night. They look great for a four-minute stretch, for a half, even for a whole game; and then they look terrible the next time out. But they’ve done just enough to linger within shouting distance of the NCAA Tournament.
Solid Teams In Need of Work – Each of these teams has plenty of work to do to shape up their resumes.
- UC Santa Barbara (#13 overall, Big West #1) – An eight-point home loss to Cal Poly in the Big West opener is by no means a good look, but the Gauchos are the most talented team in their conference; they’ve got an elite player in junior big Alan Williams; and they’ve surrounded him with a group of talented players. Not a lot of teams would like to see the Gauchos matched up across from them in the first round of the NCAA Tourney.
- Utah (#14 overall, Pac-12 #8) – Their resume is weak, they’re a team without a recent history of success, but they’ve got a couple of players – Delon Wright and Jordan Loveridge – who have at least caught the eyes of NBA scouts. If at some point they learn how to win, they could be tough.
- BYU (#15 overall, WCC #3) – The Cougars got out to a stupid 0-2 start to conference play, with losses at Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine, part of a four-game losing streak. Since then, they’ve gotten well at home with three straight blowout wins, but Dave Rose and company have got to earn back trust.
- Utah State (#16 overall, Mtn West #4) – A suspension to senior big Jarred Shaw got this team off-balance in late December and early January, but they’re back to full strength. Now, we get to see if this team can handle the rigors of a new, much more competitive conference.
- New Mexico State (#17 overall, WAC #1) – The day after we posted the first of these, the Aggies went to New Mexico and handled the Lobos in the Pit. That turned out to be the second in what is now a four-game winning streak. Since that day, they’ve been honorary members of our top 20. They’re #58 in KenPom’s rankings and a heavy favorite in the WAC. Still, should they somehow slip up in the WAC’s conference tournament, they’re an NIT team.
We Gotta Get To 20 Somehow – Underachieving power conference teams and overachieving low-majors.
- Washington (#18 overall, Pac-12 #9) – Last time we did this, the Huskies were ranked #22 in our top 20, if that makes any sense, and even that was probably generous. Since then, conference play started and a pathetic Husky defense suddenly began to look marginally competent. Yes, that is a compliment. Don’t expect Lorenzo Romar’s team to rise much higher than this, but at least this team has a pulse.
- UNLV (#19 overall, Mtn West #5) – Home losses to Air Force and Nevada in no way back up this selection, but the Runnin’ Rebels put up notice on Wednesday night that they might be on the come, knocking off New Mexico in Albuquerque in impressive fashion. They need to come to some sort of conclusion at the point (it looks like Deville Smith is going to be the answer by default), but there is plenty of athletic talent here.
- UC Irvine (#20 overall, Big West #2) – The Anteaters make their debut here as the primary challenger to UC Santa Barbara in the Big West. With plenty of size (they’re #4 in KenPom’s effective height measurement, in no small part due to 7’6” Mamadou Ndiaye) and skilled scoring guards, UCI has already shown Washington just how tough they can be.
Plus Five More
- Oregon State (#21 overall, Pac-12 #10)
- Wyoming (#22 overall, Mtn West #6)
- Portland (#23 overall, WCC #4)
- Denver (#24 overall, only Summit team west of the Rockies)
- Colorado State (#25, Mtn West #7)