Best in the West: The 20 Best Teams West Of The Rockies

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on January 26th, 2016

Here’s something we occasionally do: group all of the teams west of the Rockies (you know, the only part of the country, save Austin, New Orleans, Memphis and maybe New York City worth a damn) together, mix them up and see what order they shake out in. This means we’ve got all of the teams in the Pac-12, Mountain West, WCC and Big West Conferences, plus some of the schools in the WAC and Big Sky. And normally, instead of just ranking teams the traditional way, we divide them up into tiers. The idea is that there may be two great teams that have serious Final Four dreams and then a significant fall off when talking about team number three. This year in the West? Not so much. Apropos of the rest of the nation, there are no elite teams. And on any given Saturday (or Thursday, or Wednesday), there’s a good chance whoever checks in a half-page down this list can play with the first team we mention. But still, here’s a best effort at placing the best in the West into tiers.

The Best of the Best: Legitmate Top 25 teams

  • Oregon (#1 overall, Pac-12 #1) – Since back in the middle of the summer, I’ve had the Ducks at the top of the Pac-12. With Villanova transfer Dylan Ennis added to the mix, the Ducks have long had the prospect of being, a deep, veteran, long, balanced squad. Some of those strengths (depth and experience, mainly) have been diminished with the season that wasn’t for Ennis (out for season with broken foot), but Dana Altman’s presence at the helm of a talented group should mean that this team’s best days are ahead of it. With the shot-blocking combination of Jordan Bell and Chris Boucher along the backline and the perimeter defenders like Casey Benson, Dwayne Benjamin and Tyler Dorsey, this team still has a ways to go before it reaches it’s defensive potential, as it is just 69th in the nation in defensive efficiency. The defense has to improve, but if it does, the Ducks’ offense is diverse and explosive enough to drag them a long ways into March.
Hey, Did You Know That Bell Boucher Is A Type Of Banjo? And A Great Shotblocking Combo?

Bell-Boucher: Both A Banjo And A Great Shot-blocking Combo!

  • Arizona (#2 overall, Pac-12 #2) – A one-point loss at California qualifies as a good result in a West that mimics the national landscape by not having any one dominant team. Every one of the Wildcats’ losses has been a tightly fought contest, with a four-point neutral-court loss against Providence to join three conference road losses that came by an average of two points (and four total overtimes). In short, Arizona is, on January 23rd, six possessions away from a perfect 20-0 record, despite the absence of senior Kaleb Tarczewski for eight games, freshman Allonzo Trier for the last four games and junior Elliott Pitts for the last 13 games. While this is by no mean a vintage Arizona team, Sean Miller is the best coach in the West and you can count on him getting the absolute most out of a flawed roster.

In Good Position: Set Up For An NCAA Bid

  • USC (#3 overall, Pac-12 #3) – In Andy Enfield’s third season, everything is beginning to come together. But this is still a team lacking in the experience of winning. Following a three-game winning streak over Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA, the Trojans went on an Oregon road trip this weekend and came away empty. That means in Enfield’s three seasons, he still only has seven road wins. You don’t absolutely need to win true road games in order to have a good chance come March, but in order to have a chance in the conference race, the Trojans need to find a way to steal a few of them. Arizona State and Arizona are their next chances, the week of Valentine’s Day.
In His Third Season, Andy Enfield's Plan Is Coming Together (USC Athletics)

In His Third Season, Andy Enfield’s Plan Is Coming Together (USC Athletics)

  • California (#4 overall, Pac-12 #4) – The loss of Tyrone Wallace for four-to-six weeks with a broken right hand all but kills the Golden Bears conference title hopes. But, if the ultimate goals for Cuonzo Martin’s squad are more consequential, the chance for sophomore Sam Singer to earn experience as the team’s main point guard, and for freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb to take on even bigger scoring roles, could pay dividends down the stretch.
  • Utah (#5 overall, Pac-12 #5) – The Utes have stumbled of late with three losses in their first four conference games, but the good news is that senior guard Brandon Taylor has come on strong(er), knocking in a third of his threes in conference play (believe it or not, that’s a major upgrade over non-conference play) and cutting his turnover rate. Still, he’s not creating for teammates regularly and needs to continue to defer to JuCo transfer Lorenzo Bonam as the initiator in the halfcourt.

Bubblicious: These Teams Have Plenty Of Work Left To Do

  • Washington (overall #6, Pac-12 #6) – If he’s not already, senior point guard Andrew Andrews needs to be among the favorite players in the conference for unbiased observers. First, there’s the special swagger and confidence that senior point guards possess, shining through especially brightly on a Husky team full of exuberant youth. When late-game situations arrive, it is Andrews calming the team, finding his way to the line (he’s third in the nation in drawing fouls) and knocking in shots (84.1 percent from the charity stripe). Throw in 40 percent shooting from behind the three-point arc, an aggressive game attacking the rim and an ability to drop the appropriate dime to teammates, and Andrews is easily the most responsible party for this young roster’s success.
  • UCLA (overall #7, Pac-12 #7) – America’s favorite bipolar team, the Bruins have wins over Kentucky, Gonzaga and Arizona, but also losses to Monmouth, Wake Forest and Washington State. Why? Well, while their offense is the 27th most efficient in the nation (with all five starters scoring in double figures), the Bruins simply can’t stop anyone, checking in 153rd in the nation in defensive efficiency. Bryce Alford is not only lacking in the strength and athleticism categories on the defensive end, but also has costly lapses of attention; big guys Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh are disasters in pick and roll defense, or when dragged out to the perimeter by a more skilled big. Neither of these problems seems destined to change anytime soon, so head coach Steve Alford must find a way to adapt.
  • Colorado (overall #8, Pac-12 #8) – We’re dropping the Buffaloes in here at #8, but they’re largely indistinguishable from the two teams ahead of them (and likely, a few of the teams right below them). Sophomore point guard Dominique Collier has been a big part of the Buffs improvement this season, as his offensive rating has jumped nearly 24 points. Collier has done a much better job handling the ball and has seen a monumental jump in his three-point shooting (from 26.9% as a freshman on 2.23 attempts per game, to 48.3% on better than three attempts per game this year). While there is reason to be skeptical about the sustainability of this improvement (he is also shooting just 25.8 percent on two-point jumpers), we’re just a few days removed from a tidy 6-7 outing from deep in a loss at Washington.
  • Saint Mary’s (overall #9, WCC #1) – Here’s where the problems in the West on a national level really shine through: we’re now down to the #9 team in the region and we see the first team outside of the Pac-12. Even without a truly elite single Pac-12 team, the West region doesn’t supply another team capable of playing up to the top half of the PAC. There’s no great team in the Mountain West. Gonzaga and BYU haven’t been quite up to the challenge in the WCC. And there are no surprises from any other league in the West. The Gaels, aren’t a bad team. They’re 17-2, with the two losses a four-point road loss to a very good Cal team and a three-point road loss to a Pepperdine team you’ll see down the road a bit. Beyond those “good losses”, however, there’s not a lot of meat on the bones: home wins over Stanford, UC Irvine, BYU and last week over a struggling Gonzaga team (by the slimmest of margins) are the highlights of the SMC resume. In many ways, Gonzaga still seems to have far more long-term upside. But, rather than slog the Gaels for what they haven’t done, let’s celebrate this team. Obviously, Randy Bennett has hat a ton of success in Moraga, but putting this year’s team together around the likes of Emmett Naar, Dane Pineau, Joe Rahon, Evan Fitzner, Calvin Hermason and Jock Landale is just astounding. If Bennett keeps this team top-25 worthy all year, he’s worthy of National Coach of the Year honors for finding success with this unheralded, senior-less cast that comes from all corners of the Pacific.
Randy Bennett: Below-The-Radar COY Candidate (Getty)

Randy Bennett: Below-The-Radar National COY Candidate (Getty)

Super-Bubblicious: Get Ready For A Nervous Selection Sunday

  • Gonzaga (overall #10, WCC #2) – With 6:35 to play at Saint Mary’s last Thursday, the Bulldogs were up 61-51 and had a better than 85% probability of winning the game. From that point forward, they were outscored 19-6, had five turnovers in their final 12 possessions (including three in a row and four in five possessions) and allowed 1.58 points per possession. Those details are concerning, but in the end, it goes down as a three-point road loss to a top-20 team in a tough building to play in. Still, until guards Josh Perkins, Eric McClellan and Silas Melson can stay in control of the ball and get playmakers Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer more touches, the upside of this team is limited. Perkins, in particular, has settled down quite a bit (he’s only had ten turnovers in nine conference games), but teams are going to challenge the Zags’ ballhandling and decision-making from here until the end of the season.
  • Oregon State (overall #11, Pac-12 #9) – It all started out so well for the Beavers, with good wins over teams like Iona, UC Santa Barbara and Tulsa in the non-conference. Loss to Valparaiso and Kansas were explainable. But after opening conference play with a win over Oregon, four losses in five games happened. A win over USC delivers hope, but to position themselves for a run in the back half of conference play, the Beavers will need to do some work on the road against the Arizona schools this week. The latest KenPom projection has them finishing conference play at 8-10, which would placing them squarely on an expected NCAA Tournament bubble.
  • San Diego State (overall #12, Mtn West #1) – This is how down the Mountain West is this season: the top team in the conference is the 12th best team in the West. More to the point, this Aztec team, alone atop the MW standings, is a team with losses to San Diego, Grand Canyon and Arkansas-Little Rock on its resume. We’re used to the Aztecs being very good defensively (this is the third straight season they’re ranked among the nation’s ten most efficient defenses) and bad offensively, but this year’s team takes that model to an extreme. Averaging an adjusted 98.3 points per 100 possessions, this is the worst offense in the Steve Fisher era. But, there is improvement, as the Aztecs have scored better than a point per possession in every conference game except their road win over Boise State.
Same High-Flying Aztecs, Same Great Defense, Abysmally Bad Offense (Lenny Ignelzi, AP Photo)

Same High-Flying Aztecs. Same Great Defense. Same Abysmal Offense (Lenny Ignelzi, AP Photo)

  • Boise State (overall #13, Mtn West #2) – The Broncos turned in a real clunker against the Aztecs last week, or else these positions might be reversed. While James Webb and Mikey Thompson have been great this season, it is about time to permanently revise downward expectations for senior wing Anthony Drmic, whose recovery from last year’s ankle injury that ended his season has gone worse than expected. While Drmic has played in every Bronco game against a Division I opponent, his quickness and athleticism appear diminished. He’s playing largely on guts and athletic tape at this point. Rest isn’t doing much to change the situation, and he’s still averaging 12.7 points in almost 30 minutes of action, but he’s definitely not the same guy who averaged 16 as a junior two years ago.

Get To Work: Lots To Do, But Plenty Of Time To Do It

  • Arizona State (overall #14, Pac-12 #10) – They may be 1-6 in conference play, but let’s not give up on the Sun Devils just yet. While those first three losses were pretty clear, the last three have been by an average of less than four points per game. The defensive effort has let ASU down occasionally, but the schedule sets up well enough (home against the Oregon schools, road against the Washington schools, home against the Los Angeles schools) to allow them to make a run back within shouting distance of .500 quickly.
  • UNLV (overall #15, Mtn West #3) – Even a two-point road loss to in-state rival Nevada can do little to hide the fact that changing coaches mid-season has been a success. Since Dave Rice was fired (and Todd Simon named interim coach), the Runnin’ Rebels have won three of four. And with arguably the most talented roster in the conference, there’s still a lot to be excited about in Vegas. But, let’s hold off on any grand proclamations until after this week, when they host Boise State and San Diego State. A split is a mandatory minimum for this team to be taken seriously again.

Auto-Bid Or Bust

  • Hawaii (overall #16, Big West #1) – The Eran Ganot era in Honolulu has seen losses only at Texas Tech and by three to Oklahoma, the nation’s #1 team. That’s the good. The bad is that the rest of the schedule doesn’t allow much resume-building, with wins over Northern Iowa, Auburn and Nevada ranking as the big positives. In other words, win the Big West tournament in Anaheim, or NIT.
  • BYU (overall #17, WCC #3) – Not a lot of meat on the bones of BYU’s schedule (a win at Gonzaga is by far the best thing they have going for them), leaves the Cougars likely needing a WCC Tournament title to go dancing.
  • UC Irvine (overall #18, Big West #2) – If you’re a Big West fan, keep these dates in mind: February 11 and February 20. Those are the planned clashes between the conference’s two remaining undefeated teams, Hawaii and UCI.
  • Stanford (overall #19, Pac-12 #11) – The fact is, without Robert Cartwright and a slew of other players (for varying lengths of time), the Cardinal have overachieved. That doesn’t make their 11-7 overall record any easier to swallow. But Johnny Dawkins has seen impressive development out of youngsters Michael Humphrey, Dorian Pickens and Marcus Sheffield.
  • Pepperdine (overall #20, WCC #4) – There were big plans in Malibu this year, and there are some solid wins on the non-conference slate (Long Beach State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Montana, Duquesne), not to mention a win over Saint Mary’s. But enough bad losses have been mixed in to render the Waves’ at-large chances non-existent already.

And Five More, For The Hell Of It

  • Washington State (overall #21, Pac-12 #12)
  • New Mexico (overall #22, Mtn West #4)
  • Grand Canyon (overall #23, WAC #1)
  • Fresno State (overall #24, Mtn West #5)
  • Long Beach State (overall #25, Big West #3)

Honorable mention:  Because We Need A Big Sky Team

Montana (overall #somewhere-lower-than-25, Big Sky #1)

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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