Oregon State head coach Craig Robinson calls out to his team during a game… (Jason DeCrow / Associated…)
Oregon State men's basketball Coach Craig Robinson says he has a gut feeling about the Pac-12 Conference.
"We're all doing a better job than we did last year," Robinson said. "But we won't be able to tell until we get to the end of the season and see how many teams we're getting into the NCAA tournament."
That bar is set low. Last year, the Pac-12 got only two teams into the tournament — Colorado and California — and neither advanced past the third round. Cal lost to South Florida in a play-in game. Washington, the conference's regular-season champion, was relegated to the NIT.
As UCLA and USC enter Pac-12 play Thursday night, there seems to be more optimism surrounding the league than there was a year ago. Third-ranked Arizona is undefeated (12-0) with one-point victories over 13th-ranked Florida and 19th-ranked San Diego State. UCLA is coming off a rousing 97-94 upset of Missouri in overtime, though the three-loss Bruins remain unranked in both major polls.
Washington State Coach Ken Bone probably made the best estimation of the conference Wednesday in a conference call. "My guess right now is that three or four teams will make the NCAA tournament," he said. "That's not stretching it or being conservative."
Robinson also thinks there will be improvement in the conference this season. "Last year was a tough year for us," he said. "It better be better than last year. I think the conference didn't lose as many players early to the draft and the recruiting classes were better. Look at Arizona and UCLA. Both have freshmen competing."
UCLA Coach Ben Howland believes the conference has improved. "We have more quality wins," he said, noting Oregon's victory over then-ranked Nevada Las Vegas as well as the big wins by Arizona and UCLA.
"Washington State is playing well," Howland said, "and had a great chance to win that Gonzaga game. Arizona State is doing a great job, playing all man-to-man defense."
Howland highlighted Sun Devils freshman point guard Jahii Carson, who is second in the league in assists behind UCLA's fifth-year senior Larry Drew II, as a reason the conference is better. And actually that's two reasons. Drew is playing his first season for UCLA after transferring from North Carolina.
"As a conference we're improved, no question," Howland said. "We've had a lot of teams play really well."
One of them that hasn't is USC, which at 5-8 is the only team in the conference with a losing record.
"We're way better," Trojans Coach Kevin O'Neill said of the conference. "We'll have four or five NCAA teams for sure. Arizona, UCLA, Oregon's good. California, Stanford, Colorado."
O'Neill echoed Robinson in the reasons for improvement.
"Great recruiting classes at UCLA and Arizona," he said, "and the league didn't lose too many players early to the draft."
One of Arizona's major "recruits" is senior Mark Lyons, who starred at Xavier but played a major role in an ugly brawl against rival Cincinnati.
Lyons, who had been recruited to Xavier by Arizona Coach Sean Miller, was able to transfer without sitting out a year because had earned his undergraduate degree. Lyons leads the Wildcats in scoring (13.4 points a game) and also has a team-high 38 assists.
Washington Coach Lorenzo Romar pointed to the obvious — Arizona and UCLA — and the less obvious, Arizona State, Oregon and Colorado, as potential NCAA teams. He wouldn't give his own team a thumbs up or down yet.
Tad Boyle, coach of Colorado, the surprise winner of the conference tournament last year, said the Pac-12's national prominence will be a work in progress.
"You've got to prove yourself," Boyle said. "We have to get some teams in postseason play and then do well."
California Coach Mike Montgomery isn't ready to discount anyone — even USC. "Several other people in the league would have records similar to USC if they'd played that schedule," he said. "So that part" — the 5-8 record — "doesn't mean a whole lot."
Montgomery also noted that UCLA is the top-scoring team in the conference, averaging 80.9 points a game. That's not something anyone predicted.
But Arizona winning the league? That was the preseason prediction and there's no reason to change a mind. Yet.