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Editor's Note: This column was written prior to the games on Thursday night. Specifically, before Washington-UCLA.
The Best in the West. Usually, that distinction goes to the best team in the Pac-10.
It would make sense, right? It is the only one of the big six conferences with teams west of the Great Plains (and Colorado doesn't count until they actually matter).
But can you really claim that Washington, a team that is 10-3 in the Pac-10 and has a loss to Portland on their resume, is the best team in the West?
There are a number of ways to judge who the best team is —record, RPI, KenPom, rankings —so let's break it down and see if we can't come up with a "Best of the West". For this particular exercise, we are considering the Pac-10, WCC, MWC, and WAC as teams in the West.
— Best Record: Utah State (24-2, 12-1 WAC)
The Aggies have a gaudy record and a solid RPI (34), but for the most part it is against fluff (their SOS is 172). They have only played two games against teams ranked higher than No. 88 in the RPI (beating Utah and losing to BYU) and have a grand total of six games against the RPI top 100 (including BYU and Utah). In fact, of Utah State's 24 wins, 14 have come against teams ranked outside the RPI top 200. So while the Aggies have proven that they can hang with some of the best in Utah out west, I still have yet to see a reason why I should believe this is more than just the best mediocre team in the country. This is where I would say they have a chance to make a statement against a very good St. Mary's team Saturday in Bracket Busters, but unless Patty Mills makes a miraculous recovery in the next 48 hours, a victory would just get chalked up as another mediocre win over a mediocre team.
— Best RPI: Utah (19-7, 10-2 MWC)
Yup, Utah has the best RPI of any team out West. They are sitting pretty at No. 11, while the next closest is Washington at No. 21. I guess they may deserve it. They are currently atop the Mountain West at 10-2 with a game and a half lead over BYU and San Diego State. While you may be thinking to yourself, "Oh, its just the Mountain West", realize that the MWC might be better than the SEC this year. They have a very realistic chance to get five teams into the dance and there are nine teams total in the league. Utah? They do have a pretty nice team. Luke Nevill is a legit 7-footer with a legit game (17.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.7 blocks per game) who combines with Shaun Green to form a formidable frontcourt. In the back court, they have a solid quartet of guards who can all shoot it (except for Carlon Brown — he just dunks). Utah does have a couple good wins —they beat Gonzaga and LSU (by 30) out of conference and SDSU and BYU in conference —but it is their losses that bug me. Not the one against Oklahoma. Not the loss against Cal, or Utah State, or UNLV either. Utah has, however, lost to Big Sky powerhouse Idaho State, who is all of 207th in the RPI. That isn't even their worst loss. The Utes worst loss doesn't get factored into the RPI. Why? Because Southwest Baptist doesn't play in D1. Can you really be considered "Best of the West" when you have lost to a Division II team?
— Best KenPom Rating: UCLA (19-6, 8-4 Pac-10)
Don't know what the KenPom rating system is? Read this. Essentially, he does some crazy math with efficiency ratings to determine who you would expect to win on a given night. If you're ranked higher than a team you should beat them (did I get that right?). Regardless, he is good at what he does. His top four, in order, at the end of last season: Kansas, Memphis, UCLA, UNC (look familiar). So does that mean UCLA is the best team out west? Personally, I am not that high on UCLA this year. For starters, they are not as good defensively as they have been in the past. The biggest issue for me is the lack of a post presence. I've said this before, but as hard as Alfred Aboya works, it isn't going to make him any bigger. Their four? Nikola Dragovic, who spends most of his court time doing his best Jason Kapono impression. Well, I lied. That isn't my biggest issue with UCLA. My biggest issue is their utter lack of impressive wins. They are 0-3 against the RPI top 25 (losing to Arizona State twice and Washington once). They have just four top 50 wins — two against USC, one against Arizona before Arizona got good, and one against Cal when Jerome Randle was slowed by a hip injury. And losses to Texas and Michigan are looking much worse than they did originally.
— Best Ranking: Arizona State (20-5, 9-4 Pac-10)
In each of the three major polls (and yes I am including the BlogPoll as a major poll, and it may or may not be because I have a vote), ASU has the highest ranking. In the coaches poll, they are 11th and in the AP and BlogPoll, they are 14th (for some reason, the coaches have a much higher opinion of the Pac-10 than the AP does —ASU is 11th vs. 14th, UCLA is 15th vs. 20th, and Washington is 19th vs. 22nd). While I still have a bit of hesitation anointing the Sun Devils the best team in the west, one thing I am sure of is that James Harden is the best player in the west (Patty Mills would give him a run, if healthy). Harden is really the only offensive threat on a team with a legitimate shot at winning the Pac-10. That, however, is not a good thing because it makes the Sun Devils so one dimensional. All you need to do is slow down Harden, and Arizona State is going to struggle (see USC, Jan. 15th). While that is much easier said than done (ask Oregon, Feb. 5th), having one lock-down perimeter defender could be enough to upset the Sun Devils. The good news for ASU? In its last three games (against Oregon State, UCLA, and USC), Harden has averaged just 12.3 ppg. Arizona State has won all three.
— Best ... Other Team?: Gonzaga (19-5, 10-0 WCC)
The 'Zags looked destined to be a Final Four team after they ran through the Old Spice Classic, beating Oklahoma State and Tennessee. Then, it lost four of five, including a game to Portland at home. The 'Zags ended that skid with a convincing road win against Tennessee, their second win against the Vols on the season, which sparked a nine-game winning streak, putting the 'Zags back on the map as a legitimate threat. That thought ended with an 18-point beatdown in Spokane at the hands of Memphis. So which team is the real Gonzaga? Who knows. They are one of the most talented teams in the country, there is no doubt about that. But I just am not convinced that they can play well together, especially with Jeremy Pargo at the point. Nothing against him as a player (he can flat out ball and is one of the most fun players in the country to watch), but he isn't the kind of point guard that this team needs.
— Who is missing?: Washington (19-6, 10-3 Pac-10)
Remember earlier, when I said this:
The best in the west. Usually, that distinction goes to the best team in the Pac-10. It would make sense, right? It is the only one of the big six conferences with teams west of the Plains (and Colorado doesn't count until they actually matter). But can you really claim that Washington, a team that is 10-3 in the Pac-10 and has a loss to Portland on their resume, is the best team in the west?
Well, the answer is yes. Yes, you can. Washington has already beaten UCLA and Arizona State this year. They are leading the Pac-10. But more importantly, they look like the best team. I really like the make-up of the Huskies roster. They have a dynamic scoring guard (Isaiah Thomas), a shooter/scorer on the perimeter (Justin Dentmon), a steady ball-control point guard (Venoy Overton), a bruiser in the paint (Jon Brockman), athletic wings (Justin Holiday, Quincy Pondexter), and a big, long, active center to play alongside Brockman (Matthew Bryan-Amaning). The biggest worry I have is maturity and experience. This is a young team, and the veterans have not had much success in their careers. But Lorenzo Romar has. He reached two Sweet 16s (2005, 2006) and won a Pac-10 tournament.
Maybe I am grasping at straws here. Maybe the rest of the west is just not that good this year. But here it is. My pick for "Best of the West".