Colorado v Arizona - Championship

The Pac-12 isn’t good, but it’ll get two tournament bids

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Right now, the Pac-12 is not a very good basketball conference.

No one will argue that fact, and I think it’s fair to say that the only reason there isn’t a discussion about the Pac-12 being the third best conference on the West Coast is because St. Mary’s and BYU haven’t been quite as good as they were expected to be.

So on the surface, I think the point that Percy Allen, the Washington beat writer for the Seattle Times, argues in this piece is generally on target. The league isn’t all that good, they haven’t notched a ton of marquee non-conference victories and they’ll have the chance to do so in the coming weeks.

But once Allen gets into specifics is where his argument gets thrown off course. Specifically, this:

The Pac-12 had just two teams (No. 11 seed Colorado and No. 12 seed California) in the 2012 NCAA tourney and the league will struggle to do better next year unless it can win some big games this month.

That’s incorrect.

The reason that the Pac-12 needed Colorado to make a spirited run to the league’s automatic bid last season just to get an at-large bid to the tournament was because they basically did nothing, as a league, of significance in non-conference play. Stanford beat Colorado State and NC State. Oregon State beat Texas. Cal, Washington, Arizona and Oregon — the four teams that were listed on bubble watches — had as many good non-conference wins as I did last year. As a result, the Pac-12 had a miserable RPI — something on par with Conference USA in a down year for Memphis — which essentially cost them any chance of having more than one team put together a strong enough profile to earn an at-large bid.

This season is different.

For starters, the Pac-12 is currently ranked as the second best league in the RPI, and while it’s early and that could end up being way to high at the end of the season, it’s deserved thus far in the year. Why? Because the league has wins against UNLV, Murray State, Baylor, Colorado State, Northern Iowa, St. Louis, Arkansas, Boise State, Purdue and Georgia Tech. All 10 of those teams have a shot at making the Big Dance this year, which means that even without another notable non-conference win, the Pac-12 is already in much better position than they were last year.

And that’s before you consider the fact that there haven’t been as many horrifying non-conference losses, although no one is ready to call Cal Poly or Sacramento State a ‘good’ loss.

The top of the league is probably worse than we expected, especially UCLA, but as a whole, the Pac-12 is deeper and more balanced this season than it was last year. There are more middle-of-the-pack teams with a chance to make some noise in March and the bottom of the league is no longer a joke.

This league will not be stuck with just two bids again this year.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.