With nearly a month of the non-conference season behind us, it's very possible that the top-two teams in the Pac-12 make their home in the Bay Area. Cal, a preseason favorite by many pundits, is expected, but Stanford is the leagues surprise team to date.
If the Cardinal and Bears do end up at the top of the leagues standings, it may not seem all that newsworthy. Yet looking back the last two decades, it quickly becomes clear how rare it is for the Pac-12 basketball power to reside up north.
Stanford and Cal have never finished 1-2 in the conference basketball standings, and the eras of where both programs have even been "good" at the same time are few and far between.
Only four times in the last 20 years have both programs made the NCAA Tournament in the same year (three of those years coming back-to-back-to back in 2000-2003).
This year appears to be different, partly due to the respective strength of both teams and even moreso by the relative softness of many other programs in the league. Early returns show that Cal and Stanford need only to beat out Arizona and Washington at the top of the league standings, and even those teams have their share of weaknesses. (Not buying into Oregon States early 6-1 record yet).
The Bears are not a complete team, the way many Pac-12 title contenders from most years are, but that might not be needed this year. What the Bears lack in experienced frontcourt depth and overall team athleticism, they make up for with a triangle of effective, balanced scorers in senior guard Jorge Guttierez, sophomore wing Allen Crabbe and senior forward Harper Kamp. Transfer guard Justin Cobbs is quickly emerging as another scoring option for the Bears, and is helping Mike Montgomery's team through the stretch without suspended post player Richard Solomon.
Without Solomon, the Bears went small on the road against a nationally ranked SDSU team, starting four guards. Cal jumped out to a 6-0 lead and stood toe to toe for the duration with the Aztecs on the road, before losing a close contest in a hostile environment. Freshman David Kravish is getting valuable experience for the Bears in this stretch up front. All in all, Cal likely comes out of their non-conference schedule 10-3, and a favorite to win the league.
Down on the Farm, the Cardinal have quietly put together the most impressive non-conference resume to date in the league, doing so with a very balanced scoring attack (five players averaging between seven and 12 ppg). Stanford is deep both on the perimeter and up front, they are quick, and they are much better defensively than they have been the last few years.
At 8-1 with wins over Big 12 member Oklahoma State and ACC member NC State, and their only loss a close defeat in the Garden against Syracuse in a game they led until the final minutes, the Cardinal are in great position. They will likely head into Pac 12 play 11-1, with the best record in the league.
Circle Jan. 29 (at Haas Pavilion) and March 4 (at Maples) on your calendars. These games, conveniently the last game on both rounds of conference play, might have bigger meaning this year than ever before.
BAY AREA TEAM OF THE WEEK: Stanford. The Cardinal (8-1) are rolling heading into their two week-long break for finals. A blowout road win at Seattle last Thursday was nice, but the 12 point second half comeback against NC State Sunday was their best win of the year. Stanford has the best record in the Pac 12, three winnable home games before league play begins, and are in prime position for their first Tournament berth since 2007-2008.
BAY AREA TEAM OF THE WEAK: UC Davis. First year coach Jim Les knew he had his hands full this year, but their home game against Idaho Saturday was their best chance for a Division I win heading into Big West play. They lost by 20. It now gets ugly Davis with four road games to end non-conference play, meaning they will likely be 0-11 in Division I games heading into the New Year.
BAY AREA PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Santa Claras junior guard Kevin Foster wins his first weekly award, with a 20 point, 7 rebound, 6 assist performance in Santa Claras 71-58 win over CSUN. Foster was 4-9 from 3-pt land, bringing his overall career made 3s total to a whopping 272, the most ever for a Bay Area college player (ex-SCU great Steve Nash had the previous high at 263). The win moved the Broncos to 5-2 overall, with some nice wins under their belt, and a winnable game at Washington State Sunday up next.
GAME OF THE WEEK (that was): Cals 64-63 loss to San Diego State was a hard fought contest between two quality teams. The Bears were down two late but failed to get a rebound on a miss from the Aztecs and were forced to foul, so never had a last possession to tie or win the game. No team led by more than five points in the second half, and fellow sophomores Allen Crabbe (23 points) and Justin Cobbs (17 points), had 40 of Cals 63 points.
GAME (s) OF THE WEEK (ahead): Light slate this week with many Bay Area teams being in final exams, so Santa Clara at Washington State Sunday gets the nod as the game of the week. The Broncos will try for their third straight win (and five out of six), and with it give the WCC a fifth win over the Pac 12. Cal plays tonight at home against SJSU, trying for their 19th straight win without a loss versus the Spartans, in Berkeley.
NOTABLE: USF won another close game last week at Montana, 65-62. That is 11 wins by three points or less (or overtime) this year or last, against only two losses. Thats four more wins than anyone in the nation has in the same stretch.
QUOTABLE: USF head coach Rex Walters after his teams 65-62 win at Montana last week: "This is a tough place to win. It's a tough flight coming into here. There was a lot of adversity. We had to fight for everything tonight. The guys were on edge and wanted to come here and get a win."
BY THE NUMBERS: The Mountain West certainly has had the best resume of any conference in the west thus far. Their overall league record is 52-14, and they are 4 in early conference power ratings. Every team in the league is over .500.
Dan Shell has been an assistantcoach at the Division I level at three different institutions includingSaint Mary's College. He currently works for IMG College, whichprovides sports marketing services for Division I universities andconferences. Have questions or comments? Emailhim here.