At Pac-10 media day on Thursday in Los Angeles, I had a chance to speak to a handful of players and coaches about why the league struggled so badly a year ago and why there's optimism for the future. The general consensus was that the only way for the Pac-10 to repair its tattered reputation was to notch the marquee non-league wins in November and December that eluded the league last season.
Fortunately for the Pac-10, the upcoming schedule presents numerous opportunities for big wins that will elevate the league's status in the conference RPI and in the minds of the NCAA tournament selection committee and the national media. Here are five non-league matchups or preseason tournaments that I think are especially crucial for the Pac-10 this season:
1. Washington vs. Maui Invitational, Nov. 22-24
For Washington to validate its preseason top 25 ranking and its status as the Pac-10 favorite entering the new year, at least two victories in Maui are a must. An opening-round win over rebuilding Oklahoma shouldn't be too tall a task, but then the Huskies will likely get youthful but talented Kentucky in an intriguing semifinal loaded with storylines.
Win that game and whatever happens in the title game (possibly against Michigan State) will be gravy for both Washington and the conference. Lose and it's critical for the Pac-10 that the Huskies win a third-place game perhaps against either UConn or Wichita State in order to avoid leaving Maui without a marquee victory to put on their NCAA tournament resume.
2. Arizona vs. Kansas, Nov. 27
Arizona traditionally plays a challenging non-conference schedule, so it's no surprise that the Wildcats again have several chances to earn marquee victories in November and December. In addition to this Kansas game, they visit NC State and play a not-so-neutral-site game against BYU in Salt Lake City.
Why then is this matchup with Kansas in Las Vegas the biggest opportunity of the three? Well, it's a true neutral-court game, it's a chance to take down one of the sport's marquee programs and it's possible the Jayhawks may be vulnerable if freshman Josh Selby hasn't been cleared yet.
3. UCLA vs. BYU, Dec. 18
There's a consensus that the Mountain West has at least temporarily overtaken the Pac-10 as the West Coast's best conference, but that notion will be put to the test in a series of head-to-head matchups this winter. UCLA and Arizona both meet BYU, Arizona State visits New Mexico, Cal hosts San Diego State and Stanford could meet UNLV in the semifinals of 76 Classic.
The UCLA-BYU game is the biggest potential statement game for both leagues because it pits two potential conference title contenders in what promises to be an emotionally charged setting. It's the first John Wooden Classic in Anaheim since the death of the event's namesake this past June.
4. Arizona State at Baylor, Dec. 2
Skeptics will scoff about Arizona State having a chance to win on the road at Baylor, but just remember how close this matchup was a year ago in Tempe. The Elite Eight-bound Bears trailed by nine with under 10 minutes to play before reeling off 14 straight points and surviving a potential go-ahead three-pointer from Derek Glasser in the final 20 seconds.
Youthful Arizona State may not be ready for an early December road test like this one, but the Sun Devils' newfound athleticism and quirky matchup zone defense give them a chance at the upset. If they're hitting their three-pointers, Baylor will have a bigger challenge than many expect.
5. Gonzaga at Washington State, Dec. 8
Opinions vary widely on whether Washington State is a sleeper Pac-10 title contender or a likely lower-division team, but this is an opportunity for the Cougs to make an early statement at home against a highly touted local rival. Gonzaga has a potent frontcourt highlighted by German-born sophomore forward Elias Harris and Canadian center Robert Sacre.
This would be a landmark home victory for both Washington State and the Pac-10, one that past history indicates would not be as unlikely as it might seem. The Cougars have won two of their past four meetings with Gonzaga and led by double figures on the road last season deep into the second half before falling by five points.