Brian Bennett, formerly of ESPN and currently a contributor to The Athletic — he authors the site’s bracketology feature — writes a weekly Pac-12 basketball column for the Hotline.
A funny thing happened last week in the Pac-12: home teams dominated.
That shouldn’t sound unusual, right? Teams playing on their home court should always own a distinct advantage in league play. But in a year when few things have gone according to plan in this conference, even that conventional wisdom has been flipped upside down.
With two weeks remaining, road teams have winning percentage of .409. That’s record-breaking pace: The best showing by road teams since the conference expanded to 12 teams is .398, set six years ago.
Winning percentage isn’t the only stat that illustrates the success road teams have enjoyed.
There have been eight road sweeps in the league already this season. Before this year, there had only been 43 total road sweeps since the conference expanded to 12 teams.
The single-season record of 10 is within reach.
“I’ve been watching it and thinking ‘What’s going on?’” Pac-12 Networks analyst Matt Muehlebach told The Hotline. “I don’t ever remember it happening like this.”
A few factors help explain the Mad Max-like quality to this season:
*** The parity (or is it parody?) in the standings.
When Muehlebach played at Arizona from 1987-1991, the Wildcats went 64-0 at home.
Of course, he also played on some great teams.
“When you have those dominant teams and you get going at home, it’s like a tsunami,” he said. “For opposing teams, it’s really hard to stave off those runs.”
We don’t need to go over yet again how down the Pac-12 is this season. Suffice it to say, no team is so good that stealing a win on its home court feels impossible, save perhaps league leader Washington. The Huskies, naturally, are the only club that’s undefeated at home in Pac-12 play this year (7-0). Everyone else has at least two league home losses.
Arizona is a great example of the new order. The McKale Center crowds have for decades represented the gold standard for the conference. The Wildcats were an absurd 82-3 at home under Sean Miller coming into this season.
They have already lost four times at home this year.
“When they beat Oregon State at home, I thought the reason they won that game was because the crowd lifted them up,” Muehlebach said. “But the crowd can only do so much. You’ve still got to have talent and depth. There just aren’t the dominant teams that we’ve seen in the past.”
*** A lack of intimidating home crowds.
The Pac-12, as a whole, doesn’t attract the same kind of dedicated, fervent fans as many programs back East. The league ranked sixth among the Power Six conferences in average home attendance last year.
Hey, the winter weather is better out West, so there’s more to do.
It should come as no surprise, either, that Pac-12 crowds have been down almost across the board during a season of stumbles and national irrelevance.
“It goes hand in hand,” Muehlebach said. “You don’t have dominant teams, so the crowds aren’t dominant, either.”
Only Washington has seen a significant uptick in home attendance, with an 11 percent increase over last year and two sellouts during conference play.
Oregon and Oregon State are both slightly up, but their increases are each fewer than 100 fans per game, so it’s statistically insignificant.
Every other team has experienced a decline in attendance. That includes a 26 percent downturn at Cal, a 22 percent decrease at Washington State and a 13.5 percent fall at USC. (These numbers are from tickets sold, not no-shows — of which there are likely many).
On the positive side, Arizona State, which saw the nation’s second-largest attendance increase last year, has continued to turn out crowds in excess of 10,000. Wells Fargo Arena is a legitimately rowdy atmosphere for big games. Bobby Hurley, though, still spends chunks of his news conferences pleading for people to come out for the non-marquee contests.
Arizona fans maintain great support for their team through troubling times in Tucson (though down 5 percent from last year, the Wildcats still lead the Pac-12 in home attendance).
Alaska Airlines Arena has become a true home-court advantage for Washington.
On the other hand, Utah and Colorado should always have an upper hand at home because of the distance teams must travel to get there, knowledgeable crowds and the altitude. Yet the Utes and Buffaloes are a combined 7-7 at home in league play.
It’s usually harder for young teams to succeed away from home, simply because they’re not used to overcoming adversity in tough environs. But these days, as Muehlebach says, “everybody’s young.”
Washington, again, is the exception here. The senior-laden Huskies’ only conference road loss came at Arizona State. But just about everybody else in the league is heavily relying on first- and second-year players. The home team doesn’t gain much of an edge when it’s just as inexperienced as its visitors.
Muehlebach has always believed that the Pac-12 should have stronger home-court advantages than other leagues. That’s because of the long flights teams must make, plus the two-game road trips where teams are often hanging around in a state for three or four days. Fatigue in the second of those two-game trips is a real thing.
But this year, at least, home sweet home has been anything but.
Around the league
*** Washington’s Man of Steal just keeps piling up amazing feats.
Matisse Thybulle had six steals each against Utah and Colorado last week, bringing him close to some all-time Pac-12 milestones. The Huskies senior needs 17 more thefts to break Jason Kidd’s single-season record of 110 (set in 1992-93) and 19 more to pass Gary Payton’s career mark of 321.
The NCAA Division I records, in case you were wondering, are 160 for a single season (Alabama A&M’s Desmond Cambridge did it in 2011-02) and 385 for a career (Providence’s John Linehan).
Thybulle will fall short of those, barring some unforeseen Huskies’ run to the NCAA title game. But he’s also more than just a steals guy. He had nine blocks in the two wins last week and ranks in the top 50 nationally in block rate. According to SportsReference.com, Thybulle is the only player to average at least 3.5 steals and two blocks per game in at least 26 years.
Thybulle should be the national defensive player of the year – though Duke’s Zion Williamson has a strong case and better name recognition. And with teammate Jaylen Nowell cooling off in recent weeks, Thybulle also should seriously be considered as the Pac-12 Player of the Year.
By the way, Thybulle is shooting 46 percent on 3-pointers in February. NBA teams look hard at free-throw percentage as a indicator of shooting success from deep at the next level, and Thybulle is making 85 percent of his free throws.
“Without a doubt, I’m a first-round draft pick,” he told Yahoo! Sports on Saturday. “If you look at the 3-and-D players in the league today, that’s a skill-set I can provide for an NBA team on Day One.”
*** Washington can secure the Pac-12 title outright Thursday at Cal in what should be one of the more anti-climatic clinchers in recent memory.
A more interesting game will likely be Washington State’s visit to Berkeley on Saturday.
This could well be the Golden Bears’ last chance for a conference victory, though with the improved recent play of the Cougars, even that seems like a long shot.
The Bears are steaming toward an 0-18 conference finish, which would make them the first winless team since Oregon State in 2007-08.
Those Beavers, however, competed in a 10-team conference that put six teams in the NCAA tournament, three in the Sweet 16 and one (UCLA) in the Final Four. To go 0-18 in this year’s league would be truly futile.
Big Man on Campus
Jaylen Hands, UCLA: The Bruins had the most productive week in the conference, sweeping the Oregon schools at home to get back in the picture for a top-four seed in Las Vegas. So we salute the guy who has been playing the best in Westwood.
Hands scored all 27 of his points in the second half as UCLA stormed back to beat Oregon on Saturday. He also added nine assists. The sophomore also had 12 points and eight assists versus Oregon State, though he missed some crucial free throws late.
In his past five games, Hands is averaging 21.8 points and 6.2 assists while shooting 50 percent from 3-point range. He has also cut down his turnovers from earlier in the season, building a case as the Pac-12’s top point guard.
Games of the week
USC at UCLA, Thursday (6 p.m., ESPN): The Bruins and Trojans will enter this rivalry game tied in the league standings at 8-7, so the loser likely bows out of the scrum for a first-round tournament bye. USC won the first meeting 80-67 at the Galen Center, snapping a four-game losing streak in the series.
Arizona State at Oregon State, Sunday (5 p.m., ESPNU): Who’s No. 2? The Sun Devils currently own a half-game lead over the Beavers for second place in the league behind Washington, but they might have to win in Corvallis to keep it that way. The Oregon trip also looms large for Arizona State’s at-large NCAA tournament hopes. If the first meeting – a 70-67 Sun Devils win in Tempe – is any indication, this ought to be a good one.
* Follow Bennett on Twitter: @GBrianBennett
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