Clark: Pac-12’s early struggles could prove costly at season’s end

The scene at Oregon men’s basketball media availability meeting generally provides a few laughable moments each week.

Topics can range from the hair product of choice for E.J. Singler’s flowing locks to Dana Altman’s varying theories on players’ significant others having a direct impact on Oregon’s performance during home games. (That one seems to come up frequently.)

And for the last few weeks, questions surrounding the team’s overall confidence at this point in the year have become borderline repetitive. The team is building momentum and has been for some time now. That much is obvious.

It’s still nice to hear it from them, I suppose.

More recently, we’ve wondered how closely players follow the game they dedicate their lives to when they’re not on the court or in the weight room. Like many college students, they’re fans of the game like you and me.

So with the Pac-12 tournament less than a month away, and more importantly, the NCAA Tournament looming in the distance, Oregon is well aware of where they are in the standings — one game back with five to go.

The level of concern about where the team finishes varies from player to player. Despite national perceptions that the Pac-12 is having another down year, some Oregon players see other conference’s nationally televised games and see a unique opportunity.

“I know that we have the talent to play with any team in the country,” backup point guard Johnathan Loyd said before practice on Tuesday.

Reigning Pac-12 Player of the Week E.J. Singler echoed his sophomore teammate.

“I think the Pac-12 always kind of gets undervalued,” Singler said. “I don’t know why. I think there’s great teams in this league; teams that can compete with anyone I think.”

Simply put, the conference got off to a horrendous start in the preseason, putting together a collective 0-11 record against top 25 teams. One-year wonders like O.J. Mayo and Kevin Love have come and gone, but that doesn’t mean the Pac-12 isn’t producing NBA-quality players anymore. @@[email protected]@ @@

In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

A total of seven players from the Pac-12 were selected in the 2011 NBA Draft. That’s more than any other conference in the country. And the fact of the matter is, it took teams a little while to catch back up.

Arizona lost Derrick Williams, Colorado lost Alec Burks, UCLA lost Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt, Washington State lost Klay Thompson and Washington lost Isaiah Thomas. That should be enough to drive home the point, wouldn’t you say? @@ I checked all the names, it just seemed annoying to post 87 [email protected]@

“You can go right down the list,” Altman said. “We had more players go to the NBA than any other league, and it just takes time to adjust. But I think teams have made that adjustment, and I think the quality of basketball is pretty good now.”

He’s right. The basketball is genuinely better now than it was in December and even January. Teams have defined their strengths and weaknesses, and five different programs are in the hunt for the coveted Pac-12 crown and the subsequent automatic berth into the big dance.

In all likelihood, fair or not, the Pac-12’s nonconference struggles will come back to hurt them in a few weeks. The league is guaranteed one bid, with a chance at taking two teams to the tournament. Three might be a stretch, but some believe it could happen.

There’s no question Oregon has its sights focused on one of those top two spots. Leaving the fate of this season hanging in the balance of that third position isn’t something Dana Altman or any of the Ducks want to be a part of — even if they won’t say as much.

What Oregon can do is pull off an upset over Cal on Thursday night, steal one at Stanford and be looking at an opportunity for a share of the regular-season conference title in a few weeks.

There are numerous questions and hypotheticals, and as Altman put it simply: “It’s gonna be an interesting three weeks here to end the season.”

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