Posted on February 3, 2024
All 12 teams are in action this weekend as the countdown to Selection Sunday begins.
February is historically the month where the cream rises to the top. Teams that may have struggled to start the year begin to find their groove and separate from the rest.
UCLA, in particular, has a pivotal matchup against Oregon that could cement the emergence of its young roster.
I preview that game along with the five others across the Pac-12 here. My picks appear at the bottom along with my record across the whole season.
California at Arizona State
Saturday, February 3
Noon PT, Pac-12 Network
A loss to the Bears would likely send the Sun Devils into an inescapable spiral fueled by the local Phoenix media beating the drums for Bobby Hurley’s termination.
When was the last time ASU played in a proverbial “big game?” Sure, Hurley’s teams make the Play-In Game of the NCAA Tournament with some regularity.
But when was the last time his program played in a game that the rest of the college basketball world took note of?
Entering the matchup at 11-10 with an at-large bid out of reach, the trajectory of the program is in serious question.
To get the job done against Mark Madsen’s Bears, Jaylon Tyson must be contained.
The guard was frustrated by Arizona’s defense on Thursday and has lost his shooting efficiency over the past several games.
Tyson does connect on 48.2 percent of his shots over the course of the season, but he’s only shooting 40.2 percent (35-of-87) over the last five games.
The California offense flows through him, though, and if he gets going it will be tough to beat the Bears.
And without a dominant big to go toe-to-toe with Fardaws Aimaq, Arizona State could get exposed on multiple levels.
Unless the Sun Devils win the battle on the boards and adequately defend the three, a fourth-straight loss could be incoming.
Colorado at Utah
Saturday, February 3
2:00 pm PT, Pac-12 Network
But the failures of the Conference’s leadership over the last decade have resulted in one of the league’s top games of the season getting tucked away on a channel few get.
Colorado and Utah are both in line for at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. The Buffs are No. 31 in the NET and No. 25 in KenPom while the Utes are No. 34 in the NET and No. 40 in KenPom.
In other words, the analytics say that this is a matchup between the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the Pac-12. It is the equivalent of an NCAA Tournament game.
But Utah has been reeling.
Suffering through prolonged injuries to two starters, Craig Smith’s team has lost two straight games and five of its last eight.
They face a Colorado team that has one of the top offenses in the country. Coming into the game with the top field goal percentage offense in the Pac-12 and No. 8 nationally, CU has a multitude of weapons.
Cody Williams is a dynamic freshman and a matchup nightmare. KJ Simpson is an elite guard who goes off for 30 on any given night.
Tristan da Silva is an efficient and experienced forward who must be game-planned around. And Eddie Lampkin Jr. is a powerful force in the paint that can change the game.
Finding a way to slow them down won’t be easy.
To do so, Utah has to dominate the glass. Smith’s group is the No. 2 rebounding unit in the Pac-12 and No. 49 nationally. Any second-chance opportunities afforded to the CU offense could be too much to overcome.
Utah also has to force turnovers. Colorado is sloppy with the ball and enters the game 10th in the Pac-12 in TOs per contest.
If the Utes own the rebounding and turnover margins, they will be in a stronger position to defend homecourt.
Oregon State at USC
Saturday, February 3
4:00 pm PT, Pac-12 Network
USC was expected to compete for a Pac-12 Championship this season but enters February in last place.
There are no excuses for losing this many games. Andy Enfield has failed to reel in Kobe Johnson and inexplicably deemphasized his bigs.
There’s little justification for allowing Johnson to take an average of 10.7 shots per game when he’s only hitting 36.8 percent of them.
That will get most players benched on other programs.
At the same time, Vincent Iwuchukwu, Josh Morgan, Arrinten Page, and Kijani Wright aren’t even an afterthought in the offense.
Each of them has the skillset to score, but the culture of the roster is to allow the guards to chuck up shot after shot.
In fact, the four players combine to average just 13.3 attempts per game despite three of them averaging over 50 percent from the field.
Instead, Johnson is allowed to chuck up 17 against ASU, 16 against Arizona, and 18 against Stanford, just to name a few instances.
That’s poor coaching and indicates why USC’s offensive efficiency is eighth in the Pac-12, per KenPom, and ninth on a purely field goal percentage basis.
If the Trojans can’t beat Oregon State at the Galen Center, Enfield might as well throw in the towel.
The analytics slightly favor a USC win with turnovers becoming the deciding factor. The Trojans are dead last in the Pac-12 in TOs committed per game and extra possessions will be taken advantage of by the Beavers.
If USC is sloppy with the ball, expect Oregon State to complete the season sweep.
Washington State at Washington
Saturday, February 3
6:00 pm PT, Pac-12 Network
Despite its 12-9 record, Washington is No. 72 in the NET and a respectable 59th in KenPom. The Dawgs have talent across their starting lineup and bring in contributors off the bench.
Keion Brooks Jr. is one of the top scorers in the Pac-12 while Sahvir Wheeler is an elite guard. Moses Wood can get hot from three, as well, and Paul Mulcahy is another pass-first guard who facilitates the offense.
Washington’s main flaw is the lack of a dominant big, at least partially due to Franck Kepnang’s injury. But the Cougars don’t have an elite center to take advantage of the shortcoming.
Oscar Cluff is a solid piece, but he’s not the type to go off for 20 points and become the focus of the offense.
In some ways, the two teams are mirrored.
Isaac Jones is very similar to Brooks and Myles Rice is comparable to Wheeler.
The analytics are identical, too. The two teams have almost equivalent field goal percentages and three-point percentage numbers.
The primary differences, however, are on the defensive end. Washington State has the top field goal percentage defense in the Pac-12 and is No. 10 in the nation in blocked shots per game.
Kyle Smith’s team gets after opponents, contesting every shot while being fundamentally sound from a schematic perspective. There are never easy buckets allowed and all five players on the floor act together as one.
It’s a rare and powerful weapon to have such high levels of defensive chemistry. And it’s one of the main reasons why Wazzu is expected to make the NCAA Tournament this year.
Look for the Cougs to play team defense with extra attention focused on Wheeler to make him as inefficient as possible.
Oregon at UCLA
Saturday, February 3
7:00 pm PT, ESPN2
The Bruins have one of the top defenses in the league and have found themselves on offense. Lazar Stefanovic has scored 15 points or more in five straight games while Adem Bona is averaging 13.8 over the same stretch.
Dylan Andrews has got it together recently, too, scoring 20 points against USC and 18 points against Oregon State in UCLA’s last two games.
The Bruins’ primary flaw throughout most of the season was an inept offense. Now, Mick Cronin’s team suddenly looks capable of beating anyone in the Conference.
The Ducks enter the game tied for first in the Pac-12, yet sit on the outside of the NCAA Tournament bubble. Dana Altman’s group is just 4-5 in the pivotal Quad 1 and Quad 2 matchups.
And facing a UCLA team that’s 133rd in the NET, this game is currently designated as a Quad 2 contest.
Unless the Bruins see their rating drop, a victory at Pauley would be very beneficial to UO’s at-large resume.
To pull off the road win, Oregon must win the turnover margin. UCLA runs such a slow pace and has such an elite defense that extra possessions would be devastating. At the same, the Ducks have to shoot well from three.
If Oregon hits fewer threes and commits more turnovers, it probably won’t walk away with the win. But if UO contains the Bruins’ three-point shooters while minimizing its own turnovers, a victory should be within reach.
Stanford at No. 11 Arizona
Sunday, February 4
5:00 pm PT, FS1
After getting embarrassed in Palo Alto at the end of December, Arizona is out for blood. Playing in front of what should undoubtedly be a hostile crowd, Stanford will have its work cut out for it.
Still, the Cardinal match up well with the Wildcats.
With height across the board and efficient shooters at every position, Jerod Haase’s group has historically been able to frustrate Lloyd’s rosters.
But this isn’t Maples Pavilion.
There’s a reason why Arizona has one of the top home-court advantages in the nation.
The energy from the crowd is arguably worth 20 points per game and has the power to become the decisive blow because of its ability to engineer runs.
There’s something special about 14,000 die-hard fans screaming as loud as they can for their team to put a ball in a hoop. And it’s mostly felt when Arizona is on defense.
Communication becomes hampered, the referees become influenced, and the UA players get a boost of energy.
The practical effect is that Arizona’s defensive rebounding gets even stronger and its ability to create turnovers increases exponentially.
All because of the heightened effort levels that the crowd induces.
And that’s without even discussing what happens on offense.
Any dunks get the crowd riled up while threes can spark a fervor pitch. It all rolls into one with the players shooting efficiently and scoring on the fast break.
There aren’t many programs around the country that have such advantages and it’s fair to describe it as a thing of beauty.
For Arizona to do what it needs to do, the game plan is simple: Defend the three.
Stanford set a program record from beyond the arc in the first matchup and the players know that can’t be repeated. Outside of contesting threes, defensive rebounding has to be emphasized.
The Cardinal are a somewhat poor rebounding group and could get exposed at McKale. Unless Arizona has an off-night shooting, the Cats should deliver a statement win.
Dane Miller’s Game Picks
2023-24 Week 5 Pac-12 Games
|California at Arizona State
Feb 3, Noon PT
|Colorado at Utah
Feb 3, 2:00 PM PT
|Oregon State at USC
Feb 3, 4:00 PM PT
|Washington State at Washington
Feb 3, 6:00 PM PT
|Oregon at UCLA
Feb 3, 7:00 PM PT
|Stanford at Arizona
Feb 4, 5:00 PM PT
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