Upshot from Last Week: Expect the Unexpected
Just when we thought we had it all figured out…
Coming off the most unpredictable and entertaining week in the Pac-12 this year, the race for the Regular Season crown is as wide open as ever. Games that, just a few weeks ago, would have been predictable or one-sided, have turned into shocking upsets.
Without a doubt, Washington State’s sweep of Oregon and Oregon State was the most jaw-dropping result this year. The job Kyle Smith has done in his first season at the helm of the WSU program is inspiring. The Cougars’ revitalization is indicative of the potential the entire conference has, and is evidence of how quickly a turnaround can occur. After the termination of Ernie Kent, the opportunity to lead the Cougars may have been the most undesirable Power-6 opening available. What Smith has done, with his “smart ball” analytics, easily puts him as the front runner for Pac-12 Coach of the Year. If things keep going well, he may even be in consideration for National Coach of the Year honors.
Four and a half hours west, the situation in Seattle couldn’t be more contrasting. What appeared to be another year of dancing has turned into a nightmare. It’s like the Huskies were going to prom with one of the prettiest girls in school, and she turned around and dumped them for a more popular option. While the victory over Oregon State was a solid performance, the devastating defeat to Oregon on national TV was tough to swallow. Washington controlled most of the game and should have won. Regardless, Quade Green’s ineligibility has destroyed expectations for a tournament run, if things aren’t turned around quickly. On the bright side, Isaiah Stewart might end up as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.
While the Cinderella designation for Oregon may not be appropriate due to its recent success, the shoe might just fit in March. On national TV once again, Pritchard delivered a game-winning shot, and Dana Altman’s system proved itself. Down three with just over a minute left, Pritchard knocked down a 27-footer to tie the game. Then, in overtime, with just a few seconds remaining, the senior drained a 34-foot bomb to win the game, elevating his status to God-level. The Altman-Pritchard combination is like Belichick-Brady in their prime. When it’s all said and done, there may not be a more legendary coach-player duo in Oregon history. As for Pritchard, his performance in the NBA could seal his title as the best to ever wear the yellow and green.
In a shocking display of inconsistency, the Oregon State Beavers dropped both of their Apple State games, including a head-scratching 13-point defeat in Pullman. With one of the most upperclassman laden rosters, getting swept on the road like this is unacceptable. Once considered by some to be a dark horse to do damage in Pac-12 play, OSU has turned their season into a crisis. Tres Tinkle and Ethan Thompson were mostly shut down in the UW game, and the Beaver’s defensive performance against WSU was atrocious. With wins over Colorado and Arizona, Oregon State has proven their potential. Discouragingly, the lack of consistency can categorically be put at the feet of the coaching staff.
Down in the desert, Arizona proved how difficult it is to win at McKale Center, sweeping the Mountain schools. Utah hasn’t won in Tucson since 1986, and Colorado hasn’t won in the Old Pueblo since 1965. It’s not as if the games were close either, as UA emphatically dismantled No. 23 Colorado in a 21-point victory, and handled Utah by 16. Max Hazzard emerged as a potential game-changer for the Cats, going 9-16 from deep over the two games. Perhaps more importantly, senior Dylan Smith put together nine assists after recording just 13 in the previous sixteen games combined. The continual production from the upperclassman and bench could make Arizona one of the most dangerous teams on the West Coast heading into March.
While the blowout defeat at the hands of Arizona was disheartening, Colorado did what it needed to do in splitting the Arizona schools. Road sweeps are very difficult to come by, particularly this season where the Pac-12 is improved from top to bottom. Getting a victory in Tempe over Arizona State is nothing to scoff at, and Tad Boyle should be proud of his team’s performance in that game. Putting that aside, there is still more than half the conference season to go, providing ample opportunities for the Buffaloes to win the Regular Season title, as many predicted. To do so, Evan Battey needs to play with more consistency, and Shane Gattling needs to step up when teams lock down Tyler Bey.
On the flip side, Utah appears to have lost its mojo after being swept by the Arizona schools in double-digit blowouts. After the Utes’ non-conference win over Kentucky, it wasn’t difficult to envision a successful Pac-12 season. The unfortunate reality is their experience levels aren’t high enough to handle the rigors of conference play. On top of that, no other team has faced a more difficult schedule to open league play. Timmy Allen can’t do it all, and Both Gach’s sudden cold streak has devastated the young Utes. While they finally return to the Huntsman Center this week, it won’t matter if they continue shooting poorly from three. It may be time for Larry Krystkowiak to emphasize his bench to try and find production, as Alfonso Plummer, Mikael Jantunen, or Lahat Thioune may light a fire under his regular starters.
After a 1-3 start, Bobby Hurley and the Sun Devils needed something to get their season back on track. The 19-point victory over Utah may be exactly what Arizona State needed as it heads into the mid-point of conference play. While ASU battled Colorado to a seven-point loss, moral victories mean nothing in the race for an at-large bid, and it needed a statement win to regain confidence. Luckily for Hurley, Remy Martin has been Mr. Consistent, dropping 25 and 20 against CU and Utah, respectively. His 19.5 points per game puts him in contention for Player of the Year in the Pac-12, and the pull to declare for the NBA Draft at the end of the season gets stronger by the game. Even more than that, his statements to the media in post-game interviews are proof of his leadership and command of the Sun Devils.
Over in the Golden State, USC secured its biggest win of the year in a come-from-behind victory over Stanford. The 21-point comeback was the Trojan’s largest in 23 years, and may be a foreshadow of things to come in the NCAA Tournament. Based solely on roster talent, USC is one of the best teams in the Conference. Inconsistent guard play has hurt them, but Andy Enfield appears to have instilled a belief in his players that they can beat anyone. That belief came to the surface in their sweep of the Bay Area schools, setting the Men of Troy on a path to be dancing in March.
Polarized, Stanford came out of Los Angeles in disbelief, splitting the LA trip. The Cardinal are in a precarious situation, having choked away a substantial lead in the second half of the USC game, putting the onus on Jarod Haase to lead his players by example. Something should have been done from a coaching standpoint to prevent that collapse, and Haase should put the blame on himself. Deflecting criticism away from his players will ensure they bounce back for the remaining six weeks of the regular season, and allow freshmen Tyrell Terry and Spencer Jones to move forward with the same confidence they had coming into that game. In the long run, the split was what the Tree needed in the conference race.
With little to cheer for up to this point, UCLA finally got a home conference win. Though it wasn’t pretty, the victory over California was a positive step. While it will take time to rebuild the Bruin program, taking care of opponents you should beat are important developments in the process.
Similarly, the task of revamping California is an incremental drudge as evidenced by the defeats to both USC and UCLA. Strong leadership from Mark Fox will go far in keeping his players heads up, and salvaging Cal’s season with an upset or two. Though, realistically, the loss in Westwood may have been the only road game the Bears had a shot of winning.
General Outlook: Fireworks May Just be Getting Started
With the Bay Area and Arizona schools facing their rivals once again, the Washington teams taking the dreaded Mountain trip, and the LA programs heading to Oregon, the fireworks may just be starting. At this point, USC and Colorado have the most to gain or lose in their respective games this week.
For Washington, this may be its biggest week of the season, as getting swept on the road likely destroys any remaining tournament hopes that still survive in Seattle. For the Pac-12 as a whole, the Huskies downfall could relegate the league to just five bids.
Anything is possible, but the Big Dance picture is getting clearer.
Upcoming Games (January 15-January 19)
Washington at Utah
Thursday, January 23
5:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Washington’s season is on the line as it starts its Mountain road swing. Losers of five of their last seven, a defeat to Utah would extinguish the final dying hope of an at-large bid. Jaden McDaniels needs to step up and play to his potential, making hard drives to the bucket instead of relying on three’s. Similarly, RaeQuan Battle must efficiently shoot the ball to fill the missing production left by Quade Green, and shouldn’t settle for looks from three. The Utes have lost four straight, and don’t have a conference win since the opener, making this a pivotal game for the direction of their season. Larry Krystkowiak shouldn’t hesitate to go to his bench if his starters aren’t performing well.
Washington State at No. 23 Colorado
Thursday, January 23
7:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Coming off a split in the desert, Colorado needs a home sweep, which starts with taking care of Washington State. Evan Battey can’t have the type of performance he’s had the last few games, and Tad Boyle might make it a point of emphasis to get him the ball down low. The Cougars haven’t proven capable of winning on the road, and the CU Events Center is a tough environment to play. Isaac Bonton and CJ Elleby will need to combine for 50 points if WSU is going to come away with a win. With the way Kyle Smith’s team played last week, this game may end up closer than expected.
USC at No. 12 Oregon
Thursday, January 23
8:00 p.m., ESPNU
In a game featuring two top-tier Pac-12 programs, the Trojans head to Eugene for a showdown with the Ducks. USC is brimming with confidence after an historic come-from-behind win, and Oregon is equally emphatic after an impressive overtime victory in Seattle. Dana Altman’s press defense will test the Trojan backcourt, which has played inconsistent at times. As a result, Andy Enfield may be forced to respond to the Duck defense by making in-game adjustments. Those changes will likely be focused on ensuring Onyeka Okongwu or Nick Rakocevic get easy looks down low. Something has to give, and UO has yet to lose at Matthew Knight Arena this season.
UCLA at Oregon State
Thursday, January 23
8:00 p.m., FS1
After a disappointing road trip in the state of Washington, Oregon State returns to Gil Coliseum for a matchup with the rebuilding Bruins. Mick Cronin already has a win at UW, proving that his team can take down a quality opponent on the road. His Bruins are likely unfazed by the atmosphere inside the arena, and play with enough confidence to get hot from the field. Few are expecting UCLA to pull off the upset, making this somewhat of a trap game for Wayne Tinkle’s squad. If the Beavers aren’t ready for the Bruins’ best shot, it may be a little too close for comfort in the late second half. That being said, Tres Tinkle or Ethan Thompson could turn it into a comfortable victory with a strong combined performance.
USC at Oregon State
Saturday, January 25
2:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Starting off the Saturday slate of games, the Men of Troy square off with the Beavers in a mid-afternoon test. Wayne Tinkle has dealt with inconsistency throughout the conference season, making it difficult to know what to expect from his team. Does the OSU squad who beat Arizona and Colorado show up, or the one that lost to Washington State and Texas A&M? The game plan for USC is fairly simple: limit Tres Tinkle and shut down Ethan Thompson. The focus on those two players should afford Kylor Kelly, Zach Reichle, or Sean Miller-Moore plenty of opportunities to be the difference maker. It’s not as though the Beavers are outmatched, outsized, or out-coached, and the players know the importance of this game for their postseason hopes.
Washington State at Utah
Saturday, January 25
4:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network
It’s not a flashy matchup that will draw the eyes of the West Coast, but this game has the potential to be one of the best of the week. Regardless of what happened on Thursday, both teams have confidence in their ability to win. The Huntsman Center is famous for being a difficult place to play, and Washington State has struggled on the road. Still, the Cougar coaching staff will remind their players what they can accomplish if they do what’s asked of them. Objectively, WSU has the talent to get it done, and a victory would be an important step in Kyle Smith’s rebuild of the program.
Washington at No. 23 Colorado
Saturday, January 25
6:00 p.m., FS1
Tad Boyle and the Buffaloes seek to defend home court in what might be the game of the week. Home sweeps are key to winning the Regular Season championship, and the Buffs are likely gunning for their first of the season, unless something terrible happened on Thursday. Washington is a very talented team that can matchup with the starters CU puts on the floor, but the Huskies have little to no depth. Playing in such high altitude naturally benefits Colorado, and UW’s depth issues creates an extra incentive for Boyle to use that to his advantage. A strong defensive effort should wear down Mike Hopkins’ team, resulting in fatigue, and leading to foul trouble. A Colorado victory would recharge the Buffs as March slowly creeps up.
No. 22 Arizona at Arizona State
Saturday, January 25
6:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network
In what seems like a make-or-break game for ASU, the Territorial Cup makes its last major hoorah of the year in this Saturday night showcase. The Sun Devils were blown out of the gym in Tucson, and will undoubtedly have that result on their mind as they prepare during the week. Remy Martin takes his game to another level when he faces the Wildcats, and Sean Miller knows it. Assigning Josh Green the task of defending Martin may be Miller’s power-move, and transfer James Akinjo will simulate Martin all week in practice, giving the Cats an advantage they did not have last time. Miller’s defensive game plan will also likely focus on Romello White and Rob Edwards, two players that could make the difference for Bobby Hurley.
UCLA at No. 12 Oregon
Sunday, January 26
3:00 p.m., Fox
Another week, another national TV appearance for the Ducks. This time it’s a showcase on Fox against UCLA. Payton Pritchard shines in games like this, and Dana Altman’s teams rise to the occasion. UO’s press defense may be too much for the Bruins to handle, and the game could get it out of hand early. With no other ranked team playing at the same time, and the broadcast on basic cable, a lot of eyes will be watching Oregon. A large margin of victory will go a long way in impressing the East Coast members of the Selection Committee, resulting in a more favorable seed come March.
Stanford at California
Sunday, January 26
3:00 p.m., ESPNU
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