Posted on January 22, 2020
Upshot from Last Week: Contenders Beginning to Separate
The cream rises to the top.
After the second week of Pac-12 play, there are signs of separation between the middle and top of the Conference. It’s still very early and a lot can change, but the first handful of games have set the stage for a competitive title race with a crowded midfield.
Most shockingly from Week Two, Washington was swept by the Bay Area schools in two hard fought games. Starting Point Guard Quade Green was ruled academically ineligible before the Stanford game, devastating the Huskies who were already struggling with a lack of depth. His loss is a substantial blow to Mike Hopkins, as UW is no longer a shoe-in to the NCAA Tournament, especially after the embarrassing overtime loss to California.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Bears not only took down Washington but also handled Washington State. The home sweep was Mark Fox’s first and second conference victories as head coach of Cal, an early feat that will significantly jumpstart recruiting in the talent-rich Bay Area. Matt Bradley averaged 21.5 points in the two games while shooting over 50%, demonstrating his NBA potential as he mulls entering the draft after the season.
Unfortunately for Washington State, the trip to Berkeley and Palo Alto proved how difficult it is to win on the road. While the confines of Pullman will likely furnish additional shocking upsets, the remaining road games on the Cougars’ schedule will be an immense struggle. WSU didn’t look competitive against Stanford, though the second half performance was commendable, given the halftime score. Still, if Kyle Smith can’t lead his team to a road victory at Cal, it seems unlikely he will be able to win a single road game in the Pac-12 this season.
While home victories over California and Washington State are nothing to brag about, Stanford secured its first big win in Pac-12 play, defeating Washington by six in Maples Pavilion. Yes, Quade Green did not play, but the Cardinal showed fortitude to come from behind, stealing a game they probably should have dropped. Freshman Spencer Jones provided the spark, draining four pivotal three’s to push the Tree to victory. While the Stanford hype-train may not be quite ready to leave the station, this week’s tests in Los Angeles will show just how much of a threat Jarod Haase’s team really is.
In a pivotal home stand for Oregon, the Ducks took care of business to maintain sole possession of second place in the Conference of Champions. With a gusty performance, Payton Pritchard led his talented team to a one-point overtime victory over Arizona, and followed it up with a nine-point win over Arizona State. Dana Altman’s squad is firing on all cylinders, moving up to No. 8 in the latest AP poll. It’s difficult to envision UO losing any of its remaining home games, setting the stage for a heavyweight battle with Colorado for the Regular Season conference title.
While the loss at Oregon may have been expected for Arizona, the following defeat at the hands of Oregon State raised significant questions about the Wildcats heading into March. It’s the middle of January and the Cats don’t have a true road win, an unacceptable statistic for a team that expects an at-large invitation to the Big Dance. While Nico Mannion and Josh Green have at times played inconsistent, Zeke Nnaji has emerged as UA’s “go to” player who will make-or-break Sean Miller’s season. Regardless, if Arizona’s upperclassman continue to play poorly, it won’t matter how well Nnaji, Mannion, or Green play.
With their season arguably on the line, Arizona State came away with a split of the Oregon schools, beating Oregon State and playing Oregon close. The draw shows how dangerous the Sun Devils are when they shoot well from the field, especially from three. The victory over the Beavers may revitalize their confidence, as they finally get their first home conference games of the season, after an unreasonable three games away from the Bank. Remy Martin continues to prove he is one of the best players in the Pac-12, averaging 26.5 points in the road swing.
Though the defeat to Arizona State was unexpected, OSU followed it up with a resounding victory over a talented Arizona team. The Beavers appeared to outmatch the Wildcats, playing hard while taking advantage of their size and length. The zone defense stifled the potent Wildcat offense, exhibiting the quality of Wayne Tinkle’s team if they play to their potential. The upperclassman leadership of Tres Tinkle and Ethan Thompson should pay dividends the remainder of the year.
In their only game of the week, the USC Trojans dispatched rival UCLA to notch the first win in the Cronin-Enfield rivalry. Star Freshman Onyeka Okongwu had his lowest output of the season, but Senior Nick Rakocevic stepped up to fill the void. Andy Enfield’s team was more athletic and talented, setting the table for the Trojans to potentially dominate the rivalry over the next few years, as Enfield continues to recruit at a high level. While USC’s front court is immensely talented, its guard play will determine its success in the final two months of the season.
Perpendicularly, UCLA doesn’t have the talent to make mistakes and still win games. Committing 19 fouls and putting the Trojans on the line for 21 attempts, while simultaneously shooting 23% from three, is not going to get it done. Even so, the Bruins’ talent disparity can be overcome by effort and tenacity, which is likely Mick Cronin’s goal as they head toward the Conference tournament.
In another rivalry game, Colorado blew Utah out of the water in a 39-point drubbing. CU played like the team that was picked to win the Pac-12, demonstrating its upperclassman leadership in a trouncing of the youngest team in the Conference. Evan Battey led the way with a double-double, 17 points and 10 rebounds on an efficient 8-11 from the field. While the win was impressive, Tad Boyle should be weary of a hangover as his team heads to Arizona for their first road test of the conference season.
Comparatively, the Utes have not caught a break in their early-season schedule, having faced the Oregon schools and Colorado. While the performance against the Buffs was embarrassing, the fact that Timmy Allen only scored seven points may be a silver lining. It’s not as if Utah played great and was still blown out, but that doesn’t change the fact that CU put up 91 points. If anything, it humbled a Ute squad that has significant potential waiting to be unleashed.
General Outlook: Postseason Coming into Sharper Focus
As each week goes by, the NCAA Tournament picture gets clearer. As we stand now, five or six teams from the Pac-12 likely get invitations to the Dance.
Once a surefire pick, the Huskies have potentially played themselves out of the bracket, opening the door for Oregon State or USC. Similarly, Arizona’s slow-burning collapse could provide an additional opportunity for either the Beavers or Trojans to sneak into March Madness.
Either way, the Conference season is in such an early stage that a single game could turn the entire race upside down, and a single weekend could knock teams in or out of at-large bid consideration.
Upcoming Games (January 15-January 19)
Stanford at UCLA
Wednesday, January 15
7:00 p.m., Pac-12 Networks
The Cardinal head to Los Angeles for their first road test in Conference play. UCLA has the capability to beat Stanford, but must play mistake-free. The Stanford trio of Tyrell Terry, Daejon Davis, and Oscar da Silva need to meet their season averages, while unselfishly sharing the ball. Above all, the Tree can’t afford a slow start on offense. That being said, the outcome of the game could boil down to which team plays better defense.
Utah at Arizona
Thursday, January 16
5:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network
The Utes continue their difficult start to Pac-12 play with a road game at Arizona where they haven’t won since 1986. The Cats have lost five of their last seven games this year, but are 12-2 against Utah since the Conference expanded in 2011. To break the losing streak, the Utes need to shut down the trio of Nico Mannion, Zeke Nnaji, and Josh Green, while knocking down three’s consistently. Timmy Allen’s offensive efficiency will likely make-or-break Utah’s chances of pulling off the upset.
In a clash on national TV, Colorado heads to Tempe for a showdown with Arizona State. The Sun Devils are coming off a split of their Oregon trip, and the Buffaloes are playing in their first road conference game. Bobby Hurley knows the importance of winning at home, and will have his team hyped to take down a ranked opponent. Symmetrically, Tad Boyle’s experienced team won’t get flustered by the crowd, and knows how to handle itself if ASU jumps out to an early lead. This game has the all the makings of a classic that could come down to the wire.
No. 8 Oregon at Washington State
Thursday, January 16
6:00 p.m., FS1
California at USC
Thursday, January 16
7:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Coming off a sweep, California looks to continue the momentum against the talented Trojans. This is a game USC can’t lose if it expects to continue to generate NCAA Tournament buzz. As always, the guard play of Andy Enfield’s team will be key. If everything goes right, Onyeka Okongwu could have a monster game.
Oregon State at Washington
Thursday, January 16
8:00 p.m., FS1
Washington is reeling from the loss of Quade Green, and Oregon State is frothing with confidence after demolishing Arizona. The contrast between the direction of the two programs could not be more striking, setting the table for a gritty, hard-fought battle. Each team runs a stifling zone defense, which may result in a low scoring affair. The home crowd in Seattle could be the X-Factor to a Husky victory, but that might be negated by an efficient performance from Tres Tinkle.
No. 20 Colorado at Arizona
Saturday, January 18
11:30 a.m., Fox
In arguably the biggest game of the week, Colorado heads to Tucson for a showdown with Arizona on Fox. CU hasn’t beaten UA at McKale Center since joining the Conference of Champions in 2011, going 0-7 over the past nine seasons. The home crowd will be raucous as ever, as they know a victory would be the biggest win of UA’s season. On the other hand, a loss could send Sean Miller’s team into an irrecoverable death spiral which may have serious consequences on the recruiting trail. In more ways than one, Arizona’s season is on the line.
No. 8 Oregon at Washington
Saturday, January 18
12:45 p.m., CBS
Oregon squares off with Washington on CBS in another significant road test for Dana Altman’s Ducks. UO has experience in high-level road games on national TV, and won’t be overcome by the spotlight. Without Washington’s Quade Green, this matchup loses a substantial portion of its flare, but Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels are two lottery picks who can make up for the lost production. Oregon’s ability to force turnovers could be the deciding factor, but UW’s zone defense could frustrate the Ducks’ offensive attack. Even so, if UO is hot from three it could get ugly.
Oregon State at Washington State
Saturday, January 18
1:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network
The tried-and-true method of success in the Pac-12 is to win at home and split on the road, making any road sweeps achieved feel like icing on the cake. For Oregon State, they can’t think about what happened earlier in the week in Seattle, and must focus on beating Washington State. The Cougars already have an upset victory over UCLA in Pullman, which should put Wayne Tinkle on notice to avoid an embarrassing defeat.
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