Posted on February 5, 2020
Upshot from Last Week: Elite Teams Standing Out at Midpoint
Approaching the midpoint of the conference season, the elite teams in the Pac-12 are becoming clearly defined. Apart from USC and Oregon, there may not be a school that moves beyond the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Colorado, Arizona, and Stanford are the clear second tier, but each have been plagued by inconsistent play, or have struggled on the road.
In one of their most impressive weeks in recent memory, the Trojans dominated Oregon State and took No. 11 Oregon to double-overtime. Andy Enfield’s team substantially outmatched the Beavers, and had the athletes to go toe-to-toe with the Ducks. USC can point to its recent upswing in recruiting as the catalyst to this year’s success, and Enfield has his team believing they can take down anyone, on any night. With one of the most talented front courts in the country, an experienced senior point guard, and quality depth, the Trojans are loaded for March Madness. On top of that, the emergence of freshman guard Ethan Anderson is the icing on the cake.
Similarly, though certainly more expected, Colorado made a statement with double-digit victories over Washington and Washington State. The dismantling of Isaiah Stewart and the Huskies was impressive, as was shutting down CJ Elleby and the Cougars. The Buffaloes have the potential to reach the Sweet 16, but need to prove they can win away from home. Five of their first seven games have been in Boulder, while seven of their next eleven are on the road. Due to their strong NET ranking, Tad Boyle’s squad could end up as a No. 5 seed or higher, if they secure road wins. With trips to Oregon, USC, and Stanford on the docket, the quality of CU will be proven over the next month.
As predicted, Dana Altman and the Oregon Ducks continued their dominance with a sweep of the LA schools. While the double-overtime win over USC may have been a little too close for comfort, the experience gained in those types of situations may be the best thing Altman could have hoped for. With the NCAA Tournament almost visible on the horizon, the Ducks continued success adds fuel to the fire. There may not be a more confident team on the West Coast, and UO’s resume is easily one of the best in the country. The 96 points dropped on UCLA was Oregon’s third-highest output of the season, and all pistons of its engine are firing to perfection. At this point, anything less than the Elite 8 would be disappointing.
|ASU’s Remy Martin drives against Arizona. | ASU Athletics|
Down in the desert, Arizona blew a 22-point lead to rival Arizona State. Nico Mannion played a season-low 25 minutes due to foul trouble, and the Wildcats received just eight points from their bench. Compounding the problem, the Cats turned the ball over an astounding 18 times, while giving up 12 offensive rebounds. Questionably, Sean Miller benched Max Hazzard for the entire second half, despite the grad-transfer coming off his best week in a Wildcat uniform. When it comes down to it, starting three freshman has taken its toll, as UA has yet to win a true road game. Of Arizona’s six losses, five have been away from McKale Center.
Over in Berkeley, Stanford came up short against California in arguably the biggest shock of the week. The Cardinal have now lost back-to-back games, and their confidence appears to be rattled. Tyrell Terry and Daejon Davis combined for only 22 points, while the Tree’s bench contributed just six. Perhaps most concerning, Stanford registered a head-scratching five assists, and turned the ball over 15 times. Jarod Haase might be on the brink of losing the best season of his tenure in Palo Alto, as the shine from their strongest start in nearly a decade begins to wear off. Most bracket projections still have Stanford in the tournament, but trending in the wrong direction.
On the rise, Arizona State secured a Quad 1 victory over Arizona in the largest comeback win of the Bobby Hurley Era. In a testament to his coaching, the Sun Devils never gave up, playing with confidence to recover from their poor start. The crowd played an important role, and Remy Martin did what he needed to do, scoring 24 points on 10-17 shooting. Rob Edwards and Alonzo Verge Jr. also stepped up, as the trio combined for 52 of ASU’s 66 points. With a strong NET ranking, and some well-earned favorability with the Selection Committee, Arizona State has a growing chance of an at-large invitation. Heading into February, there may not be a team with more to gain in the Pac-12.
To the surprise of all but the most stubborn California fans, the Bears have emerged as an unexpected success. While Mark Fox hasn’t yet secured a victory away from Haas Pavilion, Cal remains unbeaten at home. The success in Berkeley is evidence of the program Fox is building, and if things go right on the recruiting trail, California could rise from the ashes. Not only was the win over Stanford important for the confidence of his players, but it also may go far in convincing local Bay Area recruits to stay home. After all, the first year in a coach’s tenure is all about setting the foundation for recruiting. At 9-10 overall, and 3-3 in conference play, Fox has the Bears exactly where they need to be.
|Utah’s Riley Battin celebrates a moment vs Washington. | Utah Athletics|
In a series it desperately needed, Utah took down both Washington schools, tasting the sweet flavor of victory after losing four games in a row. Rylan Jones averaged 17.5 points in the sweep, and is drawing legitimate comparisons to Payton Pritchard. The freshman is built and plays similar to Pritchard, plus his role as the Utes starting point guard is easily comparable. Realistically, Jones’ development over the next four years could turn Larry Krystkowiak’s team into a legitimate contender for the conference crown. For the remainder of this year, Utah needs to figure out how to win away from the Huntsman Center, and the onus is on Jones to get it done.
Comparatively, UCLA has seen slow and steady improvements from week to week. While the Bruins were blown out by Oregon, they managed a four-point victory over Oregon State in Corvallis. With road victories over Washington and Oregon State, Mick Cronin has instilled confidence in his players, laying the groundwork for future success. His team appears to have finally bought into the expectations on defense, and are playing looser on offense. Chris Smith is still the key, but Jake Kyman may be the spark UCLA needs to notch a few more upsets. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Bruins won a game in the upcoming Pac-12 tournament, even as the lower seed.
Trending in the opposite direction, Oregon State has lost five of its last six after getting swept at home by the LA schools. In what looked to be a promising season at the start of January, the Beavers have taken several steps back, and appear to be floundering without direction. Inexplicably, OSU has victories over Arizona and Colorado, further muddying the waters as to what’s turned the program south. Strikingly, Wayne Tinkle’s players were clearly out-gunned against USC, showing the wide gap in recruiting between the top and bottom of the Pac-12. Objectively, the Beavers didn’t look like they belonged on the same court, and though they mounted a valiant comeback attempt, the result has generated serious questions about Tinkle’s future.
Equally concerning, Washington has relegated itself to the bottom of the conference standings. Since Quade Green’s ineligibility, the Huskies are 1-5, completely removing themselves from NCAA Tournament projections. When it comes down to it, Mike Hopkins must shoulder the blame for his starting point guard’s academic ineligibility. It’s his job as head coach to ensure his players are going to class, and getting their work done on road trips. His failure to monitor Green has destroyed this year’s team, which was on pace for another Round of 32 appearance. Almost as concerning, Jaden McDaniels hasn’t played up to expectations, averaging just seven points over the last three games. On the positive side, Isaiah Stewart is one of the most NBA-ready players in the nation.
While getting swept at the hands of the Mountain schools wasn’t ideal, Washington State has nothing to be ashamed of at this point of the season. Isaac Bonton and CJ Elleby are one of the better duos in the Pac-12, and Kyle Smith is building something special. Road victories are hard to come by, especially at Utah and Colorado, though the margin of defeat to the Utes was questionable. The most important thing is to continue defending their home court, and the Cougars have the chance to do that this week.
General Outlook: Pac-12 Could Put 6-7 Teams in Tournament
Five teams from the Conference of Champions are currently projected to make the NCAA Tournament, but a sixth could sneak in with a strong finish to conference play. The door is even open for an unexpected winner of the Pac-12 Tournament to secure the automatic qualifier without taking a bid away from the currently projected teams.
Luckily for the conference, the NET rankings of each team provide ample opportunities to make an impression on the Selection Committee.
Upcoming Games (January 29-February 2)
Arizona State at Washington State
Wednesday, January 29
8:00 p.m., ESPNU
If Arizona State expects to continue to generate momentum toward an at-large bid, it can’t lose this game in Pullman. Washington State has defended home court like their lives depended on it, securing one shocking result after another. Kyle Smith will have his players ready for a fight, and the extra long travel time to Pullman will give the Sun Devils a lot to think about. Rob Edward and Alonzo Verge Jr. need to combine for at least 30 points, and Remy Martin will likely need to score 20 or more for an eighth-straight game. If ASU does come away with the victory, it will have something on its resume that not even Oregon has.
No. 11 Oregon at California
Thursday, January 30
6:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Undefeated at home, California welcomes Oregon to Berkeley for a showdown with significance in the race for the Regular Season conference crown. The Bears haven’t faced a stronger opponent at Haas Pavilion, creating a challenge that can only be met with a strong defensive performance. If Cal makes every basket a challenge, and shoots well from three, it’s not outlandish to think this game ends up closer than expected. On the other hand, Chris Duarte has been on fire for the Ducks. If he is hot from three, UO could win this one running away.
Arizona at Washington
Thursday, January 30
6:00 p.m., ESPN2
In a game that used to be circled at the beginning of each year, Arizona and Washington square off in an anticlimactic match in Seattle. The Cats still don’t have a true road win, putting extra pressure on UA’s young freshman, especially since the Huskies are shorthanded. Nico Mannion is coming off one of his worst performances as a Wildcat, and is motivated to bounce back. On top of that, the game is on ESPN2 which provides an opportunity for all the freshman to show the nation their NBA potential. The result could be a close, hard-fought game that comes down to the wire.
Utah at USC
Thursday, January 30
6:30 p.m., FS1
Playing just their third conference home game, USC returns to the Galen Center for a date with Utah. The Trojans have exceeded expectations to this point, and can’t let their foot off the pedal by taking a night off. Rylan Jones and the Utes have regained their confidence after winning back-to-back games, and Timmy Allen is one of the best players in the Pac-12. Any decrease in the intensity levels exhibited by USC in the previous few games will be taken advantage of by Larry Kryskowiak. Therefore, Andy Enfield must guard against his players looking past this game and becoming complacent. In short, this has all the markings of a trap game.
Oregon State at Stanford
Thursday, January 30
8:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Both Stanford and Oregon State are reeling, and whichever team loses this game will be devastated. The Cardinal have all but lost their swagger from the beginning of Pac-12 play, and the Beavers don’t have direction after losing five of their last six. Something has to give, and the home court advantage favors the Tree. Fortunately for the Beavers, they have the athletes to matchup with the Cardinal, and Maples Pavilion isn’t exactly a hostile environment. Daejon Davis needs to step up and lead his team by example, facilitating the offense by distributing the ball. In tough times, a team’s top upperclassman is often the person who rights the ship.
No. 20 Colorado at UCLA
Thursday, January 30
8:00 p.m., ESPN2
Tad Boyle and the Buffs head to Los Angeles for game one in their road swing. UCLA has improved over the last few weeks, but doesn’t have a signature home win in conference play. Mick Cronin’s defense-first mentality will be tested by CU’s seasoned starters, who have a talent and athletic advantage. The two coaches have personalities that seemingly clash, creating potential for a coaching rivalry that could linger over the years. Any hard-fought plays or questionable calls could get both coaches animated, especially if the crowd is into it, making for an entertaining game.
Oregon State at California
Saturday, February 1
1:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network
In the first game of the Saturday matchups, Oregon State takes on California in Berkeley. Putting aside what happened on Thursday, both teams are confident in their ability to walk away with a win. The matchup between Matt Bradley and Tres Tinkle is the storyline, and optimistically both will perform as expected. The tertiary players on both squads could determine the outcome, especially Ethan Thompson on the OSU side. If the Beavers lose this one, there may be some rumblings in Corvallis about whether or not a new coach is needed.
No. 11 Oregon at Stanford
Saturday, February 1
3:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Oregon heads to Palo Alto for a battle with Stanford at Maples Pavilion in a game that could shape the title race. A Duck victory would add to their slew of Quad 1 wins, while a Cardinal victory would get their season back on track. Dana Altman knows how to win on the road, and Payton Pritchard won’t be phased at all. Stanford doesn’t have the athletes to matchup with Oregon, creating the possibility of a larger-than-expected margin of victory. Jarod Haase must prepare his team for UO’s press, and a significant number of turnovers could put this game out of reach before Stanford is able to respond.
Arizona at Washington State
Saturday, February 1
5:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network
In what may be a make-or-break game for Arizona, the Wildcats journey to Pullman for a night test against Washington State. Even if the Cats manage to win in Seattle, dropping this contest would create a firestorm in Tucson. Zeke Nnaji should have a field day against the Cougars, who won’t be able to come close to matching the athletes UA has on the floor. The upperclassman and bench players are key for Arizona, especially Dylan Smith and Max Hazzard. If WSU still comes away with the victory, UA’s season might be dead in the water.
No. 20 Colorado at USC
Saturday, February 1
7:30 p.m., FS1
In the game of the week in the Pac-12, USC hosts Colorado at the Galen Center. This is the most important home game of the year so far for the Trojans, and a victory would likely catapult them into the Top 25. The Men of Troy have an athletic advantage, and may have more quality depth, providing a substantial opportunity to secure a Quad 1 win. For CU’s chances of winning the regular season title, this game is a must-win. The trio of Tyler Bey, McKinley Wright IV, and Evan Battey need to combine for 60 points or more, and a supporting role player has to step up to provide unexpected production. On the other side, the guard play of USC will likely determine its success, particularly the ability to shoot efficiently while distributing the ball to their front court.
Arizona State at Washington
Saturday, February 1
7:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Bobby Hurley leads his team into Seattle for a nightcap against the Huskies. ASU’s challenge is to slow down Isaiah Stewart while containing Jaden McDaniels. Romello White needs to step up and accept the defensive challenge, as he is one of the few players in the conference who can matchup with Stewart. Remy Martin and the Sun Devils’ ability to knock down three’s could be the deciding factor, as UW’s defensive scheme forces teams to beat them from deep. Fortunately for Hurley, knocking down threes is the strength of his team.
Utah at UCLA
Sunday, February 2
As the lone Pac-12 game on Sunday, UCLA squares off with Utah at Pauley Pavilion. The two teams seem fairly equal in talent, and Utah has struggled mightily on the road, giving a slight advantage to the Bruins. The clash of styles presents an interesting matchup, where Utah likes to push and UCLA wants to grind the game out with a slow pace. A Bruin victory could jumpstart a late season resurgence, or at the very least improve their seed in the Pac-12 Tournament. Similarly, a Ute win would electrify the young team with confidence in themselves moving forward.
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