Posted on January 1, 2020
Non-Conference Season in Review: Unfulfilled Expectations
The Pac-12 secured a handful of noteworthy wins, and significantly improved upon last year, but seemed to fall short in the end of the non-conference season. Unable to maintain the success it enjoyed in the first two weeks, the Conference of Champions appears to have relegated itself to four or five bids to the Big Dance.
While year-over-year improvement is a positive sign, the teams perceived to be at the top have disappointed or underwhelmed, while the middle tier teams haven’t played consistent enough to create tournament buzz. As of now, there is only one team generating legitimate expectations of a deep run in March.
It would be one thing if the freshmen talent was concentrated on one or two teams, but the even distribution across a handful of programs is a sign that slowly, but surely, the Conference is being rebuilt.
After sifting through the dust, the picture isn’t all that bad. A renaissance may be just over the horizon.
Upshot from Last Week: A Mixed Bag
The home stretch of non-conference play was a microcosm of the first two months of the season. There were resume-building wins, head-scratching performances, and embarrassing defeats.
Colorado turned heads with an overtime victory on national TV over then No. 13 Dayton. D’Shawn Schwartz knocked down a three as time expired, and the Buffs secured their biggest win of the season. Once a Flyer commit, this game was personal for McKinley Wright IV. Boo’s rained down on the poised guard whenever he possessed the ball, and he answered their anger with a 29-point performance, willing his team to victory. Tad Boyle’s squad followed it up with a 45-point demolition of Iona.
Continuing their winning ways, USC took down LSU in a come-from-behind nail-biter. The Trojan’s attempted an unsustainable 31 threes, but Jonah Mathews led the way with 15 points and three assists to secure their second win over a Power-6 school. The result boosted an already confident team, now itching for national respect. The Men of Troy ended December with an uneven 13-point win over Florida Gulf Coast without Onyeka Okongwu who sat out with an ankle sprain. Okongwu sat out as a precaution, and will play in their Conference opener. The victory bolstered their unbeaten streak to five as they head into the new year.
Dana Altman and the Oregon Ducks struggled with Texas Southern, only managing a six-point win over the darlings of the SWAC. Every season the Tigers go on the road for almost all of their non-conference games, making them unafraid of playing in Matthew Knight Arena. TSU even beat the Ducks last season, though not many of the current UO players were on that team. Theoretically, it may have been a case of overlooking and underestimating, but the performance gives pause to the aura Oregon has generated this season. Regardless, the Ducks snapped out of their funk, beating Alabama State by 41 and rising to No. 4 in the latest AP Poll.
With little fanfare, the Washington State Cougars put together their fifth and sixth wins in a row, beating Incarnate Word and Arkansas Pine Bluff. Kyle Smith has quietly built his team a little respect heading into Conference play, though their level of competition has been the weakest of any team in the Pac-12. That being said, no team in the Conference is familiar with Smith’s style of play, giving the Cougs a rare advantage over each team they will face.
On the other side of Washington, the Huskies traveled to Hawaii, returning with a disappointing second-place trophy. The Dawgs looked unstoppable against Ball State, but allowed Hawaii to stick around long enough to make it a game. Still, heading into the championship match against Houston, UW looked primed to head home from the Islands with an unblemished record. That would not be the case, as the Cougars clawed their way out of a deficit to beat the Huskies by four. Until Mike Hopkins gets more production from his bench, it is difficult to envision Washington getting beyond the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Stanford underwhelmed in the final week of December, escaping with a three-point win over San Diego, and then going cold in a 16-point defeat to Kansas. The Cardinal have just two losses in non-conference play, but have played inconsistent at times against lesser opponents. Most Tournament projections have the Tree in the field, though more uneven performances could change that fast.
Ending their non-conference season on a low note, the Arizona Wildcats stumbled to St. John’s on a neutral court. Something isn’t right with the Cats who have lost three of their last four, and have yet to post a resume-defining victory. Nico Mannion has lost his shooting touch since suffering a back injury in late November, and Arizona’s upperclassman haven’t picked up the slack. Fortunately for Sean Miller, the new year provides a reset for his young team to get back to their early season form.
Similarly, Bobby Hurley’s Sun Devils have taken a step back from their initial level of performance. Arizona State dropped a game in Tempe to Creighton, but followed it up with a win over Texas Southern. Unfortunately, Romello White suffered an ankle injury in the TSU game, putting his availability into question as Pac-12 play begins. What once looked like a promising start to the season has turned into a dogfight as ASU battles to get back to the Big Dance for the third year in a row.
In what is becoming a common theme, the Utes posted a shocking result. This time, it was a 28-point defeat to No. 13 San Diego State. Coming off its biggest upset in several years, Utah was unable to beat two ranked opponents in a row. The lack of consistency is damaging to a Ute team that has some of the best wins of any team in the Conference. Larry Krystkowiak’s team is young, but after half a season the freshmen are no longer afforded the excuses they were given at the start of the year.
Perhaps most surprising, Tres Tinkle and the Beavers lost by 15 to a struggling Texas A&M team. Though it was a true road game, the loss crushed any at-large bid hopes Oregon State had from non-conference play. A one-man show is not a sustainable system, especially in the Conference season, and someone other than Tinkle needs to step up and play with consistency if OSU is going to have a shot at the NCAA Tournament. Ethan Thompson clearly got the message, scoring 25-points in a blowout win over North Dakota.
Despite their storied history, if you took the name off the front of their jerseys you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between UCLA and a bottom-tier mid-major. What’s happening in Westwood is almost unprecedented, as emphasized by their latest defeat to Cal State Fullerton. The Bruins are on a three-game losing streak, having lost to North Carolina a week before the embarrassing defeat to the Titans. No amount of free publicity by Bill Walton can change the talent level on this year’s roster. Ideally, the players fully commit to Mick Cronin’s system before the Pac-12 tournament begins in March, allowing them to make a run at the automatic birth to the Big Dance.
Congruently disappointing, Mark Fox and Cal ended December with a sour taste. Losers of seven of their last nine, the defeat to Boston College may sting a little harder. The Bears were ahead most of the game, and were in a position to come away with the victory. The Eagles put together a late run which Cal was unable to stifle, snatching a winnable game away from Fox’s struggling team. An undermanned Harvard then strode into Berkeley, winning by eight in a game in which they were up by double-digits for a majority of the time.
General Outlook: Pac-12 Play Will be Telling
It all starts in Week One.
Noteworthy Upcoming Games (January 2-January 5)
Oregon State at Utah
Thursday, January 2
5:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Conference play starts off with a bang, as neither Oregon State nor Utah can afford to lose this game. Both are on the outside of the bubble looking in, but not as far outside as some may think. The Utes must defend their home court, and have yet to lose a game at home this season. On the flip side, a road win would set OSU on a path to a high seed in the Conference tournament come March.
No. 4 Oregon at Colorado
Thursday, January 2
6:00 p.m., ESPN2
USC at Washington State
Thursday, January 2
7:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Two of the hottest teams in the Conference of Champions square off in a widely underestimated battle. Both are on winning streaks, and one will come away with a lot of confidence in the direction of their program. USC has faced much stiffer competition, and a loss would be a shock to most of the Conference. Still, no current Pac-12 team has faced Kyle Smith’s system, and the Cougs have CJ Elleby who is good enough to start on most other teams in the division. Get your popcorn because this will be a great one.
Thursday, January 2
8:00 p.m., ESPN2
The Bears have won back-to-back games in Maples Pavilion dating back to 2018, but this is a much improved Stanford squad. Jerod Haase has the Cardinal rolling, their only two losses coming to the No. 3 and No. 11 teams in the country. Cal’s Matt Bradley needs to score 25 or more, and a role player like Grant Anticevich must have his biggest game of the year to pull off the upset. For the Tree, Tyrell Terry should play loose and free. Under no objective analysis is Cal expected to win, and a loss would devastate Stanford’s at-large bid expectations.
No. 4 Oregon at Utah
Saturday, January 4
2:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network
In another blockbuster game early in the Conference season, the Ducks face off with the Utes at the Huntsman Center. Utah has several noteworthy non-conference victories, and are likely just on the outside of the bubble. Larry Krystkowiak needs this win to force the Selection Committee to take note of the Utes. Unfortunately, nobody knows which one of his teams will show up. Their inconsistency is his Achilles heal, and their youth and inexperience is the cause. On the other end of the spectrum, Oregon is led by senior Payton Pritchard who has Final Four experience.
Arizona State at No. 25 Arizona
Saturday, January 4
6:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network
The Territorial Cup’s iteration on the hardwood pits two reeling teams against each other. Whoever comes away with the win will feel as if their season is reborn, while the loser will be left searching for answers. Unlike in previous years, this game has some implications for recruiting as ASU’s recent upswing continues. Remy Martin is the offensive key for the Devils, and Arizona’s Zeke Nnaji must take advantage of opportunities in the paint with an absent or hampered Romello White. A defeat would send an already anxious Wildcat fan base into full blown panic.
Oregon State at Colorado
Sunday, January 5
3:00 p.m., ESPNU
The Beavers travel to Boulder for the second leg of their mountain trip, arguably the most difficult road trip in the Conference. This time they face a better opponent in the Buffaloes who are already slated for an at-large invitation by the national prognosticators. To come away with the victory, the one-man show of Tres Tinkle must be supported by Ethan Thompson and Kylor Kelley. For Colorado, Evan Battey should take advantage of his size and strength down low while kicking out passes to the perimeter for three point specialist D’Shawn Schwartz.
USC at Washington
Sunday, January 5
7:00 p.m., FS1
In a highly anticipated showdown reserved for national TV, the Trojans and Huskies do battle in Seattle for what likely determines first place in the Pac-12 after Week One. Though its early, the result could swing the Conference race away from Washington if it doesn’t come away with the win. Conversely, USC is itching to get back to the NCAA Tournament, and a road win here would be a great resume win for its post-season expectations. Regardless, Isaiah Stewart and Onyeka Okongwu, arguably the two best freshman in the Conference of Champions, face each other for the first of two matchups this season.
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