Miller: Early Hoops Review and Thursday Game Previews

Pac-12 hoops is not perceived by the national media as strongly as it was last season

Posted on December 30, 2020

Dane Miller
  By Dane Miller, SportsPac12

If you haven’t paid close attention to Pac-12 basketball this season, consider this your mid-season crash course. Below, I review the nonconference results, assess the big picture, and preview Thursday’s Pac-12 games.


Nonconference review

This much is certain: The Conference of Champions is not perceived by the national media as strongly as it was last season. That’s not to say the Pac-12 is viewed as weak—by any means—but rather, it’s a reflection of last season’s comparative prowess.

And even though March Madness didn’t take place in 2020, the Conference’s revitalized image has mostly transferred into the new year. As things currently stand, the Pac-12 would likely receive six invitations to the Big Dance, with seven teams vying for those spots.

Within the last 48 hours, Arizona announced a self-imposed one-year postseason ban that excludes the Wildcats not only from March Madness, but from the conference tournament in Las Vegas as well.

Evan Mobley | John McGillen/USC Athletics

Putting that aside, COVID has affected the hardwood just as much as the gridiron, causing cancellations and postponements for nearly every team in the Conference. Particularly hard hit were the USC Trojans, who have played in just six games, which in a normal year, would be the equivalent of about two weeks of the season.

But that’s where we are as conference play kicks into full gear.

Entering January, the Bruins are the holders of the best nonconference win, a nine-point victory over Marquette at Pauley Pavilion. The Ducks have a respectable 13-point win over Seton Hall, and are the only Pac-12 team currently ranked in the AP Top 25, sitting at No. 21.

The Trojans have a noteworthy 26-point trouncing of BYU on their record, while Stanford has a strong 18-point victory over Alabama. Not to be left out, Colorado has an 18-point win over Kansas State.

Arizona State, Washington State, and Arizona don’t have a signature nonconference win on their resume, though the Sun Devils have logged victories over Rhode Island and Grand Canyon University, while the Cougars remain undefeated.

Those eight programs, and now seven after Arizona’s announcement, are gunning for the at-large invitations, and one or two could end up being left out. The teams that fail to make the cut have yet to be decided, placing an emphasis on conference play over the next two and a half months.

Only time will tell who ends up dancing.

Big Picture

Assuming the Conference picks up six bids to the NCAA Tournament, the teams currently on the bubble are Arizona State and Washington State.

The Sun Devils return Marcus Bagley, who was absent for a three-game stretch due to injury, setting up ASU for a strong start to January.

The Cougars are the wildcard of the conference race, though the trajectory of WSU’s season will become much clearer after this week. But, in the context of the battle for the at-large bids, Kyle Smith’s program arguably gains the most from Arizona’s self-imposed ban.

And even though Utah has a double-digit loss to BYU to their name, the Utes could insert themselves into the conversation with a strong opening week of conference play.

Thursday’s Games


Arizona State at Washington State

UPDATE: This game has been postponed.

Thursday, December 31st
1:00 pm PT, Pac-12 Network

Despite starting the year 8-0, the Cougars haven’t yet received any national respect. Their schedule was weak, but Kyle Smith had a strong recruiting class and his team would likely be ranked if Washington State had a stronger basketball brand. To change that perception, the Cougs need noteworthy wins from opportunities such as this one, which has been postponed. The Sun Devils are a nationally respected program with a recognizable coach and potentially three NBA Draft picks on their roster. Finding a way to beat Arizona State in Pullman would have been a good first step towards WSU’s at-large bid hopes. At the same time, Marcus Bagley is back for Bobby Hurley, and a victory at Beasley Coliseum would have been expected.

Stanford at Oregon State

Thursday, December 31st
3:00 pm PT, Pac-12 Network

After a bumpy finish to the Maui Invitational, Stanford is on a four-game winning streak, including a 1-0 start to Pac-12 play. Oscar da Silva has arguably emerged as the mid-season favorite to win the Conference’s Player of the Year award, while Jerod Haase’s stout defense remains the hallmark of Cardinal basketball. Continuing the momentum in Corvallis should be in the cards, with a Beaver roster laden with Junior College transfers and lacking the intangible moxie to pull out close games. On the other hand, OSU’s three losses are by four, three, and one point, respectively. All it takes is one game to find the mojo to turn the season around.

Utah at UCLA

Thursday, December 31st
4:00 pm PT, FS1

As the preseason media pick to win the regular season race, the Bruins had high expectations coming into the year. Those lofty honors may have built in some complacency within the roster, resulting in a poorer start to the season than most expected. But at 1-0 in conference play, there’s nothing stopping Mick Cronin from meeting those expectations, though Chris Smith must break out of his slump. The Utes are 2-5 at Pauley Pavilion since joining the Pac-12, and will likely need a strong night from Timmy Allen, Alfonso Plummer, and Rylan Jones to pull off the upset.


Arizona at Washington

Thursday, December 31st
5:00  pm PT, Pac-12 Network

The Wildcats’ postseason ban may prevent them from playing in the Conference Tournament, but it doesn’t stop them from winning the regular season championship. In that sense, every matchup from here until the end of the season will be treated as a March Madness game by Sean Miller and his players. The X-Factor such motivation brings should be a consistent theme to the rest of UA’s games, and good luck to whoever is on the other side of the court against them. Historically, Miller has struggled against zone defenses, but this year’s version of the Huskies don’t run Hopkins’ zone as effectively as in year’s past. Regardless, the Arizona players should come out with more grit, commitment, and effort than in any game so far this season.

Colorado at USC

Thursday, December 31st
7:00 pm PT, ESPN2

usc logoIn a matchup featuring two projected NCAA Tournament teams, the Buffs travel to the Galen Center, where they have found success since joining the Pac-12. Tad Boyle is 5-2 in the arena with two-straight wins and the accompanying swagger to make it a third. The success CU has enjoyed against USC at home is the opposite of the Buff’s results against Arizona in Tucson. And coming off a loss to the Wildcats, Boyle will undoubtedly remind his squad of those facts. But standing in the way is Evan Mobley. The projected lottery pick and true freshman is a beast inside, presenting a matchup nightmare that Boyle must game-plan around.

California at No. 21 Oregon

Thursday, December 31st
7:00 pm PT, Pac-12 Network

Down N’Faly Dante and Will Richardson, Dana Altman continues to prove why he is a Hall of Fame coach. On a six-game winning streak, the Ducks first home conference game features a matchup with Matt Bradley and the Bears. The press-zone employed by Altman should frustrate the Cal offensive attack and generate plenty of turnovers leading to transition buckets. The sole mitigating factor that may prevent a convincing Oregon win is the impending game on Saturday against Stanford. But Altman didn’t get this far by letting his players overlook opponents. Look for the Ducks to show the rest of the Conference why they are the only team currently ranked in the Top 25 with a statement victory at MKA.

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