Miller: Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Race Tightens with Upsets

Week 14: Upshot From Last Week, Outlook & Upcoming Games

Posted on February 5, 2020

Dane Miller
  By Dane Miller, SportsPac12

Upshot from Last Week: Road Wins Key to Keeping Pace with Leaders

It finally happened.

After four weeks of conference play, the first road sweep in the Pac-12 was finally secured, and by none other than the road-battered Arizona Wildcats. The Cats, who have been tougher away from Tucson in past seasons, lead the Pac-12 in road sweeps since the conference expanded in 2011 with 14. (In case you were wondering, Oregon closely trails with 10, and Utah is third with seven.) With a logjam of teams with three losses each, the program that puts together the most road sweeps may end up as the regular season champion.

Without a true road win at the start of the week, Arizona got it done on the backs of its role players. Jamarl Baker Jr. scored a career-high 17 points against Washington, including the pivotal go-ahead three-pointer with 45 seconds left. Not to be outdone, Stone Gettings followed it up with a 19-point, 12-rebound outing in Pullman over the resurgent Cougars. The 19 points was Gettings’ highest as a Wildcat, and his combined 32 points in the Apple State was easily his best week in an Arizona uniform. Perhaps most importantly, UA has proven it can win even as Josh Green is in a shooting slump, as the touted freshman has stepped up on defense during the dry spell. 

Just outside of downtown Los Angeles, Colorado made a statement with a 21-point shellacking of USC. Tyler Bey led the way with 16 points and was supported by balanced scoring across the board in CU’s best true road win to date. The Buffaloes did drop a head-scratcher to UCLA earlier in the week, but the split ensured Tad Boyle’s squad is half a game behind the first place Ducks. With trips to the Bay Area and Oregon remaining, Colorado can seize the opportunities presented if it plays to its potential. Dauntingly, the Buffs have just two road sweeps to their name in the Pac-12 Era, proving how difficult it is to win back-to-back games away from home.

Equally as important, Oregon came away with a split of the Bay Area programs. The loss to Stanford was a disappointment, even as the Ducks took technical possession of first place after all was said and done. The defeat stung even more, as UO led for a substantial portion of the game, allowing the Cardinal to end the second half on a 31-13 run, snatching the victory away. Most shocking, Chris Duarte and Payton Pritchard combined for an appalling 10-42 from the field. Still, securing the road split was acceptable, and Dana Altman has led his talented team to splits on each road swing this season. With just one more road trip left after the Civil War this week, if the Ducks continue to do what they’ve been doing, they could be cutting down the nets at Matthew Knight Arena for the third time since 2016.  

 

Stanford’s Oscar da Silva averaged 24.5 points last week. | Stanford Athletics

Staying right in the thick of things, Stanford split the Oregon schools at Maples Pavilion, keeping within reach of the regular-season crown behind a career-high 27 points from Oscar da Silva. Unfortunately for the Tree, the five-point loss to Oregon State earlier in the week might go down as the most consequential home loss of their season. Had they not dropped that game, Jarod Haase would be sitting at the helm of the first place team, with a one game lead over the rest of the Conference. Every play matters, and any team can beat anyone, on any given night. Somehow, Stanford has played just three conference road games to this point, and now faces an onslaught ahead of it with swings to Oregon, Washington, and the Mountain schools. If ever there was a time to beat a team you should beat, at home no less, it was last Thursday against OSU.

From one head-scratching program to another, USC’s slow starts at home have morphed into a serious flaw. Andy Enfield made statements to the media admitting that he can’t quite put his finger on what causes the issues at the Galen Center, only that it’s a problem that doesn’t happen on the road. Perhaps the Trojans should stay together at a team hotel the night before games in L.A., focusing their attention solely on the task ahead. Regardless, something needs to be done, because putting up a measly 57 points against Utah is not acceptable. Not only were the Trojans lucky to beat the Utes, but the crushing defeat at the hand of Colorado could also deal a blow to their confidence. With a tough trip to the desert this week, any lingering issues will be exploited by both Bobby Hurley and Sean Miller.

Back up in Northern California, Mark Fox has California on a tear, splitting the Oregon schools last week. With just one loss at home in conference play, to No. 14 Oregon no less, the Bears have put the rest of the Conference on notice when traveling to Berkeley. The two-point victory over Oregon State was pivotal, as everything Fox drilled into his team payed off. No longer are they the doormat of the Pac-12, rolling over without a fight. The tides have changed, the winds are turning, and something big is brewing in Berkeley.

Outside Mick Cronin’s Westwood office on the campus of UCLA, something feels different. The desolate dark age of Bruin basketball may be ending. Cronin has led his team to victory in four of their last five, including last week’s wins over No. 24 Colorado and Utah. What started out as an embarrassing season, with devastating losses on national TV, has turned into a quiet, cautiously optimistic hope for the future. The players have bought in, the staff knows what they are working with, and the fans can sense a brighter tomorrow. Tellingly, all of the Bruins’ victories have come when holding opponents to less than 70, while all 10 of their defeats have come when allowing 70 or more. 

ASU’s Rob Edwards vs. UW | Jennifer Buchanan/USA Today via ASU Athletics

With a puncher’s chance of making the NCAA Tournament, Bobby Hurley and the Sun Devils split their games with Washington and Washington State. The victory over UW was impressive, as Arizona State’s guard-heavy rotation doesn’t match up well on paper with the Huskies roster. Still, the Sun Devils can’t help but feel like they let one slip away against the Cougars. At 4-4 in conference, ASU is just on the outside of the bubble halfway through league play. But all the data, statistical analysis, and NET Rankings in the world mean nothing if the Sun Devils don’t shoot well from the field. The bottom line is they need to play their best basketball for the remainder of the year, and win two games in the Pac-12 tournament to feel comfortable on Selection Sunday.

Out on the Palouse, Washington State dropped just its second home conference game of the season. CJ Elleby appeared to injure his ankle and hip in the Arizona game, and as a result was mentally taken out of the contest, failing to score in the second half. When he came back in, it was clear his injuries were bothering him, and Kyle Smith decreased his minutes as the second half wore on. Isaac Bonton also was a little banged up, but powered through to lead the Cougars with 15 points. The defeat shows how much further the program has to go, and the uphill task of recruiting to Pullman. That being said, there hasn’t been this much hype around the WSU program in nearly a decade, and Elleby’s step-back game winning three over Arizona State is a highlight that will live on for years.

Over in Seattle, not much can be said about the Huskies after getting swept by the Arizona schools. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the team is just not the same without Quade Green. Optimistically, RaQuan Battle has potential to takeover, but he isn’t able to run the offense the way Mike Hopkins needs him to. The simple fact is that UW has lost nine of its last 11, dating all the way back to Christmas Day. Other than North Carolina, there may not be a more dramatic collapse this season.

Nearly as disappointing, Oregon State still hasn’t righted the ship. At 3-7 in league play, something isn’t right. With an upperclassmen-laden roster, and one of the best players in the Pac-12, this shouldn’t be happening. The road victory over Stanford was impressive, but the following loss to California may be one of Wayne Tinkle’s last straws. The split cooled down his seat temporarily, but the heat will turn up again if things aren’t improved quickly.

With much more leeway due to their youth, Larry Krystkowiak and Utah are still learning to play away from home after getting swept by the L.A. schools. The Utes’ record is indicative of the strength of the conference this season, as Utah has wins over BYU and Kentucky, both teams that likely make the Big Dance. With five home games remaining, the clear goal is to win-out at the Huntsman Center and make a run in the Pac-12 Tournament.
   

General Outlook: Pac-12 Race Remains Muddled

With just over one month remaining in the season, the race for the regular season crown is as muddied as ever. Five teams have three losses, and there is no clear-cut front runner. Oregon has the most favorable remaining schedule, while Stanford has the toughest. Without looking too far ahead, two road trips could decide the race: Oregon’s swing to Arizona next week, and Colorado’s trip to Oregon the following week. 


Upcoming Games (February 6 – February 9)

 

     

California at No. 24 Colorado
Thursday, February 6
5:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network

The Bears take the show on the road to Boulder for an early-night matchup with Colorado. The altitude will test Cal’s conditioning, and the Buffaloes rarely lose at the Events Center. On top of that, CU is coming off one of its best wins of the season, and are looking to cement that victory with a statement win. The margin of victory could get out of hand if California can’t get going on offense, and Evan Battey could be a problem in the paint. McKinley Wright IV and Tyler Bey might combine for 40 points or more if Mark Fox doesn’t have a solid defensive game plan. 




 USC at No. 23 Arizona
Thursday, February 6
6:00 p.m., ESPN2

In the game of the day in the Pac-12, USC takes on Arizona at McKale Center where the Trojans haven’t won since 2008. The Wildcats have mostly dominated this series in the Pac-12 Era, going 10-4 since 2011, with two of those losses coming last season. Andy Enfield has never won in Tucson, and the home crowd will do what they can to ensure he doesn’t walk away with his first victory in McKale. It goes without saying, but the Cats play substantially better at home in what can only be described as a hostile, unwelcoming environment. USC will have its work cut out for it, and the battle between Zeke Nnaji and Onyeka Okongwu should be something to behold. 


    

Stanford at Utah
Thursday, February 6
7:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network

A must-win for the Cardinal, this game has the potential to make-or-break the remainder of their season. Apart from the Oregon victory, Stanford has flailed about after dominating the first few weeks of league play. Tyrell Terry’s production has decreased, and Spencer Jones has been nowhere to be found. The Tree’s upperclassman leaders, specifically Oscar da Silva and Daejon Davis, must step up and lead their team to victory. It’s not as if Silva and Davis have to score all the points, they simply need to make the hustle plays, defensive efforts, free-throws, and emotionally lead the team throughout. If Stanford doesn’t get it done, it could find itself out of Tournament projections come next week.


  

UCLA at Arizona State
Thursday, February 6
8:00 p.m., ESPN2

With their tournament hopes on the line, the Sun Devils welcome UCLA into Tempe. The Curtain of Distraction needs to be on point, as the Bruins are on a roll. Mick Cronin knows his team can win on the road, and they won’t be starstruck by the environment. The contrast in the team’s styles is dramatic, as ASU plays a free-flowing, quick transition based offense, and UCLA slows the game down with deliberate offensive sets and stout defense. Whichever team is able to implement its system better will likely win, and a lower scoring affair favors UCLA. 


     

Stanford at No. 24 Colorado
Saturday, February 8
3:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network

The game of the week in the Conference of Champions takes place in Boulder, as Colorado hosts Stanford. A rare Quad 1 matchup at home, the Buffs have a substantial opportunity to improve their resume. The Cardinal are a strong team, with talented freshman and seasoned upperclassmen, creating a unique challenge for Tad Boyle. The Tree can shoot well from three, particularly Spencer Jones and Tyrell Terry, putting an onus on the Buffaloes to shut down the talented freshmen. CU’s game plan may incorporate their size down low, exploiting the smaller Stanford front court, while forcing contested shots from the perimeter on defense. The crowd knows the importance of this game, and are prepared to will their team to victory.


 

 California at Utah
Saturday, February 8
5:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network

Larry Krystkowiak knew this season would be a rebuild, but that doesn’t change the expectation to win at home. Putting aside the result from Thursday night, Utah has one of the best home court advantages in the Pac-12, which should give them the edge in this contest. California has played well in Berkeley, but putting it together on the road is something completely different. For Ute fans, this game certainly has a winnable feel, and the Saturday night vibe should create a good atmosphere in the building. If Utah jumps out to an early lead, it could bode well for the remainder of the game. If things go right, Rylan Jones may have a field day against the Bear defense. 


    

UCLA at No. 23 Arizona
Saturday, February 8
7:00 p.m., ESPN2


In one of the most heated and traditional rivalries in all of college basketball, UCLA and Arizona square off in the first matchup between Mick Cronin and Sean Miller. On paper, the Bruins are significantly outmatched on talent alone, but that disparity can be overcome through coaching. Cronin has drilled his defensive philosophy into his players, and they know what’s expected of them. If UCLA is able to contest shots, and prevent easy buckets, it has a chance of pulling off the upset. On the other hand, a hot night from a role player on Arizona’s bench such as Max Hazzard, Ira Lee, or Jamarl Baker Jr. could spell disaster for the Bruins. 

      

 

USC at Arizona State
Saturday, February 8
7:00 p.m., FS1

USC ends its road trip to the desert with a showdown against Arizona State. The Trojans have managed to land themselves on FS1 quite a few times this year, a fact that bodes well for their continued recruiting upswing. There is a lot of talent in the Phoenix metro area, and a solid win against the hometown team could be what they need to win a recruiting battle here or there. On the court, the one-two punch of Onyeka Okongwu and Nick Rakocevic creates a nightmare matchup for Bobby Hurley. Romello White can’t guard both, putting the responsibility of guarding Rakocevic on Taeshon Cherry or Kimani Lawrence. USC will likely emphasize points in the paint, creating opportunities for passes to the perimeter for dagger three’s when ASU collapses.


    
 
No. 14 Oregon at Oregon State
Saturday, February 8
7:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network
 
The Civil War takes its bitterness to the hardwood when Oregon makes the short drive to Gill Coliseum. Oregon State has won three of the last four, including both games last season, and hasn’t lost to Oregon in Gill since 2017. A Beaver victory this year would do wonders for the remainder of their season, and ostensibly they have the talent to get it done. For a lot of the Duck players, this is their first taste of the Civil War, creating an uneasy lack of experience that could result in a slow start. Fortunately for UO, senior Payton Pritchard and Dana Altman have been here before and know exactly how to get the job done. For OSU, this is one of the few remaining games for Tres Tinkle to cement his legacy and build memories that are never forgotten.

    
 
Washington at Washington State
Sunday, February 9
3:00 p.m., ESPNU
 
The Apple Cup in basketball is the sole game on Sunday in the Pac-12, allowing most of the conference to take a peak at the rivalry. In one of the most upside down turn of events, Washington State may actually be favored to win for the first time in many years. Pullman has become a difficult place to get a road win, but the trip from Seattle is the shortest any team has to make to get there. The performance of Jaden McDaniels could determine UW’s fate, as the highly regarded freshman has sputtered as of late. A Washington defeat could even have repercussions on in-state recruiting, as WSU attempts to make in-roads over the next few seasons.



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