Posted on February 12, 2020
Upshot from Last Week: The Unexpected is Becoming Commonplace
Another week, another twist and turn.
The unpredictable nature of college basketball this season is epitomized in the Pac-12 Conference. With one month remaining before the season finale in Las Vegas, upsets continue to muddy the waters in the race for the regular-season championship.
Emerging as the mid-season favorite, Colorado bucked the trend of unforeseen defeats with a sweep of Stanford and California in Boulder. The Thursday night contest with the Bears was closer than expected, but a win is a win. In all likelihood, the Buffs probably had their eyes on the bigger prize, as Saturday’s matchup with the Cardinal was looming. In a game CU needed to generate separation from the rest of the conference, the four-headed monster of McKinley Wright IV, D’Shawn Schwartz, Evan Battey, and Tyler Bey combined for 65 points and 23 rebounds to secure the seven-point victory over Stanford. The contest was marred by a frightening injury to Oscar da Silva, who managed to leave the court under his own power. The emotion conveyed by Battey, Daejon Davis, and other players on both teams was a remarkable display of humanity that often gets lost in high-level games.
Trending in the opposite direction, Stanford is now without a key starter for an undetermined period. After winning 15 of their first 17, the Cardinal have dropped five of their last six, including a devastating overtime loss to Utah on Thursday. Most bracket projections have the Tree in the field as of this week, but some forward-projecting prognosticators have them missing the tournament, mostly due to their daunting remaining schedule. In the absence of Silva, Tyrell Terry is forced to shoulder an even greater load, and someone needs to step up to keep Stanford’s head above water. Spencer Jones may be the answer, but his inconsistent play has hurt the Cardinal during their losing stretch.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Oregon State took down Oregon at Gill Coliseum in a result that substantially shook up the conference race. The Beavers have now beaten the Ducks three times in a row at Gill, and have walked away victorious in four of the last five contests in the series. What is surprising is OSU’s poor performance up to this point in the conference season. With a roster filled with upperclassmen and one of the best players in the history of the league, a 4-7 record is not acceptable. Wins over Arizona, Oregon, Colorado, and Stanford are great, but the uneven performance of Wayne Tinkle’s squad leaves too many unknowns to predict a Beaver resurgence heading into March.
Over in Eugene, the Ducks have had a few days to gather themselves after losing another game to their in-state rival. Payton Pritchard is now 3-4 against the Beavers, a devastating statistic for the senior who grew up just up the road in the suburbs of Portland. In fairness, both Francis Okoro and N’Faly Dante didn’t play due to injury, but the lack of success on the road in the Pac-12 is becoming a cause for concern. Fortunately, Dana Altman is a future Hall of Fame coach who knows how to adjust his game plans to compensate moving forward.
Hitting on all cylinders at the right time, the Arizona State Sun Devils are quickly making their case for an at-large bid for the third year in a row after sweeping the Los Angeles schools. The 18-point victory over UCLA was impressive, as the Bruins had won four of their last five. Alonzo Verge Jr. went off, scoring 26 points on an efficient 10-16 from the field. Verge followed it up with a 16-point performance against USC in the Sun Devils’ come-from-behind victory over the Trojans. Winners of five of their last six, Bobby Hurley has his team trending in the right direction as March looms just around the corner.
One hundred and nine miles south, Arizona took several steps backward after losing to UCLA by 13 and nearly blowing a 20-point lead to USC. On Thursday, Sean Miller told the media that his team would have learned more if it had lost to the Trojans, and that ominous statement rang true on Saturday night against Mick Cronin’s Bruins. In the 47 year history of McKale Center, no Arizona team had a worse shooting night from the field than the Cats did on Saturday. UA managed to make just 15 shots on a shocking 59 attempts, scoring a season-low 52 points. Worryingly, Nico Mannion failed to register an assist and went 2-14 from the field for just five points. Adding insult to injury, the defeat to UCLA marked the third loss in a row to the Bruins at McKale, a losing streak unparalleled by any other team in the league.
For the Bruins, a split of the Arizona schools met expectations, as things have officially turned around in Westwood. The defensive performance against ASU was an anomaly, and Cronin got his players back on track in the stifling performance in Tucson. Locked in a tie for fourth place, a first-round bye in the conference tournament is a realistic goal, but to do so UCLA needs to finish in the top four of the regular season standings. With a stout defense, the Bruins have as good a shot as any of the other teams currently sitting above them in the standings.
Just down the road, Andy Enfield is pondering what he must do to end the Trojans’ three-game losing streak. Not long ago, USC looked like the team to beat in the Conference, going toe-to-toe with the Ducks and demolishing the Beavers. Flash forward two weeks, and the Trojans look every bit like the team that lost to Temple at the Galen Center. Fortunately, every week brings new opportunities, but the inconsistent guard play is getting out of hand. Jonah Matthews can’t have off nights and Ethan Anderson needs to step up and start hitting his shots. With perhaps the most talented front court in the nation, USC has Sweet 16 potential if they can get back on track.
Over in Salt Lake City, the Utes quietly put together a home sweep of the Bay Area schools. Nothing feels better than an overtime victory, and Utah earned that thrill with an extra period win over Stanford. The Utes followed it up with a dismantling of California, allowing a season-low 45 points in route to a 15-point win. From the view at 10,000 feet, Larry Krystkowiak is clearly building something for the future. And the most important variable for Utah’s resurgence is keeping Timmy Allen for another season. Whatever Krystkowiak needs to do to convince Allen to stay is priority number one. From the ground-level perspective, the Utes have to win on the road to make a legitimate run at the first-round bye in the conference tournament.
In a minor setback to its rebuilding project, California emerged from the Mountain swing with two losses. The performance against Colorado was fantastic, proving what Cal can accomplish if it plays to its potential. Disconcertedly, that performance failed to translate just two days later at the Huntsman Center. Realistically, Mark Fox’s first year is on a knife’s edge, as a better-than-expected start has driven hopes higher, putting pressure to deliver in the final month of the season. A prolonged losing streak would substantially damper the enthusiasm and goodwill generated to this point, and the effect on the recruiting trail could set the program back a year or two.
On the plains of eastern Washington, the Cougars beat the Huskies for the first time in three years. CJ Elleby scored a career-high 34 points, and four WSU starters registered double-digit points. Fleetingly, Washington State fans have just two games left at home to see Elleby in a Cougar uniform, as the talented sophomore’s entry into the NBA Draft is a foregone conclusion at this point. For the team as a whole, it’s unclear how well they will perform on a neutral court in Las Vegas. But as things stand now, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Kyle Smith engineered a victory or two in Sin City. Having already accepted an invitation to play in the CBI, the Cougars will be making their first postseason appearance since 2012 regardless.
Back in Seattle, all hope is lost, or so it seems. Mike Hopkins appears to have lost his team, and his decision to keep a short bench at the beginning of the year is rearing its ugly head. Depth was always an issue for UW, but Hopkins’ refusal to trust his bench in November and December has significantly hurt this year’s team. In the non-conference season, most coaches utilize their role players heavily to gain experience in the hope that they can be used in pivotal situations later in the season. Hopkins chose not to do that, and the result speaks for itself. For a leader who won back-to-back Coach of the Year honors, Hopkins’ coaching mistakes this season are nothing short of shocking. And that’s without mentioning Quade Green’s ineligibility.
General Outlook: At-Large Bid Possibilities Fading
For half the conference, an at-large bid has become a fading possibility. The only realistic chance fifty percent of the Pac-12 has at making the Big Dance is by winning the tournament in Las Vegas. Historically, the automatic birth goes to a team that has a bye in the first round. To secure that bye, a team must finish in the top four of the regular season standings.
With five teams 1.5 games back or less from the third and fourth seed, the battle for the bye is as heated as ever, even as the race for the crown has essentially devolved into a two team race.
No. 16 Colorado at No. 17 Oregon
Thursday, February 13
6:00 p.m., ESPN
In what might be the biggest game of the Pac-12 season, Colorado travels to Eugene for a showdown with the second place Ducks. The winner likely emerges as the favorite to win the regular season title, potentially turning this battle into a de facto championship game. Winners of five of their last six, the Buffs are on a roll and hold sole possession of first place in the conference standings. Perpendicularly, UO has lost its last two and haven’t won a game since January. With the regular-season title on the line, this matchup between the first and second-place teams has all the markings of an instant classic.
Thursday, February 13
6:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Coming off an upset over their rival, Oregon State must guard against a hangover. The Utes haven’t proven able to win away from Salt Lake City, but that’s mostly due to their youth. Objectively, Utah has the talent to pull off the upset, but it needs a strong performance from Timmy Allen. On the other side, with wins over most of the top ranked teams in the league, OSU has the potential to run Utah out of the gym. Tres Tinkle is the obvious catalyst, but Ethan Thompson and Kylor Kelley are equally as important to the Beavers’ success. Both teams need this victory, and whoever wins will be in a much better position heading into the final few weeks of the season.
Okongwu vs. Stewart, Round 2. The two lottery picks square off for what may be the last time in their college careers, depriving college basketball fans of one of the best big men battles in recent memory. While both have lucrative NBA careers ahead of them, the winner of this game will likely be the team with better guard play. The Huskies handled the Trojans convincingly in Seattle, but that was prior to Quade Green’s ineligibility. Since then, the two teams have moved in opposite directions, with UW winning one of its last eight, and USC winning five of its last nine. Still, the Husky defense frustrated the Trojans last time, and that could happen again if Andy Enfield can’t find a way to get his players better shots.
Arizona at California
Thursday, February 13
7:30 p.m., FS1
The Wildcats head to the Bay Area for the first leg of a road trip which they have swept five times in the Pac-12 Era. The Cats have won 11 of the last 12 against California, and since 2009 are 15-6 against the Bears. All that history means nothing, though, as Mark Fox has built a growing resurgence in Berkeley. Matt Bradford is one of the best players in the conference, but he will face a coaching staff whose game plan is to shut him down. Unfortunately, the Bears caught Arizona at a bad time, as the Cats are coming off their worst offensive performance of the season. Sean Miller has likely lit a fire under his players who are itching to prove they are better than the dreadful performances last week.
Arizona State at Stanford
Thursday, February 13
8:00 p.m., ESPN2
Without Oscar da Silva, the Cardinal’s eroding hopes of an at-large bid are even further dashed as their horrendous remaining schedule begins with a test against Arizona State. Bobby Hurley and ASU are peaking at the right time, mostly because the guards have taken their game up a notch. For the Tree, Spencer Jones’ ability to knock down three’s could tip the game in Stanford’s favor. However, the Sun Devils have so many scoring options that even a strong performance from Jones might not be enough to win the game.
Washington State at UCLA
Thursday, February 13
8:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network
The Cougs head to Los Angeles for the first time under Kyle Smith to take on the revitalized Bruins. CJ Elleby is coming off the best game of his career, and WSU may need that type of performance again to walk out of Pauley Pavilion with a victory. For UCLA, Chris Smith could do serious damage to the WSU defense, and Tyger Cambell’s hot-streak is likely to continue. On the other hand, Washington State has done a great job limiting turnovers all season, averaging just 11.7 per game. The X-Factor is the Bruin defense which will test WSU’s ability to take care of the ball.
Washington State at USC
Saturday, February 15
5:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network
No. 16 Colorado at Oregon State
Saturday, February 15
7:00 p.m., FS1
To secure the regular season championship, Colorado must win on the road. Corvallis is not an easy place to win, as the Beavers have victories over Arizona and Oregon at Gill Coliseum this season. On the court, the winner of the guard battle between McKinley Wright IV and Ethan Thompson could set his team on a path to victory. Similarly, the matchup between Kylor Kelley and Evan Battey could go far in determining the outcome. On paper, these two teams are fairly evenly matched, though Colorado has a depth advantage. It may take a tertiary player on the OSU bench to push Wayne Tinkle’s team over the hump, or a strong defensive performance against CU’s stars.
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