Miller: Pac-12 Title Run Still Up for Grabs

Week 16: Upshot From Last Week, Outlook & Upcoming Games

Posted on February 19, 2020

Dane Miller
  By Dane Miller, SportsPac12

Upshot from Last Week: Colorado Loss a Missed Opportunity

Great moments are born from great opportunities.

With the potential to seal the regular-season championship, Colorado collapsed in the late second half in Eugene, allowing Oregon to win another game at Matthew Knight Arena. The defeat was crushing, but the Buffs followed it up with a dominate performance against Oregon State, securing the pivotal split. Still, if CU fails to win the regular season crown, Tad Boyle may point back to this game and wonder what could have been. Regardless, with one last home stand, Colorado remains in a favorable position to win at least a share of the conference championship.

Back in Eugene, the victory over Colorado kept Oregon alive in the race for the regular season title, and rekindled hopes of several other teams in the Pac-12. The comeback was emblematic of Dana Altman’s team, as the players never gave up and always believed they could win. While the inconsistent play is concerning, UO has put itself back in position to make another deep run in March with a sweep of the Mountain programs. Peaking forward, Altman faces his biggest test of the season this week with road games in Arizona and the championship race on the line. 

For the first time in the Pac-12 Era, Arizona State walked away from a road trip with a sweep, extending their conference win streak to five games, longest since 2009. The Sun Devils won both battles by five points, grinding out the victories behind Remy Martin’s 23 points per game. The program’s identity has been established by Bobby Hurley, and their success is only going to grow over the next few years. For the remainder of this season, ASU is just half a game out of first place and has the chance to potentially jump into the top spot with a home sweep.

Similarly, Arizona swept the Bay Area programs after defeating Stanford for the 20th time in a row and California for the 12th time out of the last 13. The win brought the Wildcats’ road sweep total to two, and 15 since the conference expanded in 2011. In the process, Zeke Nnaji displayed his lottery-pick potential and made his case for Freshman of the Year. If the Cats can defend McKale Center this week, they may find themselves as the favorite to win the crown. 

 

USC’s Daniel Utomi shoots against Wazzu. | John McGillen/USC Athletics

Not to be forgotten, the USC Trojans ended their three-game skid by defeating both Washington schools without star-freshman Onyeka Okongwu. The two wins were confidence boosters, as most of the Trojans’ success has revolved around Okongwu. Emphatically, Daniel Utomi caught fire against Washington State, knocking down five threes and scoring 23 points in the victory. The guard play for USC has been frustratingly inconsistent, but the increased responsibilities given to the backcourt were taken in stride, bringing the Men of Troy to within one game of first place. 

Without much fanfare, UCLA swept the Washington schools, including a nail-biting overtime victory over Washington State. The wins kept the Bruins within one game of first place as they head on the dreaded Mountain trip this week. More importantly, the Bruins are lurking just outside the pivotal third and fourth spots in the standings. Securing either position would give UCLA the coveted bye in the first-round of the conference tournament, significantly increasing their chances of winning the automatic berth. What seemed like a lost season just a month ago has turned into a growing chance of making the NCAA Tournament. Mick Cronin likely needs to win out and make the championship game in Las Vegas to have a shot, but with the way the Bruins are playing, that doesn’t seem like an impossible task. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Stanford has completely collapsed over the last month. Even with Oscar da Silva miraculously returning after missing just one game, the Cardinal weren’t able to defend their home court against Arizona. Earlier in the week, the Tree also lost to Arizona State, bringing their losing streak to four games, and seven of their last eight. The gut-punch has rocked the program that once held the highest NET ranking in the Conference of Champions. Even so, all the Cardinal need is one strong week to get back on track, and struggling Washington presents the best opportunity yet.

In a display of head-shaking inconsistency, Oregon State handled Utah easily and were then blown out by Colorado. It would be one thing if this were a one-off occurrence for OSU, but these up and down performances have been occurring all season. Interestingly, the All Access coverage by FS1 in the Colorado game provided a poignant revelation: Wayne Tinkle’s assistant coaches are far less vocal in timeouts than Boyle’s. For comparison, Boyle has four NCAA Tournament appearances during his tenure, and Tinkle has just one. That’s not a coincidence. The quality of the staff matters, making the difference with in-game adjustments. From an objective point a view, it appears that Tinkle’s assistants aren’t comfortable enough to speak up and provide their opinions. That’s not a good reflection on the culture in Tinkle’s program.

OSU’s Kylor Kelley looks to shoot against Utah last week. | Hallie Utter/OSU Athletics

Symmetrically, something is not right in Salt Lake City as Utah was defeated easily in both contests in Oregon. Road struggles are common and widespread this season, but the margins of defeat away from the Huntsman Center are becoming too questionable to overlook. Whatever operating procedures Larry Krystkowiak has for road games must be tweaked, even if that means breaking away from his tried-and-true methods. The talent on the Utes’ roster is too great to let the same thing keep happening, and the shocking disparity between home and away performances is appalling. That being said, Utah is a wildcard on a neutral court in the upcoming tournament in Sin City. 

Something similar could be said of Cal, as Mark Fox has stumbled in February after starting off league play stronger than expected. Matt Bradley is one of the best players in the conference, but the one-man show can’t do it all, and Bradley was unable to score enough to topple UA and ASU. And while it may be harsh to expect better performances considering the state of the program when he took over, Fox has raised the bar enough to generate increased expectations moving forward. Optimistically, Paris Austin will consistently score around 15 points per game and Grant Anticevich will knock down at least 10. If all three put together strong performances, California has a puncher’s chance of winning a game in Las Vegas. 

Up in Pullman, the only concern is Isaac Bonton’s health. The talented guard suffered a lower-body injury in the overtime defeat to UCLA, and sat out the USC game. If Bonton is out for an extended period of time, Washington State’s chances of ending the season on a high note are substantially dampened. In the meantime, CJ Elleby may have to take his game to an even higher level, if that’s possible. With two home games this week against the Bay Area programs, it’s reasonable to expect WSU to secure the sweep and set themselves up for a decent seed in Las Vegas. 

In the Emerald City, Washington is coming off another poor weekend after getting swept in L.A., extending its losing streak to eight games. The Huskies were leading both matchups at halftime, but squandered away another late lead each time. Encouragingly, Jaden McDaniels has played much better over the past three games, averaging 16.6 points per contest. In what may be a silver-lining, eight of UW’s last 12 defeats have been by five points or less, showing how close the Huskies are to getting back on track.

 

General Outlook: Tight Conference Race could Turn this Weekend

In one of the tightest conference races in recent memory, six schools are within one game of first place. This week, Oregon travels to Arizona and the Los Angeles programs head to Colorado, trips that will go far in determining the regular season title. On top of that, the battle for the first-round bye in the conference tournament is intertwined. 

With at-large bids on the line, and Big Dance seeding just around the corner, each remaining game has an NCAA Tournament feel. 

 

Upcoming Games (February 19 – February 23)
 

    

California at Washington State
Wednesday, February 19
7:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network

The Cougars have done a great job this season of defending home court, and the matchup with the Bears is one of the few games Kyle Smith was expected to win at the start of the year. Even so, California is significantly better than anticipated, eliminating the preconceived notion of a WSU victory. Realistically, this may be CJ Elleby’s second to last game in Pullman, and he should play with an extra level of motivation to end his career on a positive note. For the Bears, Paris Austin and Grant Anticevich need double-digit scoring nights in support of Matt Bradley for Cal to walk away with a win. 


 

Oregon State at No. 24 Arizona
Thursday, February 20
5:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network

Returning to McKale Center where they haven’t won since 2010, Oregon State seeks to sweep Arizona for the first time in a decade. History is not on the Beavers’ side, as they are 3-14 against the Cats since the conference expanded, and Sean Miller and company are itching for revenge. Last time around, OSU couldn’t miss from the field and Arizona gave up in the mid-second half. That’s unlikely to happen in Tucson due to UA’s improved defense and the hostile home crowd. To make matters worse for the Beavers, Zeke Nnaji has been on a tear over the past month, putting the onus on Wayne Tinkle to build his game plan around stopping the talented forward. 


     

No. 14 Oregon at Arizona State
Thursday, February 20
6:00 p.m., ESPN

In easily the biggest game of Arizona State’s season, and perhaps the biggest home conference game in a decade or longer, the Oregon Ducks walk into Desert Financial Arena with a share of first-place on the line. The dual between Payton Pritchard and Remy Martin could determine the outcome, but the secondary battle between Alonzo Verge Jr. and Will Richardson is just as important. The Sun Devil’s home crowd provides a substantial X-Factor which could artificially increase their three-point shooting percentage, a deadly combination that may be just enough to seal the victory. On the other hand, Oregon’s ability to take care of the ball, force turnovers, and knockdown three’s could tip the scales in its favor. 


   

USC at No. 18 Colorado
Thursday, February 20
6:00 p.m., ESPN2

The NCAA Tournament hopes of USC can be sealed with a victory over Colorado in Boulder, making this matchup the biggest game of the Trojans’ season. Andy Enfield knows what’s on the line, and so do his players. Similarly, Tad Boyle and his squad understand they must win this game to continue to have the best chance of winning the regular season title. Both teams are loaded with talent and have depth, setting the stage for one of the best games of the season. Historically, USC is 2-6 all-time in Boulder, but have won two of the last three games at the Events Center. Either way, the victorious team has a substantially better chance of winning the regular season title.


     

Stanford at Washington
Thursday, February 20
7:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network

Whichever team walks away with the victory will end its losing streak and may turn its season around just in time for the Conference tournament. Philosophically, each team’s identity is its defense, likely resulting in a low scoring affair. UW’s defensive prowess is a system-based zone with lanky athletes who clog gaps, while Stanford gets it done through aggressive face-guarding, intelligent switches, and collapsing on big men in the paint. Both programs desperately need the win, foreshadowing a hard-fought, highly contested struggle.


 

 UCLA at Utah
Thursday, February 20
7:30 p.m., FS1

Back at the friendly confines of the Huntsman Center, Utah returns to where it plays its best basketball. The Utes’ ability to win at home will be tested by a resurgent UCLA program that has built its identity on hard-nosed defense. While offensive performances come and go, defense always travels and Mick Cronin’s players won’t be bothered by the road environment. As such, Utah’s ability to efficiently score on the Bruin defense likely determines the game, and a lower scoring affair favors UCLA. For Cronin’s goal of a first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament, this game is a must-win that would simultaneously keep them within striking distance of first-place. 


    

UCLA at No. 18 Colorado
Saturday, February 22
1:00 p.m., CBS

In a nationally televised game on basic cable, Colorado has a chance to show the East Coast media what its made of. Worryingly, UCLA is no stranger to playing on stages like this, and Mick Cronin will have his players locked in to take down the Buffs on their home court. On top of that, the added pressure of the regular season title race makes this one of the most important games of CU’s season. Realistically, players only get a few opportunities like this in a lifetime, and the best rise up to the occasion to secure their legacy. For McKinley Wright IV, this is one of those moments. 


      

California at Washington
Saturday, February 22
3:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network

In the middle of the afternoon, Hec Ed Arena should be buzzing with belief that the Dawgs can secure this one. With superior athletes and a stout defensive system, Mike Hopkins must find a way to lead his team to the victory. Fortunately, Jaden McDaniels has emerged from his slump to give UW a viable option outside of Isaiah Stewart. Particularly, McDaniels’ ability to knock down perimeter shots could change the game, and the length of  Washington’s defense could frustrate California into forcing bad shots. On the flip side, the Bear trio of Matt Bradley, Grant Antecevich, and Paris Austin might need to combine for 60 or more to walk out of Seattle with the win.


    
 Oregon State at Arizona State
Saturday, February 22
5:00 p.m., ESPNU
 
The Beavers end their Arizona swing with a game in Tempe against the Sun Devils, a difficult place to get a win. Earlier in the year, Bobby Hurley led his squad to victory in Corvallis, doing it mostly behind perimeter shooting. While the Beavers will be looking for revenge, nobody knows which OSU team will show up, as their inconsistency is unmatched by any other team in the league. Regardless, ASU has been on a tear, and even if it receives OSU’s best shot, Remy Martin and Alonzo Verge Jr. could single-handedly ensure a Sun Devil victory.

    
 
No. 14 Oregon at No. 24 Arizona
Saturday, February 22
6:00 p.m., ESPN
 
Rivalries tend to bring out strong performances from both teams, and the Oregon-Arizona matchup is no different. The Ducks have won the last four games in the series, including last year’s showdown in Tucson, but the Cats have an exponentially better team this year. As always, the Tucson crowd will hit fervor-pitch if UA opens up an early lead, and the 14,000+ fans will lose their minds if the Cats go on one of their classic runs. In the end, the success of Arizona’s bench may determine the outcome, as Jamarl Baker Jr., Ira Lee, and Max Hazzard intermittently spell the starters. In all likelihood, Sean Miller’s defensive game plan may be simple: shut down Oregon’s perimeter players and force UO to win the game in the paint.

    
 
USC at Utah
Sunday, February 23
3:00 p.m., ESPNU
 
On the right side of the bubble, Andy Enfield and the Trojans could nearly seal their invitation with a win, but to get it done they need strong guard play from Jonah Matthews, Ethan Anderson, and Daniel Utomi. Unfortunately for USC, Salt Lake City and the Huntsman Center are notoriously difficult to win in, and Utah’s home performances this season have increased a notch. The Utes get it done with pure effort plays and stout defense, along with Timmy Allen’s scoring and Rylan Jones’ passing. While the NIT may be on Utah’s radar, the fact remains that it could still make the NCAA Tournament by winning the Pac-12 Tournament. To do so, it needs the best possible seed it can get, and winning this game would significantly improve its chances.

    
 
Stanford at Washington State
Sunday, February 23
5:00 p.m., ESPNU
 
It’s only fitting that the last home game of CJ Elleby’s WSU career is the last game of the week, late enough on Sunday night for most of the conference to take a peak. The prolific sophomore is surely off to the NBA at the end of the season, though he hasn’t officially announced his plans. Reading between the lines, the writing is on the wall and Cougar fans should come out in droves to see off one of the best players in their program’s history. What Elleby has done in his two brief years in nothing short of iconic, and his success in the NBA could reshape the image of Washington State basketball for years to come.



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