Posted on February 26, 2020
Upshot from Last Week: Red-Hot Sun Devils Dart to the Top
Raise your hand if you predicted this one.
With two weeks remaining in the regular season, Bobby Hurley and the Arizona State Sun Devils hold sole possession of first place in the Conference of Champions. ASU emerged as the leader after sweeping the Oregon programs in Tempe, and now control their own destiny in the final four games of the year. The Sun Devils claimed first-place with a seven-game conference win streak, their longest in 39 years, which has simultaneously shifted Hurley into the favorite to win Coach of the Year. Most impressively, Arizona State took down Oregon even as Remy Martin had an off night. In Martin’s absence, Rob Edwards dropped 24 and Alonzo Verge Jr. put up 26, willing the Sun Devils to one of their biggest home conference victories in the Pac-12 Era. Never having won a Pac-12 title, their final four games might be the biggest in program history.
Nearly a mile high in the Rocky Mountains, UCLA shocked the nation with a victory over Colorado. The Bruins had been playing great, but not many were giving them a shot to take down CU on its home court. That didn’t matter to Mick Cronin and his players, especially after coming off a win at the dreaded Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City earlier in the week. Putting the noise aside, Cronin led his team to a come-from-behind victory, securing a statement win for the Selection Committee to mull over as they begin to generate their at-large invitations. If the season were to end today, UCLA would have a first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament, exponentially increasing its chances of winning the automatic birth.
In just the nick of time, Stanford may have saved its season with a road sweep in Seattle and Pullman. What appeared to be a lost year suddenly was reinvigorated with life, rekindling March Madness hopes that were nearly extinguished. A single catalyst may be behind their rebirth: Spencer Jones. The freshman finally emerged from his shooting slump, draining seven threes over the two games, while missing just five from deep. Jones’ three-point scoring was noticeably absent in the Cardinal’s long losing stretch, and his prolific shooting was a key part of their non-conference success. His newfound touch electrifies his teammates with confidence, providing the missing link for the Tree’s offense.
Some things never change: Old Faithful erupts as expected, the tides come in and out, and the Oregon Ducks secure road splits. As constant as the sun’s rising, UO has split every road swing this season, sticking to the tried-and-true method of “win at home, split on the road.” To get it done this time, Payton Pritchard scored a career-high 38 points in Tucson, leading his team to an overtime victory against Arizona. The legendary senior must have had a bad taste in his mouth after fouling out against Arizona State earlier in the week, halting the comeback he was leading in Tempe. Regardless, there aren’t many players in the country who have the green-light from their coach to take the shots Pritchard does, and his ability to knock down long threes in clutch moments likely makes him the Player of the Year in the league.
Picked by many in the preseason to win the title, Colorado has its hands full just to avoid playing on Wednesday in Las Vegas. On the positive side, the Buffs lit the nets on fire in the second half of the USC game, coming from behind to notch a four-point victory over the Trojans. Flash-forward two days, and CU was in control of UCLA in the second half, apparently on its way to reclaiming a share of first-place. Mercilessly, Colorado’s shots stopped falling, and UCLA snatched the victory away in front of 10,000 fans. The defeat potentially prevents the Buffs from winning the regular season crown, due to the conference’s tie-breaker rules. But with several key games remaining, that could change overnight. Still, holding a strong resume and the Conference tournament ahead of it, CU has numerous opportunities to get back on track. If things go right, Colorado could return to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 51 years.
Similarly, Arizona is locked in a tight battle for the pivotal first-round bye in Las Vegas. The Cats dropkicked Oregon State out of the building, but two days later suffered one of the most heart-wrenching defeats at McKale Center in recent memory. In a tied game with two seconds remaining in regulation, Josh Green stepped to the line with a chance to be the hero. The freshman missed both free throws, and the game headed to overtime. Then, down one, with one second remaining in OT, Jamarl Baker Jr. hurled a full-court pass to Christian Koloko, who was fouled and sent to the line. Needing to hit just one free throw to force double overtime, the seven-foot freshman clanked both shots, sending the dejected 14,500 fans back to their cars. The defeat was the Wildcats’ fifth in a row to Oregon, rocking a city fed up with losing close games.
Over in L.A., the flu-bug hit the Trojans at the worst possible time, keeping Nick Rakocevic out for most of the Utah game. His absence substantially hurt USC, as they were unable to emerge from the Huntsman Center with a victory. Even Onyeka Okongwu looked off, unusually missing free-throws and fumbling the ball around the rim. The defeat in Salt Lake City, along with the collapse earlier in the week in Boulder, ensured the Men of Troy a certified spot on the “Bubble Watch” camera during the Selection Show. Even so, like many other teams in the league, the final three games are the most important of their season, with the potential to make-or-break their tournament hopes.
Up in Corvallis, Oregon State is coming off another inconsistent week which saw it lose both games on the road, albeit in drastically different fashion. On Thursday, Tres Tinkle was ejected from the Arizona game, resulting in a lopsided 26-point defeat in Tucson. In keeping with OSU’s up-and-down season, the Beavers followed it up with a fantastic performance against Arizona State in Tempe. Tinkle scored 25, and Ethan Thompson put up 20, but the Beavers couldn’t sink the final shot which would have won them the game. Still, the bounce back performance provides momentum to take down rival Oregon in Eugene this week.
In the Pacific Northwest, Washington finally ended its nine-game losing streak with a 35-point drubbing of California. It remains to be seen what the victory does for Mike Hopkins’ team, but at the very least it ended a horrendous six week winless stretch. And while the Dawgs dropped a game to Stanford earlier in the week, the momentum the Cal victory provides could spark a late-season turnaround. One thing seems certain: Nobody wants to play talented UW in Vegas.
Out on the Palouse, the Cougars were swept by the Bay Area programs, and Isaac Bonton remained out with a hip injury. Bonton’s absence has a glaring effect on CJ Elleby, as there isn’t a viable second scoring option to draw defensive attention away from the prolific scorer. As a result, Elleby struggled mightily from the field, going 11-37 during the home stand, unceremoniously ending his career at Beasley Coliseum. While nothing is official yet, WSU fans may never get another opportunity to watch Elleby play in Pullman.
Riding a four-game losing streak heading into Pullman on Thursday night, Cal emerged with its first conference road victory of the season, defeating Washington State by nine. Paris Austin led the way with 19 points, and Mark Fox locked in his first Pac-12 victory away from Berkeley. Though the second game of the Apple State swing was a 35-point blowout in Seattle, the victory in Pullman was a substantial step forward in the development of the program.
General Outlook: Top Five Teams Still Tussling for the Title
Not many games remain in the season, but the race for the regular season championship is far from over, and as contested as ever. Three teams are just a half-game out of first place, setting the stage for a potential shared title.
This week, the Arizona schools head to L.A., and Colorado travels to the Bay Area. Just as much of a wildcard, Oregon hosts Oregon State in a matchup the Ducks have struggled with over the last two seasons.
At this stage, any of the top five teams could take the crown.
Upcoming Games (February 26 – March 1)
Utah at Stanford
Wednesday, February 26
7:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Plain and simple, the Cardinal can’t afford to lose this game. The Tree are coming off a road sweep that revamped their March Madness hopes, but that could all go out the window if they stumble against the Utes. Spencer Jones finally got his perimeter shooting back on track, and Stanford needs him to continue his hot streak from three. Reverting back to their old ways could allow Utah to stay in the game long enough to give the young Utes enough confidence to pull off the upset. And while Larry Krystkowiak isn’t fighting for an at-large bid, he is doing all he can to secure the best seed for the conference tournament, and to potentially garner an NIT bid.
Thursday, February 27
6:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network
The Buffaloes stride into Haas Pavilion, where the Bears have played significantly better this season. Unfortunately for Cal, Tad Boyle has his players fired up to get their first road sweep of the season, starting with this game. CU has better athletes and a depth advantage, but a strong defensive performance from California could negate the disparity enough to keep the game close. There are no easy road wins in conference, a fact well known to both programs, and the Bay Area swing is no different. When all is said and done, this is a trap game that could sneak up on the Buffs if they aren’t prepared.
Desperately needing a win to get their at-large bid hopes back on track, the Trojans face the Wildcats at the Galen Center in a pivotal test for both programs. USC has relegated itself to the bubble, putting an onus on securing a resume-building victory before the season ends. Last time, in Tucson, Arizona opened up a 20-point lead, only to squander it away before eking out a five-point victory. In that game, Onyeka Okongwu dominated the Cats, eating them up in the paint, while providing the Trojans a blueprint. As always for USC, guard play will determine its success, particularly that of Jonah Matthews. Similarly for Arizona, the role-playing bench players have the potential to make-or-break the Cats’ chances.
Oregon State at No. 14 Oregon
Thursday, February 27
8:00 p.m., ESPN2
Winners of four of the last five in the series, Oregon State has a chance to ruin Oregon’s shot at an outright regular season title. Wayne Tinkle knows the damage a defeat would do to the Ducks, and there isn’t much more motivation he could give his players than the spoiler-opportunity that looms for them. For Payton Pritchard, this game is beyond personal. His team’s struggles against OSU is a confounding statistic, one of the few blemishes on his record. Even so, the senior point guard can turn that around with a resounding victory at Matthew Knight Arena. But to do so, he needs help from Chris Duarte and Will Richardson. In the end, the perimeter shooting and defensive effort of the three guards may determine the game for UO.
Arizona State at UCLA
Thursday, February 27
8:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network
In control of their own destiny, ASU takes on UCLA in what may be one of the biggest games in program history. The Sun Devils have never won a Pac-12 title—a far cry from the Bruins’ 31—setting the stage for a classic David vs. Goliath matchup. Fortunately, Arizona State is no David, as the four-headed monster of Remy Martin, Alonzo Verge Jr., Romello White, and Rob Edwards are almost unstoppable when they’re all clicking. And while ASU’s depth of scoring options can be difficult to stop, the Bruins specialize in tenacious defense, having built their identity around shutting down opposing teams. In some ways, this battle is more like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. Something has to give.
Washington State at Washington
Friday, February 28
6:00 p.m., FS1
In a rare Friday night matchup in the Conference of Champions, the Apple Cup enters its final chapter on the hardwood this season. The Huskies are coming off their first win in nine games, and the Cougars have lost their last four. From a pure momentum standpoint, UW has the advantage, but all the statistics and trends can usually be thrown out of the window in rivalry games. In reality, Washington’s zone will force WSU to be patient, or risk an empty possession after a forced shot. Washington State’s ability to slow down Isaiah Stewart will go far in determining its success. For CJ Elleby, this game has always been personal, providing extra motivation to beat his hometown team.
Utah at California
Saturday, February 29
3:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network
In a battle between two programs fighting for the eight seed in the conference tournament, Utah and California face off for what should be an even, hard-fought game. The Utes haven’t figured out how to win on the road, and the Bears have defended Haas Pavilion better than expected this season. By default, the advantage lies with Cal, but Timmy Allen has recently got his swagger back, which could tip the scales in Utah’s favor. On the other hand, Matt Bradley will have something to say about that, setting the stage for an old-fashioned showdown between two of the best players in the Pac-12.
Arizona State at USC
Saturday, February 29
5:00 p.m., ESPNU
A pivotal game for both teams, but for different reasons, the Sun Devils and Trojans square off at the Galen Center. A victory for USC could potentially ensure a March Madness appearance, while a win for ASU could secure at least a share of their first Pac-12 title. Fortunately for the Trojans, their roster matches up with the Sun Devils better than any other team in the conference. Specifically, the Men of Troy have the guards to stick with Bobby Hurley’s players, while their front court provides Andy Enfield a noteworthy advantage. It may come down to Onyeka Okongwu and Nick Rakocevic’s offensive efficiency, but Enfield’s game-plan to slow down Arizona State’s offense could prove just as pivotal.
In another matchup that will shape the conference race, the Wildcats head to Pauley Pavilion for a rivalry game with the Bruins. UCLA has won three of the last four in the series, including the showdown in Tucson earlier this season. But much of that can be attributed to a horrendous shooting night by UA. Due to a strange scheduling quirk, this will be just the second game Arizona has played in Westwood since 2016. Most of the Wildcats are unfamiliar with the arena. Nonetheless, the talented freshman trio of Nico Mannion, Josh Green, and Zeke Nnaji will be extra motivated to shine in the bright lights of Los Angeles, where their success could push the Cats over the hump to a critical road victory.
If things went right earlier in the week, Stanford could almost lock in its at-large invitation with a win over Colorado. To do so, Tyrell Terry, Oscar da Silva, and Spencer Jones have to play to their full potential on offense. Defensively, the Tree need to utilize their hard-nosed style of man-to-man to shut down McKinley Wright IV, Tyler Bey, and Evan Battey. The star players on both teams match up well, making this a must-watch game. On top of that, it’s the final Pac-12 game of the week, and there will be significant March Madness and conference-race consequences for the winner. There isn’t much more you could ask for in a late Sunday afternoon showdown.
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