Things have come relatively easy for Arizona in Pac-12 play so far. With the exception of a late game collapse against UCLA that forced the Wildcats to sweat out the final few possessions, Arizona has mostly been going through the motions the final five minutes as it closes out games. While it's comforting as a fan to watch, at some point the team will be pushed for a full 40 and odds are that will come at some point in this upcoming six-game stretch over the next three weekends.
While Arizona has done its part to reach the top of the Pac-12 standings, it has certainly received some help along the way. Christmas cards are in order for an Oregon Ducks team who dropped three of its first four games in Pac-12 play, in large part due to an atrocious defense that gives up 25 points during player introductions. What was once thought to be one of the main challengers to Arizona now seems like a team who has to play close to perfect basketball from here on out if it has any hopes of competing for the Pac-12 regular season title.
Colorado's misfortunes are a result of the unfortunate season ending ACL tear to star guard Spencer Dinwiddie. The Buffs looked great early in the year getting a win over Kansas in non-conference play but since his loss, performances against Washington, and more alarmingly UCLA at home ,show that impact. The Buffs are a good team, but minus Dinwiddie likely lack the horses to truly compete at the top of the Pac-12.
UCLA was the most recent team to learn about the challenges of going to Utah and playing the Utes on the road. The Bruins loss today was UCLA's second in Pac-12 play and with Arizona owning the only regular season match up, UCLA faces an uphill climb to pass a team that will own the tiebreaker at year's end. What does that mean for Arizona? It's time to get some separation.
The Wildcats get the mountain schools at home this upcoming week before a trip to Cal and Stanford. Once done with that, it's back to Tucson to welcome the Oregon schools. Is a loss or two going to change the perception of these Wildcats? No, not really. It's a clear as day Final Four contender who will likely be in the Pac-12 championship chase to the very end. What this stretch represents is a chance to deliver some knockout punches. If Arizona wants to make things easier on itself later on this season, a strong showing in this upcoming stretch could prove enormous.
Colorado has given Arizona absolute fits in recent years and again, while unfortunate, reality is Arizona is in much better shape playing Colorado now that Dinwiddie is gone. A win on Thursday night puts Arizona in a position where it just needs a home win over Utah to go into the weekend series with Cal and Stanford at 7-0 in the league. Colorado is teetering on the edge of second-fiddle/contender in the PAC-12 and a convincing win Thursday from Arizona could be the start of that slide to second-fiddle for the Buffs.
Next weekend looms large. Some around the country are of the opinion at Cal could be the Wildcats' first loss of the season. The Golden Bears have started strong and are thriving behind a balance of youth and experience. Justin Cobbs has started league play like a guy who is tired of hearing about Nick Johnson, Jahii Carson and Kyle Anderson. Cal came to Tucson a season ago and Cobbs combined with Crabbe to punch out the Wildcats in the teams' only meeting. With Stanford showing signs of life as well, the trip to northern California for Arizona could be the toughest the Wildcats face. Getting the first matchup with Cal could be big as it all but forces Cal to win the second meeting in Tucson.
Finally, you finish with the Oregon schools in Tucson. As has been touched on prior, the Ducks slow start has put them in a serious hole to dig out of. It's hard to think Oregon can split with Arizona (assuring them of no better than a 14-4 league mark) and still win the Pac-12. Their road back to a Pac-12 regular season title almost certainly relies on a sweep of the Wildcats. It's one of the toughest tests the Wildcats defense will face in league play and is the first time Joseph Young plays Arizona after spurning the Wildcats to go play at Oregon.
With no other team appearing capable of winning weekend series week after week, the Wildcats have a chance to put themselves in firm control of their first goal, winning the Pac 12 regular season title, by giving some of these challengers more losses in the coming weeks. Arizona has appeared bored at times in recent weeks and has played like it. If Coach Miller recognizes the opportunity that lies in front of his team, he can probably shake them out of that funk real quick.
Time to go to work and put a stranglehold on the Pac-12.