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Arizona basketball: Oregon Ducks capture momentum from Wildcats for Pac-12 title with comeback win over Cal

Both teams will likely have to win out to earn the No. 1 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament, but Oregon has an easier path

NCAA Basketball: Oregon at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Oregon Ducks trailed by as many as 16 points against the California Golden Bears early in the second half on Wednesday night, and later by 13 points with just under nine minutes left in regulation.

Arizona fans watched with optimism.

The Ducks were in severe danger of picking up their third conference loss and subsequently digging themselves into an insurmountable hole behind the Arizona Wildcats in the race for the Pac-12 title.

But Oregon stormed all the way back, and took its first lead of the game with 1:51 left.

Cal quickly re-took the lead, but then Dillon Brooks hit a pair of clutch shots to propel Oregon to victory.

Not only did the comeback win keep the Ducks alive in the Pac-12 title chase, it makes them the favorites.

“How? Oregon is still a game back of Arizona!” you may be asking yourself.

True, but let’s compare the two teams’ schedules.

Oregon’s remaining schedule consists of a pair of road games against the lowly Stanford Cardinal and Oregon State Beavers. KenPom gives the Ducks a 77 percent and 94 percent chance of beating those teams, respectively.

The Ducks, 14-2 in the Pac-12, probably have to win out to catch Arizona, but they likely will, finishing at 16-2 in conference play.

Meanwhile, Arizona, sitting at 14-1, has three games left on its schedule — a home series against USC and UCLA and a road game against ASU.

USC and UCLA are obviously the main threats. Those aren’t Stanford- and Oregon State-like gimmes. They are the furthest thing from it.

That said, working in Arizona’s favor is that it will play the L.A. schools in Tucson, where the Wildcats have won 69 of their last 70 games. Not to mention UA already beat both of those teams earlier in the season.

Overall, USC is a solid team, and could give Arizona a run for its money. But it would still be surprising to see the Trojans escape McKale Center with a victory. For what it’s worth, KenPom only gives USC a 17-percent chance of winning on Thursday.

UCLA is a different story, though.

The high-powered Bruins, whose offense ranks as the best in the country, have a 43-percent chance of winning in Tucson on Saturday, according to KenPom.

And so, barring any improbable upsets, it’s the Arizona-UCLA game that will likely decide UA’s fate — and it’s more or less a coin flip.

If Arizona beats UCLA, it likely finishes 17-1 in Pac-12 play and wins the conference outright. If the Wildcats lose to the Bruins, however, they likely finish 16-2. The same record as the Ducks.

In that instance, both Arizona and Oregon would get a “share” of the Pac-12 regular season title.

That’s not important.

What is important is that, because Oregon beat down Arizona in Eugene earlier in the season, the Ducks would receive the No. 1 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament if they finish with the same conference record as Arizona.

And the difference between the No. 1 seed and No. 2 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament is fairly significant.

The No. 2 seed will likely have to face both the No. 3 seed (which will probably be UCLA) and the No. 1 seed to win the Pac-12 Tournament.

Therefore, the No. 2 seed has to win not one, but two games against the conference’s top teams to take home the trophy.

On the other hand, the No. 1 seed would only have to play the No. 2 seed or the No. 3 seed, but not both.

So naturally, having the No. 1 seed creates an easier to path to win the conference tournament, an easier path to avoid another loss, and thus an easier path to obtain a higher a seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Had Cal held on to beat Oregon on Thursday, that No. 1 seed — and the Pac-12 title — would have been all but Arizona’s.

The Wildcats would have needed to win just two of their last three games — at best — to clinch a conference title. They could have lost to UCLA and still have been OK.

But, thanks to Brooks’ heroics, the Wildcats will presumably have to beat UCLA and win their two other games to earn the top seed in the conference tournament.

Meanwhile, Oregon just has to avoid an upset against two of the worst teams in the Pac-12 to hold up its end of the bargain.

Advantage, Ducks.

You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire