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Pac-12 Roundup: Washington emerges as the team to beat

NCAA Basketball: Stanford at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Three weeks in, and the Pac-12 basketball season is already high on excitement. The conference is absolutely wide open, and there are an abundance of teams that seem to be within striking distance of the regular season crown.

But the cream should rise to the top with each passing week, and it’ll be fun to watch. Here’s our roundup of the third week of conference play.

1. Washington Huskies (14-4, 5-0)

Going into the season, Mike Hopkins’ Washington squad had a fair amount of prognosticators picking them to win the conference. While they’ve had pretty easy opponents in Pac-12 play so far, the fact still remains that UW officially holds the lead in the Pac-12.

After dominating their first three opponents, it wasn’t a surprise to see the Huskies crush struggling Stanford and California teams this week. On Thursday, Washington had a big 13-2 run early, and never looked back on their way to an 80-64 win.

Against Cal, Washington actually struggled for a lot of the first half, and trailed until just before halftime. The second half was a rout though, and UW earned a 71-52 drubbing. The Huskies’ defense has been stifling, as can be expected from a Jim Boeheim disciple. Now they face a brutal six-game stretch against most of the teams closely following them in the standings.

That starts with a road trip across the Columbia River to face the Oregon schools this coming week.

2. Arizona Wildcats (14-5, 5-1, .5 GB)

It wasn’t a pretty weekend for Arizona, and they were very close to keeping their spot atop the standings. Still, splitting a series against the Oregon schools isn’t nothing, and the ‘Cats remains Washington’s top threat.

On Thursday, Arizona lost a rare home game against Oregon in which cold shooting and poor shot selection wasted a solid defensive performance.

Saturday’s game against Oregon State was close throughout, but UA led for most of it and eventually pulled away for an 82-71 victory. Unlike the Oregon game, the Wildcats were red-hot from 3.

Arizona remains within striking range of Washington, but three straight tough road games now stand in their way.

The L.A. schools are on the docket this, and then a highly-anticipated matchup between UA and ASU in Tempe the following week. Chase Jeter’s health is important to watch moving forward. He left Saturday’s game early in the first half after suffering back spasms, the result of a hard fall.

It is hard to imagine UA beating either L.A. team without their starting center.

3. Arizona State Sun Devils (13-5, 4-2, 1.5 GB)

Arizona State went from presumptive favorite to being seemingly stuck in the middle of the conference standings over the course of a month. Now, after sweeping the Oregon schools, they are right back in the thick of things, and look likely to get a first-round bye in Las Vegas if they can keep this up.

The Devils leaped to an early lead against the Beavers, but had to hold off a strong second half effort, nearly blowing an 18-point lead in a 70-67 win.

Facing an already reeling Oregon team on Saturday, ASU couldn’t pull away for a long time, and actually trailed with eight minutes left. Then ASU exploded for a 22-2 run to complete the sweep. Zylan Cheatham was the big star of the week for Arizona State, pouring in 17 points on Oregon and being one rebound away from a double-double.

If he can keep up that production, with Remy Martin and Romello White playing like they’re capable of, Arizona State is perhaps the scariest team in the conference. That theory will be tested with a road trip to face USC and UCLA this week.

T-4. Oregon State Beavers (11-6, 3-2, 2 GB)

OSU was easily the best surprise of the season entering week three of conference play. A lot of the luster has faded away after being swept in Arizona, but the Beavers remain a Pac-12 contender.

They have had the toughest schedule in the conference so far and it will considerably weaken once they get past Washington this week. If OSU can pull off a win at home, it will be right back in the Pac-12 title conversation.

T-4. Utah Utes (9-8, 3-2, 2 GB)

Speaking of pleasant surprises, Utah has parlayed two easy games and three brutal ones into a 3-2 record and a position in the thick of the Pac-12 race that could become permanent. While Utah has been one of the Pac-12’s best teams in recent years, they faced major questions this year. While a win over a mediocre Colorado squad in Salt Lake City won’t turn heads, the Utes decimated the Buffaloes. Sedrick Barefield continued to play at an elite level, with 22 points to lead the team. Utah absolutely has to win the conference tournament to make it to March Madness, but that seems like a feasible run for these Utes to make, especially if they can get two more wins against the struggling NorCal schools this week.

T-4. USC Trojans (10-8, 3-2, 2 GB) and UCLA Bruins (10-8, 3-2, 2 GB)

Both L.A. schools have had disappointing seasons, and both desperately needed a win to keep themselves in the conference race. In Galen Center, USC ended up victorious, and sent the Bruins back to Westwood with a lot of questions to ask. The game was pretty exciting for most of the first half, with both teams trading blows.

The second half opened with a huge Trojans run that buried UCLA, who couldn’t muster any offense until the game was well out of reach. The final was 80-67, and Nick Rakocevic was the MVP for USC, getting a double-double with 21 points an 12 boards. He also dominated highly-touted UCLA center Moses Brown, holding him to two points. The two teams now have the exact same records, and will host the Arizona schools in the coming week.

With a couple of wins, both teams can remain relevant in the Pac-12. Anything less than a sweep though, and both schools could become a fixture in the bottom half of the conference.

8. Oregon Ducks (11-7, 2-3, 3 GB)

No team has fallen further from grace than the Oregon Ducks. After being preseason favorites in a weak conference, Bol Bol was lost for the season and Oregon hasn’t looked the same since. While beating Arizona 59-54 in Tucson was absolutely vital for Oregon, losing their grip late against Arizona State was yet another crushing defeat. The Ducks have led late in all three of their losses, and yet they now sit with a losing record in conference well into January. Players like Payton Pritchard and Louis King remain some of the Pac-12’s best, but this team just seems lost despite the talent and coaching from Dana Altman. It’s hard to believe such a consistent program only two years removed from a Final Four berth is here, but now it looks like they could be here to stay in 2019. They host the Washington schools this week, and will need a sweep to keep afloat.

9. Stanford Cardinal (9-9, 2-4, 3.5 GB)

Stanford has been hard to place thus far. Their non-conference schedule was fairly strong, which seemed to partially excuse their 7-5 record. Now though, they’ve been whooped by a lot of teams ahead of them in the standings and seem to have serious issues. After a promising home upset of ASU, Stanford was hopeful to at least stay close to Washington. That didn’t happen. UW turned on the jets and walloped the Cardinal, 80-64.

Washington State has cemented their spot in the Pac-12 cellar thus far, and that was further proven when Stanford won by a margin of 78-66 in Pullman. KZ Okpala and Josh Sharma are still genuinely talented players, and the Cardinal will have more chances to win in such a wide open conference. They host Utah and Colorado this week, and I honestly have no clue whether Stanford will win neither, one, or both of those games.

T-10. Colorado Buffaloes (10-7, 1-4, 4 GB)

A promising 10-3 non-conference masked a lot of problems for a Colorado team with a lot of warts. While the Pac-12 is far from prestigious this year, conference play has been enough to show CU’s flaws and make them a team destined for a lot of losses in the remaining months of the season.

Colorado may have eviscerated Washington State last week, but they were clearly outmatched in their three losses to the top three schools in the standings, and that trend continued with a road loss to Utah, dropping the Buffaloes to 1-4 in the Pac-12. They get a slight reprieve in the form of playing the Bay Area schools, but it’s a road trip and Colorado hasn’t looked like a trustworthy team yet in 2019.

T-10. Washington State Cougars (8-10, 1-4, 4 GB)

Wazzu was able to take out some of their frustrations on the only team they could this week, with a 82-59 win over Cal, but then they lost to Stanford.

Freshman CJ Elleby looks to be a promising piece moving forward for WSU, but otherwise this week seemed to confirm that Wazzu is a bottom-dweller of the conference this year. They face two very likely losses this week in Corvallis and Eugene against the Oregon schools.

12. California Golden Bears (5-13, 0-6, 5.5 GB)

Thanks to their 23-point loss to Washington State, Cal seems to have a chokehold on 12th place after being blown out by the lowly Cougars.

The Bears played angry in the first half against Washington, managing to lead the Huskies throughout the first period, but it did not last. Washington ended up with a 19-point victory to pair with Cal’s 23-point loss to WSU.

Wyking Jones’ rebuild is seemingly in dire straits and there is a decent chance Cal could go 0-18 in conference this year, especially if they can’t beat Colorado or Utah on their homecourt.