With four weeks left in the regular season, the Pac-12 still is in imminent danger of being a one-bid league. Still, if one ignores the context of this being the worst season by a power conference in years, conference play has been full of twists and turns.
Washington’s dominance still continues despite its first loss, and nine teams are within two games of second place. Here’s how things break down after another week of action:
1. Washington Huskies (19-5, 10-1)
If there was any chance left on the schedule for Washington to lose in conference play, it was almost assuredly during this past week’s Arizona road trip. The Huskies did finally stumble, but still escaped the Grand Canyon State with a split. On Thursday, neither UW or Arizona was able to play very well, but Washington’s superior talent eventually won out in the second half with a 67-60 win. Over the weekend in Tempe, an obviously frustrated Arizona State team came out strong, and finally proved too strong for the Huskies to handle, and Washington fell 75-63. It’s hard to fault Washington for losing in Tempe with ASU coming off its worst performance of the year against Wazzu, especially since this team is probably the only Pac-12 school with a legitimate at-large profile, and Jaylen Nowell is still the best player in the conference. Washington heads to Pullman for a suddenly scary game against its in-state rival this Saturday.
T-2. Oregon State Beavers (15-8, 7-4)
Despite the Beavers remaining in second place over the weekend, it’s hard not to get the vibe that they’re running out of steam after their hot start in January. Oregon State was 3-3 in its previous six games entering a homestand against the Bay Area schools, almost assuredly the easiest series one could hope for. Against Stanford, OSU was simply ice cold, and the Cardinal started pouring it on en route to an 83-60 smacking. OSU didn’t entirely have its mojo back come the weekend, and actually trailed an abysmal Cal team for a few stretches. The Beavers did eventually come back to ensure the split and keep Cal winless, winning 79-71. At this point, OSU probably has to win out to make the NCAA tournament selection committee give them a look in a month. That’ll be tough unless the team heats up. It hosts rival Oregon this weekend, hoping to complete the season sweep.
T-2. Utah Utes (13-10, 7-4)
No team manages to confound the basketball gods more consistently in the Pac-12 than Utah. After getting swept at home against the Oregon schools, Utah’s hopes for a first-round bye in Vegas were in rough shape. Then, the Utes went to LA and managed to sweep USC and UCLA. They like the vastly superior team against USC, and were leading the Trojans by huge margins for most of the game. The final score of 77-70 was actually more reflective of the final stats, but Utah kept getting bounces and the win was rarely in doubt.
Against UCLA, a contender for Pac-12 game of the year took place. The Bruins led for most of the game, and had opened up a consistent 10-point lead throughout the closing minutes. With two minutes left, UCLA led 84-75 and looked to have an important win. Utah made a couple of free throws, and the Bruins missed a few, and suddenly the game was 84-81 after a three. The teams traded a couple points, and Utah missed a couple of threes, and UCLA almost always had a three- or four- point lead in the final minute. In the final 10 seconds, Both Gach made a three to cut the UCLA lead to one, each team made two free throws, and then David Singleton went 1 of 2 at the line for UCLA to give it a two point lead with three seconds left. What followed was a Parker Van Dyke buzzer beater, and Utah escaped Pauley with a miracle 93-92 victory.
With only seven games left, Utah is back in good shape in the conference. This might not be a tournament team, but the Utes are always guaranteed to produce a weird result. They host the Arizona schools this week.
T-2. Arizona State Sun Devils (16-7, 7-4)
No team has managed to produce performances so disparate in the span of one week as ASU did in the first week of February. Against Washington State at home, ASU was almost unilaterally picked to win by double digits, and were favored by 15 points. It managed to perform abysmally all game long, shooting bricks and getting physically outmatched against a less-talented team. Wazzu managed to absolutely run away from ASU, leaving Tempe with a head-scratching 91-70 domination. The Sun Devils reminded everybody of the talent on their roster on Saturday by being the first ones to beat Washington, and they did it with solid play all around in a 75-63 win. Neither the great win nor the awful loss entirely cancel each other out, and as such Arizona State’s resume just got even weirder than before. As of now, the Sun Devils probably need to go 5-2 or so over their remaining game to feel at least a little comfortable entering the Pac-12 Tournament. They’ll try to get some momentum going to the Rockies this week.
T-5. USC Trojans (13-11, 6-5)
The Trojans were defying mediocre play and ugly non-conference losses to remain above the waterline in Pac-12 play, and actually looked to be in pole position for a first-round bye last week. Well, when you get swept at home by Colorado and Utah, you’re probably not in very good shape anymore. USC just couldn’t piece together buckets at the right times against Utah, and despite decent shooting and a stellar 15-6 turnover margin, Utah held the Trojans as USC fell 77-70.
A similar story played out against Colorado, except that USC managed to get buckets at the right time and stayed within a few points of CU the entire night. Again, USC had a great turnover margin of 12-6. And yet, the Trojans couldn’t make a bucket in the final minute, and Colorado left LA with a 69-65 win. Both losses sting, and they could really make Andy Enfield’s job even less safe than it already was. USC will try to remedy the situation on the road against its Northern California counterparts this week.
T-5. Oregon Ducks (15-9, 6-5)
Look who’s sniffing around the middle of the Pac-12 for the first time this season. The preseason favorites may have had a season to forget, but playing Cal and Stanford at home is a great treatment for a chronic case of heartbreaking losses. The Golden Bears actually managed to keep up with UO for a while midweek, before Oregon eventually kept them at arms length in 73-62 victory. Stanford had seemingly used all of their karma against Oregon State, and were ice cold against Oregon, with the Ducks defense absolutely smothering the Cardinal in a 69-46 stomping.
Neither of those wins ultimately move the needle for a team that has surprisingly struggled so much. If they want to do that, a three game road-trip awaits them, starting with Saturday’s anticipated rivalry with Oregon State.
T-7. Colorado Buffaloes (14-9, 5-6)
After spending all of January comfortably in ninth or 10th place, CU has managed to string together three wins in a row over solid teams, and might finally be piecing things together. In Pauley Pavilion, the Buffaloes surprised most by racing to an early lead, and protecting it through a few furious UCLA runs, ultimately leaving Westwood the victors by a score of 84-73.
Colorado then entered an absolute dogfight with USC, and neither team held a large lead at any point. Thanks to the play of McKinley Wright and a few late shots though, Colorado pieced together their third win in a row, 69-65. The fact of the matter is that it’s too little too late, but it’s always encouraging to see a team keep fighting after a rough start, and CU has done that admirably. The Buffs can really impress this week if they string together five straight wins; they host the Arizona schools.
T-7. Arizona Wildcats (14-10, 5-6)
A month ago, Arizona was considered a 10 or 11 seed in most NCAA brackets. The Wildcats were 5-1 in the Pac-12 and flirting with first place in the conference. Then three horrible, no good, very bad weeks happened, and Arizona is in seventh, on a five-game losing streak, and needs to win the Pac-12 Tournament (which it looks incapable of doing) to even sniff March Madness. After a close loss in Tempe, it looked like Arizona would at least have a chance against Washington before probably beating WSU.
The Washington game was indeed close for a while, and Arizona had opportunities to win, but UW was simply the better team, and UA lost 67-60. The winning streak was assumed to be on its way to a merciful end against Wazzu on Saturday. Then, Arizona shot horribly from the three-point line on which they rely, Washington State and Robert Franks caught fire, and the game was a consistent whooping on the part of WSU, with Arizona losing 69-55. It’s hard to imagine worst circumstances for one of the Pac-12’s best programs, and there’s a good chance these are the program’s darkest hours since they joined the Pac-12. A turnaround against Utah and Colorado won;t fix everything, but it would be a start.
T-7. Stanford Cardinal (12-11, 5-6)
The Cardinal remain incredibly hard to get a gauge on. On the one hand, KZ Okpala is very fun to watch and has been a great leader in Stanford wins, as was the case in a dominant 83-60 victory over Oregon State in Corvallis. On the other hand, nobody else on the roster seems capable of doing much, and the team is very susceptible to long stretches of cold shooting, as happened in the 69-46 loss to Oregon this weekend.
I tend to lean towards the latter, but the fact is Stanford is a home sweep away against the SoCal schools from legit contention for a first-round bye in T-Mobile Arena next month. Hopefully some clarity emerges against UCLA and USC, for everybody’s sake.
11. Washington State Cougars (10-14, 3-8)
Perhaps no single week has ever made the Pac-12 go “huh?” more strongly than the one Washington State managed to piece together in Arizona. Expected to lose by double digits both nights, Robert Franks and coach Ernie Kent managed to absolutely crush Arizona State in Tempe on Thursday before doing the exact same thing in Tucson on Saturday. Franks scored 65 points and 21 rebounds in the two games, and to see a player who’s fought hard for a losing team for four years do that was thoroughly exciting to watch.
The rest of the squad brought their A-game, too. Freshman CJ Elleby put up similar, if a bit lower, numbers to Franks, and the entire team overall played better than they have all season. Washington State hadn’t lost by less than nine points in Pac-12 play yet, excepting a victory over even worse Cal. Now, they have two dominating road wins over solid programs with more talent, and for at least a week they’re the story of the conference. One figures they’ll return to the mean against Washington this week, but maybe they can really shock the world at home this Saturday. Win that one, and they might not even finish 11th in the conference! Imagine that.
12. California Golden Bears (5-18, 0-11)
Even Washington State got its Cinderella moment this season in such a shaky conference. Well, fairy godmother has yet to show her face in Berkeley, and while the last few losses are narrower than before, there’s still no real reason for optimism at California. At Oregon, Cal couldn’t keep up in the second half, and they fell to the Ducks 73-62. In Corvallis, almsot the exact game happened again, except it was Oregon State putting Cal away with around ten minutes left en route to a 79-71 victory.
Just about the only thing I can put here besides a frowny face is that Justice Sueing has quietly played well, nocking 14.9 points per game. That’s not nearly enough to run around this sinking ship though. The Bears’ quest for 0-18 continues this week with a homestand against UCLA and USC. They’re Cal’s last probable chances for a win until playing WSU and Stanford to close out the year.