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Pac-12 basketball roundup: Washington pads lead, logjam emerges for second

UW is still top dog as we enter February in the Pac-12

NCAA Basketball: Southern California at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

We’re officially at the halfway mark of the Pac-12 season, and there’s been plenty of intrigue so far. Washington has taken a dominant lead on the rest of the conference while a huge chunk of the league is in a logjam behind UW.

There’s still nine games left before the Pac-12 Tournament, though, so anything can happen.

Here’s our roundup of the past week in conference play.

1. Washington Huskies (18-4, 9-0)

With the Huskies already owning the rest of the conference, they managed to keep their undefeated record intact with a home sweep of the LA schools. Washington beat a suddenly resurgent USC the same way it’s beaten everybody so far, by keeping a healthy 10-point margin across the entire game before winning 75-62. Almost the exact same scenario played out over the weekend against UCLA, as Washington held off UCLA en route to a 69-55 victory. At this point, it doesn’t look like anyone can stop UW and Jaylen Nowell. Unless a losing streak begins soon, Washington has almost locked up the one-seed in the Pac-12 Tournament. That theory will be tested with one of the most difficult road trips possible, at the Arizona schools.

T-2. Oregon State Beavers (14-7, 6-3)

While the Rocky Mountain road trip was a bit more dangerous than expected, OSU maintained its position at the top of the masses in the middle of the conference. Colorado spent part of the game leading against the Beavers, and Oregon State never held a large lead over CU. Still, the Beavers’ close-game prowess showed again, as they avoided disaster in a 76-74 win. That seemed to spell doom against a decent Utah squad in Salt Lake City, but the Beavers held the Utes in check on their way to an 81-72 victory. It still seems difficult to get a read on Oregon State, even with one of the more exciting starting lineups in the conference. It starts the second half of the season with a tune-up homestand against Stanford and California.

T-2. USC Trojans (13-9, 6-3)

The Trojans might not have taken advantage of their opportunity to put themselves in legitimate title contention, but they kept afloat in the standings. USC simply didn’t have the horses to keep up with Washington, and fell to the Huskies 75-62. They didn’t blow out Washington State in Pullman, but the game never felt in doubt, as USC earned a split with a 93-84 win. One of the more underrated players in the conference has to be Nick Rakocevic, who’s become one of the best big men in the Pac-12. He’s currently 0.1 rebounds per game short of averaging a double-double and has been a big part of USC leaping into second place in late January. The Trojans look to continue that upswing with a home series against Utah and Colorado.

T-2. Arizona State Sun Devils (15-6, 6-3)

Despite all the question marks concerning ASU during the early part of conference play, the Sun Devils are in solid position heading into February and March. Arizona and Arizona State showed that their matchup could be one of the most exciting in the west for many years to come on Thursday, as they went to overtime before a banged up Wildcats squad eventually fell to ASU 95-88. In terms of depth, Arizona State might have the best roster in the conference, with Romello White, Remy Martin, and Zylan Chetham headlining a team with plenty of players getting significant stats. There’s no doubt that ASU has been somewhat disappointing since the Kansas game, but it’s still standing, and now host WSU and conference leader Washington this week.

T-5. UCLA Bruins (12-10, 5-4)

In a season full of up-and-down teams in the Pac-12, perhaps no team has personified that as well as the Bruins. For the third time in a row, they split a two-game series, this time falling to Washington 69-55 in Seattle and crushing Washington State 87-67 in Pullman. Murray Bartow is still keeping UCLA right at .500 as interim coach, and while UCLA will have to win the conference to make the NCAA Tournament, there’s no denying that some improvement has been made without Steve Alford. If UCLA is going to finally sweep a series for the first time since the beginning of January, this week provides a great opportunity. The Rocky Mountain schools will be visiting Pauley Pavilion, and we’ll have another chance to try and judge a UCLA team that has done it’s best to defy previous judgments.

T-5 Utah Utes (11-10, 5-4)

Among the six teams within one game of second place, Utah is probably the most consistently surprising. Despite a mediocre-at-best non-conference performance, and lower expectations than usual, Utah is still within striking distance of a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament. This all comes despite its worst week of the season so far, where its missed two golden opportunities for distinguishing wins against Oregon and Oregon State at home. Against the Ducks, the deciding margin was 78-72, while the Beavers managed to beat the Utes 81-72. That’s definitely disappointing, especially considering how hard Sedrick Barefield and others have worked to get Utah in the middle of the pack. Still, hope is not lost, and even managing a split in Los Angeles this week would preserve some of it. Get swept, and the Utes’ feel-good story is probably over.

T-5. Arizona Wildcats (14-8, 5-4)

Oh how the mighty fall. While nobody expected a great Arizona team to take the court this year, the Wildcats were still right in the thick of things for most of January. After a Chase Jeter-less visit to Los Angeles and getting swept, and now a devastating loss to ASU in Tempe, Arizona is in very serious danger of missing out on March Madness, and needs to improve if it wants a chance to play itself into the field in Las Vegas next month. The ASU game hurts not only because of the rivalry, but because Arizona had a real chance to keep its dominance against the Devils going. Jeter was still a bit hobbled, and Brandon Williams sat out, and UA managed to force overtime. Now that their road trip is over, and Jeter will be closer to 100% the next time we see him, the Wildcats need to refocus and get some wins. Their first chance to do so is in Tucson against Washington. Win that one, and there’s plenty of room for optimism through Feburary and March.

T-8. Oregon Ducks (13-9, 4-5)

No team has disappointed more than Oregon, without question. Despite losing Bol Bol for the season, UO was still supposed to be a serious challenger for the Pac-12 title. Two wins in the Rockies probably would’ve at least gotten them at the table, but thanks to a stunning 22-point loss to Colorado, Oregon is probably officially dead in the regular season race. The week started out promising, with Oregon beating Utah in the Huntsman Center 78-72. The Colorado game two days later was supposed to be the first in a string of three likely wins, but instead, the Buffs took out a month of frustrations on a suddenly lost Ducks squad, and crushed UO by a score of 73-51. Neither team really shot well, but the fact that Oregon scored 51 points against CU is yet another blaring red alarm. I don’t know what to expect from Oregon anymore, and even if it sweeps the struggling Bay Area schools this week, questions will linger unless the Ducks manage to string together wins against the seven teams ahead of them in the conference.

T-8. Stanford Cardinal (11-10, 4-5)

While almost everyone agrees the Cardinal occupy the Pac-12’s third tier this season, they’ve still managed to be hard to place most of the year. While they got the win they expected in Berkeley on Sunday, Cal had a real chance of beating them, and the game proved that this team just isn’t trustworthy this season. KZ Okpala still remains the best thing Stanford has going for it by far, as he scored 30 against Cal with eight rebounds and four assists as well (all team-highs for the night). Still, the game was close for 40 minutes, and there were quite a few points when Cal looked to have the advantage. Eventually, Stanford got the victory, but only by three points in the form of an 84-81 escape. There seems to be more losses than wins on Stanford’s remaining schedule, and unless Okpala is cloned sometime soon, the Cardinal will probably continue to stay in this part of the standings.

10. Colorado Buffaloes (12-9, 3-6)

Outside of Washington, Colorado almost undoubtedly had the best week in the Pac-12 to close out the first half. The 76-74 loss to Oregon State was a major missed opportunity, but the fact that they kept it close was still a positive. Then, after sustaining many more losses than wins, CU’s defense completely stifled Oregon en route to a 73-51 upset, easily CU’s best win of the season. It’s been hard to buy into the Buffaloes this season, even though they have a few legitimate talents. After doing well against the Oregon schools, there’s at least a spark of optimism for Colorado. This still isn’t a great team, but there’s a decent one hidden somewhere in there. CU will attempt to get a couple more upsets this week on its road trip to USC and UCLA.

11. Washington State Cougars (8-14, 1-8)

Among the weaker part of the conference, two teams have stood out all season. Wazzu is one, and another sweep keeps it right at home in the eleventh spot in the Pac-12. UCLA pretty much never gave the Cougars a chance, as the Bruins won 87-67. USC kept the same cushion, but by a slightly smaller margin, and the Trojans eventually best WSU 93-84. There just isn’t much to point at in terms of good signs from Ernie Kent’s squad this season, and unless an upset occurs or they can beat Cal on the road, I can’t imagine the Cougars earning more than one win over the course of February and March. Two likely losses are on the docket for this week, as they’ll be visiting Tempe and Tucson.

12. California Golden Bears (5-16, 0-9)

If Washington has a stranglehold on the top of the conference, Cal has a strong grip on 12th place and doesn’t look to be letting go any time soon. The Stanford game did show at least some promise, as the Bears kept pace with a team better than them. The fact that they played their best game in a home rivalry is a sign that they haven’t given up yet. Still, it wasn’t enough, and they eventually fell 84-81. The home game against WSU in early March still looms as Cal’s best (and maybe only) chance to get a victory, and if it loses that, we might get both an 18-0 and 0-18 team in league play the same year. The Golden Bears head to Oregon this week.