Assessing The Pac-12 With One Week Left

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on March 1st, 2016

Way back in early November, when Pac-12 prognosticators were looking ahead to the season, there were four teams almost universally considered as contenders to win the regular season title – Arizona, California, Oregon and Utah. We’ve had all sorts of twists and turns over the past four months: USC and Washington emerging earlier than expected; California and Utah taking some time to find their stride; and of course, the assorted injuries, hot streaks, cold patches and upsets that change expectations along the way. But here we are, heading into the final week of the regular season, and those four preseason contenders are still exactly that. There’s a lot still left to be decided in the final week and into the conference tournament, so let’s go team by team and break down what’s to play for on the way in.

Dillon Brooks And The Ducks Are One Win Away From Clinching At Least Part Of A Pac-12 Title (John Locher, USA Today)

Dillon Brooks And The Ducks Are One Win Away From Clinching At Least Part Of A Pac-12 Title. (John Locher, USA Today)

Oregon – For at least a month now, anyone with a Pac-12 schedule could look at Oregon’s road trip to Los Angeles in the final week of the regular season and know it would have major ramifications on the regular season title. What nobody could really see at the start of February was both of the Los Angeles schools falling off a cliff. More on them later, but the situation is simple for the Ducks. Win one in LA and earn at least a share of the conference title. Win them both (now, suddenly possible, if not even likely) and they’ve got their first regular season title since 2002 (and only the program’s second since World War II ended). They are likely to be favored in both games — because the season is trending in the wrong direction for both opponents — and a couple of wins could see the Ducks break into two-seed territory come Selection Sunday.

Utah – After the Utes lost to Oregon back on Feb. 7 to drop to 6-5 in conference, the silver lining was the remaining schedule, with five of their last seven games coming at home. Then, when they swept the swooning LA schools, they were suddenly very much in the hunt for the conference title. They’ll need some help from USC and UCLA, but by the time they tip off against Colorado on Saturday night, the Utes will know if they have a chance of earning a share of the regular season title. Regardless, with Brandon Taylor having finally emerged from an inexplicable early-season shooting slump (he’s shooting 41.3 percent from deep in conference play, far more in range with his historical numbers than his 27.9 non-conference percentage), Brekkot Chapman finally contributing, and likely conference POY Jakob Poeltl still locked and loaded, the Utes have a chance to make serious noise this March.

Jakob Poeltl And The Utes Are Looking Tough At The Right Time (AP)

Jakob Poeltl And The Utes Are Looking Tough At The Right Time. (AP)

California – Remember back in December when we were panicking over the mess that was Golden Bear basketball? Yeah, me neither. Cuonzo Martin has this team rolling now. They haven’t lost since January, making for a seven-game win streak in which they’ve won by an average of 14.3 points per game. All that talent is starting to come together, as the Bears will be in the top 25 this week and on the short-list of teams you don’t want to see in your region on Selection Sunday. They’re probably on the outside looking in when it comes to conference title talk (they’d need a road sweep in Arizona, plus help), but Martin definitely has his team preparing to peak at exactly the right time.

Arizona – Among these top four teams, only one hasn’t scored a win against at least one of the other top four teams. And that’s why the ‘Cats are listed fourth here. They’ll have a chance Thursday night to avenge a one-point loss at Cal back in mid-January. More importantly, this is still a team that doesn’t have any bad losses and still has a couple weeks to prepare for a March charge. Don’t let a pair of losses on the tough mountain swing last week cause you to overlook Sean Miller’s squad.

Colorado – The Buffaloes are going dancing, that much is for sure. And with four wins over top 30 RPI conference opponents, they even have a chance to sneak into the top half of the bracket. But forget all of that positioning nonsense for one second and just tune in Saturday night to watch the reprise of Josh Scott vs. Jakob Poeltl. In 29 games so far this season, Poeltl has put up at least a 100 KenPom offensive-rating in 27 of them. He struggled at Wichita State (four turnovers), then was handled by Scott back in early January en route to a meager six point effort. Poeltl is likely going to wind up as the league’s POY, which should give Scott a point to prove all over again. Even if the conference title is already sewn up by Oregon by the time this game tips, the battle of the bigs in Salt Lake City will make this must-watch basketball.

The Wheels Have Come Off For Andy Enfield (Kirby Lee, USA Today Sports)

The Wheels Have Come Off For Andy Enfield (Kirby Lee, USA Today Sports)

USC – Here’s where things start to get interesting. Three weeks ago, USC was 7-3 and looked every bit a legitimate threat to stick around in the conference title race. Since then, they’ve won only once, a game in which they came back from 14-point deficit in the final ten minutes against Colorado. There are five losses in the same time frame, and by an average of 13.6 points. The Trojans’ RPI has plummeted from the top 25 down to 37, and what once looked like a sure thing — an NCAA Tournament bid — is no longer so sure. They’re fortunate to have quality wins over Colorado, Arizona, Wichita State, Monmouth and Yale on their resume, but when the Oregon schools come knocking on the Galen Center doors this week, Andy Enfield and company had better find a way to right the ship and come away with at least one win. An additional win in Las Vegas would ease worries, as well. More concerning, however, is the fact that just a couple of weeks ago this looked like a team that could cause all sorts of problems in the NCAA Tournament. Right now, they resemble a #6 or #7 seed’s dream first round opponent. There’s a crisis of confidence on a young team without any real past success. Even if the Trojans do just enough to get an NCAA invite, it’s hard to have any conviction that this team will pose a threat in the Big Dance.

Oregon State – While the Trojans slide, the Beavers are moving up. They defended their homecourt this week and have jumped up to 30th in the RPI, with six wins over the RPI top 40 and no horrific losses. All signs point to Oregon State being on the right side of the bubble at this stage, but they’ll need to find a way to get one road win in Los Angeles this week to maintain momentum. Anytime you’ve got a talent like Gary Payton II, you could be a threat to beat anyone in a win-or-go-home setting in the NCAA Tournament. Either way, earning the school’s first NCAA Tournament invitation since 1990 would be accomplishment enough.

Washington – Some perspective on the Huskies is required. Every player except Andrew Andrews is new to the program. At the start of the season, they were picked in the bottom quarter of the conference by everybody. Sure, they’ve lost six of their last seven, but a win over Washington State in the final game of the regular season would give Lorenzo Romar a .500 conference season. Really, it would be one that probably should have been a ten-win season. Sure, the wheels came off a little bit at the end. But if they can make some noise in the Pac-12 tournament (which would be something like a first-round win over somebody like Arizona State or UCLA, followed by a quarterfinal upset of one of the big boys), they’re still on the First Four radar.

Stanford – Let’s give Johnny Dawkins some love here. A week into the season, it was reasonable to pile the Cardinal in the same heap with Washington State and just forget them. No point guard, no established scorers and a mish-mash of players that didn’t seem capable of defending at the Pac-12 level. Somehow, though, the Cardinal have a .500 conference record heading into the final week of the season. The RPI is respectable (65) and puts them in a bubbly-type of range, particularly with four wins over top-30 RPI teams. An NCAA Tournament bid is probably not going to happen for the Cardinal, but in terms of maximizing talent, Dawkins deserves conference Coach of the Year consideration. Rosco Allen exploded in his senior year, Christian Sanders stepped into a point guard role he was completed unsuited for and performed admirably. Guys like Dorian Pickens, Michael Humphrey and Marcus Sheffield give plenty of hope for the future of Stanford basketball. If only Reid Travis could get and stay healthy.

UCLA – What would UCLA need to do to really get back into the bubble talk? Well, lets start with sweeping the Oregon schools this weekend. Follow that up with a first-round Pac-12 tourney win over another bubble team. Tack on a big upset of one of the top four teams in the quarters. At that point, the resume could get really interesting. Good wins over Kentucky, at Gonzaga and Arizona, plus those wins over Oregon and the quarterfinal opponent on the plus-side; a boat-load of ugly losses (how do you lose to Washington State?) on the negative-side. And honestly, that still probably wouldn’t be enough. If UCLA were to add in another quality win in the semis, then we’re really talking. But let’s leave fantasy land and head back to reality: this Bruin team has shown no reason for anyone to believe they could muster the type of consistency necessary to beat five straight quality opponents.

Arizona State – What a disappointing season. It started out in promising fashion, with wins over Belmont, North Carolina State, Creighton, Texas A&M, UNLV and Stephen F. Austin. An NCAA Tournament berth felt eminently possible. But some tough early losses in Pac-12 play (they lost three consecutive games in late January by a combined 11 points) put an end to all that. Three seniors graduate, but reinforcements arrive for Team Hurley next season. The future is still bright in Tempe.

Washington State – Since upsetting UCLA in game two of conference play, the Cougars have lost 15 straight. Reinforcements are not arriving. The future is not bright.

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