The Pac-12 looked a lot better three weeks ago. Oregon, Arizona and Colorado are looked like contenders (they still are), Washington and Stanford looked to challenge them, and USC, Oregon State and Arizona State all looked frisky.
Since then, the bottom has fallen out on two of those (UW and OSU) and maybe a third (Stanford). The contenders are all vulnerable on any given night, meaning stunning upsets for Washington State and Arizona State may become normal. It’s a strange conference and we haven’t even touched on the mess at UCLA.
Tier 1: Contenders
1. Oregon Ducks
The conference title looks to be a two-team race thus far [knocks on wood so hard my table splits in two]. The Ducks and Buffs are 6-2 and 5-2, respectively, and are sitting atop the standings with USC.
Oregon is very likely the best team in the conference, but they have been vulnerable. They have two losses to Colorado and Washington State, as well as overtime wins over Arizona, Washington and USC. This team will round into form by mid-February, however it is concerning that their offense too often needs Payton Pritchard to bail them out with hero-ball. They’re a team of moving pieces, so it’s natural that they would take time to fit all the pieces together.
The Ducks have a favorable schedule moving forward — only at Arizona looks like a sure loss, but even then idk — and could finish Pac-12 play with one or two losses. That would put them at 14-4 or 13-5 in Pac-12, at best, which would leave the door open for a Colorado or Arizona to make a run at the regular season title.
2. Colorado Buffaloes
The Buffs are also through the hardest part of their schedule, arguably. They still have road trips to Los Angeles, the Bay and Oregon, but if they split each of those series they’re still in good shape. (If they sweep one or two, they’re serious contenders.) Including non-conference play, the Buffs have better on the road than they’ve ever been, so that’s certainly encouraging. Their blowout loss to Arizona was easily their worst (and Arizona’s best) performance of the season, so I don’t want to put too much weight into that.
The remaining home schedule is as easy as it can be, as they have Cal, Stanford, USC and UCLA; those should all be comfortable wins, provided nothing wacky happens. If Oregon finishes 13-5, or even 14-4, Colorado could potentially split the Pac-12 title. At worst (assuming things don’t collapse), they should finish second or third with a top-6 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Tier 2: Very Dangerous
3. Arizona Wildcats
When Arizona is on, they’re the best team in the conference. We saw that firsthand as they dome-rocked the Buffs in Tucson. But they have been erratic this season, as they have lost six of their past ten games, including a blowout at Oregon State and a collapse at Arizona State. This team is so reliant on freshmen stars and hit-or-miss veterans that anything can happen any given night.
It’s hard to include them with Colorado and Oregon in the Pac-12 title contenders because they already have 3 conference losses. If the Pac-12 winner finishes 14-4 or 13-5, there’s very little margin for error for Arizona. KenPom.com projects them as likely winners in all their remaining games, but it’s hard to see Arizona not slipping up. They still have Oregon at home, Stanford on the road, and two games each against Washington and USC. If any of those non-Oregon teams want to prove themselves, catching Arizona off guard would be a welcome sight.
Tier 3: Fake Contenders
4. USC Trojans
USC is a very talented team that’s extremely long and athletic with veteran role players who shoot the lights out. Their issue, however, is that they’re a less talented Arizona with a much worse coach. The comparison isn’t foolproof — Nico Mannion is much better than Ethan Anderson, while Nick Rakocevic is miles ahead of Chase Jeter — but it’s more of a visualization of their strengths and weaknesses. In any case, USC is going to give CU problems this week, particularly Jonah Mathews on the wing and Onyeka Okongwu at forward.
USC could hypothetically be a contender, but they’re 16-4 (5-2) against a soft schedule. The only good teams they’ve beaten this season are LSU and Stanford, both in Los Angeles. They still have two sets against the Arizona and Mountain schools, in which they probably win five of eight at best. Yes, it’s possible they contend for the Pac-12 title, but I don’t think it’s possible with their remaining schedule.
5. Stanford Cardinal
Stanford was sitting in first place the past few weeks, but it’s easy to go undefeated against Cal, Washington and Washington State at home, and UCLA on the road. Since then, the Cardinal lost at USC in overtime (hardly a crime) and at Cal (irredeemable). They still have road trips to Utah/Colorado, Washington and Oregon, and it’s not like they will have anything resembling home court against Oregon, Arizona and Colorado. Stanford is still very good and play excellent team defense, but their limit is NCAA Tournament bubble team.
Tier 4: Upset Threats
6. Washington Huskies
We saw against Washington just how overpowering their talent can be. Isaiah Stewart is one of the most productive big men in the country, while Jaden McDaniels is freaky gifted if inconsistent. Elsewhere on the floor, the Huskies are starting guards who are clearly not ready to pay major minutes in a power conference. This team is better than their 2-6 conference record, but they will continue to frustrate everyone. The only consolation is that they’re going to beat someone good with their elite defense, hopefully Arizona.
7. Arizona State Sun Devils
Other than Arizona, the Sun Devils are the most high-variance team in the conference. They run the floor, chuck shots and press on defense. If they get hot, it’s easy for opponents to collapse under the pressure, as Arizona did on Saturday. If they go cold, like they have been most of the season, they will hard work but likely fall short. Whatever happens, they’re a pain to play and I’m personally glad CU doesn’t have to play them again (for now).
8. Utah Utes
Utah started the season with prominent highs (beating Kentucky) and lows (losing to Coastal Carolina and Tulane) but they have since settled into being a mediocre team. They’re 351st out of 353 teams in experience, so this should be expected. They have promising players and an elite coach in Larry Krystkowiak who will develop these kids into a scary team sooner than later. Maybe that will materialize in some upsets down the stretch, as they will play Stanford, USC and Colorado at home.
9. Oregon State Beavers
The Beavers beat down Colorado and Arizona, but those are somehow their only two Pac-12 wins. Oregon State only has two real offensive players in Tres Tinkle and Ethan Thompson, so opponents have realized that they can focus entirely on them and OSU won’t have an answer. Pac-12 opponents are shooting 48% from the field and 38% from three, good for 10th and 11th best in the conference. The Beavers will host the Buffs later on, so we will find out soon enough if they truly are broken.
Tier 5: Unforgivable Losses
10. Washington State Cougars
11. UCLA Bruins
12. California Golden Bears
I have no idea how Oregon lost to Wazzu. Oregon State losing at home to UCLA speaks volumes to have how far the Beavs have fallen. Cal is the worst rated team in power conference basketball.