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Thursday, October 2, 2014 | Last updated: 1:24am

Pac-12 basketball race no longer clear with top teams hit



Along with national rankings and coveted RPI numbers comes the knowledge that conference leaders like Arizona and Oregon are going to get other teams’ best hits. That’s exactly what happened this weekend.

The Ducks took a punch straight to the gut from Colorado; Arizona, a shot to the jaw from Cal. Now the black-and-blue Pac-12 has eight programs separated by just two games as the conference carnage comes nearer to its conclusion.

“You got to be ready for every team’s best hit, best punch,” senior Solomon Hill said after a 77-69 loss to the Golden Bears. “That’s the respect that you have if you want to be a top-five, top-10 team. You got to be able to take everybody’s best punch and punch them back.”

Cal’s right hook landed squarely Sunday night, knocking the Wildcats off their short-lived perch at the top of the Pac-12. Now Arizona is in a three-way tie with Oregon and UCLA, with Arizona State lingering behind at 7-4 and four other teams at 6-5. A previously clear Pac-12 race is no longer existent, and while Arizona and UCLA are still the favorites as long as Oregon’s Dominic Artis remains injured, the final seven games could go any which way.

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“We can’t panic when we lose a game because it’s just hard to win every one of them,” head coach Sean Miller said after beating Stanford on Wednesday.

“It’s hard to win on the road. Heck, it’s hard to win at home. We have to stay with it, we can’t control who beats who.”

The Pac-12’s three punching bags — Utah, Washington State and Oregon State — remain fairly harmless, with the Utes occasionally giving opponents the most grief. But beyond that, any of the top eight have proven they can win on any given night, with Washington left as the enigma.

Cal’s victory at the McKale Center made that point exceptionally clear. Guard Allen Crabbe, the Pac-12’s leading scorer, was unstoppable, netting 31 points on 15 shots. When the conference’s most dangerous player is on a middling team, you know the overall talent level in the Pac-12 is up.

“Anything can happen in conference play,” Crabbe said. “If you catch a team slipping one night you have to take advantage of it. Fortunately [Sunday] was that night for us.”

The Golden Bears’ win, as well as the slip in play by UCLA and Oregon, also showed something else; the conference still has a way to go to regain its top-tier stature.

That’s not just the case for the Pac-12, though.

Five of the AP Poll’s top-10 teams, and 11 of the top 20, lost this past week. The No. 1 team in the country has gone down in five consecutive weeks and non-traditional basketball powers like Miami, Kansas State and Oregon are leading their respective conferences. It’s times like this where every college basketball fan should be giddy with excitement and full of passion for the most beautiful thing in the world — the NCAA tournament.

Take, for example, No. 3 Miami. It received 17 first place votes and has won 10 straight ACC games, but still sits behind No. 2 Duke in the rankings despite beating the Blue Devils by 27 three weeks ago. In the same breath, the Hurricanes are six spots ahead of the Wildcats, even though they have one fewer win (19), the same amount of losses (3) and suffered a 19-point defeat to Arizona on a neutral court in December.

Fortunately, these types of debates will be answered in March, but the NCAA Tournament is both a beauty and a beast.

March Madness provides the perfect system to crown an eventual champion, but it’s also a reason for all of the regular season parity, at least according to Miller.

“Everybody wants to be able to make the NCAA Tournament. It’s so coveted,” he said. “There are so many teams that are close.”

Because of the 68 spots now available, everyone gives top RPI teams all that they’ve got because a bid is always a possibility.

“You’re getting each team’s best shot: they’re practicing well, they’re preparing well, they want to win the game,” Miller said. “Many times they enter the game with nothing to lose and everything to gain. The responsibility that we have is that we have to be ready.”

With Arizona, Oregon and UCLA all losing to 6-5 teams at home within the past three games, the potential for Pac-12 bids to NCAA Tournament is rising; but each program’s overall seed is dropping. Before bubbles burst and dreams are made, though, the battle for the Pac-12 has to be answered.

And as the war drags on, things are getting more and more interesting. I guess Edwin Starr was wrong — war is good for something.

1. No. 9 Arizona (20-3, 8-3 Pac-12) Last Week: 1
This Week: at Colorado, at Utah
Week Six: W 73-66 vs. Stanford, L 77-69 vs. Cal

2. UCLA (18-6, 8-3) LW: 3
This Week: at Cal, at Stanford
Week Six: W 59-57 vs. Washington, W 76-62 vs. WSU

3. No. 23 Oregon (19-5, 8-3) LW: 2
This Week: at Washington, at WSU
Week Six: L 48-47 vs. Colorado, W 73-64 vs. Utah

4. Arizona State (18-6, 7-4) LW: 4
This Week: at Utah, at Colorado
Week Six: W 66-62 vs. Cal, L 62-59 vs. Stanford

5. Stanford (15-9, 6-5) LW: 5
This Week: vs. USC, vs. UCLA
Week Six: L 73-66 at Arizona, W 62-59 at ASU

6. Colorado (16-7, 6-5) LW: 7
This Week: vs. Arizona vs. ASU
Week Six: W 48-47 at Oregon, W 72-68 at OSU

7. California (14-9, 6-5) LW: 8
This Week: vs. UCLA, vs. USC
Week Six: L 66-62 at ASU, W 77-69 vs. Arizona

8. USC (11-13, 6-5) LW: 9
This Week: at Stanford, at Cal
Week Six: W 72-68 vs. WSU, W 71-60 vs. Washington

9. Washington (13-11, 5-6) LW: 6
This Week: vs. Oregon, vs. OSU
Week Six: L 59-57 at UCLA, L 71-60 at USC

10. Utah (10-13, 2-9) LW: 10
This Week: vs. ASU, vs. Arizona
Week Six: L 82-64 at OSU, L 73-64 at Oregon

11. Oregon State (12-12, 2-9) LW: 12
This Week: at WSU, at Washington
Week Six: W 82-64 at Utah, L 72-68 vs. Colorado

12. Washington State (11-13, 2-9) LW: 11
This Week: vs. OSU, vs. Oregon
Week Six: L 72-68 at USC, L 76-62 at UCLA

— Kyle Johnson is a journalism junior. He can be reached at
sports@wildcat.arizona.edu or on Twitter via @KyleJohnsonUA.


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