Column: Crucial three-week stretch will determine UA's fate in Pac-12
Survive and advance. That’s become the theme of the Pac-12 conference through the first two weeks of play.
And so far, Arizona men’s basketball team has done the best job of living up to that theme, posting an unbeaten 4-0 conference record with home wins over Utah and Colorado, accompanied by the recent road sweep of Stanford and Cal.
Only two other schools have been able to keep pace with the perennial contenders in red and blue: Washington and Oregon State, who both have 3-0 conference records. If you were to be exact, the Wildcats technically stand alone in first place in the conference by a .5 game margin.
Although, who’s keeping track, right?
The Wildcats, 13-4, have now won six games in a row — the longest winning streak among the 11 other conference teams — with the Washington Huskies right behind at a five-game streak. The upward trend is starting to gain attention outside the conference, too, as Arizona received eight votes in the Jan. 14 AP Poll, the most UA has garnered since Dec. 3.
But despite the impressive start, the Wildcats haven’t separated themselves as the conference favorite. At least not yet.
Beginning Thursday, Arizona begins its toughest three-week stretch of the season, and how the Wildcats navigate the five-game path will determine whether or not the conference championship will remain in Tucson.
As it stands, UA has faced just one Pac-12 team ranked in the top 100 of Kenpom.com’s adjusted rankings (Colorado, 87) and the ‘Cats, ranked 49th, are now set to face five top-101 teams in a row.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the upcoming opponents with Kenpom rankings:
Jan. 17: Oregon (10-6) – No. 46
Jan. 19: Oregon State (11-4) – No. 67
Jan. 24: at USC (9-8) – No. 101
Jan. 26: at UCLA (10-7) – No. 75
Jan. 31: at ASU (11-5) – No. 62
Two home games against the Oregon schools, who always seem to be a challenge to beat, followed by three straight road games won’t be quite the walk in the park as the previous four games have been.
So let’s run through the worst, best and most likely scenarios for the upcoming three weeks.
Worst case: (2-3)
We’ll start with worst first. Although it wouldn’t be impossible for Arizona to lose four or all five games — is anything ever impossible? — it’s highly unlikely and therefore isn’t making the cut for this segment.
However, if the Wildcats’ 4-0 start proves to be fool’s gold, and the shooting lapses witnessed in parts of the Cal and Stanford games return, then losing three of the next five games could happen.
In this case, the Wildcats get upset at home by one of the Oregon schools and then beat USC before falling to UCLA and ASU.
Best case: (5-0)
If I couldn’t pick Arizona to lose all five, why would it be plausible to win all five? Simple: the ‘Cats are trending in the right direction, and Oregon State has to travel to McKale Center to knock off Arizona. It’ll be hard to find someone willing to bet on the Beavers winning that one.
The other schools are all trending in the wrong direction. Yes, UCLA is 3-1 since firing Steve Alford and had an insane last-minute comeback against Oregon, but OSU exposed a lot of the Bruins’ offensive deficiencies, as they shot just 38 percent from the field and 10-21 from the free throw line against the Beav’s.
And this breakdown wouldn’t be complete without adding that ASU is 2-3 since beating then-No.1 Kansas in late December and hasn’t beaten Arizona in three years.
Most likely: (4-1)
Suffering one loss through this stretch seems like the most realistic outcome any way you slice it. Arizona takes down the Oregon schools at home but then loses one of the road games. My best guess would be either against UCLA or ASU, although USC feels like it could be one of those classic trap games.
Either way, the Wildcats have shown that they have the ability to close games out with both their offense and defense and therefore will be a tough opponent for any of the conference schools to beat.
While it is only mid-January and there’s basketball to be played after the upcoming five-game stretch, Arizona has the opportunity to distance itself in the conference, possibly for good. If the ‘Cats are able to win at least four of them, then — barring a late-season collapse — you’ll more than likely be seeing Miller and company cut down the nets once again in early March.
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