A week ago, the Arizona Wildcats had just tied the Pac-12 record for biggest blown lead that turned into a loss, had dropped six of their previous 10 games and hadn’t won a road game all season.
Or was that just a week ago? Sometimes it’s hard to tell in the Pac-12, where perception can change quickly thanks to double-game road trips and, this season, because of a particularly competitive race.
At the calendar midpoint of the Pac-12 season, five teams sit in a loss-column tie for first place with three losses, and Arizona is suddenly one of them after sweeping Washington and Washington State last weekend.
Oregon, Colorado, USC and Stanford also have just three losses and the Wildcats have a particularly enviable position the rest of the way.
The Wildcats have six of their final 10 games at home, don’t have to go to Colorado because of the Pac-12’s unbalanced schedule — and one of their two remaining road trips is to the Bay Area, where Arizona enjoys routinely strong fan support and has swept four of its last five trips. (Let’s not forget the Wildcats also have three projected first-round NBA picks, too.)
But all of that might be something UA coach Sean Miller really doesn’t want the Wildcats to be thinking about now. During his weekly news conference Tuesday, Miller flashed a faint smile when asked if he felt the Wildcats now are in position to make a run for the conference title.
“You know, I never really felt when we lost a couple of close games that the bottom was falling out, and it’s so important for us not to get too carried away with what we just did,” Miller said. “I think the one thing that we’ve done so far is we’ve tried to take a very balanced approach and keep working on those things that are going to help us win.”
As such, Miller would probably be heartened to hear the way senior guard Dylan Smith answered in a separate interview Tuesday when asked the same question.
“It’s a good conference. Anybody can win on any given night,” Smith said. “I feel like definitely we are one of those teams who can make a push for the regular season and conference championship. We just have to keep our heads down and keep working.”
It’s a cliché, of course: Anyone can win on any night. But it was kind of true last season — remember when Washington State won by 14 at McKale Center? — and it is more so this season.
In all, 10 Pac-12 teams are clustered between three to six losses and the two below everyone else, Washington and Oregon State, have signature wins: The Huskies knocked off top-ranked Baylor early this season while the Beavers have beaten Arizona, Colorado, and Stanford already.
The difference this time is, in part because the Pac-12 went through nonconference play with a collective 73.9% winning record, the conference has four Top 25 NET teams. So beating up on each other now is something of a good thing: The more highly rated teams it has, the more Quadrant 1 and 2 opportunities are created.
“In conference play, it’s exciting ... it’s not a negative,” Miller said. “Road wins are hard to come by, home sweeps are coveted and that’s where we’re at as a conference right now. I think our Pac-12 conference is very healthy, and it’s going to continue to be healthy because we have some really good leadership right now.
“And if you look at our conference talent wise, the NBA draft speaks for itself on who they pick. You look at lottery picks, first round picks, second round picks (from the Pac-12) — this year is going to be even more. Our conference is littered with some of the best players in college basketball.”
Three of them are on his roster. In ESPN’s latest NBA draft board, Nico Mannion rates No. 8, Josh Green is 16 and Zeke Nnaji is 21. Then there’s Jaden McDaniels (10) and Isaiah Stewart (19) of Washington, plus Onyeka Okongwu (15) of USC.
That’s six of the top 21 players in total, plus more veteran NBA prospects such as Colorado’s Tyler Bey, Washington State’s CJ Elleby, Oregon’s Payton Pritchard and Oregon State’s Tres Tinkle.
“Our conference takes a back seat to nobody,” Miller says, “especially when you consider that our membership has only 12 teams.”
Twelve relatively evenly matched teams, and a bunch of evenly matched players and coaches. Not only is the race itself muddled but so are the individual ones.
Here’s how things look at the midway point:
Most likely winner: Oregon. The Ducks were the preseason favorite and they have a favorable schedule the rest of the way, with only eight games left, and five of those at home. Their three road games are at Oregon State, Cal and Stanford — so even if they lose one of their two Civil Wars ahead against the Beavers, it’s not unrealistic to peg Oregon for a 13-5 finish or better, which should be good enough to at least get a share of the title this season.
Colorado, meanwhile, must play five of its final seven on the road after hosting Cal and Stanford this weekend. That suggests the Buffs pretty much must sweep the Bay Area schools to stay in the hunt.
Stanford has it even rougher, with six road games left and a Feb. 15 home date with Arizona, which has never lost to the Cardinal under Miller, though Stanford’s success so far has opened a few eyes.
“Stanford being at the top, that’s pretty different,” Smith said.
Coach of the year: This award often goes to the coach who finished highest relative to expectations and, so far at least, that would be Stanford’s Jerod Haase. The Cardinal was picked to finish 10th in the conference’s official poll, having lost its best player (KZ Okpala) early to the NBA and a starter (Cormac Ryan) to a transfer — at a school where admissions hurdles make sudden spring additions nearly impossible.
“They’re a fun team to watch,” Miller said of Stanford, saying he would vote for Haase as coach of the year if the season ended now. “Jarod’s really done a great job coaching his team.”
Player of the year: Payton Pritchard, Oregon. The Ducks’ veteran point guard was the only player from the Pac-12 to make the Wooden Award’s late season Top 20 watch list, and he just might have a long shot at the whole thing.
So far, the veteran Oregon point guard leads the conference in scoring and assists while making game-winning plays against Washington and Arizona, among other heroics, while steadying Oregon’s usual mix of new freshman talent and transfers.
Freshman of the year: This one could be the most interesting race of them all, considering also that the league’s six top NBA draft freshman prospects don’t even include one of the conference’s best freshmen so far: Stanford guard Tyrell Terry.
It may come down to the freshman who is on the team that does the best. If it’s Arizona, that could result in split votes between Nnaji and Mannion. But, as with so many things in the Pac-12 this season, that will be a good problem for the Wildcats to have.