We've reached the halfway point of the Pac-12 conference season, which is as good a time as any to take stock of where everybody stands (even if, because of unbalanced scheduling, every team hasn't played every other team once yet like in the past). What we see is that not much has really been decided yet. Seven teams sit within two games of first place and there hasn't been one team that has clearly demonstrated superiority from game to game or week to week.
Biggest surprise of the first half: The 6-3 Oregon Ducks, and it isn't even close. The Ducks had a brutal opening to the Pac-12 schedule with road trips to Washington and Arizona sandwiching a visit from the Bay Area schools, and they managed to go 4-2 in that stretch before sweeping the L.A. schools at home. A home loss to Oregon St. doesn't take away from the biggest surprise contender. I don't think Oregon has the horses to win the conference, but a kinder schedule in the 2nd half gives them a shot to prove me wrong.
Biggest disappointment of the first half: Stanford. This could have gone to many teams. I gave Oregon St. a break because their first half schedule was so tough. I gave Arizona a pass because they're unlucky (three losses by a combined 5 points). And UCLA escaped the award because based on their non-conference performance, a 5-4 first half might arguably be better than expected. ASU, WSU, Utah and USC? We all knew they were going to be bad.
So that leaves Stanford. After securing the best non-conference resume in the Pac-12, Stanford seemed like the best bet to keep Cal from winning the title. But the Cardinal have suffered four losses by double digits and barely escaped close games with UCLA, Oregon St. and Utah, and could just as easily be 3-6 right now. What happened to the team that almost beat Syracuse in New York?
First Half Player of the Year: In my mind there are only two candidates: Jared Cunningham and Jorge Gutierrez. Cunningham scores more, Gutierrez has a much better assist/turnover ratio. Cunningham has more steals but Gutierrez is the better rebounder. Their offensive ratings are virtually identical. Statistically it's essentially a dead heat. I'll break the tie by going with the guy whose team is 7-2 rather than 4-5. Hip hip!
First Half Freshman of the Year: Tony Wroten, but kinda by default. Wroten is a great talent and has certainly picked up his level of play since the conference season started. But he still has more turnovers than assists and can shoot the Huskies out of games at times. And yet he'll surely win in a landslide because few other freshman have strongly asserted themselves. The lack of big-impact freshman is a little scary when you consider the future of the conference. After Wroten the best freshman are Chasson Randle, Spencer Dinwiddie and DaVonte Lacy - fine players all, but none that really seem to warrant freshman of the year consideration.
I rarely make decent predictions, so I'd like to take a second to congratulate myself for predicting that there would be nothing worth watching last Thursday night. Sure enough, the average margin of victory was ~20 points and only Washington played down to the level of their opponents (as the Huskies seem to enjoy doing).
The week ended with four relevant results - let's go over them quickly:
UCLA 77, Colorado 60: It wasn't surprising that UCLA won, but a 17 point win was an eye-opener. Colorado did manage a win USC team but still hasn't really proven they can win on the road because USC has approximately 3.7 scholarship players left. The margin might have been a bit deceptive because UCLA shot 9-13 from three.
Washington 69, Arizona 67: Easily the game of the weekend. Solomon Hill's Herculean effort (28 points, 9-10 from the field, 11 rebounds) wasn't enough behind a balanced game from Wroten, C.J. Wilcox and Terrance Ross. Hill hit a game-tying 3 pointer with 7 seconds left, but freshman Josiah Turner picked a bad, bad time to try to draw a charge and gave UW two free points from the line. But the Wildcats almost tied it up again before Wroten saved the day with a block. Watch the highlights of the frantic final minute here, and answer this question: On the final shot, foul or no foul?
Oregon St. 76, Oregon 71: The Beavers were unlucky to enter the game just 3-5, while Oregon was lucky to sit at 6-2. Luck has its way of evening out over 18 games, and so OSU got the win at Matt Court behind 27 points from Jared Cunningham. The box score indicates a rather ugly game - 54 combined free throw attempts and 40 total turnovers sounds a bit sloppy - but Oregon St. is in no position to refuse wins. The Beavers may be too far back to win the conference title, but they'll have a big impact on the race because they have the talent to beat any team on any day.
Cal 69, Stanford 59: I don't have anything to say that hasn't already been discussed around these parts. Cal stays atop the conference and deals Stanford a potentially crippling blow - it's hard to envision the Cardinal overcoming a two game deficit on Cal and Washington.
Other noteworthy developments: Faisal Aden (WSU) and Dewayne Dedmon (USC) both picked up serious injuries and are likely out for the year. Meanwhile, Aaron Fuller USC) had surgery on his injured shoulder and will miss the year. One of these weeks I'm going to make a chart listing all of the players that are not playing for Pac-12 teams for various reasons. The chart will be incredibly sad.
Oregon St. at Colorado, 6:00
Oregon at Utah, 6:00
UCLA at Washington, 6:00
Arizona St. at Stanford, 7:00
USC at Washington St., 7:00
Arizona at California, 8:00
Arizona at Stanford, 12:00
Arizona St. at California, 2:00
Oregon St. at Utah, 2:00
UCLA at Washington St., 2:00
Oregon at Colorado, 6:00
USC at Washington, 8:00
I have no idea which games Bay Area folks will be able to watch, but I do know that both Cal games will be televised this week, so hooray for small victories!
UCLA/Washington and Arizona/Cal are the two big Thursday games. The Bruins have not fared well in Seattle even when Ben Howland had final four quality teams, so it will be interesting to see if UCLA can put up a fight. Arizona's loss to Washington takes away some of the luster from their game in Berkeley, but there's still plenty riding on the outcome for both teams.
And the best game on a mediocre Saturday slate is probably . . . Oregon at Colorado. Who would've predicted that two months ago? The loser will probably end the week two back of the leaders, but the winner will likely carry the torch as the unexpected contender for the rest of the season.