My how one week can change things up. The Ducks were sitting in an enviable position with a two game conference lead and all of the tie-breakers over their competitors. But a horribly ill-timed injury during a road trip that has historically tortured Oregon completely changed the race for the title.
The Ducks were so thoroughly beaten by Stanford that it's hard to see how Dominic Artis would have made a significant difference. But he might have been able to prevent a few of the 22 turnovers the Ducks accrued in a tight loss to Cal, which would have turned a damaging sweep into an understandable split. Now Oregon's margin of error is gone with a couple tough road games left on the schedule.
Handicapping the title race
Still, and it's because of the schedule. But an important caveat: If Dominic Artis misses more time, or is ineffective upon his return to the court, then all bets are off. The Ducks are clearly a different team without him. His return this week is possible, but not guaranteed. The Ducks could presumably handle Utah at home on Saturday, but Colorado certainly has the talent to win on the road if the Ducks continue to turn the ball over at such a high rate.,
Still, consider Oregon's remaining schedule. They have 5 games at home at Matt Court. Two of their four road games are against Washington State and Utah. And the Ducks will always hold that tie-breaker over Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA because they don't have to play those teams again.
Top challenger: Arizona
Arizona has a huge advantage over Arizona State because they have a one game lead over their rivals and have already beaten them in Tempe. If the Wildcats can defend home court (and that's a big if, as they have already lost one game, got taken into OT in another and struggled with Utah in a third) then they really only have to win a couple tough road games.
But a late trip to UCLA looms large after what happened to Arizona at home against the Bruins. Arizona MIGHT be able to afford one more loss. But if Artis comes back healthy the margin will be very, very thin.
Long shots: UCLA & Arizona State
The Bruins have now lost three of four, including an embarrassing home loss to their rivals. They also have 5 more road games and will host the Arizona schools. The Bruins probably have the most difficult schedule of the bunch. But those two games in Pauley against Arizona and Arizona State represent a significant chance to alter the conference race. If UCLA defends home court, who knows?
Admittedly, the Bruins need Oregon to lose twice and they need to win out. That's why it's a long shot. But you can't dismiss the chances of anybody within a game of the top at the halfway point.
Arizona State is in the same boat, except they have to visit Arizona and probably aren't quite as talented as the other three teams they are in competition with anyway.
Only if they win out: Cal & Stanford
Oddly, if either of these two teams won out, they would only need Oregon and Arizona to lose one other game each to take the title thanks to tie-breakers and the Pac-12's unbalanced schedule. I don't need to tell you that the odds of that happening are . . . steep.
This Week In The Pac-12
Team of the Week: Stanford
It pains me to do it, but Stanford beat the same two teams that Cal beat, but with significantly more authority. Their 24 point win over Oregon is only marginally less stunning after the Ducks lost to Cal. Chasson Randle and Josh Huestis were both spectacular over the weekend (Huestis pulled down 26 total rebounds) and Stanford looks like the non-contender most likely to impact the conference race down the stretch.
Game of the Week: USC 75, UCLA 71, OT
Honorable mention goes to Arizona State for scoring 92 points in regulation and losing. But whenever USC beats UCLA at Pauley in overtime that will probably earn the title of game of the week.
When UCLA came all the way back from 15 points down to tie the game in the final minute of regulation, then took the lead early in OT, they likely seemed poised to win. But USC hit their shots and a defense that held the Bruins to 38% shooting came up with enough overtime stops to win it.
Next Week In The Pac-12
Stanford at Arizona, 6:00 pm
Utah at Oregon State, 7:00 pm
Washington at UCLA, 6:00
California at Arizona State, 6:30
Colorado at Oregon, 7:00
Washington State at USC, 8:30
Stanford at Arizona State, 4:00
Utah at Oregon, 5:00
Washington State at UCLA, 7:00
California at Arizona, 4:00
Colorado at Oregon State, 6:00
Washington at USC, 7:00
None of the top four teams in the standings play each other this week, which means that we have a series of intriguing games but no true marquee matchups. Interestingly, one could argue that the biggest game this week involves our Bears, particularly if both Cal and Arizona win their first games of the week.
What this week really represents is a chance for the teams at the top to put some distance between the teams in the middle. Oregon, Arizona, ASU and UCLA are all at home, and if they all protect home court they will find themselves with a three or four game cushion over everybody else with just seven games left in the regular season. The top four seeds in the conference tournament would be virtually decided and the regular season title would surely come from that group.
Stop that from happening, Bears.