On January 31st, Arizona's status as eventual Pac-12 champions seemed ironclad. The Wildcats had a three game lead over the entire field and had not yet been beaten. Kenpom pegged the Wildcats as having a 60% chance to walk away with the conference title before the first conference game was even played, so Arizona's odds must have certainly gone up from there.
Of course, you all know what happened next. Arizona lost to Cal, but more importantly, they lost probably their 2nd best player in Brandon Ashley to a season ending broken foot. Since then the Wildcats barely survived Oregon and lost an overtime thriller to Arizona State while their biggest challengers continued to win games. Suddenly Arizona only has a one game lead over UCLA and a two game lead over ASU and Cal. That basically amounts to a two game lead over all three, since the Wildcats are guaranteed to have the tie-breaker over UCLA.
In Arizona's defense, losing on the road by a combined 5 points to Cal and ASU, probably the 3rd and 4th best teams in the conference in some order, is hardly something to be ashamed of. But Arizona still has four tough road games (the Mountain and Oregon schools) along with hosting the always solid Bay Area teams, so there simply isn't an easy game on their schedule. It's completely possible that Arizona could go 4-2 or even 3-3 through that stretch, right?
Luckily for the Wildcats, their perfect start to the conference season earns them some breathing room. Even if Arizona loses two games, somebody is going to have to finish the conference season on a 6-0 run to take the title away (or force a split title). This conference is much too deep at the moment to make that a likely scenario. But it's nice to have the possibility when it looked like the race was over weeks ago.
This Week in the Pac-12
Player of the week: Jermaine Marshall
His run of scoring to save ASU in double OT would have been enough to win the award by itself. That it came as a capper to a 29 point effort is just gravy. Marshall gets overlooked because he plays with two players (Carson and Bachynski) who demand a ton of attention, but he has quietly been a very steady presence for the Devils.
Game of the week: Arizona State 69, Arizona 66, double OT
Probably game of the year, considering it featured the conference's best team, two overtime periods, a pretty crazy comeback in the 2nd overtime, plus a little bit of ref controversy to keep people talking about the game.
My personal take is that I'm kinda glad it wasn't called, because that's a stupid way to decide a game, even if Jahii Carson annoys me. The controversy obscures an absurdly competitive game in which neither team ever led by more than six points and featured 16 lead changes. Wow.
Team of the week: Cal
Admittedly, ASU is probably the team of the week, but we already talked about them extensively. So let's talk about the only team that earned a road sweep last week, and somewhat shockingly the only team that has beaten Washington in Seattle (in part because UW hasn't hosted UCLA, Arizona or ASU, BUT STILL). Our Sturdy Golden Bears are still plagued by slow starts, but five road wins are 5 road wins, more than any other team in the conference.
If Cal can hold court at home they will be in very solid shape for March.
Disappointment of the week: USC
Congratulations to Utah for holding off USC for a an 8 point win that represents Utah's first road win of the entire season. Here are the reasons I am disappointed:
1. Utah, scheduling one road game in the non-conference schedule is super weak.
2. USC, helping Utah get their first win on the road is pretty embarrassing, especially because . . .
3. Cal, for giving USC their only conference win of the season. If Cal had won that game they would be one game back from the conference title with the tie-breaker in hand. GAHHHHHHHHH
Crazy ASU story of the week
Come on, ASU students. Embarrassingly early court rushes? So played out. Come up with your own thing.
Next Week in the Pac-12
Washington at Oregon, 6:00, ESPN2
Arizona at Utah, 7:00, Fox Sports 1
UCLA at California, 7:30, Pac-12 Networks
Arizona State at Colorado, 8:00, ESPNU
Washington State at Oregon State, 6:00, Pac-12 Network
USC at Stanford, 8:00, Pac-12 Network
Washington at Oregon State
UCLA at Stanford
Arizona at Colorado
Arizona State at Utah
USC at California
Washington State at Oregon
Important note: Wednesday night has the most nonsensical game assignments I have ever seen. I get that this stuff is set up prior to the season, but it's pretty damned comical that the best game of the night (Cal/UCLA) is on the network with the least viewers and the worst game of the night (Oregon/UW) is on the network with the most viewers.
But I suppose that's just a minor quibble with what is otherwise one of the best nights of Pac-12 action all year. Cal/UCLA is a HUGE game that doubles as a solid rivalry, but Colorado/ASU is almost as good. And Arizona/Utah could very well end up a thriller as well considering how well the Utes play in Salt Lake City.
Thursday night is very skippable, but Saturday brings two excellent games in Stanford/UCLA and Arizona/Colorado, and ASU/Utah on Sunday is probably worth watching as well.
As much as I love rivalry games, the best weeks in this conference happens when everybody is playing two games. It's a full 12 game slate this week, and at least half of the games should be competitive battles between two teams that think they can earn a 1st round bye in the conference tournament. How things might shake out in March will be much clearer next week.