Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

How I think the Pac-12 race will shake out

Adam Butler, from, re-tweeted a scary scenario yesterday.  There's a surprisingly decent chance that the Pac-12 could see a 5-way tie for first place come Sunday evening. 

That scenario only underlines the chaotic nature of this season's inaugural Pac-12 race.  No one team has proven consistent enough to claim the title of front runner, and the current leaders all face tough road stretches to end the year, leaving the final outcome muddled and frantic. 

With everyone having played each other, and only a month of hoops remaining on the schedule, I think it's an appropriate time to try and make sense of it all... before the conference further confuses things.

I might as well start with the current leaders, Washington.  They may sit alone in 1st, buoyed by a 5-game win streak, but they reside behind a massive tie-breaker 8-ball, having lost to each of the teams currently residing in 2nd (Cal and Colorado).  Much like the Buffs, they play most of their remaining schedule on the road (five of seven).  Add to it some serious free throw shooting woes, and I can't see them holding on to their tenuous lead.
Wroten and the Huskies currently lead, but will it last?
Cal, a preseason favorite to win, embarrassingly holds a loss to Washington St on its resume.  They're .500 over their last four contests, and seem to be wearing thin a bit.  Along with Washington and CU, they're stuck on the road for most of the stretch run, playing five of their final seven games away from Berkeley.  That includes a key matchup with the Buffs at altitude. 
How'd these guys lost to WSU?  Worst loss amongst the leaders.
Our Beloved Buffs sit in second, tied with the aforementioned Cal Golden Bears.  CU holds a nice looking tie-breaker over Washington, and don't have to play a return trip in Seattle to defend it.  The road will determine the Buffs fate, however, as they will, along with the other leaders, play the majority of their final games away from home.  Considering the Buffs have struggled outside of the CEC, I can't imagine that ending well.
Home wins have kept the Buffs near the top of a conference for the first time in 15 years.
Oregon makes for an interesting case.  They're the only team in the league who has proven capable of winning on the road, holding four big road victories in their back pocket, including a very enticing result over Arizona in Tucson.  The problem is, much like Washington, the tie-breaker scenarios are none too kind; UW, Cal, and CU all holding the advantage over the Ducks.  Oregon does still have time, however, as they have games remaining against all three that can even up the score.  Their closing schedule includes four of seven at home, but the full road-trip to the Bay Area remains to be played.
The Ducks have proven to be the toughest road team in the league.
Which leaves Arizona as the final contender.  Everyone seemed to forget 'Zona headed into conference play, with a few high profile non-con losses.  The Wildcats, however, have plugged along, carried by strong defense and timely shooting.  Their recent sweep in NorCal is the most encouraging set of road results in the conference to date, and that win over Cal gives them the permanent tie-breaker over the Golden Bears.  While a tricky trip to the Washington's remains, four of the final seven are at home.  Injury issues may play a factor.
The 'Zona win at Cal dramatically altered the Pac-12 race.

That buzzing sound in your ear is a stress induced headache, brought on by the exceedingly mediocre set of Pac-12 contenders.  As I said at the outset, no one looks comfortable at the top, so much so that the only possible outcome is a tie.  I think 5-way is a little extreme, but some manner of sister-kissing will rule the Pac-12 at the end.

I think Washington is about to fall hard.  I could easily see them losing both games in Oregon this weekend.  Same with the Buffs; the road is not the place CU wants to find themselves right now.  Look for both CU and UW to fall off the pace.

Oregon, being the only team proven capable of winning on the road, must be considered, but they've looked awkward against teams like Utah and USC in victory.  Not as statistically strong as the other contenders, I think a few too many splits down the stretch will keep them with the Buffs and Huskies, and off the lead.

I like Cal and Arizona to tie for the title, with 'Zona getting the nod due to the tie-breaker.  While they've slowed a bit over the past two weeks, the Golden Bears are still a strong team on paper, and their toughest remaining pair of games, against the Oregon's, is at home.  Arizona's recent performance in the Bay Area has me convinced that they can slog through to the kind of victories needed to claim a title.

As for the conference tournament, I feel that it is the definition of a crap shoot, with any of eight teams capable of catching fire, and their opponents, at the right time.  Certainly, hoop challenged squads like Utah, USC, ASU, ans WSU are out of it, but I could envision even roller-coaster groups like UCLA and Oregon St having a good stretch of games towards a title.

To that end, with randomness the call of the day, I decided to literally pick a winner out of a hat.  I tossed 16 slips of paper (two per team) into a well-worn cap of mine left lying around the office.  After ensuring the mix was well tossed, an underling was asked to pick the winner and a runner-up.  The results, Arizona over UCLA in the final.  Book it.

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