Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Pac-12: ... And Down The Stretch They Come!

This is it, the stretch run.  Only three weeks remain in 2013's regular season, which in the Pac-12 means that there's only five games left for each team. Only five games to solidify seeding for the conference tournament, and make a case for NCAA inclusion. Talk about pressure...

A month ago, I took a look at the Pac-12 standings, and foolishly tried to make sense of the madness.  I took a stab at making some bold predictions, and whiffed on most of them.

No, the top three aren't as good as I thought they were.  Yes, ASU has proven that they have sticking power.  When did Cal decide they were any good? OH MY GOD WASHINGTON IS TERRIBLE.

As a result, no sweeping predictions today. There's just too much parity for me to go chasing curveballs in the dirt.  Instead, I'm taking a broader approach, discussing narrative and trends.  You know, what I'm good at.

Here are the current standings, along with each teams' closing schedule:
  1. Oregon - 10-3 - vs Cal, vs Stanford, vs OSU, @CU, @Utah
  2. UCLA - 9-4 - @USC, vs ASU, vs UofA, @WSU, @UW
  3. Arizona - 9-4 - vs UW, vs WSU, @USC, @UCLA, vs ASU
  4. ASU - 8-5 - vs WSU, vs UW, @UCLA, @USC, @UofA
  5. Cal - 8-5 - @Oregon, @OSU, vs Utah, vs CU, vs Stanford
  6. Colorado - 7-6 - vs Utah, @Stanford, @Cal, vs Oregon, vs OSU
  7. USC - 7-6 - vs UCLA, vs UofA, vs ASU, @UW, @WSU
  8. Washington - 6-7 - @UofA, @ASU, vs WSU, vs USC, vs UCLA
  9. Stanford - 6-7 - @OSU, @Oregon, vs CU, vs Utah, @Cal
  10. Oregon St - 3-10 - vs Stanford, vs Cal, @Oregon, @Utah, @CU
  11. Utah - 3-10 - @CU, @Cal, @Stanford, vs OSU, vs Oregon
  12. Washington St - 2-11 - @ASU, @UofA, @UW, vs UCLA, vs USC
Shake your head in amazement.  Despite all the injury woes, despite all the shaky play, Oregon still rides in front as the odds-on favorite to hold the #1 seed in Sin City.  With tie-breakers over both Arizona and UCLA, it'd take at least a 3-2 finish (and a 5-0 run from one of their rivals) to cost them the lead.  Big games against Cal and CU still loom, however, and Dominic Artis is still not back.  Without Artis, nothing is guaranteed in Eugene. 
With Artis still sidelined, Oregon desperately clings to their lead.
Speaking of Cal, where the hell did they come from? After a blas√© 3-4 start to Pac-12 play, where they split every two-game set they faced, they've since rolled off five wins in six, and have raced past much of the field to not only slip into tie for a top-four seed, but Tournament consideration as well.  I know Allen Crabbe is good, but damn.  If they steal a win at Oregon Thursday night, I wouldn't put it past them to sweep the rest.  No wonder Monty is fired up
A Crabbe-fueled run has Cal riding high.  Pac-12 MVP honors await if they can finish.
While Cal has been red hot, Washington has bottomed out.  After beating the Buffs to improve to 4-0 in conference play, they lost seven of eight to crash into the bottom third.  Their lone win over that stretch?  A barn burner 96-92 home win over ASU.  I just don't get either of those teams.

Our Buffs continue to flirt with greatness.  Only four single-possession losses to Arizona, UCLA, Utah, and ASU separate CU from a sterling 11-2 mark.  If only...  Wistfulness aside, the team is about where I expected them to be entering this final stretch.  4-1 (possible) or 3-2 (likely) over the final five would be a fitting finish to a strong, not great, season.
CU has been hit-or-miss in close games this year.  Evan Gordon knows. From: ESPN
Arizona and UCLA - the preseason favorites - still lurk a game out of first.  Arizona may be the leagues' highest-ranked squad, but they hold the short stick in almost every tie-breaking scenario, having lost their only games against Oregon and Cal, in addition to the first round of the UCLA twin-bill.  It would behoove the Wildcats to win in Pauley next week to ensure themselves of avoiding the #3 or #4 seeds, and a possible rubber match with CU in the Pac-12 quarter-finals.

You can make a compelling Tournament argument for each of the top-6 squads. As of this morning, Lunardi even has all six in the bracket. What a change from last season, when the Pac-12 could only vaguely muster one or two teams worth giving a damn about.

I'm still not convinced, however, that the Pac-12 will get six bids - I just don't think it's that strong of a league. I expect one, if not two, of the top-six will get their bubble burst over the next three weeks.  Cal seems to be in the most trouble; a 3-2 finish won't do it for them, they'll need a statement win over either Oregon or CU to make the Dance.  Same with ASU, I doubt a 3-2 finish will be enough.  They'll need a road win over either UCLA or 'Zona to feel safe.
Can Lurch and the Sun Devils *ahem*  elbow their way into the Tournament?
As for the Buffs, they appear safe.  Even a 3-2 finish, assuming those two losses don't feature either Utah or Oregon St, should be enough to slip into the Dance.  High five, top-25 RPI!

Regardless, after last season's Selection Sunday horror show, where even regular season champion Washington was snubbed, it's nice to be in a situation where more than just the top few teams are carrying Tournament hopes.

From here on out, the best strategy is to just to win.  Bubble watching and schedule plotting rarely lead to the Dance, so do like Al Davis and just win, baby!  I'll tell you right now, none of the six bubble squads will be denied if they go 5-0 over the stretch run.

With carrots galore out there to keep teams interested, these final three weeks should be crazy.

I can't wait.

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