Is Arizona one win away from the Pac-12 title?
In one sense, well, obviously not. The Wildcats still have eight regular-season games to go, a whole month’s worth of twice-weekly basketball, and anything can happen — from unforeseen losses to unexpected opposition surges — in that healthy amount of time. In another sense, though? Yeah. The Wildcats kind of are.
In many ways, the state of the Pac-12, and the Wildcats’ remarkable surge to its top perch, hinges on the marquee game of the weekend: No. 5 Arizona at No. 13 Oregon (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App).
Now 21-2 overall and 10-0 in league play, the Wildcats will arrive in Oregon to face the team that began the season ranked No. 5 in the Associated Press poll, and which has spent most of the past two months on a similar upward trajectory — complete with the extended stretch between losses (Arizona hasn’t lost since Dec. 3; Oregon went 16-0 between Nov. 21 and last week’s road loss to Colorado). In the “one game at a time” era, Arizona makes the trip to Eugene knowing (if not admitting) that if it leaves Matthew Knight Arena with a win, not only will the Wildcats have two games of separation between themselves and the Ducks, but they will enjoy that separation while facing a remarkably favorable remaining schedule, relative to their putative challengers.
After Saturday (and Jan. 21’s win at UCLA), Arizona has one game left against the Oregon-UCLA duo most likely to knock them off: Feb. 25, at home, vs. UCLA. The only remaining road games for coach Sean Miller and the Wildcats? At Washington State, Washington and Arizona State. League road games are never easy, blah blah blah, but let’s be real: Arizona should win all three of those games. Otherwise, the two best teams on the schedule — decent-but-hardly-spectacular Cal and USC — both travel to Tucson.
Oregon, on the other hand, still has to go to UCLA, USC and Cal. The Bruins, meanwhile, still have a home game against the Ducks, and that Feb. 25 road trip to Arizona, and a quasi-home game against crosstown rival USC, and they’re already three games behind the Wildcats to begin with. Anything can happen; bad teams can beat good ones with no prior warning; college basketball is gonna be college basketball. But still: The state of the Pac-12 contenders, and in particular their remaining schedules, makes an Arizona win at Oregon a bona fide possible conference title-decider.
That last bit only makes Arizona’s current occupation of the proverbial catbird seat seem even crazier. Trier’s breakout-star potential as a rising sophomore was profound, making his previously unexplained absence all the more puzzling. That the Wildcats were able to sustain a top-15 operation without him for so much of the season was impressive on its own. Lauri Markkanen‘s even-better-than-expected freshman season, in which the 7-footer has worked the post and the 3-point line to similarly impressive levels of efficiency, is a major reason why. But Miller’s ability to plug the gaps with guys like Kobi Simmons and Kadeem Allen, and to get his team to defend at a high level, ranks among the best coaching performances of the season.
Trier’s return — which, thanks to the NCAA’s stipulation that it must happen only after trace amounts of a performance-enhancing drug left his system, could have come at any point — presented its own awkward challenge. Suddenly, a ball-dominant guard jumped straight into the lineup, with no guarantees that things would go smoothly. Yet after four games, Trier is not only scoring efficiently on the offensive end — he’s made huge leaps as a distributor and, particularly, as a defensive rebounder, an area where Arizona, already good, now has a chance to be great.
Despite Trier’s return, and his team’s deserved rise in the polls, the Wildcats maybe still don’t feel quite like they’re getting the kind of national-title consideration as, say, the Villanovas, Kentuckys and Kansases of the world.
Despite the loss at Colorado, you could perhaps make the same argument about the Ducks, who like their visitors Saturday struggled early, picked up a couple of losses, and have since been quietly chugging along. Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell are still brutal on the defensive interior; Dillon Brooks, when not committing crimes against the art of flopping, is still one of the trickiest matchups in the country; and Dylan Ennis, Tyler Dorsey and Payton Pritchard are stretching defenses from beyond the arc. The Ducks are, per possession, the best defensive team in the Pac-12. Arizona is No. 2. Both come in just behind — OK, a fair ways behind — UCLA on the offensive end. (If only the Bruins could guard.)
Point is, expecting Arizona to go to Eugene and get a win is unfair. But considering it well within the range of possible outcomes is not. If the Ducks do hold serve, Miller’s team will still sit in a tie for first place in the conference standings — with an easier schedule than the Ducks, and still two games ahead of UCLA. And if Arizona wins, it won’t be a stretch to call the Pac-12 title chase then and there.
Give the Wildcats credit for holding on for a 90-81 overtime win at home Wednesday against Georgia without guard De’Aaron Fox in the lineup. It was the kind of grind-it-out victory good teams have to figure out in the heart of conference play. But also acknowledge this: An SEC season that began with Kentucky pulverizing everything in its path has gotten complicated, and fast. That UK was in an overtime tussle with the Bulldogs in its own building — just after a road loss at Tennessee, followed by a home defeat to Kansas — is a sign that things aren’t going to be quite as effortless as the first three weeks of January made them seem. That will be especially true Saturday, as Kentucky goes to the O-Dome to face a Florida team with the size to match Bam Adebayo & Co. on the low block, a top-10 adjusted-efficiency defense, and a better-than-you-think, no-frills offense on the other end.
How good is Maryland, anyway? Statistically speaking, the Terrapins look solid enough but dangerously flawed, prone to turnovers (which they commit on a fifth of their league possessions) and shaky defensive rebounding (where they rank 14th in the Big Ten). Yet here they are, at 20-2, with a chance — in front of what will surely be a rowdy Xfinity Center — to move to 9-1 in the Big Ten. Indeed, this Terps team feels like a poor-ish man’s version of the breakout group from 2014-15, which went 28-7 and announced Melo Trimble‘s arrival while winning far more close games than stats would expect. Not that Maryland fans will mind; this season already has vastly exceeded their expectations, too.
There aren’t many easy stretches in the ACC this season; a game against a quality top-10 team (or at least a top-25) is always only a day or two away. Even so, the Irish could have used a little scheduling breather here. Having lost four of their past five games — which included a trip to Florida State, home losses to Virginia and Duke, and an upset at suddenly spry Georgia Tech — Mike Brey’s team now finds itself venturing to Chapel Hill, where the nation’s best offensive rebounding team per trip will look to pound the undersized, rebound-agnostic Notre Dame frontcourt after every single shot. The Irish excel offensively in part because they create awkward, spaced-out matchups for opponents; with the possible exception of Kennedy Meeks, the Tar Heels’ bigs move well enough that they might not mind. Oof.