The trajectory of a two-month race changed in a matter of hours Saturday evening.
At 4 p.m., UCLA went public with the news that star guard Chris Smith would miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL.
At 8 p.m., Oregon unleashed a devastating second half to dispatch Stanford and improve to 3-0 in conference play.
Combine the Ducks’ performance with Smith’s absence – he was a Pac-12 Conference Player of the Year candidate – and clarity emerges:
The Pac-12’s regular-season title is now Oregon’s to lose, in our estimation.
The Ducks have the best combination of offensive playmakers, defensive versatility, depth and coaching. And they should only get better as former transfers Eugene Omoruyi (Rutgers) and Eric Williams (Duquesne) find their rhythm and starting guard Will Richardson returns from thumb surgery. (Richardson is expected back later this month.)
Meanwhile, the Bruins are adjusting to life without Smith, a 6-foot-9 guard and one of the conference’s most difficult matchups.
Other teams are lurking. Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado could contend if their guard play is consistent and they show competence on the road.
But the Ducks and Bruins appear best positioned for the long haul. We’ll know more about both after difficult road trips this weekend: The Bruins are in Arizona while the Ducks take the Mountain swing.
In each case, a split counts as success.
But one team, Oregon, is better equipped to sweep.
To the power ratings …
1. Oregon (8-1/3-0)
Last week: 2
Results: Beat Cal 82-69 and Stanford 73-56
Next up: at Colorado (Thursday)
Comment: The Ducks are No. 16 in the latest Pomeroy efficiency ratings, the only Pac-12 team in the top 20.
2. UCLA (7-2/3-0)
Last week: 1
Results: Beat Utah 72-70 and Colorado 65-62
Next up: at Arizona State (Thursday)
Comment: The task of replacing Smith’s production will fall to several players, but keep close watch on wing Johnny Juzang, a transfer from Kentucky.
3. Colorado (7-3/1-2)
Last week: 5
Results: Won at USC 72-62, lost at UCLA 65-62
Next up: vs. Oregon (Thursday)
Comment: The first NET ratings of the season were released Monday – that’s the NCAA Evaluation Tool, which guides the selection committee – and Colorado leads the Pac-12 with a No. 14 ranking.
4. Arizona State (4-3/1-0)
Last week: 3
Results: DNP at Washington or Washington State
Next up: vs. UCLA (Thursday)
Comment: The Washington trip was called off because of COVID, meaning the Sun Devils won’t have played in 22 days (since the loss to UTEP) when they take the court against UCLA. (Not unlike the football situation prior to hosting the Bruins.)
5. Arizona (9-1/3-1)
Last week: 8
Results: Beat Washington 80-53 and Washington State 86-82 (OT)
Next up: vs. USC (Thursday)
Comment: Escape in Pullman, combined with UCLA’s wobbly state, creates a prime opportunity for the Wildcats in advance of the trip to Eugene in two weeks.
6. USC (6-2/1-1)
Last week: 9
Results: Lost to Colorado 72-62, beat Utah 64-46
Next up: at Arizona (Thursday)
Comment: Top-tier talent plus bottom-tier consistency probably equals middle-tier finish.
7. Utah (4-3/1-2)
Last week: 4
Results: Lost at UCLA 72-70 and USC 64-46
Next up: vs. Oregon State (Wednesday)
Comment: Bold/not bold prediction of the week: Anytime the Utes shoot 13.6% from 3-point range, a loss is sure to follow.
8. Washington State (8-1/1-1)
Last week: 7
Results: DNP vs. Arizona State, lost to Arizona 86-82 (2OT)
Next up: at Cal (Thursday)
Comment: Fifteen feet separated the Cougars from a 2-0 start in conference play. They missed 18 of 37 free throws against Arizona.
9. Stanford (6-3/2-1)
Last week: 6
Results: Lost at Oregon 73-56; Beat Oregon State 81-71
Next up: vs. Washington (Thursday)
Comment: OSU game was originally scheduled for Thursday but delayed because of COVID-19 issues with the Beavers.
10. Oregon State (5-4/1-2)
Last week: 11
Results: Beat Cal 73-64; lost to Stanford 81-71
Next up: at Utah (Wednesday)
Comment: The Beavers are facing a quick-turn road trip with a Wednesday game in Salt Lake City. It’s like a Trail Blazers schedule.
11. Cal (5-6/0-4)
Last week: 10
Results: Lost at Oregon 82-69 and Oregon State 73-64
Next up: vs. Washington State (Thursday)
Comment: Guard Matt Bradley is the early front-runner for the Pac-12 One-Man Show of the Year award. He’s scoring 17.8 points per game, with no teammate averaging more than 10.
12. Washington (1-7/0-3)
Last week: 12
Results: DNP vs. Arizona State; lost to Arizona 80-53
Next up: at Stanford (Thursday)
Comment: With each passing blowout, the mid-December, three-point loss to Oregon makes less sense. How was it not 23?
Jon Wilner can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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