The Pac-12 race is tracking as projected, with two primary exceptions: Arizona State and USC.
The Sun Devils are performing well below expectations; the Trojans, well above.
The former has tumbled off the NCAA Tournament bubble; the latter is positioned for an at-large berth.
ASU has been without key rotation players each week. USC has played with its core largely intact.
Their contrasting fortunes are indicative of the chaotic season as it unfolds in staggered fashion.
With one of the top seniors in the country and a loaded perimeter unit, the Sun Devils (4-6, 1-3) were picked second in the Pac-12 preseason media poll but are currently in 10th place.
Only three rotation players have been available for all 10 games because of COVID protocols, personal issues or, in one instance, mononucleosis.
Star guard Remy Martin missed the recent homestand against the Los Angeles schools to attend his grandfather’s funeral.
And when the key players have been available, their defense has been AWOL.
Since a December 13 victory over Grand Canyon, the Sun Devils have lost five games to COVID and four games to other teams.
Viewed as one of the Pac-12’s best bets for March Madness, they seemingly need to win the Pac-12 tournament in order to qualify.
Meanwhile, USC would be a mid-level seed if the tournament field were selected today.
Projected to finish sixth in the preseason media poll, the Trojans (11-2, 5-1) are currently alone in second place, one game back of UCLA in the loss column.
Led by freshman big man Evan Mobley, potentially the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, the Trojans have won six in a row and eight of their past nine.
Their December losses to Connecticut and Colorado look better now than at the time.
Their defensive efficiency is No. 19 nationally in the Pomeroy ratings and, in a twist from prior seasons, USC is finding ways to win close games.
But a rugged stretch – perhaps a defining stretch – awaits the Trojans:
They play three road games in five days this week, followed by home dates with Oregon and UCLA at the midseason turn. At the same point in the calendar, Arizona State’s schedule softens.
By the time the stretch run arrives, the Trojans and Sun Devils won’t be separated by eight places in the standings. Given the fluid nature of the pandemic season, they might even be tied.
1. UCLA (11-2/7-0)
Last week: 1
Results: Beat Washington State 91-61 and Washington 81-76
Next up: at Cal (Thursday)
Comment: Since Chris Smith’s season-ending injury, the Bruins have won five in a row and scored 80-plus points four times.
2. Colorado (11-3/5-2)
Last week: 3
Results: Beat Cal 89-60 and Stanford 77-64
Next up: at Washington (Wednesday)
Comment: We flipped the Buffaloes and Oregon this week based on CU’s four-game winning streak – including a head-to-head victory – and the Ducks’ COVID pause.
3. Oregon (9-2/4-1)
Last week: 2
Results: DNP vs. Arizona State, DNP vs. Arizona
Next up: vs. Oregon State (Saturday)
Comment: The makeup date with UCLA scheduled for Tuesday has been pushed back two weeks and moved to Westwood, where it will be part of a three-game trip for the Ducks (two duels with the Bruins and one with USC).
4. USC (11-2/5-1)
Last week: 4
Results: Beat Washington 95-68 and Washington State 85-77
Next up: at Oregon State (Tuesday)
Comment: In ESPN’s latest Bracketology, the Trojans are a No. 6 seed (along with UCLA, Colorado and UConn).
5. Arizona (10-3/4-3)
Last week: 9
Results: Beat Oregon State 98-64, DNP at Oregon
Next up: at Arizona State (Thursday)
Comment: Not sure the Wildcats are truly deserving of this placement (or the four-spot jump after winning in Corvallis). But this week, they are the best of bad options.
6. Arizona State (4-6/1-3)
Last week: 5
Results: DNP at Oregon, lost at Oregon State 80-79
Next up: vs. Arizona (Thursday)
Comment: Three-game homestand against the Wildcats and Bay Area schools is, in our view, ASU’s last stand.
7. Stanford (8-5/4-3)
Last week: 6
Results: Lost at Utah 79-65 and Colorado 77-64
Next up: vs. USC (Thursday)
Comment: The Cardinal were 9 for 35 from 3-point range last week at altitude. To avoid another sweep, the perimeter shooting must improve back at sea level. (Stanford’s “home” games are a few blocks from the ocean in Santa Cruz.)
8. Washington State (9-4/2-4)
Last week: 7
Results: Lost at UCLA 91-61 and USC 85-77
Next up: vs. Utah (Thursday)
Comment: Despite their lost weekend in L.A., the Cougars continue to operate closer to their ceiling than most teams in the conference. They’re simply a few playmakers short.
9. Utah (5-6/2-5)
Last week: 8
Results: Beat Stanford 79-65, lost to Cal 72-63
Next up: at Washington State (Thursday)
Comment: Outscored by 21 points in the second half, at home, by a one-win opponent without its best player? Even if it’s your fourth game in eight days, it’s a bad, bad loss.
10. Oregon State (6-5/2-3)
Last week: 10
Results: Lost to Arizona 98-64, beat Arizona State 80-79
Next up: vs. USC (Tuesday)
Comment: What we most admire about the Beavers is their consistency.
11. Cal (7-8/2-6)
Last week: 11
Results: Lost at Colorado 89-60, won at Utah 72-63
Next up: vs. UCLA (Thursday)
Comment: Whatever Mark Fox said at halftime in Salt Lake City, he should get tattooed on his forehead: The first 90 seconds of the second half changed the game.
12. Washington (1-11/0-7)
Last week: 12
Results: Lost at USC 95-68 and UCLA 81-76
Next up: vs. Colorado (Wednesday)
Comment: For all their struggles, the Huskies only lost to UCLA by five points and to Oregon by three. The common thread? Quade Green scored 25 against the Bruins and 26 against the Ducks.
Jon Wilner can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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