In a strange college basketball season, the Pac-12 isn’t necessarily stranger than any other conference. However, it’s a lot less defined than many.
North Carolina, Virginia, Miami, and Duke are good teams in the ACC. The first three will get particularly high NCAA tournament seeds.
The Big 12’s team-specific matchups produce plenty of plot twists — Texas sweeping West Virginia, Oklahoma losing at Kansas State for a second straight year, Baylor winning at Iowa State for a second consecutive season — but the league is once again very deep and cutthroat, rated highly by all the metrics and indexes.
Kentucky is still the best team in a crappy SEC. Not THAT much has changed in the South.
The Big East still has Villanova and a lot of other teams far below; Xavier is the one school which has risen to challenge the Wildcats in that corner of the country.
In the Pac-12, though, what the heck is going on around here?
Survivors inhabit an island, but this is an island they ought to want to leave. The rescue boat is coming… but which survivors will get a seat and reach the mainland?
Pac-12 basketball remains a mess, but in this final week of February, a few games are going to carry teams to different levels of safety.
The most immediate and acute form of safety is knowing that your at-large chances will live for at least another few days, giving you time to extend your life to the point that you can eventually extricate yourself from mortal danger. This is the situation faced by the two teams which will clash inside Gill Coliseum on Wednesday night. The Washington Huskies will make their way to Corvallis to take on the Oregon State Beavers in a picture-perfect example of a late-season bubble battle.
Huskies-Beavers is very close to a play-out game, in which the winner doesn’t punch a ticket, but the loser is pretty much done. This is much more the case for Washington, reeling after a recent four-game losing streak, but Oregon State is in no position to afford a homecourt loss to a team which is lower in the Pac-12 pecking order. This is OSU’s last home game against a team of appreciable quality. After hosting Washington State on Feb. 28, Oregon State will play its remaining Pac-12 games in Southern California (a USC-UCLA road swing to close the regular season) and Southern Nevada (Vegas, for the league tournament the following week). Travel and logistics will cut against the Beavers in March, so they have to arrive at their sun-soaked destinations with more of a margin for error. A loss to Washington on Wednesday will remove it.
Losing is not an option for either team in Corvallis.
The other Pac-12 team fighting for its life this week? The Colorado Buffaloes. The CU crew hosts the Arizona schools this week, and the Wildcats from Tucson are first up on Wednesday.
Colorado — which manipulated the RPI quite well in its non-conference schedule (tip of the cap, Tad Boyle, for doing your job) — is still much more likely than not to be in the Dance, but with that having been said, a loss to Arizona would mark a fifth loss in seven games. Given that a road trip to Utah beckons in early March, the Buffaloes would not own a lot of poker chips if they can’t seize this quality-win opportunity on their home floor in Boulder. We have seen teams occupy the 8-to-10 seed range in late February, only to tumble out of the tournament. (Hello, 2014 SMU.) It’s not a commonplace occurrence, but at least one team per season usually reminds us of the dynamic.
Colorado doesn’t want to be this year’s example. It can punch its ticket against Arizona… or it can wave off the rescue boat and insist on a drama-filled week in Vegas, where an opening-game loss in the Pac-12 Tournament can mean instant disaster.
Enough of the survivors just trying to stay alive. Other Pac-12 teams are more like the affluent family whose owners get drunk and crash the yacht against the rocks. Life and death don’t hang in the balance; the Coast Guard rescue boat will arrive to merely ship them back to port, where they can drive home to their estate and enjoy the good life again.
Which team, though, will be ready to get that upper-class rescue ride home and feel satisfied about its existence?
The Utah Utes, a very wobbly bunch of cagers (yes, that’s the old-school term for basketball players) not too long ago, have perked up and made the late-season run Oregon pieced together in 2015. This year, Utah is making the late charge — a sweep of the Southern California schools has led the Utes to their final three games, all in the comfort of the Hunstman Center in Salt Lake City. The Utes know that if they defend their home floor, they’ll be a top-two seed in the Pac-12 Tournament. Oregon’s still the favorite, but if the Ducks get swept by USC and UCLA in early March, a 3-0 finish by Utah would give the Utes a first outright Pac-12 championship.
What Oregon does lies outside of Utah’s control; the Utes just want to take down the Arizona team which went into Salt Lake City a year ago and prevailed in an extended defensive scrum, much like the 2014 edition of the same drama. Utah hardly ever loses at home, but its lair has been conquered in consecutive seasons by the same opponent. Forget about the Pac-12 title or even NCAA tournament seeding; Utah has maintained itself as a program under the leadership of Larry Krystkowiak, and standing up to the tested toughs from Tucson would mean the world to the Ute movement and its long-term future.
Arizona, for its part, faces the most demanding road trip of its season, the swing through the Mountain region of the Pac-12. A split would hardly rate as a bad result, but given the catbird’s seats occupied by Oregon and Utah, only a sweep would put the Cats in good position to wind up with the top seed in the Pac-12 Tournament yet again.
Washington, Oregon State, and Colorado on the life-or-death bubble.
Arizona and Utah, jostling with Oregon for a speedy return to the comforts of home.
The rescue boats for different tax brackets — and tournament brackets — are coming.
Which Pac-12 survivors will be the resourceful ones over the next few days?