We start with three issues for the week:
UCLA WINNING WITHOUT CHRIS SMITH
When UCLA lost Chris Smith, the Bruins only first-team all-conference selection last season, to a season-ending knee injury, it seemed UCLA was doomed. But UCLA is 5-0 in Smith’s absence and has climbed into the AP top 25 at No. 24. It’s difficult to see how they are doing it, though. Defense is supposed to be the Bruins’ strength under Mick Cronin, but the Bruins rank eighth in the conference in both points allowed and field-goal percentage defense. There is no one on the remaining roster you would call a star, and if you picked a five-man all-conference team today, the Bruins probably would not have a representative.
Two things are saving the Bruins:
1. They are winning close games. Five of UCLA’s seven conference wins have come down to the wire, the margin being three points or fewer with less than 10 second left in regulation. The Bruins even trailed last-place Washington at home with 3 ½ minutes left last week. But the Bruins won all five of those cliff-hangers, because they know how to get stops and get good shots in those possession-by-possession moments in the closing minutes.
2. Scoring balance. UCLA has six players scoring in double figures – five without Smith – but none is averaging more than 13.2 points. The old cliché – “We have a different star every night” – is actually true in UCLA’s case. In UCLA’s past six games – all Pac-12 wins – six different players have led the Bruins in scoring. The leading scorers in those six games were Jules Bernard (vs. Washington), Johnny Juzang (Washington State), Tyger Campbell (Arizona), Cody Riley (Arizona State), Jaime Jaquez Jr. (Colorado) and Smith (Utah). Nobody has led the team in scoring in back-to-back games since Jaquez did it against San Diego and Marquette more than a month ago.
IS ARIZONA STATE REALLY THIS BAD?
When Remy Martin opted to stay at Arizona State rather than enter the NBA draft, the Sun Devils became a Pac-12 title contender. They were picked to finish second in the Pac-12 (in a close vote), and were ranked 18th in the preseason AP poll. With their firepower (Martin, Alonzo Verge Jr., and highly rated freshmen Josh Christopher and Marcus Bagley), the Sun Devils looked like the Pac-12 team with the best chance to win some postseason games. But they have not won a game since Dec. 13, and they are 4-6 overall, including 1-3 in the conference. They are in serious danger of not making the NCAA tournament field at all.
Defense and ballhandling are problems. ASU ranks 11th in the Pac-12 in field-goal percentage defense (44.9) and last by a sizable margin in turnovers (17.2 per game). Those numbers make it look like the Sun Devils have not practiced much, and that’s the case.
Because of virus-related interruptions ASU went 22 days between games at one point and practiced very little in that stretch when the program was paused. That lull is particularly harmful when freshmen are a major part of the plan.
All four of those aforementioned scoring threats are averaging more than 13 points a game but Christopher is the only one who has not missed at least two games.
The Sun Devils have lost two close conference games, falling to UCLA in overtime and suffering a one-point loss to Oregon State on a Warith Alatishe bucket with four seconds left. So they're not far off.
Don’t count the Sun Devils out. They have the weapons to go on a winning streak.
NOTHING BUT NET
Colorado dropped from No. 7 to No. 9 from Tuesday to Wednesday in the NET rankings, which will be used by the NCAA tournament selection and seeding committee. But the Buffaloes are the only team in the top 10 in the NET rankings that is not ranked in this week’s AP top 25. In fact, Colorado is the only team from a power conference that is among the top 20 in the NET rankings and not ranked in the AP poll. Take from that what you will.
Now we forge ahead to our weekly categories:
Top Five Teams (at the Moment)
---1. UCLA (11-2, 7-0) – The Bruins don’t look dominant, but they don’t look beatable either.
---2. Colorado (11-3, 5-2) – The Buffs have won four straight, and we can’t just ignore the No. 9 NET ranking.
---3. Oregon (9-2, 4-1) – The Ducks have not played since Jan. 9, and the layoff is a concern.
---4. Arizona (10-3, 4-3) – Wildcats are lurking under the radar, and that 34-point road win over Oregon State last Thursday made an impression.
---5. USC (8-2, 3-1) – The Trojans might have been No. 2 before that Tuesday loss to Oregon State ended their six-game win streak.
---1. Chris Duarte, Oregon (18.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.5 steals, 45.6 3-pt%) – No Pac-12 player affects the game at both ends like the Ducks’ star.
---2. McKinley Wright IV, Colorado (15.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 53.0 FG%) – He’s the chief reason the Buffaloes have won four straight.
---3. Oscar da Silva, Stanford (19.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 61.1 FG%) – He slipped two spots in our rankings but is still a player-of-the-year contender.
---4. Evan Mobley, USC (15.9 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.0 blocks) – He has been less than dominant of late, however.
---5. Tyger Campbell, UCLA (11.9 points, 6.4 assists) – His numbers are not overwhelming, but he holds the Bruins together.
Pac-12 freshman-of-the-year standings
---1. Evan Mobley, USC (15.9 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.0 blocks) – Trojans need to find a way to get him the ball in scoring position more.
---2. Ziaire Williams, Stanford (11.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists) – Smooth as silk but the low field-goal percentage (36.7) and high turnover rate (10 in the two losses last week) are concerns.
---3. Josh Christopher, Arizona State (16.5 points, 5.3 rebounds) – He has scored in double figures in every game this season, but the Sun Devils are faltering.
---4. Marcus Bagley, Arizona State (13.3 points, 8.0 rebounds) -- Bagley averaged 17.0 points and 8.7 boards over past three games.
---5. Azuolas Tubelis, Arizona (11.2 points, 6.0 rebounds) – He’s been more consistent recently than freshman teammate Bennedict Mathurin (12.0 points, 4.8 rebounds).
Pac-12 Player of the Week
---Winner: Jabari Walker, Colorado – Granted, McKinley Wright IV was probably more important to the Buffaloes’ three-game sweep last week, but the unexpected contributions from the freshman Walker are what pushed the Buffaloes to another level in those three wins. In the two games preceding last week, Walker averaged 2.0 points, 2.5 rebounds and 4.0 personal fouls, and he had scored more than 10 points just once in the 11 games before last week. But in the next three games he averaged 16.3 points and 9.7 rebounds, while hitting 60 percent of his field-goal attempts, including 5-of-7 from three-point range.
---Runnerup: Benedict Mathurin, Arizona – The Wildcats played only one game last week, but in that 98-64 blowout of Oregon State, freshman Mathurin scored 31 points on 10-for-12 shooting, including 6-for-7 on three-pointers, and pulled down eight rebounds.
Team on the Rise
---Oregon State (7-5, 3-3) – Picked to finish last in the Pac-12, the Beavers bounced back from a 34-point loss to Arizona to beat Arizona State by a point, then end USC’s six-game winning streak to even their conference record.
Team on the Skids
---Stanford (8-5, 4-3) – That 18-point season-opening win over Alabama (No. 18 in this week’s AP poll) is looking better all the time, but last week’s two double-digit losses to Utah and Colorado with Daejon Davis back in the Cardinal lineup don't look so good.
Team on a Mystery Tour
---USC (11-3, 5-2) – The Trojans were starting to look like a monster with no bad losses this season and a six-game winning streak heading into this week. But then that mediocre performance in the loss to Oregon State on Tuesday makes us wonder again.
Numbers of Note
0 – Number of UCLA players among the top 15 Pac-12 scorers
0 – Number of UCLA players among the top eight rebounders in the Pac-12
0 – Number of UCLA players among the top six in the conference in field-goal percentage.
3 – Number of UCLA players among the top five in the Pac-12 in three-point percentage (David Singleton 50%, Chris Smith 50%, Jaime Jaquez Jr. 45.2%)
1 – Number of UCLA losses in its last 14 regular-season Pac-12 games dating back to last season. The Bruins were 5-5 in the conference last season immediately before this run.
3 – Number of Utah losses in its four-game homestand that ended with Saturday’s defeat against Cal, which recorded its first road win of the season.
3 – Number of times Utah blew a double-digit halftime lead in losses during that four-game homestand, including a 12-point halftime lead in the loss to Cal.
1-4 – Stanford’s record this season in games played at elevations of 2,000 feet above sea level or higher.
7-1 – Stanford’s record in games played at elevations lower than 2,000 feet above sea level.
40 –Number of days Arizona State will have gone without a win when it faces Arizona on Thursday.
10 – Consecutive field-goal attempts Oregon State’s Roman Silva made in the Beavers’ wins over Arizona State and USC before he missed his final shot against the Trojans. In 24 minutes of court time in those two games he had 21 points on 10-for-11 shooting. He had not scored more than six points in any of the previous eight games he had played this season.
3 – Number of free throws Oregon State’s Jarod Lucas has missed this season in 53 attempts. His 94.3 percent free-throw shooting ranks fourth in the country.
84.6 – Colorado’s team free-throw percentage, best in the nation as of Wednesday.
1 – Number of Colorado players among its top nine scorers who are shooting worse than 82 percent from the foul line. That one outlier is McKinley Wright IV, at 79.6 percent.
3 – Number of games USC will play in a five-day stretch this week.
28 – Consecutive home games Oregon has won, which is the fourth-longest active streak in Division I. The Ducks host Oregon State on Saturday.
Quotes of the Week
---“If we can beat Stanford, we can beat anybody, and if we lose to Cal, we can lose to anybody.” – Utah’s Timmy Allen, after the Utes beat Stanford on Thursday and lost to Cal on Saturday.
---“We’re going to have to start talking about UCLA in the national championship picture. They may cut down the nets. Tonight, mark it down.” -- Fox Sports 1 broadcaster Steve Lavin, a former UCLA coach, after watching the Bruins beat Washington State by 30 points last week.
---“We don’t have the first pick in the draft running around on our team. We don’t overwhelm people with athleticism. So everybody on our team has got to contribute.” – UCLA coach Mick Cronin, after his team rallied to beat last-place Washington by five points at Pauley Pavilion.
--“Isaac [Bonton] reached out to me and he said they’d been discussing it. Said they want to kneel and I said, ‘I have no problem with it.’ It’s America, we can express our beliefs and everything we want to do. So that was that.” – Washington State coach Kyle Smith, on his players’ decision to kneel during the national anthem before three recent games in response to the attacks on the U.S. Capitol carried out by supporters of President Donald Trump.
Top Upcoming Game This Week
---Saturday, January 23, 2 p.m. Pacific time, FOX – UCLA (11-2, 7-0 Pac-12) vs. Stanford (8-5, 4-3) in Santa Cruz, Calif. – The Bruins have won six straight, but the Cardinal is 4-0 at its home away from home.