Isn’t this exactly where we expected to be at the midpoint of Pac-12 play, staring at a bloated midsection that’s thicker than a cross-country trucker’s?
More than half of the conference’s 12 teams are saddled with three or four conference losses. The outliers have been almost as predictable as the parity — Arizona on top, USC and Washington State on the bottom — but now that Oregon State has thrust itself into the middle of the heap, the conference is heading for an exciting second stanza.
The Beavers are joined by Colorado, Arizona State, Stanford and Washington at 5-4. Cal and UCLA are a game ahead at 6-3. The rest of the conference is either coasting toward a high seed in the NCAA tournament or facing abject failure.
Exactly what we thought.
“This goes back to the thing we all talked about before conference play — there’s eight or nine teams that are really good, and I’d throw a couple others in — Oregon is not in that logjam; Utah is not,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “I think this conference is really deep and not necessarily should be judged by the top end, but on the bottom end and the middle. Heck of a league, lot of parity, any given night anything can happen.”
Two weeks ago, USC proved that by beating Cal.
Saturday night, Cal proved it by beating Arizona.
Oregon State has beaten UCLA and lost to Utah.
Washington State lost to Oregon by 27 and beat Washington by five. The Huskies beat Oregon.
Round and round, the carousel spins.
“Our conference, from top to bottom, is very, very good, very competitive,” Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins said. “It’s going to be a race that comes down to the end. Everyone is capable of beating everyone in this conference.”
Last season, the Pac-12 had a glut at the top and in the middle, but the parity ended up dooming the conference. UCLA finished with a 13-5 conference record and a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament. Arizona, Oregon and Cal each had 12-6 conference records, Colorado slid in at 10-8 and four teams — Arizona State, Stanford, Washington and USC went 9-9 — in Pac-12 play. The Wildcats also got a No. 6 seed for their efforts, Colorado was a No. 10 seed and Cal and Oregon were each No. 12 seeds, though both racked up first-round upsets over No. 5 seeds.
Now, with Arizona losing forward Brandon Ashley for the season with a foot injury and seven other teams within three games of the top of the heap, the conference is again in flux.
This weekend brings with it an added sense of urgency now.
“The way the league is set up, these games are gonna mean something at the end,” Oregon State coach Craig Robinson said. “It’s going to mean something in the league title. You look at Arizona; they lose a key player like Ashley, and all it takes is for them to lose a couple games, and then if you have four losses, you’re right there.”
If anything, the jam-packed middle has caused gridlock, and all eight teams are fighting for prime positioning.
The parity has breathed new life into teams who thought the chips were down and refocused teams that even just a few games ago felt out of it.
“You can’t have the luxury of putting your head down and getting disappointed,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. “You’ve got to go out and produce.”