January 5, 2021
What did we learn from a weekend of epic showdowns in the Pac-12?
Stanford has something to say; so does UCLA
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TUCSON, Ariz. — The top-10 matchup between Arizona and Stanford should have been a great game. The Cardinal certainly showed up. The Wildcats didn’t. It was still the central part of an epic weekend in the conference that cleared up a few things and made others more opaque.
The most glaring reality? Stanford is far and away the class of the conference.
The top-ranked Cardinal (9-0, 6-0) didn’t just beat the No. 6 Wildcats. They dominated the first half so completely that even getting outscored by just three points in the second half left Arizona the victim of an embarrassing 81-54 blowout.
Stanford came into the game with the memory of last year’s defeat in McKale Center on their minds, according to head coach Tara VanDerveer. They successfully exorcised that demon.
Before the game, Arizona head coach Adia Barnes was worried about the length of Stanford’s players. It had been a problem for the Wildcats the last time the Cardinal blew them out, back in the early part of the 2018-19 season. That day, Alanna Smith had seven blocks in the first half as the Cardinal kept the Wildcats from being effective inside.
No one had that kind of day blocking the ball, but Stanford packed the paint, making Arizona’s inside game nearly impossible to execute. Instead, the Wildcats started launching 3-pointers. They made their first three outside shots but finished 6-25 from distance.
“We started off pretty good the first five minutes, and then we just couldn’t score,” Barnes said. “We couldn’t move the ball. They were baiting us into the shots and we were taking the shots they wanted.”
Stanford has now defeated both UCLA and Arizona by double digits. Both teams were ranked in the Top 10 at the time of their losses. Both teams are still ranked in the Top 10 despite their defeats at the hands of Stanford. It’s just one of those things that’s going to happen to good teams.
That’s not to say that there weren’t road bumps besides Stanford. UCLA fell out of the top 10 after losing to Arizona back in the second week of Pac-12 play. Their rise back up the polls was the result of the other big showdown over the weekend: the Bruins vs. the Oregon Ducks.
Oregon was undefeated going into the weekend. They were riding a nation-leading 27-game winning streak going back to last season. As for losses in Eugene, that went all the way back to Feb. 22, 2019, when this same Bruins program took the victory in Matthew Knight Arena.
“It’s been a long time,” Oregon head coach Kelly Graves said. “That was 27 in a row. You knew it was going to come to an end at some point, more than likely.”
But the truth is that the Ducks hadn’t faced much serious competition so far this season. Going into the season, Oregon State sat in the top 15 of the polls. The Beavers just haven’t lived up to those expectations. They have since fallen out of the rankings altogether, making the Ducks’ victory over their rivals less impressive.
The Ducks’ only real competition was Washington State. The Cougars (6-1, 4-1) are showing that they were seriously underrated heading into the season when both the media and the coaches voted them last in the league. Oregon barely escaped Beasley Coliseum with a four-point victory.
Meanwhile, UCLA had already faced both Arizona and Stanford. An emotional boost provided by the arrival of another member for their depleted roster didn’t hurt, either.
Now, the Ducks have to try to keep from going on a two-game skid. It’s not going to be easy.
They’re headed into a game against the Stanford team that will be looking to make it a trifecta by defeating all three of the other Pac-12 teams who came into the season ranked in the top 10.
“I think it’s important to see our bounce-back,” Graves said. “Unfortunately, we have to do that against the best team in the country, who is legitimate. It’s not just a number. I’ve seen a lot of teams play, and they’re the best team in the country.”
That game is set for Friday, Jan. 8.
What isn’t quite so clear is how things are going to shake out after the top four. Stanford, Arizona, UCLA and Oregon still appear to be the strength of the conference. After that quartet, anything could happen.
Right now, Washington State looks like the best of the rest. The Cougars are troubling everyone they face, including Oregon.
Arizona State has something to say, as well. While the Sun Devils have lost to Arizona, UCLA and Stanford, they played the Cardinal closer than anyone else has this year.
ASU has a habit of having one or two surprising wins every season. While they didn’t beat Stanford on Sunday, the eight-point deficit almost feels like a win considering the way the Cardinal has dispensed with their other opponents.
On the other hand, the Sun Devils have struggled with teams like California. The winless Golden Bears held a double-digit lead late in Friday night’s game in Desert Financial Arena. ASU needed a comeback to avoid falling to a team that couldn’t defeat San José State or Cal State Bakersfield.
USC has dealt with injuries to its best player, leaving the Women of Troy well behind where they thought they’d be at this point in the season.
Oregon State hasn’t played since Dec. 19 due to COVID-19 issues, and they won’t play this week either. In addition to struggling on the court, the pandemic has been particularly hard on the Beavers. They aren’t scheduled to play again until Jan. 15 against ASU.
We know who the top half of the conference are. Who’s going to step up and take the lead in the next group?