CORVALLIS, Ore. — No data exists for the worst loss in Pac-12 history, or, if you prefer, the greatest upset.
But all the variables were in line for just that Thursday night at Gill Coliseum. Never in 50 years of the Pac-8, Pac-10 and Pac-12, had a team with a 9-0 conference record played an 0-9 team.
At halftime, someone watching their first college basketball game of the year might’ve asked “which one is 9-0 and which is 0-9?”
For 20 minutes it was turtles on a treadmill. Oregon State led 29-27 and I was thinking maybe it wasn’t the best day for Arizona to announce it had extended Sean Miller’s contract through 2022.
The game had all the glamour of a Tuesday morning stuck in traffic.
Ultimately, the Beavers, who have lost to Portland, Lamar and Savannah State, conked out. There would be no greatest this or worst that. Arizona won 71-54 and everybody now moves on to Saturday’s battle royal against the Oregon Ducks 40 miles and a million raindrops down the highway.
“You don’t have to say anything about Oregon,” UA sophomore Allonzo Trier said after scoring a game-high 18 points, asserting himself against OSU’s zone defense and rendering it harmless in the second half. “We don’t need any extra motivation. It speaks for itself.”
In his dreams, OSU coach Wayne Tinkle couldn’t have imagined a better pace — slog, really — in the first half. The Wildcats missed 14 of their first 22 shots, with seven turnovers, and Lauri Markkanen didn’t make his first (and only) bucket until 15 minutes remained.
The Beavers play at a tempo so slow — 332nd of 351 Division I teams — that they attempt to cover their manpower shortage by playing a shorter game. And that worked Thursday. Arizona had just 63 possessions because OSU averaged 19 seconds per possession, which is right on its average, No. 327 in the nation.
“The first half was probably our best 20 minutes we’ve played this year,” said Tinkle. “Our guys were dialed in.”
I’ve seen worse halves by Top 10 teams, including one by Oregon State.
In 1980, I sat at Maples Pavilion and witnessed a 15-1 and No. 2 ranked Oregon State team crawl to an epically inartistic 18-16 victory over Stanford. And for a bit Thursday night, it looked like 1980 again, imagining Beavers Hall of Fame coach Ralph Miller fuming on the sidelines, wondering just how low his team could go and still win.
Except this time it was Sean Miller, who, after 272 games at Arizona, doesn’t need help with perspective.
“That’s life right now, February, on the road in the conference,” he said. “We’re not always going to be perfect.”
Although only 4,745 fans made the 6 p.m. (local time) tipoff, the Beavers had no difficulty getting motivated.
I walked to the media room in the basement corridor of Gill Coliseum 30 minutes before tipoff, just as the Beavers were leaving the locker room. Assistant coach Kerry Rupp was chanting and hollering, loudly chanting and hollering. The 4-19 Beavers took the bait.
As the Beavers sprinted up the stairs, you’d have thought they were playing for a piece of history. And, in a way, they were.
“We expect every team we play to be at their best,” said UA guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright. “They were tough.”
Since 1980, only six Pac-12 teams had gone 9-0 in the first half of conference play. The only one to lose game No. 10 was Oregon State itself, in 1980, bowing 93-67 at UCLA. That Bruins team went on to play in the national championship game. No harm there.
But since then, the 9-0 clubs didn’t have much difficulty. There has been no real “Game For the Ages” in February. Arizona’s 9-0 teams beat 5-4 Stanford, 6-3 WSU and 6-3 Washington.
Stanford’s 9-0 club beat a 2-7 ASU squad, and in 1981, a year after it blew its perfect start at UCLA, the Beavers were again 9-0, and that time beat a 2-7 Cal team.
The unprecedented chance for a pair of 10-0 teams to play Saturday at Oregon’s Matthew Knight Arena went bust when the Ducks lost at Colorado last week. But that’s meaningless. It is (so far) the game of the year in the Pac-12. You can’t ask for more than to be part of that.
Before Miller boarded Arizona’s bus for an hour ride to Eugene, he said he was “grateful” the school extended his contract during a transition in which athletic director Greg Byrne has gone to Alabama, and President Ann Weaver Hart has announced she will be leaving that position.
“They didn’t have to do that,” said Miller. “It allows my family to have stability in Tucson, and that’s what we want.”
Beating (or losing) in Eugene won’t have any bearing on Miller’s contract, his reputation or what happens in March.
But it’s the closest thing this part of the country has to Duke-Carolina. Check your blood pressure now.