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Omicron might prove to be toughest opponent for Arizona Wildcats, rest of Pac-12
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Omicron might prove to be toughest opponent for Arizona Wildcats, rest of Pac-12

Arizona’s Dalen Terry blocks a shot by Oregon State’s Ahmad Rand on Dec. 5. Of the UA’s first four scheduled conference games, the win over the Beavers in Corvallis will be the only one actually played on time.

By the time the Pac-12’s 18-game conference swing starts to get serious around New Year’s, everyone usually has a better idea of how the conference race could play out.

Nearly two months of nonconference games have been played, as well as handful of early-December conference games. Newcomers have been meshed in. Rotations are firmer. Injuries have been diagnosed.

This year is no exception. And everybody knows who the leader is so far.

It’s Omicron, of course.

The latest and possibly most transmissible COVID-19 variant appears to be the leading reason behind the fact that exactly half of the league’s teams have been or are currently paused, throwing a 2020-style wrench into the conference race.

Perhaps fittingly, Arizona’s games at UCLA and USC this weekend — Top-10 showdowns that were expected to set the tone of the conference race — were postponed because of continued COVID issues within both Los Angeles programs.

Will those games be played again? Will cancellations mean the champion again winds up with fewer wins than the second-place team, after Oregon finished first at 14-4 and USC was second at 15-5 last season? Will teams manage to get more players vaccinated and boosted, as Arizona has with all of its scholarship players, in an effort to avoid more positive tests and/or quarantine requirements?

Or will conference and/or NCAA guidelines eventually relax, possibly following reduced CDC quarantine guidelines or maybe even allowing symptomatic players to sit out simply as needed, not as required?

Nobody knows the answer to any of those questions. So we’ll just take a look at where everybody is at now, with teams listed in the order of their prediction in the preseason Pac-12 poll … which, with the exception of how it underrated Arizona and overrated Oregon State, still might be as accurate as anything:

1. UCLA (8-1, 1-0)

NET/Kenpom/Sagarin ratings: 21/8/10

Status: Paused since Dec. 15, with games against Alabama State, Cal Poly, North Carolina, Arizona and ASU canceled or postponed.

Storyline: Off to a promising start after reaching the Final Four last season, beating Villanova, Colorado and Marquette while losing only to Gonzaga, the Bruins haven’t played a game since beating Marquette on Dec. 11 — and even that was a near misfire thanks to a cracked windshield on the Bruins’ plane to Milwaukee that prompted a seven-hour tipoff delay.

Forward Cody Riley has been out with a sprained knee ligament since UCLA’s opener. He appeared likely to return against Alabama State on Dec. 15 but that game was canceled just an hour before tipoff.

Best win: 86-77 over Villanova in overtime at Pauley Pavilion on Nov. 12

Worst loss: 83-63 to Gonzaga in Las Vegas on Nov. 23

Defining Kenpom rankings: No. 6 in defensive rebounding percentage (79.6), No. 15 in 3-point percentage (39.0), No. 208 in two-point percentage (48.5)

He said it: “It’s been since last year where we’ve played that kind of defense. We had a couple of spirited practices, talked a lot about what it takes to be a real team, not relying on scoring and offense and jump shots, getting back to why we got to the Final Four and getting back to why we were ranked.” — UCLA coach Mick Cronin (via the Los Angeles Times), after UCLA won at UNLV 73-51 on Nov. 27.

Tyger Campbell shoots during UCLA’s win at Marquette on Dec. 11 — the only game the Bruins have played since Dec. 1.

2. Oregon (7-6, 0-2)

NET/Kenpom/Sagarin ratings: 99/61/53

Status: Active but the Ducks’ Thursday game with Colorado is postponed because of the Buffaloes’ COVID issues.

Storyline: Taking longer than expected to mesh in the usual boatload of transfer talent, the Ducks are staring at the real possibility of missing the NCAA Tournament with six losses already — though they have a long history of eventually solving early-season problems and making a run for the conference title.

Oregon gave top-ranked Baylor a challenge at home in a 78-70 loss on Dec. 18 and has played the No. 36 toughest schedule, according to Sagarin. But Oregon hasn’t beaten anyone of note or won a single Division I game outside of Eugene.

Best win: 86-63 over SMU on Nov. 12 at Matthew Knight Arena

Worst loss: 69-67 in overtime to ASU on Dec. 5 at Matthew Knight Arena

Defining Kenpom rankings: No. 113 in defensive efficiency (98.2), No. 123 in 3-point percentage (34.3), No. 267 in free-throw percentage (67.1)

He said it: “Our team isn’t focused on making defensive plays; they’re all offensive-oriented, which has really hurt us. We make a lot of mistakes defensively.” — Oregon coach Dana Altman (via the Oregonian), after the Ducks beat Pepperdine 68-59 on Dec. 21.

3. USC (12-0, 2-0)

NET/Kenpom/Sagarin ratings: 13/21/19

Status: Paused since Dec. 19, with games against Oklahoma State, ASU and Arizona postponed or canceled.

Storyline: Despite losing Evan Mobley to the NBA Draft, the Trojans have largely picked up where they left off after reaching the Elite Eight last season. Mobley’s older brother, Isaiah, has moved into a bigger offensive role while Memphis transfer Boogie Ellis has added scoring at multiple levels to a veteran team. Earlier this month, coach Andy Enfield received a three-year contract extension through 2025-26.

Best win: 63-61 at Washington State on Dec. 4.

Worst loss: None

Defining Kenpom rankings: No. 4 in two-point percentage defense (39.8), No. 15 in defensive efficiency (89.7), No. 355 in free-throw percentage (58.4)

He said it: “You can’t be too upset if you haven’t lost yet,” — Enfield (via L.A. Times), after USC struggled to beat Long Beach State on Dec. 12.

4 (tie). Arizona (11-1, 1-0)

NET/Kenpom/Sagarin ratings: 2/7/6

Status: Active but have had three games postponed by other teams’ issues: Against Washington and at UCLA and USC. The Washington game has been rescheduled for Jan. 3.

Storyline: With a fast-paced, efficient offense and surprisingly tough defense anchored by shot-swatting center Christian Koloko, the Wildcats have exceeded virtually all expectations so far in Tommy Lloyd’s first season as UA’s head coach. While lifting the Wildcats up, Koloko, forward Azuolas Tubelis and especially wing Bennedict Mathurin have also lifted themselves onto the mock NBA Draft boards.

Best win: 83-79 at Illinois on Dec. 11

Worst loss: 77-73 at Tennessee on Dec. 22

Defining Kenpom rankings: No. 2 in shortest average possession length (14.3 seconds), No. 1 in two-point percentage defense (39.3), No. 9 in percentage of opponents’ shots that are blocked (17.0), No. 3 in assists-field goals made ratio (65.3)

He said it: “I think we had an awesome start. I don’t think this diminishes it at all. If nothing else, I think it reinforces how good we are, and how good we can be,” — Lloyd, after UA lost at Tennessee.

4 (tie). Oregon State (2-10, 0-2)

NET/Kenpom/Sagarin ratings: 245/149/140

Status: Active but … do they wanna be?

Storyline: Maybe this was the year to pick OSU 12th. Making a rally cry out of being picked to finish last in the Pac-12 last season, the Beavers finished in a sixth-place tie and then went all the way to the NCAA Elite Eight. But the magic clearly evaporated early this season, with the Beavers having lost 10 straight, including a 90-65 blowout to Arizona in Corvallis.

Best win: 83-61 over Nicholls State at Gill Coliseum on Dec. 21

Worst loss: 78-77 to Samford at Gill Coliseum on Nov. 18

Defining Kenpom rankings: No. 254 in offensive rebounding percentage (25.6), No. 282 in 3-point percentage (30.4), No. 293 in defensive two-point percentage (53.0)

He said it: “I think we needed it a lot and I think it came at the right time because going forward we’ll try to build off of it. No looking back.” OSU forward Warith Alatishe, after the Beavers beat Nicholls State.

6. Colorado (9-3, 1-1)

NET/Kenpom/Sagarin ratings: 107/79/79

Status: Paused since Dec. 21, when a home game against Kansas was canceled less than two hours before tipoff. A trip to play Oregon and OSU this weekend was also called off.

Storyline: Playing on the fringe of the Top 25 early this season, the Buffs lost a huge opportunity when their Dec. 21 home game with Kansas was called off.

Best win: 80-76 over Stanford at CU Events Center on Nov. 28.

Worst loss: 67-63 to Southern Illinois at U.S. Virgin Islands on Nov. 19.

Defining Kenpom rankings: No. 11 in ratio of free throws attempted to field goals attempted (40.3), No. 33 in defensive rebounding percentage (76.6), No. 270 in 3-point percentage (30.8)

He said it: “The challenge for the guys we have out here is to just get them better. Whatever the number we have out here, that’s what we’re tasked to do. We know sitting in a room for 10 days and then coming back to play Division I basketball at this level is not healthy.” — coach Tad Boyle, according to Buffzone.com

7. Arizona State (5-7, 1-1)

NET/Kenpom/Sagarin ratings: 125/97/98

Status: Active, but games this weekend at USC and UCLA have been postponed.

Storyline: After two COVID pauses and an undersized lineup helped make for a bumpy ride last season, this time it’s a knee injury limiting forward Marcus Bagley to just three games and the Sun Devils’ rough schedule that has caused some trouble.

Best win: 58-57 at Creighton on Dec. 14

Coach Bobby Hurley and his Sun Devils are struggling for a second straight season, and are just 5-7 overall.

Worst loss: 66-65 to UC Riverside at Desert Financial Arena on Nov. 11

Defining Kenpom rankings: No. 48 in defensive efficiency (83.2 points per 100 opponent possession), No. 284 in two-point percentage (45.7), No. 315 in 3-point percentage (28.8)

He said it: “I think our schedule has prepared us for games like this. Just having won on the road at Oregon, I think the guys believed they could come in here and get a win.” — ASU coach Bobby Hurley, after the Sun Devils beat Creighton.

8. Washington State (8-5, 1-1)

NET/Kenpom/Sagarin ratings: 64/47/60

Status: Active. The Cougars are scheduled to host Washington on Wednesday night.

Storyline: Cougars started out 5-0 to earn some early NCAA Tournament buzz, but have lost five of their last eight by a total of 19 points. Two of their losses came in the semi-home environment of Spokane, Washington. Michael Flowers has replaced Isaac Bonton as a perimeter scorer while Noah Williams has been a standout go-to guy.

Best win: 51-29 at ASU on Dec. 4

Worst loss: 76-71 to Eastern Washington at Beasley Coliseum on Nov. 27

Defining Kenpom rankings: No. 16 in offensive rebounding percentage (36.2), No. 30 in two-point percentage defense (43.9), No. 336 in ratio of assists to made field goals (43.0)

He said it: “We’ve been poor in close games. We’re either going to break through and get tougher and win some of these games, or we’re going to fold.” — WSU coach Kyle Smith, after WSU lost to Boise State last week.

9. Stanford (8-4, 1-1)

NET/Kenpom/Sagarin ratings: 102/90/87

Status: Paused on Dec. 25. Status of game at Cal on Sunday has not been determined yet.

Storyline: The Cardinal beat Oregon thanks to a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from senior Jaiden Delaire and also played well in a loss at Colorado. Then Stanford cruised all the way into a Diamond Head championship game with Vanderbilt last week only to pull out on Christmas because of COVID issues.

Delaire has been tough to stop especially inside, drawing the 64th most fouls per 40 minutes in the country, while forward Harrison Ingram has won four of the first seven Pac-12 Freshman of the Week awards.

Best win: 72-69 over Oregon at Maples Pavilion on Dec. 12

Worst loss: 88-72 to Santa Clara at Maples Pavilion on Nov. 12

Defining Kenpom rankings: No. 17 in defensive rebounding percentage (77.9), No. 18 in offensive rebounding percentage (36.1), No. 319 in turnover percentage (22.4)

He said it: “That’s a big-time shot by a senior ... who’s had some really high highs in our program and has struggled at times, whether it’s injury or playing time.” — Haase (via the Associated Press) after Delaire’s game-winner against Oregon.

10. Utah (8-4, 1-1)

NET/Kenpom/Sagarin ratings: 74/73/69

Status: Active.

Storyline: The Utes put together a respectable early-season run despite heavy roster transition and a rash of issues that have left new coach Craig Smith shorthanded at times. One of the Utes’ few returnees, Branden Carlsen, has developed into an efficient scorer and shot-blocker inside but has missed the past two games because of health protocols while fellow big man Dusan Mahorcic is out until next month with a knee injury.

Best win: 55-50 over Fresno State at Huntsman Center on Dec. 21.

Worst loss: 83-75 at Missouri on Dec. 18.

Definitng Kenpom rankings: No. 30 in turnover percentage (16.0), No. 21 in free-throw percentage (78.4), No. 355 in defensive turnover percentage (13.1)

He said it: “It has just been a flukish year,” — Smith (via Deseret News).

11. Washington (5-5, 0-0)

NET/Kenpom/Sagarin ratings: 229/163/164

Status: Active, after a COVID pause of nearly three weeks.

Storyline: The first team in the league to pause this season, Washington bowed out of games with highly-ranked teams Arizona, UCLA and Gonzaga earlier this month — and that was probably a good thing for the Huskies. Despite bringing in veteran transfer guards Terrell Brown (Arizona) and Daejon Davis (Stanford), Washington was 4-4 in November and lost by 16 at home to Utah Valley on Dec. 21. The Huskies are aggressive defensively and know how to draw fouls but they can’t shoot very well (28.5% from 3 and 44.0% from two).

Best win: 87-76 over South Dakota State in Sioux Falls, S.D. on Nov. 23

Worst loss: 71-64 to Northern Illinois at Hec Edmundson Pavilion on Nov. 9

Defining Kenpom rankings: No. 23 in defensive turnover percentage (24.0), No. 330 in effective field goal percentage (43.6, with 50-percent more weight given to 3-pointers), No. 353 in ratio of assists to made baskets (37.3)

He said it: “It’s not easy. The last two years have been really hard, not just basketball-wise but just life. We got great kids. And they care. Seeing this thing and to go through it, not just here, but the rest of the country — it’s pretty delicate.” — Washington coach Mike Hopkins, via the Seattle Times.

12. California (8-5, 1-1)

NET/Kenpom/Sagarin ratings: 119/108/121

Status: Active, but with upcoming games against Stanford, UCLA and USC all in doubt because of opponents’ COVID issues.

Storyline: After stops at Oklahoma and Charlotte, slashing guard Jordan Shepard may have found a suitable home at Cal, where he’s helped the Bears slightly exceed their low expectations so far. Veteran Andre Kelly has continued to improve into one of the Pac-12’s best big men, while forward Grant Anticevich hit seven 3s against Pacific to pick up the Pac-12’s Player of the Week award on Monday.

Best win: 65-57 over Fresno State at Haas Pavilion on Nov. 28

Worst loss: 80-67 to UC San Diego at Haas Pavilion on Nov. 9

Defining Kenpom rankings: No. 5 in defensive rebounding percentage (80.5), No. 60 in defensive efficiency (94.3 opponent points per 100 possessions), No. 337 in ratio of 3-pointers attempted to field goals attempted (29.2)

He said it: “It feels like all the hard work is starting to pay off. We’re starting to do the things we wish we would have done before. But we’re doing them right now and it’s working out for us.”— Shepherd (via SI.com), after Cal beat Santa Clara on Dec. 11 to move above .500 for the first time this season.

Contact sports reporter Bruce Pascoe at 573-4146 or bpascoe@tucson.com. On Twitter @brucepascoe


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