#4 – Arizona
Yikes. No one could really say they saw that loss to UCLA coming, regardless of how well the Bruins had been playing.
To be fair, the blown lead against Arizona State was not a good look last week either, and neither was losing to Oregon State by double digits. But at this point in the season after seeing what we’ve seen, both are hardly disqualifiers. As stated before, it’s all about the big picture.
Statistically, Zona is splendid. Most measures place the Wildcats above every other team in the conference, including Oregon. KenPom projects that they’ll win the PAC-12 regular-season crown by a game over Oregon and Colorado, and considering that they play only two top-50 opponents in their remaining schedule and play six out of 10 at home, that doesn’t sound unfeasible.
Their defensive rebounding problems from earlier in the year have improved significantly too, as they’re now the No. 1 team in the conference in defensive rebounding percentage. They outrebounded USC and UCLA, the No. 2 and 1 offensive rebounding teams in the league, but went 1-1 regardless.
In both wins last week, none of the Wildcats’ top three of Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji played exceptionally. Clearly, their services weren’t essential in either game (by virtue of playing Washington and Washington State), but when Mannion and Green were underwhelming against the Bruins it cost them.
#3 – UCLA
UCLA went on a tear at home in the past week and a half, defeating a ranked team in then-No. 24 Colorado for the first time in two years and stifling Utah. Now, they’re coming off absolutely embarrassing Arizona in Tucson — their best overall showing all year. Arizona shot 25% and 6-of-29 from beyond the arc and UCLA shot more than twice as efficient as that.
A month after the team was struggling mightily, it has a solid argument for being the conference’s hottest team after winning 5 of their last 7. Expectations are being adjusted accordingly.
Has Mick Cronin led a midseason turnaround? It sure feels like it. Can they ride the wave into conference playoffs and play their way into a tournament bid? That’s still foggy, but week by week we’ll get a better picture of this team’s increasing capabilities.