If you read this column weekly, you will recall that last week’s edition revolved primarily around a dissection of UCLA’s fall from grace. I’m not a superstitious person, so I’ll just chalk it up to bad timing. Shortly after that post, the Dawgs pooped the proverbial bed against the Bruins with an ignominious 66-64 home loss to open conference play. The Huskies committed fewer turnovers in the game and made 15 more free throws. Alas, UCLA gathered in 22 offensive boards and made an uncharacteristic 10 threes. Jake Kyman, who had never scored in double figures in his career, repeatedly found holes in the UW zone and scored 21 points on 7/12 shooting from outside.
As bad as that game felt, UW earned some goodwill back with its most complete performance of the year against USC on Sunday. Although the Trojans have been much better than the Bruins so far this year, UW had a much easier time dispatching them. UW held USC to 21% shooting in the first half and somehow cut that to 19% after halftime. Isaiah Stewart was characteristically outstanding in both games- 24 and 18 points, respectively, with double digit boards both times out. Quade Green also stood out with 14 points and 5 assists as he rounds into form as a key complementary piece for the Dawgs. Nate Roberts also shined in extended minutes off the bench.
The Huskies head to northern California for a weekend series against Stanford and Cal on Thursday and Saturday. The Cardinal are the more daunting matchup at 12-2 and #50 in the KenPom ratings. They have made their mark on the defensive end, but some of their numbers are suspect. Opponents have only shot 61% at the line for the year against Stanford versus a D-1 average of 70%. They have also limited opponents to sub-30% three-point shooting despite allowing an above-average rate of three-point attempts. If the Dawgs can make shots that other teams have missed, it will be a good opportunity to beat a quality opponent. On the other end, Oscar da Silva is an efficient power forward who draws fouls, gets to the line, and shoots a high percentage in the paint. He is not an exceptional playmaker for others, which is a key skill for big men against UW’s zone. The computer projections peg Stanford as a favorite in this game, but I think the matchups might lean in UW’s favor. The Cal game should be less of a challenge. They rank even worse than UCLA both offensively and defensively. No conference road game is a gimme, but if UW can’t beat this rebuilding squad, it’s going to be a long slog on the road this season.
Other than UCLA’s win over UW, the other result that might have raised some Pac-12 eyebrows was Colorado’s 74-65 win over Oregon. As wrong as I was about UW-UCLA, at least I modestly redeemed myself by correctly picking this one last week. The Buffs built a six-point lead at the half and kept the Ducks at arm’s length throughout. Colorado’s offense is a three-headed monster led by McKinley Wright, D’Shawn Schwartz, and Tyler Bey. All three scored in double figures with solid or better efficiency numbers. Colorado simply didn’t make mistakes that would hurt them- they only turned the ball over eight times all game and held Oregon to 3/18 shooting from beyond the arc. While Colorado might not be the flashiest team in the country, they now have two wins over teams who were ranked in the top-10 at the time (Dayton was the other). Of course, they immediately lost their next game to Oregon State, and also lost to Northern Iowa in non-conference, so they are a team with a high level of variance. The Huskies only play Colorado once this year and the game is in Boulder, so that one will have a major impact on who makes the tourney out of the Pac.
Even after the loss, Oregon remains the top-ranked team in the conference. Arizona also worked their way back into the top 25 with a beat down of rival Arizona State last weekend. The two heavyweights square off in Eugene on Thursday. The game will be fascinating- Oregon has more experienced players and an outstanding coach, but Arizona has more raw talent in the form of their three star freshmen. Big man Zeke Nnaji has rebounded from a minor lull in December with three straight excellent games. He will give the Oregon front line all kinds of problems. The PG matchup between Payton Pritchard and Nico Mannion is fascinating- Pritchard exudes guts and guile while Mannion has playmaking instincts that belie his youth.
Four of the top 12 teams in the country lost last week, which continued a trend of instability near the top of the rankings. Perhaps the most noteworthy of those upset wins was Florida State’s 13-point road win against Louisville. The Seminoles lost four starters from last year’s Sweet 16 team and received virtually no preseason hype. They opened the year in a bizarre November 6th conference game against Pitt, which was an extremely sloppy loss. Since then, the Noles have gone 13-1 with a loss at Indiana and quality wins over Florida, Tennessee, and Purdue before the weekend’s upset. Leonard Hamilton routinely gets more out of his teams than pundits expect. He also loves to develop big athletes. In fact, FSU has the largest average height in the country, weighted by minutes played. These very big lineups do the sorts of things you would expect very big lineups to do: they generate a ton of blocks and steals defensively, they force opponents to shoot a lower percentage from the floor, they get lots of easy looks near the rim, and they rebound well at both ends. The sum total has been a team that rates in the top 30 both offensively and defensively in efficiency metrics. They have also shared the wealth. The rotation regularly includes 9-11 players, and seven players average between 6-12 points per game. If the Noles remain in contention with Duke, Virginia, and Louisville for the rugged ACC, it will be interesting to see if a go-to scorer emerges, or if they will prefer to keep opponents guessing.
The most compelling game of the coming week features #4 Baylor traveling to play #3 Kansas. The Bears have won 11 straight since UW gave them their only loss of the year. The Husky game was not an anomaly- they don’t shoot well but they play rugged defense and keep games low scoring. Kansas has only lost to Duke and Villanova and has beaten some quality teams. These teams will play again in Waco next month and the series will go a long way to determining the Big 12 champion. Elsewhere, freshman sensation and #1 draft pick candidate Anthony Edwards takes a growing Georgia team to play #5 Auburn. Also keep an eye on Thursday’s Wichita St-Memphis game, the top two American Conference teams who are both in the top 25.
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