Arizona is 16-2, No. 8 in the country and owns the deepest roster west of Lawrence, Kansas (h/t ESPN.com). Yet, with just over a month until March, the Wildcats are substantially behind in the Pac-12 title scramble.
And it's not just a matter of Arizona (16-2, 5-2) needing to continue winning games at an absurd tilt to overtake the pretenders. The teams ahead of the Cats in the conference also need to start losing games they probably shouldn't.
The main issue resides in Eugene, Oregon. The Oregon Ducks (18-2, 7-0) have turned the nauseating forestry of Matthew Knight Arena into one of the toughest arenas in the country for visitors—they are winners of 20 straight games at home (h/t Los Angeles Times).
But now Dana Altman's team isn't just a threat at The Matt. Two Saturdays back, the Ducks claimed the signature road win for any Pac-12 squad—at least until UCLA invaded Tucson—beating the Bruins comfortably at Pauley (h/t SI.com).
Led by Kyle Singler's brother, E.J., a duo of dynamic frosh guards in Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson and a suddenly effective big man in Tony Woods, the Ducks are 7-0 in conference play.
They also suit up one of the conference's better role players in active rebounding-and-distributing post-man Arsalan Kazemi, the first-ever native Iranian D-I player (h/t ESPN).
Take a deep breath Arizona types. Oregon owns the look of an Elite 8 contender—currently claiming the No. 10 spot in the AP polls.
And there will be no regular-season redemption in the desert.
By adding Colorado and Utah last year, the conference threw off the numerical symmetry in the scheduling. No longer will every team play all other conference members twice each season.
Oregon will not travel to the McKale Center, nor will they play UCLA again, the second-place team in the Pac-12. There is no longer a guaranteed opportunity to even the score.
Besides Oregon, UCLA—which rosters the potential No. 1 pick in the NBA draft in the dangerous Shabazz Muhammad—is higher in the conference standings than Arizona, holding the early tiebreaker with that easy win in Tucson (h/t Arizona Daily Star).
But the Bruins remain thin in numbers and fragile mentally, as evidenced by the 19-point beating they took from an overachieving Arizona State (16-4, 5-2) team that is compiling a NCAA tourney resume. That win came exactly a week after the Sun Devils suffered a 17-point rout of their own in which Arizona point guard Mark Lyons toyed with ASU's frosh phenom Jahii Carson (h/t TucsonCitizen.com).
As displayed in home-court losses to the Ducks and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the Bruins can be had at Pauley.
Arizona's must-win game of the season will come March 2 in Westwood.
After watching his squad get handled by the Bruins, Arizona coach Sean Miller said the following (via Arizona Daily Star):
"We hurt ourselves tonight, but I don't think the conference champion is only going to have two losses. There's a lot of basketball left to be played."
In terms of the regular season, "a lot of basketball" includes 11 conference games for both Oregon and Arizona, 10 for UCLA.
The Ducks are unbeaten, the Wildcats and Bruins have each fallen twice.
Miller's words are based in reality. Oregon is really good. But the Ducks are not going to run the table in the Pac-12. And UCLA remains a head case, destined to fall again due to inconsistency.
Two losses are unlikely to be the deciding factors, but three will probably mean the end of any of these teams' Pac-12 championship aspirations.