The Pac-12 season gets underway tomorrow with one of its most significant games — UCLA at Oregon — to offer in the first half of the conference season that runs through Jan. 29.
I thought about listing the top 10 games to watch through the whole Pac-12 season but a lot can change in a month, so I’m limiting it to the Front Nine, so to speak.
Here is the ranking:
1. Arizona at UCLA, Jan. 21
Despite its No. 2 ranking, UCLA is averaging only 62 percent (8,645 fans a game) to capacity at the 13,800-seat Pauley Pavilion, but expect the Bruin fans to brave the freeways for this matchup. Sean Miller vs. Steve Alford is worth watching after Miller made an indirect comment about UCLA’s attendance issues last year asking why a young prospect would go to a place where “nobody comes to the game?” Alford responded indirectly by saying players want to play for UCLA because of its tradition and his run-and-gun style (this year led by freshman sensation Lonzo Ball) is opposite of coaches who “handcuff” or “micromanage” players. Add to this the intrigue of UCLA freshman T.J. Leaf de-committing to Arizona after learning of Miller’s recruitment of Lauri Markkanen. Emotions will run high. Oh, and the programs offer one of the best rivalries in college hoops.
2. UCLA at Oregon, Dec. 28
The game tomorrow is a statement game for Oregon, the Pac-12 champs last year. Their 11-2 record and No. 21 ranking gets lost in comparison to UCLA’s 13-0 mark and No. 2 ranking. Much of that has to do with conference player of the year candidate Dillon Brooks transitioning slowly to the starting lineup coming back from offseason foot surgery. A loss at home to the Bruins would signal a Pac-12 season of struggle for Oregon, trying to work out its chemistry issues by season’s end. A win over UCLA lets others know that the title runs through the Ducks again. Other than maintaining a lofty ranking, the Bruins really have no pressure because a split on the road is what teams shoot for and a win at Oregon State this weekend appears to be a certainty.
3. UCLA at USC, Jan. 25
Both are undefeated now with 13-0 records but a lot will happen by the time these rivals meet (during the last week of the first half of the conference season). Both travel to the Oregon and Rocky Mountain schools and host the Bay area and Arizona schools before this matchup. If neither has more than two losses when this game is played it will be a classic with USC forward Bennie Boatwright potentially back from a knee injury. If UCLA comes in with a better conference record, USC will be a dangerous underdog in what will be a packed (for once) Galen Center.
4. UCLA at Colorado, Jan. 12
Much like Oregon tomorrow, Colorado will have something to prove against UCLA at home in two weeks. Colorado is a very capable team of the uspet. The teams have the best non-conference wins among Pac-12 teams — UCLA’s win at Kentucky and Colorado’s victory at home against Xavier. By now, everybody in the Pac-12 knows how well Tad Boyle can coach. If only that can translate into postseason success for Buffalo fans. Traditionally under Boyle, Colorado goes to the line frequently — matching their coach’s aggressive style — and that is the case again this season. Can UCLA’s freshman standouts and talented guards hold up to Colorado’s aggression? This will be a good test for Alford to see if his team can match their finesse in the open game with some much needed toughness.
5. Colorado at Arizona, Jan. 7
The Buffaloes always seem to give the Wildcats fits at home. Need I remind you of Sabatino Chen in 2014? With Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson both out with injuries two seasons ago in Colorado’s last visit to McKale, the Wildcats did not pull away until the last 10 minutes of the game because Askia Booker torched the nets for a career-high 30 points in the Wildcats’ 68-54 win. Colorado guard Derrick White, who transferred from Colorado-Colorado Springs of all places, has emerged as one of the Pac-12’s best averaging 15 points and 3.8 assists a game while shooting 52 percent from the field. Arizona fans will love this: Johnson is back for what seems like his ninth season with the Buffaloes. He is a senior who sat out last season with a torn Achilles’ tendon.
Utah at Arizona, Jan. 5
UCLA at Utah, Jan. 14
Arizona at USC, Jan. 19
Oregon at Utah, Jan. 26
Oregon at Colorado, Jan. 28
NOTE: Arizona does not play Oregon in the first half of the conference schedule. The Wildcats travel to Eugene on Feb. 4.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.