If you squint a bit, you can almost pretend Oregon and Arizona are playing for something more important than seventh place in the Pac-12.
Finish seventh or better, at least you’re guaranteed time to unpack your suitcase at the conference tournament. The eight vs. nine game tips off at noon on the opening day, around the time most people in Las Vegas are rolling out of bed, and the loser could be on its way home before everyone else has a chance to play their first hand of blackjack.
After the battles they’ve had in recent years, it’s hard to imagine the Ducks and Wildcats playing for such paltry stakes. These two programs have been the standard-bearers for Pac-12 basketball, and their collective struggles say as much as anything about the dismal state of the league this season.
One thing about the Wildcats, though: They’ve always brought out the best in Oregon. The did so again Saturday as the Ducks rolled to a 73-47 victory on senior night at Matthew Knight Arena.
If you’re keeping score, that’s two victories by a combined 54 points against the Arizona schools this week. Does that get your attention? Should it? It’s hard to say in this year’s Pac-12. We’ve been fooled before, thinking the Ducks were figuring things out, only to watch them go on the road and end up back at Square One.
I wouldn’t advise anyone to bet their life savings on Oregon winning the Pac-12 tournament based on what we saw this week. Then again, it was hard to listen to Arizona coach Sean Miller after the game and not come away thinking the Ducks have at least a fighting chance.
“When they get to Vegas, they’re one of five or six teams that I think could win three games in three days or four games in four days,” Miller said. “There isn’t a lot of separation.
“I credit Washington. They’re obviously a terrific team. But anything can happen, and (Oregon) is the type of team that can catch fire.”
I want to see how the Ducks play next week in Washington before making any judgments. Would it surprise anyone if they follow this performance by losing at 11th-place Washington State on Wednesday?
That’s been the story of the Pac-12 this season. No consistency, no logic, no rhyme or reason. Arizona started 5-1 in the Pac-12, lost seven straight games, then won three in a row, including a last-second victory Thursday at Oregon State.
So what happened Saturday? The Wildcats got run out of the gym in the second half. Oregon almost passed for the team we’ve been waiting for all season. If you think that has any correlation to what’s going to happen next week, you haven’t watched enough Pac-12 basketball.
It’s sad to see how far these two teams have fallen, knowing how much they’ve done to prop up Pac-12 basketball the past few years. Here’s a stat that might blow your mind: Since the inception of the league in 2011-12, there have been 23 basketball games between ranked opponents.
All but one — Utah vs. Cal in 2016 — has featured either Oregon or Arizona.
As far as the Pac-12’s reputation has fallen, imagine where the conference would be without Oregon and Arizona. Actually, you don’t have to imagine. We’re seeing it this year.
The Pac-12 needs this game to matter. It needs Oregon and Arizona to have more at stake than a few extra hours in Las Vegas.
There's no sense right now in trying to sort out the tiebreakers that would separate the teams sitting between third-place Oregon State (9-6) and 10th-place Arizona (8-9). The Ducks are one of four teams tied for sixth at 8-8, a game out of fourth place.
Of the eight teams in the middle of the standings, Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA and USC are the ones with two road games remaining. Getting a first-round bye will be an uphill climb for the Ducks, but if they can somehow pull it off, their chances of making a run in Las Vegas would improve greatly.
The Ducks will need more than two dominant victories at home to overwrite the inconsistency we've seen all season. But if nothing else, they've helped their chances of avoiding that noon tipoff on the opening day of the Pac-12 tournament, which isn't a place where many championship runs are going to start.
I don't know how long they're going to stay in Las Vegas, but at least they should have time to unpack.