As Kris Wilkes calmly delivered a thrilling, game-winning 3-pointer late Saturday night on one good leg, it might not have been only UCLA coach Steve Alford, he of the perpetual hot seat, who was relieved by the result. It was easy to wonder if a collective sigh of relief was echoing from each of the 11 other head coaches across the Pac-12 Conference.
Wilkes’ winner — a 3-pointer at the buzzer against Notre Dame he swished despite battling leg cramps for the bulk of the game — gave the league at least one memorable nonconference victory against a marquee national foe.
Sure, the Fighting Irish aren’t quite at the same top-20 level seen in recent seasons, but Saturday’s win by the Bruins nonetheless gave the Pac-12 a reason to smile amid a nonconference slate that so far has been marked more by near-misses than impressive triumphs.
That list of missed opportunities nationally grew last week with Washington falling just short of a comeback win against top-ranked Gonzaga and Arizona State squandering a lead against then-No. 6 Nevada.
“That’s growth, and that’s what we want to see,” Alford told reporters afterward. “I thought for the most part offensively we got some good looks but we missed a lot of things in the paint, at the rim, and we missed a lot of open jump shots. Really proud of how the guys clawed and found a way to win.”
It was a momentary if fleeting reprieve from the Pac-12’s struggles nationally. Going into this week Arizona State holds the league’s top NET ranking at No. 26, followed by the Bruins at No. 34. Arizona (37) and Colorado (40) are the only other Pac-12 programs in the top 40.
The Pac-12 also begins the week with a 3-15 mark against the KenPom top 50 and a 10-33 mark against the top 100.
With the league slate now only three weeks away the Pac-12 still has much ground to make up, but there will be opportunities again this week. On Wednesday Oregon hosts San Diego in a matchup that could aid the CU Buffaloes before hosting Boise State on Saturday.
Utah visits No. 19 Kentucky on Saturday while Washington takes on No. 13 Virginia Tech in Atlantic City.
Player of the Week
After leading the near-upset of Gonzaga and putting together another solid performance in a win against Seattle, Washington sophomore Jaylen Nowell was named the Pac-12 Player of the Week for the second time this season.
Nowell recorded 26 points with six assists and just one turnover in 38 minutes against Gonzaga. He finished 10-for-18 from the floor and 4-for-4 at the free throw line, including a pair with 9.4 seconds remaining that momentarily tied the game before Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura connected with a winning jumper just before the buzzer.
Against Seattle, Nowell finished with 18 points, nine rebounds, three assists and no turnovers in 36 minutes. Nowell is the first underclassman in UW history to win the Player of the Week honor twice in the same season.
Arizona State held steady at No. 20 in the weekly AP top 25 and remains the only ranked Pac-12 team. UCLA was the only other squad to earn votes, finishing with a minuscule three points…The NCAA’s active career leaders in assists both play in the Pac-12 — Washington’s Matisse Thybulle (232) and Oregon’s Ehab Amin (228), who spent his first three seasons at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.