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Pac-12 notes: Conference race heats up as pack catches up to UCLA

UCLA guard Jaylen Clark (0) shoots as Southern California forward Kobe Johnson (0) defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
UCLA guard Jaylen Clark (0) shoots as Southern California forward Kobe Johnson (0) defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Two weeks ago, UCLA was in the driver’s seat atop the Pac-12 Conference men’s basketball standings.

All of the sudden, the race is on.

This past weekend, every league team reached or surpassed the 10-game mark at the midpoint of conference play (some, like Colorado, reached that threshold a week earlier).

With five post-holiday weekends of conference play in the books and five more remaining, UCLA remains in the top spot (8-2 Pac-12) with Arizona (8-3) and USC (7-3) both just one game back in the loss column. Utah (8-4), Oregon (7-4) and Arizona State (6-5) round out the top six, as the race for the top four spots and a first-round bye at the conference tournament also has grown more intriguing.

The Bruins won their first eight Pac-12 games but have lost two in a row, albeit in tough assignments on the road at Arizona and USC.

“We’re no juggernaut,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin told reporters after USC’s Boogie Ellis scored 27 of his career-high 31 points in the second half to rally the Trojans past the Bruins last week. “We play freshmen. We have a really good team, there are a lot of good teams. Great environment, give the other team some credit. [Their] guys played great in the second half, give the Trojans credit.

“I ask myself the same questions after two straight wins, trying to get better. I didn’t harbor any illusions about us going undefeated in the Pac-12.”

While Colorado continues to slide deeper into the bottom half of the conference standings, Buffaloes fans might at least get to witness a handful of games key to the conference race down the stretch, as CU ends the regular season with a home series against the Los Angeles teams followed by a home date against Utah. That final weekend of the regular season also features the Arizona schools visiting Los Angeles, with Arizona and UCLA squaring off on the final day of the Pac-12 regular season on March 4.

Weekly honors

Ellis’ huge game against the Bruins led to him being named the Pac-12 Player of the Week on Monday.

Ellis’ 27-point second half equaled UCLA’s scoring total after halftime, as he finished 9-for-17 from the field (7-for-10 in the second half) while going a perfect 10-for-10 at the free throw line. Ellis also finished with four rebounds and six assists without a turnover in 37 minutes.

Another honor came largely at the expense of the Buffs, as Oregon State guard Jordan Pope was named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week. Pope scored 17 of his 19 points in the second half as the Beavers topped CU for just their third conference victory of the season. Pope hit five 3-pointers in the second half, including three during an 11-0 run that put OSU in control.

As opposed to CU’s turnover-prone rotation, the freshman guard didn’t record a turnover in 36:37 of court time. It was the second consecutive Freshman of the Week award for Pope and his third of the season.

Notable

While CU and Utah host the Bay Area schools this week, the Los Angeles schools host the Washington teams and the Oregon schools visit UA and ASU … Arizona climbed one spot to No. 5 in this week’s AP Top 25 while UCLA dropped one spot to No. 9. USC’s single point was the only other vote collected by a Pac-12 team…The Pac-12 NET rankings to begin the week: UCLA (5), Arizona (10), Utah (49), USC (55), Oregon (59), ASU (64), Washington State (68), Colorado (70), Stanford (122), Washington (126), Oregon State (217), California (297).