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For UCLA and other Pac-12 contenders, only certainty is uncertainty

With three weeks left in regular season, nearly half the Pac-12 is in thick of title race, and even lowly Oregon can't be dismissed.

February 18, 2014|By Chris Foster
  • Guard Jordan Adams and UCLA came up short against forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Arizona, 79-75, in their only Pac-12 Conference game this season.
Guard Jordan Adams and UCLA came up short against forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

Arizona's coronation may have been premature.

Oregon's demise may have been exaggerated.

And UCLA is . . . well, UCLA. People still aren't quite sure.

The jury is also out on California and Arizona State, who lurk just off the pace in the standings.

The Pac-12 Conference basketball regular season has three weeks left and a few things have changed since the start of league play in early January.

Back then, Arizona was ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press media poll, Oregon was No. 10 and Colorado No. 20.

Heading into this week's games, Arizona still sits at No. 4 — but has issues. Oregon and Colorado vanished from the poll long ago. UCLA popped in at No. 25 two weeks into conference play but quickly disappeared, before re-emerging at No. 23 this week.

About the only thing certain is that that either USC or Washington State will occupy the cellar.

UCLA is 20-5 overall and second in the Pac-12 at 9-3, one game behind Arizona, which is 23-2, 10-2. The Bruins play at California (17-8, 8-4) on Wednesday, while Arizona plays at Utah (17-8, 6-7).

Cal and Arizona State (19-6, 8-4) are tied for third. Arizona State has to play at a reincarnated Colorado (19-7, 8-5), which seems to have overcome the loss of leading scorer Spencer Dinwiddie.

Everything clear? If not, don't look for a Windex moment from those in the middle of it.

"There are three weeks left and we're one of several teams in hunt," UCLA Coach Steve Alford said. "It's going to make the next three weeks exciting."

Early on, it looked like the Pac-12 title was Arizona's to lose. That changed when star forward Brandon Ashley suffered a season-ending foot injury during a game at Cal on Feb. 1. The Wildcats lost that game, and another last Friday at Arizona State.

"There is not the separation there was a couple weeks ago," California Coach Mike Montgomery said. "With Arizona losing Ashley, their margin of error became much smaller."

Arizona Coach Sean Miller admits that, but also looks at how Colorado has rebounded of late without Dinwiddie. The Buffaloes lost four of five after Dinwiddie was injured, but since then have rallied to win four of five.

"We lost a talented player, somebody who gave us a number of things that are hard to duplicate," Miller said. "Injuries are a part of this. Colorado had one that took them off the radar and they have worked their way back."

Arizona plays four of its last six games on the road, as do Arizona State and UCLA. California is at home four of its last six games, but has to travel to Tucson and Tempe.

"No one can say, 'We have to play these guys,'" Cal's Montgomery said. "We all have tough teams left."

Then comes the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas, where Oregon could join the already-long list of contenders.

The Ducks started 13-0, but lost five consecutive conference games and sit in 10th place, 16-8 overall, 4-8 in Pac-12 play. But they have split six games the last three weeks, and the losses — to UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State — have all been by two points.

"The frustration was we were not able to get over the hump in those games," Oregon Coach Dana Altman said. "The confidence comes from knowing we were one shot away. This time of year, there is always a team or two that catches a spark."

Said Montgomery: "Oregon is capable of scoring in bunches, and in a tournament that can be dangerous."

The end result, Miller said, should be a large contingent of Pac-12 teams in the NCAA tournament. The conference sent five teams to the tournament last season.

"You hear the analogy all the time, that a conference is so difficult that they beat up on each other," Miller said. "That same analogy can be used as a negative. The one thing that has been established is we have a really good conference."

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

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