Since it has been the Pac-12 (2011-12), the regular season Champion has had the following records:
2011-12 Washington 14-4
2012-13 UCLA 13-5
2013-14 Arizona 15-3
2014-15 Arizona 16-2
2015-16 Oregon 14-4
2016-17 Oregon 16-2
In 6 years of the Pac-12, the average regular season winner has had a little over 3 losses. However in three of the seven years, a team with four losses and, in one year, a team with five losses have won the Pac-12. Personally, I still think this is a down year that four losses and, maybe even like 12-13, five losses could win the regular season title. Currently, UCLA leads the Pac-12 with a 3-1 record and all teams have at least one loss. Early season favorite Arizona State has 2 losses. Pre-season top 10 and media choice for second Southern Cal has stumbled this season so far to a 11-5 record. Arizona could be the best, but Sean Miller has said of his team: “I can’t get them to play hard. I really can’t.”
This could be a wide open race. This is a season where UCLA could take advantage of a Pac-12 race that is wide open. On the flip side, because the Pac-12 is so down, a couple losses to the lesser teams could knock UCLA out of the tourney.
The Must Wins
That said, the lost to Stanford, without a doubt, hurt UCLA’s chances. UCLA seemingly can’t have any more bad losses. To break that down, six out of the next seven games are must wins.
January 11 v. Utah
January 13 v. Colorado
January 18 at Oregon State
January 25 v. UC Berkeley
January 27 v. Stanford
February 3 v. Southern Cal
This group is not hard to explain. We have to win at home. Period. The only question mark should be Southern Cal. Southern Cal has a lot of talent, but they are terribly coached. The talent makes them a tougher road game on any given night, but we have to win a rivalry game at home against them.
Oregon State is currently ranked 171 in the RPI. They are the kind of road games you have to win if you want to win the Pac-12 or go to the NCAA tourney.
The Should Wins
Then there are three games where a loss is acceptable, but, if you want a chance to win the Pac-12, you probably can only afford one, if you hit two or three you may be out of the tourney.
January 20 at Oregon
February 22 at Utah
February 25 at Colorado
These three are on the road against teams with less talent but good coaches. The mountain trip is hard to win both games, but UCLA gets a break with an extra day of rest. Oregon’s Altman is ethically challenged but probably the best coach in the Pac-12.
The tough trip.
February 8 at Arizona
February 10 at ASU
These would not be bad losses. If we win everything else, we could lose these and still win the Pac-12. On the other hand, if we have another bad Stanford-type loss, a win here may be essential for the Pac-12 tourney as our RPI will be poor. (If the Stanford game was the last of the season, we would have been knocked out of the tourney by RPI.)
Alford has an unusual history here. Last year, UCLA beat Arizona on the road and lost to them at home. The year before, a bad UCLA team with a losing record beat Arizona at home and played them tough on the road. It is not as hard as one would think for UCLA to beat Arizona on the road. The game is likely to be close.
Arizona State is a tougher game to figure out. No one can be sure at this point how good ASU is. They have the talent to trouble UCLA. They are weak on the bench and their loss to Arizona was in part due to Romello White fouling out in 18 minutes. A weak bench does not hurt as much at home (generally), in part because the SPTRs favor the home team. Also, having only one day off after a very emotional Arizona game makes this one really tough.
In reality, if things go close to plan, UCLA would win the Pac-12 if they could win both. That is unlikely and unrealistic. Depending how other things go, they may have to beat Arizona to win the Pac-12 as the winner of that game will own the tiebreaker for first place. Ironically, if UCLA beats Arizona, the ASU game may not matter that much. On the other hand, if UCLA loses to Arizona, they still have a shot if they can beat ASU and take of the other business.
Could be the “Decider”
Which means the season could come down to one game, the last game of the season against Southern Cal.
March 3 at Southern Cal
Southern Cal is a train wreck, but they could get up for a game that decides if UCLA wins the Pac-12 title. If UCLA underachieves, this will still be an important a game as it will likely determine whether we go to the NCAA tournament or earn a first round bye in the Pac-12 tournament. UCLA is not built to win the Pac-12 tournament as that is asking too much of Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh to win three games in three days. The team will need its stars rested.
Long story short, this is Steve Alford’s best chance to win a Pac-12 regular season title in his time at UCLA. That is not to say it is his best team, but, like when Ben Howland won the Pac-12 regular season title with 5 losses, this seems like a down year in the Pac-12. Alford has the talent and will likely get some breaks. On the other hand, if he does not lead UCLA to the regular season title this year, can he ever?
Right now, he is in the company of Larry Brown as being the only UCLA coach in the post-Wooden era not to win the Pac-8/10/12 regular season title. Brown took UCLA to a championship game, though, while Alford has stalled at the Sweet 16. Alford in year five needs to win the Pac-12 and he got some breaks this year with the other teams.