You could call this the "Pac-10 Special" edition of the Out of Focus series, with a dash of Summit League play tossed in for good measure.
If you are unfamiliar with the premise of this column, three to five games are highlighted that do not feature ranked teams. The games are usually highly competitive and, in order to be chosen, they must either have an impact on the postseason or a compelling storyline.
The goal is to keep up with some of the leagues and teams that you don't normally get to see on ESPN or other networks, though today's edition features a couple of teams that normally get quite a bit of face time.
Unfortunately for Arizona and USC, their season unfolded in a manner that leaves them both currently unranked.
As usual, I will update the results of the games in the comments section; the last edition's games (Dec. 30) were all true gems if you care to take a look.
Now, on to today's "Out of Focus" games.
3. North Dakota State (8-4) at Oakland (9-7)
I know you're probably thinking that there's no way this could be a significant game. Well, the truth is that someone has to win the Summit League, and these are two of the three conference teams with winning records (IUPUI at 8-5 is the other).
All three of those teams are roughly equal, and each has shown flashes of solid play throughout the early part of the season.
Though North Dakota St. has lost to Idaho, the other three losses were a 112-111 shootout with Stephen F. Austin, a 14-point loss to Minnesota in November, and most recently, a hard-fought 61-57 loss to Pac-10 power USC. Despite a lack of quality wins, don't expect the Bison to roll over easily.
Oakland has played a very difficult out-of-conference schedule, including three Big Ten teams, Syracuse, Horizon preseason favorite Cleveland State, and Kansas State. They were able to notch a significant win over a non-conference opponent when they took out Oregon 82-79 in the Maui Invitational. The Golden Grizzlies have hung tough with nearly all of these opponents.
The winner of this game gets a leg up in the race to represent the Summit League in March.
Prediction: Oakland 68, North Dakota State 65
2. USC (9-3) at Oregon (6-6)
After some early season disappointments (including losses to Seton Hall and Missouri) that have caused USC to tumble from the rankings, the Trojans appear to have righted the ship, winning six of their last seven, with the only loss in that span being to Oklahoma by a single point.
USC will need to dominate their conference schedule if they expect to be a viable NCAA Tourney team come March, and it starts tonight in the conference opener at Oregon. Though it looks like a mismatch on paper, the Ducks have played much better since the aforementioned early season loss to Oakland.
Oregon pounded Alabama in the next game and has faced a difficult schedule, with losses to UNC, Texas, Utah and St. Mary's. The Ducks looked much improved in the loss to St. Mary's, hanging in for the entire game before eventually falling 78-73.
If USC plays sloppy and Oregon's backcourt of Tajuan Porter, Garrett Sim and LeKendric Longmire nails their three-pointers, an upset is a real possibility. Oddly enough, Porter, the Ducks' leading scorer, shoots better from behind the arc (.378) than inside it (.376).
Prediction: USC 86, Oregon 77
1. Arizona (9-3) at California (11-2)
Arizona's season has generally been two steps forward and one step back, but a win on the road against upstart California could put them on a much better footing in early positioning for the NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats' early one-point losses to UAB and Texas A&M don't look quite as bad right now, as particularly the Aggies look significantly better than advertised in the preseason.
Unlike the rest of the Pac-10, Arizona worked through a solid non-conference schedule and it has already paid dividends, with impressive victories over Gonzaga and Kansas. The low point of the Wildcats' season thus far has been a 79-64 drubbing at the hands of UNLV, but the Runnin' Rebels are looking like the cream of the crop in a competitive Mountain West Conference.
California has won five consecutive games against weak opponents since an embarrassing 93-66 thrashing delivered by the Missouri Tigers. However, the Golden Bears did score an impressive 18-point victory over the same UNLV team that easily handled Arizona.
No game this early in the season is usually labeled as a "must-win," but this contest is between two teams who are likely to be precariously on the bubble when March rolls around. California is young and was expected to be a year away from contending. The Bears want to show that they are ready this year.
Arizona is out to prove that their equally young team and first-year coach are ready to make a serious play at the postseason as well. A lot is at stake in this conference opener, and the game should be a nail-biter.
Prediction: Arizona 83, California 82
These games are often worth keeping track of on the radio or the Internet when they're not available on TV!
As always, I welcome your comments on either the games, the predictions, or both.