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Look ahead at the Pac-12’s biggest basketball games and the coaching issue at UCLA

UCLA guard Prince Ali (23) celebrates after dunking in front of teammate Kenneth Nwuba (14) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against California Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
UCLA guard Prince Ali (23) celebrates after dunking in front of teammate Kenneth Nwuba (14) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against California Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez) AP

We are entering the first full week of Pac-12 play and while it’s early there have been some surprises. The UCLA Bruins seem to have rallied together after the firing of Steve Alford. And Oregon, depleted by injuries, suffered a stunning loss to Oregon State for the first time in Eugene since 2012.

One story that will be watched all season long is the status of the vacant UCLA job, which might be harder than some think.

UCLA: Toughest job in college basketball?

Coming into the season, Alford was on the hot seat. AD Dan Guerrero didn’t give Alford much leash, firing him on Dec. 31 just before Pac-12 play began. One positive for the Bruins is that they’re going to get a head start on the coaching search, which they will need.

As The Ringer’s Mark Titus stated in his story a few days ago, there may not be a coach capable of getting UCLA back to the UCLA of old. While you’ve got amazing facilities and you’re in a top five media market, the landscape of college basketball has changed. Schools like Kentucky, Duke and Kansas can come into your territory and get kids from your area.

Is there a coach out there who can recruit and coach at an elite level and put the Bruins in contention for NCAA Tournaments and Final Fours? Names that have been linked to the job such as Oklahoma City’s Billy Donovan and Virginia’s Tony Bennett are at much better jobs and in a better position to succeed.

We know — OK assume —that UCLA is going to land an elite head coach. But will they get enough time to build the program before the expectations of coaching the Bruins sinks them?

Going streaking?

Two of the Pac-12’s longest series wins streaks will be on the line this week. Arizona has won 17 straight against Stanford and Utah has a nine-game winning streak against Washington State. Arizona and Stanford have played classics before, one of the best games in this vintage West Coast rivalry was back in 2004 when Stanford defeated Arizona on a last second shot from just past half court.

Games to watch this weekend

We’ve got give five games on tap this week that will help shape the early and soon to be active Pac-12 race.

THURSDAY

UCLA at Oregon (6 pm on ESPN)

The Bruins can put the preseason favorite Ducks in an early hole with a win on the road in Eugene on Thursday night. Both teams entered the 2018-19 season as co-favorites for the conference but injuries, stunning losses and firings have taken a little sizzle out of the matchup.

Washington at Utah (7 pm on Pac-12 Network)

The first conference test for the Huskies comes on the road at Utah, last week the Utes took Arizona to overtime on the road but fell short 84-81.

USC at Oregon State (8 pm on ESPNU)

As the Pac-12 is searching for possible NCAA Tournament contenders, this game offers a peak a two teams who have yet to lose a game in conference. Sure it’s a collective three games that have been played between the Trojans and the Beavers but with the lack of contenders, someone can take a solid step with a victory late Thursday. A player to watch is Nick Rakocevic from USC, he averaged 25 points in games vs. Stanford and Cal last week.

SATURDAY

Washington State at Utah

If Washington State wants to avoid an 0-3 start in conference play, they’ll need need to win at Colorado but they’re a 10-point underdog according to Vegas Insider. The focus then shifts to playing at Utah where they not won since December of 1946.

SUNDAY

UCLA at Oregon State (7 pm on FS1)

The two biggest surprises of the conference meet up late Sunday night in Corvallis. Oregon State can go 3-0 in conference play for the first time since 1993 win wins over the LA schools.

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