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Arizona's runaway slows to a walk

(The Register-Guard) — And suddenly, there is a race for the Pac-12 Conference title.

Arizona looked as if it might run away with the conference title when it started conference play 8-0 and was ranked No. 1 in the country, but the Wildcats are just 2-2 since losing forward Brandon Ashley to a season-ending foot injury.

That puts the Wildcats at 10-2, just one game up on 9-3 UCLA with Arizona State and California both two games back at 8-4 and Colorado at 8-5. The Wildcats have a tough road, with four of their final six games on the road.

This week, Arizona will make the trip to Colorado and Utah, which are a combined 31-2 at home this season. Then the Wildcats will be home to face Cal and Stanford before wrapping up the conference schedule at Oregon State and Oregon.

If UCLA sweeps the Bay Area schools at home this weekend and Arizona loses one in the mountains, the two teams would be tied and the Bruins have an easier remaining schedule, although the Wildcats have the head-to-head tiebreaker. UCLA will finish with Oregon and Oregon State at home before traveling to the Washington schools.

If Cal beats UCLA and USC and the Wildcats lose one game this weekend, then Cal would head to Arizona next Wednesday with a chance to tie the Wildcats for first and sweep the season series.

The loss of Ashley, who averaged 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds, is the most obvious reason for Arizona's slide, but the Nick Johnson's struggles are the most confusing part for the Cats. Once the favorite for conference player of the year, the 6-foot-3 junior has fallen behind UCLA's Kyle Anderson and Cal's Justin Cobbs.

In Arizona's past four games, Johnson is 15-for-60 from the field, including 1-for-18 on three-pointers, and averaging 11.5 points. In Arizona's 21-0 start, he shot 49.6 percent from the field, including 38.7 percent on three-pointers, while averaging 16.7 points. He was 1-for-14 from the field in the loss to California and 5-for-20 in the loss to Arizona State.

"He just has to work through it," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "Moving forward, this team and Nick will benefit from him making shots, and I have no doubt he will."

If he doesn't, the battle for the Pac-12 title could get wild during the final three weeks.

"It's not a given, especially with the injury to Ashley," Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. "It does cast more of a doubt whereas if he was still with them, Arizona was running away with it. They have come back to the pack more now and it will be an interesting couple weeks down the stretch."

Added Cal's Mike Montgomery: "UCLA is a game back, we're two back. There's not that separation like it was a couple weeks ago. With Arizona losing Ashley, their margin for error got smaller. It's tightened down a bit. Certainly with six games to go, Arizona is in the drivers' seat, but they have to mind their Ps and Qs."


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