As Ducks struggle, Pac-12 takes shape

January is always tough, but this January was brutal — the coldest month of the century they say, an unrelenting onslaught of polar vortices and transport disasters and Los Angeles news anchors shivering in the 60-degree chill.

Let’s all come together, then, and celebrate the end of January 2014. The Oregon Ducks can be our college hoops guests of honor. Because it’s settled now, after Thursday’s 70-68 home loss to UCLA: No team in the sport has had a more miserable month.

It seems crazy now, but it really did happen. The Ducks entered the New Year unbeaten. They began the 2013-14 season with a solid victory over a surprisingly game Georgetown at the Armed Forces Tip-Off in Seoul, South Korea, throttled a series of overmatched home opponents, and from there they just kept on winning: at Ole Miss, versus Illinois in Portland, in overtime versus BYU. Led by Houston transfer Joseph Young and UNLV transfer Mike Moser, Oregon was playing hyper-efficient, stylish, up-tempo offense -- it exceeded 100 points on four separate occasions.

On Jan. 2, Oregon traveled to Utah and opened Pac-12 play with a win. Save No. 1-ranked Arizona, no team in the West looked as good as Dana Altman’s. Plus, much of that stretch had been accomplished without suspended players Dominic Artis and Ben Carter. As both returned, and the Ducks stretched their unbeaten start to 14-0, Altman’s team had the look of a conference title contender.

Since then, Oregon is 1-6. Its first three losses -- a road defeat to Colorado and home losses to Stanford and Cal -- were forgivable. Following them with losses to Oregon State and Washington? Not so much. The Ducks lost five in a row in total before Sunday’s pounding of lowly Washington State. Even worse? Those wins that looked so promising in November and December all came against teams that have fallen apart themselves to various degrees in January. The Ducks’ month was so bad it’s infecting everything it touches.

Thursday night’s loss to UCLA was disappointing on multiple fronts for Oregon. For starters, there was the sheer fact of the loss itself, which capped off Altman’s monthus horriblus. But there were also the letdowns contained therein: how the Ducks, so lackluster for so much of the game, rediscovered their shooting late in the second half and came storming back from a double-digit deficit with a late 12-0 run. With 1:12 left to play, Richard Amardi made a free throw that put Oregon up 68-65. The Ducks would then go on to yield the final five points of the game. Their final shot, a hopeful Johnathan Loyd effort, was stopped short of the rim by Kyle Anderson's Stretch Armstrong arms.

In their eight Pac-12 games, the Ducks are now allowing more points per possession (1.074) than they are scoring (1.07). They haven’t played well, and they didn’t play well for much of Thursday night. That they still had a chance to salvage that win was lucky, all things considered.

Focusing too much on Oregon could cause one to overlook UCLA, and that would be a mistake. After Thursday’s win -- based not only on their talent but on résumé and efficiency, too -- it now seems safe to call the Bruins the second-best team in the Pac-12. Arizona State might be in that mix, same with Cal and Stanford. But the Bruins have beaten all of those teams (albeit at home) in January, and Anderson and Jordan Adams form a one-two scoring punch most of those teams don’t have.

Is the Pac-12 finally taking shape? Arizona is far and away its best team, obviously. But pulling UCLA out of the rest of a muddled middle feels fair. The Bruins are 16-4 with no bad losses on their résumé (road games at Mizzou and Utah, neutral court to Duke, home to Arizona), the most efficient offense (1.11 PPP) in Pac-12 play and, most surprising of all, the second-ranked per-possession defense (.96). They play faster and smarter and more well-executed basketball than they did a year ago under Ben Howland, and they’re not sacrificing defensive strength in doing so. They don’t belong in the same group as Cal, Stanford, Arizona State, etc., at least not right now.

Whatever your sense is of the hierarchy at work in the Pac-12 this season, UCLA certainly doesn’t belong in the same group as Oregon. The Ducks are flailing. Where they go from here is a matter of better defense, sure, but also a rediscovery of the offensive skill that made them such a thrilling proposition in November and December.

We’re crossing our fingers and hoping for a slightly warmer February to salvage this winter. Altman’s team will have to do far more than that.