Asked about ASU after the Sun Devils beat Kansas earlier this month, Arizona coach Sean Miller spoke uninterrupted for two minutes and 15 seconds, offering a total of 376 praise-filled words.
Then, asked a follow-up question, Miller hit the brakes.
“I’ll stop there,” he said. “We have to play New Mexico.”
It was, after all, only Dec. 13. Arizona and ASU still won’t meet until Saturday at McKale Center but already by then, the Sun Devils’ emergence had become the most positive storyline the conference had to offer in a nonconference season otherwise plagued by investigations, suspensions and on-court disappointment.
There was the federal investigation that led to the arrest of assistant coaches at USC and Arizona, along with the decision of three UCLA players to go shoplifting in China, of all places, while Oregon was served notice of possible NCAA violations, too.
On somewhat quieter but more upbeat notes, a Washington team with low expectations shocked Kansas in Kansas City, Stanford’s Reid Travis became among the nation’s top scorers, and Washington State won its first in-season tournament (the Wooden Legacy) since 2009.
It’s been an unusual season so far all the way around for the Pac-12.
Here’s a team-by-team look (in descending order of Sagarin power ratings) at what’s happened heading into the conference season openers this week, which begin Friday and continue Saturday with what is all of a sudden the conference’s marquee game: ASU at Arizona.
Ratings: 13 (Sagarin), 14 (Kenpom)
Biggest win: 67-64 over Texas A&M at Phoenix, Dec. 5.
Worst loss: 89-64 to Purdue at Paradise Island, Bahamas, Nov. 24.
Storyline: The Wildcats rose to the No. 2 ranking in the AP Top 25 poll and became the first team in 30 years to bounce completely out a week later when they lost three games in the Battle 4 Atlantis. But the UA has since won seven straight and risen to No. 18 in the polls, featuring an improving defense and the return of forward Rawle Alkins from a broken foot.
Heroes: Guard Allonzo Trier has so far played up to his preseason all-American billing, while freshman Deandre Ayton posted nine double-doubles in his first 12 games.
Drama: Assistant coach Book Richardson was arrested on Sept. 26 as part of the sweeping federal investigation into college basketball, and the school is moving to fire him. The Wildcats have also levied several suspensions of their own, to Keanu Pinder (NCAA violation), Dylan Smith (team violation) and even assistant coach Mark Phelps (NCAA violation).
He said it: “I would say it (nonconference play was) pretty successful except the Bahamas trip and that was our shortcoming this year. It was a really tough time but I think we bounced back pretty well after those three games.” — UA center Dusan Ristic.
Ratings: 16 (Sagarin), 20 (Kenpom)
Biggest win: 95-85 at Kansas, Dec. 10.
Worst loss: None
Storyline: Finishing just 15-16 last season, the Sun Devils entered the season with another undersized roster and were picked to finish sixth in the Pac-12. Then they turned their weakness into a strength, getting strong guard play from Tra Holder, Shannon Evans, Remy Martin and Kodi Justice. Their collective success was such that the Sun Devils broke out “Guard U” shirts in warmups at Kansas — and had three of them score at least 21 points in the upset over the Jayhawks.
Heroes: Holder is averaging 21.3 points and 4.8 assists, while shooting 45.1 percent from 3-point range and getting to the free-throw line nearly seven times a game. Evans has similar totals, shooting only 39 percent from 3-point range but shooting free throws at an 85.7-percent rate.
Drama: Because of the Sun Devils’ success, coach Bobby Hurley’s name has already sprung up as a candidate to move on to any of college basketball’s top programs at some point.
He said it: “I know that this is where I want to be, so I have no issues saying that, 100 percent. We’re building something special here. I’m loving the way we play, the style — it’s exactly what I had a vision for in terms of how we entertain people in addition to winning basketball games.” — Hurley, in an interview with Phoenix station FM 98.7.
Ratings: 39 (Sagarin), 38 (Kenpom)
Biggest win: 93-89 (OT) at Vanderbilt, Nov. 19.
Worst loss: 103-93 (OT) vs Princeton at the Galen Center, Dec. 19.
Storyline: With all five starters returning from a 26-win team, the Trojans were expected to challenge Arizona for the Pac-12 title and contend for a Final Four. But one of their best players, potential NBA first-rounder De’Anthony Melton, has sat out the entire season so far while USC investigates whether he was involved in the federal investigation. USC has underachieved on the court, losing three in a row, to Texas A&M, SMU and Oklahoma.
Heroes: Point guard Jordan McLaughlin averages 7.8 assists per game and exactly a 3-1 assist-turnover ratio, along with 13.7 points and 2.2 steals. He tied the Pac-12’s record with 19 assists against UC Santa Barbara. Forward Chimezie Metu averages 19.0 points and 8.3 rebounds.
Drama: Melton was sat out 10 games for precautionary reasons and then was declared ineligible before USC went to the Diamond Head Classic. Melton wasn’t accused in the federal complaint, but a family friend allegedly accepted $5,000 to steer him to an agent and adviser. In addition, forward Bennie Boatwright missed two games last week with a sore foot.
He said it: “It’s been a very challenging year for us so far.” — USC coach Andy Enfield.
Ratings: 40 (Sagarin), 46 (Kenpom)
Biggest win: 68-61 at Fresno State, Dec. 16.
Worst loss: 71-63 to Connecticut at Portland, Ore., Nov. 23.
Storyline: The Ducks’ roster was all but cleaned out after their Final Four run last season, but lone returning starter Payton Pritchard has some new talent around him. Considering the track record of Ducks coach Dana Altman, it’s no surprise that Oregon has started to surge, though the Ducks are playing a nonconference schedule that kenpom rates the 285th toughest of 351 Division I teams.
Heroes: Pritchard has averaged 16.3 points and 4.6 assists while hitting 3s at a 45.3 percent rate. On the wing, Elijah Brown, a grad transfer from New Mexico, averages 13.3 points, while five-star freshman Troy Brown averages 11.8 points and 7.8 rebounds.
Drama: The Ducks’ basketball program was mentioned in an NCAA notice of allegations sent last week, saying Altman failed to monitor his program after noncoaching staffers were found to have participated in on-court activities and workouts, according to the Oregonian. In addition, multiple media outlets submitted public-records requests of emails between Nike executives and Oregon coaches in the wake of the federal investigation into college basketball; the Oregonian reported that two high-ranking Nike executives offered Altman recruiting advice.
He said it: “We’re getting better. We’re making better plays. We’re making more plays for each other. We have a lot of room to grow defensively.” — Altman, after Oregon beat Portland State on Dec. 13.
Ratings: 44 (Sagarin), 51 (Kenpom)
Biggest win: 83-75 against Kentucky at New Orleans, Dec. 23.
Worst loss: 77-63 to Cincinnati at Pauley Pavilion, Dec. 16.
Storyline: While Arizona and USC created national headlines with the federal investigation, UCLA embarrassed itself internationally when three players went shoplifting in China, an incident that ultimately had Donald Trump and LaVar Ball exchanging words. On the court, the Bruins blew a 15-point second half lead in a loss to Michigan but beat Kentucky on Saturday.
Heroes: Aaron Holiday (17.6) and Kris Wilkes (12.3) are two of UCLA’s three leading scorers, and both scored 20 on Kentucky, while big man Thomas Welsh averages a double-double.
Drama: The China incident led to Ball pulling his son LiAngelo out of UCLA. He put him on Lithuanian pro team along with youngest son LaMelo, who is no longer a UCLA commit as a result. UCLA suspended the other two players caught shoplifting, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, for the rest of the season.
He said it: “I’m tired of people saying that we’re not good just because we have mishaps at the end or whatever it is. So it just shows our team chemistry and how good we are right now at a young age.” — Holiday, in the L.A. Times after UCLA beat Kentucky.
Ratings: 59 (Sagarin), 59 (Kenpom)
Biggest win: 83-74 over Mississippi in Las Vegas, Nov. 20.
Worst loss: 85-58 to UNLV at T-Mobile Arena, Nov. 22.
Storyline: The Utes’ revolving door saw key players JoJo Zamora and Devon Daniels transfer out while Kyle Kuzma left early for the NBA last spring. That’s left veteran big man David Collette and Long Beach State grad transfer Justin Bibbins, a scoring-minded point guard, to take over.
Heroes: Collette averages 13.5 points and 5.1 rebounds while Bibbins averages 12.1 points, shooting 46.2 percent from 3-point range and dishes 4.5 assists. Freshman forward Donnie Tillman has averaged 10.7 points but has missed two games with a sprained foot.
Drama: Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak pulled out of a scheduled game at BYU last season to let the heated rivalry cool off, and BYU fans booed him upon his return Dec. 16. The Utes lost, 77-65.
He said it: “You look at games of this nature – our UNLV loss, our Butler loss — (Tillman) was really our leader in both those games. He’s a guy that gives you a little presence. That one hurt. No doubt about it, but no excuses. We got out butts beat, didn’t deserve to win.” — Krystkowiak, after the BYU game, in the Salt Lake Tribune.
Ratings: 96 (Sagarin), 131 (kenpom)
Biggest win: 74-65 over Kansas in Kansas City, Dec. 6.
Worst loss: 77-70 to Providence at New York, Nov. 16.
Storyline: Washington lost No. 1 NBA pick Markelle Fultz and fired coach Lorenzo Romar, but new coach Mike Hopkins managed to keep top recruit Jaylen Nowell and forward Noah Dickerson around, and it’s paying off. The Huskies beat then-No. 2 Kansas and have been adapting to Hopkins’ Syracuse-style zone defense.
Heroes: Nowell leads the Huskies in scoring with 16.9 points while Dickerson — who visited LSU while considering transfer options after Romar was fired — is averaging 15.4 points and 7.9 rebounds.
Drama: Not much. The Huskies have started the same lineup for 12 of 13 games and had all key players available, and they’re 6-1 in games decided by 10 points or less.
He said it: “It’s just trusting each other. We trust each other to make plays.”—Freshman Hameir Wright, in the Seattle Times.
Ratings: 98 (Sagarin), 116 (kenpom)
Biggest win: 79-70 over Mercer at Lynchburg, Va., Nov. 19
Worst loss: 69-65 to San Diego at Coors Events Center, Dec. 12.
Storyline: The Buffs are starting over after underachieving last season, with wing George King the only returning starter, though they picked up would-be Dayton guard McKinley Wright when Archie Miller left for Ohio State.
Heroes: Wright is one of the Pac-12’s best freshmen, averaging 17.0 points, 4.7 assists and 1.3 steals. King averages 14.3 points and 8.3 rebounds.
Drama: The Buffs’ only experienced big man, starting forward Tory Miller-Stewart, was lost for the season with a broken foot after only six games. Coach Tad Boyle has started 13 different players while seeking a steady rotation.
He said it: “We know what George can do. We know what McKinley can do. Outside of that, we’ve got ups and downs. We’re going to try and build on the positives, but until we get consistency, it’s a difficult team to know who to go with on a night-to-night basis.” — Boyle, in Buffzone.com
Ratings: 106 (Sagarin), 114 (kenpom)
Biggest win: 70-54 over Montana at Maples Pavilion, Nov. 29.
Worst loss: 67-61 to Eastern Washington at Maples Pavilion, Nov. 14.
Storyline: With three senior starters returning, including one of the Pac-12’s best players in forward Reid Travis, the Cardinal was projected to move into the conference’s upper half and into a possible NCAA tournament spot. As of now that doesn’t look likely.
Heroes: Travis is averaging 21.4 points and 7.1 rebounds while freshman point guard Daejon Davis, a would-be Husky who bailed when Romar was fired, adds an uptempo game.
Drama: Foot injuries have sidelined starting forward and strong shooter Dorian Pickens, along with Marcus Sheffield and Kodye Pugh. Pickens has played in only two games.
He said it: “The thing that we’re all trying to do — players and coaches — is look in the mirror and find out what we can do better. With such a young team and such an injured team … I’m discouraged that I’m not putting ourselves in the best position every time.” – Stanford coach Jerod Haase
Ratings: 142 (Sagarin), 137 (kenpom)
Biggest win: 65-46 over Marist at Orlando, Nov. 26.
Worst loss: 75-66 to Wyoming at Gill Coliseum, Nov. 13.
Storyline: After blowing leads in three early losses, to Wyoming, St. John’s and Long Beach State, the Beavers won six straight before losing at Kent State on Thursday.
Heroes: Stephen Thompson Jr. brought his little brother, Ethan, to Corvallis this season, helping prop up the Beavers in the backcourt while Tres Tinkle (18.2 ppg) and Drew Eubanks (14.6 ppg) lead up front.
Drama: Point guard JaQuori McLaughlin left the team earlier this month just after he was moved out of the starting lineup.
He said it: “The maturity level wasn’t there like it was a couple years ago. But it’s starting to improve and that’s something we’ve got to continue to work on.” OSU coach Wayne Tinkle, in the Oregonian.
Ratings: 152 (Sagarin), 167 (kenpom)
Biggest win: 84-79 over St. Mary’s at Fullerton, Calif., Nov. 24.
Worst loss: 91-64 at Idaho, Dec. 6.
Storyline: After coach Ernie Kent revamped his roster and coaching staff in the offseason, a surprisingly good shooting team surfaced. The Cougars won the Wooden Legacy tournament, shooting 45 percent or better in two games, and nearly knocked off Kansas State in Spokane last week. They take 51.2 percent of their shots behind the arc, and hit 3-pointers at a 39.2-percent rate.
Heroes: Guard Malachi Flynn was the Wooden Legacy MVP after averaging 19.7 points over three games and hitting half of his 3-pointers. After losing nearly 40 pounds in the offseason, forward Robert Franks has morphed into a go-to force, averaging 18.1 points and 7.2 rebounds.
He said it: “The thing about this team that I’ve said all along is it’s a great shooting team. With some of the numbers they’ve put up … it’s just mind-boggling how much better they are than some of my Oregon teams — in practice.” — WSU coach Ernie Kent, in the Spokane Spokesman-Review.
Ratings: 170 (Sagarin), 178 (kenpom)
Biggest win: 63-62 at San Diego State, Dec. 9.
Worst loss: 96-69 to Central Arkansas at Haas Pavilion, Dec. 6.
Storyline: New coach Wyking Jones inherited one starter plus Kentucky transfer Marcus Lee and the results haven’t been pretty so far. The Bears have lost to UC Riverside, Chaminade, Central Arkansas and, just after they retrenched with three straight wins, lost to Portland State at home by 25.
Heroes: Don Coleman has become the go-to guy (20.2) he was expected to be after finishing last season strongly, but he needs a lot more help.
Drama: Having run a $16 million deficit in the last fiscal year, the Bears saved some cash by promoting Jones from assistant coach. But at this rate, they aren’t likely to generate much, either.
He said it: “I was so pleased with how we had played the past three games. I felt like we were making progress. … For our guys to kind of, I wouldn’t say quit, but to kind of not find it in them to dig ourselves out of holes and continue to fight is disappointing.” — Jones, in the San Francisco Chronicle after Cal lost to Portland State.