Back in October, the Pac-12’s official media poll suggested the Arizona Wildcats would win a pretty close conference race.
Five teams received first-place votes in the kind of forecast that probably still holds up this week, as the conference begins play with four games on Friday.
Except now there’s another question: Who finishes last? Stanford? USC? One of the Washington schools? A surprise team?
UA coach Sean Miller knows this: Whoever it is will be pretty good.
“The quality of all 12 teams — so many of them have improved from year or two ago,” Miller said. “It’s the deepest conference we’ve competed in as a coaching staff. We have a strong top, an equally strong middle and whoever finishes at the bottom will be among the better bottom teams the Pac-12 has had in recent seasons.”
While the Pac-12 is second to the Big 12 in overall conference RPI, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said he’s heard from some basketball observers in the East who say the Pac-12 is the best conference from top to bottom.
All that depth has even caused something of a “problem” for Washington’s Lorenzo Romar.
‘When people ask me who I think are the top four or five teams, I’ve tried to answer it — and before I knew it, I was naming 10, 11 teams,” Romar said.
Romar, once a player at Washington who also served as an assistant at UCLA, has one of the most unique perspectives in the league. So does Washington State’s Ernie Kent, who also coached at Oregon and served as analyst for the Pac-12 Networks.
“It hasn’t been like this in a long time,” Kent said. “Game in and game out, it’s going to be competitive. There’s not going to be a game where you can just walk on the floor and say ‘We’ve got this game.’
Here’s a look at each Pac-12 team heading into conference play, in order of its original place in the preseason conference media poll:
Sagarin ranking: 11
Kenpom ranking: 17
Signature win: 68-63 at Gonzaga on Dec. 5. Gabe York hit four three pointers in the second half to lead Wildcats’ comeback win.
Tough loss: 69-65 to Providence at Fullerton, Calif. Stretched into overtime by Santa Clara when losing Kaleb Tarczewski (foot) a day earlier, the Wildcats couldn’t stop Kris Dunn’s 10 points in the final three minutes.
Horse: Ryan Anderson. Senior transfer from Boston College immediately stepped into leadership position on and off court, averaging a double-double.
Vibe: Snakebitten. Freshman Ray Smith tore his ACL in the preseason, setting the tone for an injury plagued preseason that included absences by Tarczewski, Anderson (ankle), and Elliott Pitts (unspecified)
The coach says: “There are a number of things we really have to get better at. … We know we’re going to have to be the better defensive team in conference play than we were over the first 13 games.” – Sean Miller
Signature win: 63-59 over Saint Mary’s at Berkeley on Dec. 12. It’s usually a no-win situation for a power conference team to schedule a mid-major in its backyard, but Cuonzo Martin’s gamble paid off with a four-point win.
Tough loss: 63-62 at Virginia in overtime on Dec. 22. The Bears’ biggest achievement of the nonconference season might have been a loss, taking the Hoos into overtime on their home floor.
Horse: Tyrone Wallace. Despite all the hype over the Bears’ five-star freshman duo (Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb), Wallace has continued to be a reliable scorer who can dish or finish well.
Vibe: Predictably bumpy. Meshing all that new talent in with a veteran core hasn’t always produced consistent, hard-playing results.
The coach says: “We have a really new group of guys learning how to play with each other and learning how to sacrifice and compete when it comes to winning basketball games.” – Cuonzo Martin
Signature win: 79-77 over No. 7 Duke in overtime at New York on Dec. 19. Jakob Poeltl had 19 points and 14 rebounds to help the Utes avenge a Sweet 16 loss to the Blue Devils in the NCAA tournament last season.
Tough loss: 90-66 to Miami at San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Nov. 20. The Hurricanes turned 16 Utah turnovers into 23 points in the Puerto Rico Tipoff semifinals.
Horse: Jakob Poeltl turned down a chance at the NBA to improve his game at Utah and, so far, he has. The Austrian 7-footer is averaging 19.1 points and 9.9 rebounds.
Vibe: No worries. The Utes miss the all-around skills of point guard Delon Wright, and don’t have many options at center after Poeltl (though 7-foot midseason addition Jayce Johnson may be activated) but they’re looking Sweet 16-ish again.
The coach says: “From a win-loss perspective, I’m happy but… we’ve got a lot to do to be competitive in this conference, which appears to be pretty strong.” – Larry Krystkowiak
Signature win: 74-67 over Baylor at Matt Knight Arena on Nov. 16. Without possible starters guard Dylan Ennis or center Jordan Bell, the Ducks went on an 8-0 first half run to take a lead they never gave up against the 20th ranked Bears.
Tough loss: 80-69 to UNLV at Las Vegas on Dec. 4. Stephen Zimmerman had 12 points and 12 rebounds while the Rebels beat the then-15th-ranked Ducks at the MGM Grand Garden, home of the Pac-12 Tournament.
Horse: Dillon Brooks leads the Ducks in scoring with 16.5 points while Tempe’s Casey Benson is posting a 6.5-1 assist-turnover ratio.
Vibe: Invisible. Despite being a title contender once again, Oregon is drawing only the sixth most fans in the conference (6,020 fans on average) and has received minimal national buzz.
The coach says: “We haven’t progressed as quickly as we’d like. We’ve had a lot of different combinations and guys playing different positions. I think this team can get a lot better but it’s still a work in progress.” – Dana Altman
Signature win: 87-77 over Kentucky on Dec. 3 at Pauley Pavilion. The top-ranked Wildcats didn’t come close to repeating their 39-point win over the Bruins last season, when Thomas Welsh had 21 points and 11 rebounds.
Tough loss: 84-81 to Monmouth on Nov. 13 at Pauley Pavilion. OK, Monmouth is better than everyone thought, but really? At home?
Horse: Tony Parker. The former McDonalds All-American is finally dominating inside and averaging a double-double.
Vibe: Balanced. While Parker is dominating inside, guards Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton, as well as Welsh, have all taken turns carrying UCLA, too.
The coach says: “We have been fairly healthy and that’s helped us through a difficult stretch. We thought (a difficult schedule) helped us last year and we didn’t get the wins we needed but we got rewarded in the end for just attempting them. This year we’ve gotten the wins and it’s put us in a good position for March.” – Steve Alford
6. Oregon State
Signature win: 76-71 over Tulsa at Portland, Ore., on Dec. 19. The Beavers trailed for the entire first half, but pulled out a win in the Far West Classic championship.
Tough loss: 63-57 to Valparaiso on Nov. 24 at Corvallis, Ore. OSU blew a chance to rack up a good win at home and wasted Gary Payton II’s 25 points when it dished only seven assists
Horse: Payton continues to stuff box scores with even bigger numbers (16.8 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 5.0 apg) as a senior.
Vibe: Fortified. The Beavers surprised with a thin roster in Wayne Tinkle’s debut season, but now the coach’s son (Tres) and assistant coach’s son (Stephen Thompson Jr.) are bringing much-needed firepower off the bench to make OSU even better.
The coach says: “We thought 7-4 (in nonconference play) was realistic but to be 9-2 is great. But our concern is: Are we improving? We’re very satisfied with what this group has been able to do but we’ve got to be a little better.” – Tinkle
Signature win: 92-83 over BYU in Boulder on Dec. 12. George King scored 23 points and Josh Scott posted a double-double to help the Buffs hold on after their 25-point lead shrunk to six.
Tough loss: 70-66 to SMU on Dec. 23 in the Las Vegas Classic. The Mustangs celebrated the only tournament they can win this season, being ineligible for the postseason, as Larry Brown beat his former Kansas player, Tad Boyle.
Horse: Scott is back to characteristic form – and better – after suffering back trouble last season.
Vibe: Rugged. The Buffs get it done on the glass, being second only to Arizona in rebounding margin, at 12.0, though it’s still unknown if wing Xavier Johnson (Achilles tendon) will return next month or take a redshirt.
The coach says: “I’m a little frustrated because the two games we’ve lost were winnable. But overall, when you look at the big picture, we’ve taken care of most of our mistakes.” – Tad Boyle
8. Arizona State
Signature win: 66-56 over UNLV at Las Vegas on Dec. 16. Without leading scorer and rebounder Savon Goodman (unspecified), the Sun Devils stormed back from a 12-point halftime deficit.
Tough loss: 66-63 to Sacramento State at Wells Fargo Arena on Nov. 13. Bobby Hurley minced no words after his debut: “It was an embarrassing loss for us,” he said.
Horse: Tra Holder. An all-freshman pick under Herb Sendek last season, Holder has continued to emerge while working under a former Duke star guard, averaging 14.5 points while leading the Sun Devils in assists and steals.
Vibe: Aggressive. The Sun Devils surprisingly held their own during a potentially suicidal nonconference schedule, and could see the payoff in league and postseason play.
The coach says: “I think we’re battle-tested. We’ve been in some really tough spots and challenged ourselves with our schedule. I like the resolve of our team and we’re pretty balanced.” – Bobby Hurley
Signature win: 69-66 over Arkansas on Nov. 27 at New York. Marcus Allen made a game-deciding layup with 2.6 seconds left in the consolation game of the NIT Season Tip-Off.
Tough loss: 75-73 to Texas on Dec. 19 at Palo Alto. One reason the Big 12 is the only conference with a higher RPI than the Pac-12 came when a late Stanford rally wasn’t enough.
Horse: Rosco Allen. Stanford has four scorers averaging between 12.8 and 13.9 points while the onetime UA recruiting target has become the Cardinal’s leading scorer and its third-leading rebounder.
Vibe: Shaky. Coach Johnny Dawkins says he likes the Cardinal’s heart but Stanford is in danger of slipping in the Pac-12 hierarchy after big roster losses last spring.
The coach says: “Our guys are doing a good job getting used to each other. We have a long way to go but I like the direction we’re headed.” – Dawkins
Signature win: 72-69 over Wichita State on Nov. 26 in Kissimmee, Fla. Onetime UA recruiting target Bennie Boatwright had 22 points while the Trojans moved to 5-0 by beating the 20th ranked Shockers.
Tough loss: 83-73 to Monmouth on Nov. 29 at Kissimmee, Fla. So who’s the best team in L.A. this season? Maybe it’s the one from West Long Branch, N.J.
Horse: Back from shoulder issues, point guard Jordan McLaughlin is averaging 12.4 points, 5.3 assists, and shooting 45 percent from three-point range.
Vibe: Sigh of relief. With transition and injuries over his first two years at USC, Andy Enfield was on the line to prove himself this season. So far he has.
He said it: “We feel very confident in our team. We’ve made strides but now we need to prove it in the league… We need to win on the road in the league.” – Enfield
Signature win: 77-70 over Texas on Nov. 13 in Shanghai, China. The new-look Huskies pulled off a surprise win in the Asian showcase that Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott sought.
Tough loss: 83-78 to UC Santa Barbara on Dec. 28 at Seattle. The Huskies’ momentum has stalled heading into Pac-12 play, with losses to Oakland and UCSB at home over their past three games
Horse: Andrew Andrews, the Huskies’ lone senior, is not only gluing together a new roster but leading in scoreing (19.7), rebounding (6.3) and free-throw shooting (104 attempts at a 82.7 percent rate).
Vibe: Back to the future. Infused with new talent after a frustrating season, the Huskies have a more aggressive, Romar-esque playing style on both side of the ball but they can also spill out of control.
The coach says: “We’ve had our ups and downs in the nonconference, but we’ve learned a lot of about what it takes to be successful. But we need to experience success … to where it’s second nature.” – Lorenzo Romar
12. Washington State
Signature win: 82-59 over New Mexico on Dec. 25 in Honolulu. Josh Hawkinson put up double-doubles in all three games at the Diamond Head Classic, when the Cougars also lost to Oklahoma and Northern Iowa.
Tough loss: 78-74 at Idaho on Dec. 10 in Moscow, Idaho. The Vandals hit 9 of 16 three-pointers while upsetting their Palouse neighbors for the second straight time.
Horse: Hawkinson. With Valentine Izundu and Conor Clifford handling center for the Cougars, Hawkinson has averaged a double-double at power forward.
Vibe: Keeping up with Joneses. The Cougars are good enough to beat some very good teams in a very good conference…but they still might finish last.
The coach says: “I still think some guys can (improve). The tournament in Hawaii solidified our rotation and how we want to coach this team so we’re definitely ready for Pac-12 play.” – Ernie Kent