As conference play begins across the country, SI is resetting the races in the top nine leagues. Next up is the Pac-12:
Top three contenders
Oregon. A program known for taking transfers and turning them into big-time players managed to bring guys back this year, and it’s paying off. Three of Oregon’s top six scorers are returners. As a result, the Ducks have good early chemistry—in seasons past it’s taken them some time to find it—and a budding star in sophomore Dillon Brooks, who’s upped his production from an 11.5 scoring average to 16.2. But the additions have been great, too, from the young (freshman Tyler Dorsey who chips in 15 points and 4.5 rebounds per game) to the old (junior juco transfer Chris Boucher, who averages 11.7 points and 8.7 rebounds).
Arizona. If you’re looking for evidence that Sean Miller is one of the best coaches in college basketball, just study the box score from Arizona’s big comeback win at Gonzaga on Dec. 5. The Wildcats lost four starters from last year’s Elite Eight squad, and after barely beating Santa Clara and getting upset by Providence, it looked like Miller was in for a miserable season. Trailing by 10 at halftime in one of the toughest arenas in the country, the Wildcats rallied, pulling out a 68–65 win. Kaleb Tarczewski’s absence hurts (he’s out until mid-to-late January with a left foot injury) but another lockdown defense (UA holds opponents to just 61.8 points per game, lowest in the Pac-12) helps.
Utah. They have the best player in the conference in Jakob Poeltl, but more importantly, they have the best scoring offense (84.8 points per game). Yes, Utah has been rebuilt with defense but scoring will be its key this season, and the Utes have plenty of it: Seven other players average five points or more, and four guys routinely score in double digits. As a team, they average 50.9% from the field, and routinely outrebound opponents by 10. Plus, even if their defense misses the theft hands of Delon Wright, they still play aggressively and will be able to grind out close wins if need be.
Arizona State. A season-opening home loss to Sacramento State did not make ASU fans feel good about the beginning of Bobby Hurley’s tenure in Tempe. But the Sun Devils figured out a way to win their last four games in a row without Savon Goodman, and they play Oregon, Oregon State, Utah and Colorado only once. That’s a favorable schedule in this season.
Stanford. It’s tough to pick a flop team when every program has a winning record heading into conference play. Stanford suffered a tough blow in the preseason when sophomore guard Robert Cartwright fractured his arm and was lost for the season. Still, the Cardinal’s 7–4 record, which includes no wins against top-75 competition, is underwhelming. Washington State (8-4) boasts a potential superstar in forward Josh Hawkinson (16.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 59.8 FG%) but hasn’t been able to give him help.
Player of the year so far
Jakob Poeltl, Utah. He’s tougher inside than he was a year ago, and he has a wider array of moves after spending the off-season moving away from his overreliance on the skyhook. His efficiency is staggering: He shoots 71.2% from the field, fifth best in the country. On defense, his block percentage of 7.5 is 75th in the country. And he has improved both in drawing fouls on offense and avoiding fouls on defense.
Best non-conference win
UCLA over Kentucky, 87–77 (Dec. 3). Don’t get caught up in the fact that Kentucky’s Ulis played injured or that Marcus Lee exited the first half with an injury. Just think back to last year’s disaster (when Kentucky shellacked the Bruins, 83–44), and you’ll understand why this was incredible.
Must-see game in January
Oregon at Utah (Jan. 14). Could Pac-12 basketball have the same problem as Pac-12 football, in that there are so many good teams they’re going to beat up on each other and suffer for it in the postseason? Who cares? The Ducks haven’t visited Salt Lake City since the 2013–14 season and that one went to OT.