A third straight Pac-12 title isn't going to come easy for Arizona. Having 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski back should provide a boost Sunday when the eight-ranked Wildcats open conference play at Arizona State.
Arizona was voted the favorite to win the Pac-12 again in 2016, but the Wildcats (12-1) are unlikely to win it by three games as they did in each of the past two seasons.
Losing four starters combined with its conference rivals showing improvement, Arizona is expecting things to be a lot tougher in 2016.
"From top to bottom, the depth of our league from all 12 teams with so many having improved from a year or two ago, this is the deepest conference we have competed in as a coaching staff," coach Sean Miller said. "It is strong at the top and equally strong in the middle and whoever finishes at the bottom, I think will be among the better bottom teams in the Pac-12 in recent seasons."
The Wildcats are the conference's highest ranked team in the AP poll. They have the league's stingiest defense, allowing an average of 61.8 points while their 12.8 rebounding edge per game is the widest margin in the Pac-12.
"I think there's some things that we feel very good about. I think our defense and rebounding stands out," Miller said. "It'll be tested at a much greater level over the next couple of months in conference play."
Arizona dominated the boards 40-20 while beating Long Beach State 85-70 on Dec. 22 in its most recent game.
Getting Tarczewski back after missing eight games with a stress reaction in his foot should improve the Wildcats' chances of remaining dominant on the boards.
The senior is averaging 8.6 points and is second on the team with 7.2 rebounds through five games.
He's averaged 10.0 rebounds in three career games at Arizona State (10-3), but he'll reportedly be used in a limited role. Tarczewski had nine rebounds but went 1 for 6 from the floor to finish with two points in the Wildcats' 81-78 loss at Tempe on Feb. 7.
Ryan Anderson is facing the Sun Devils for the first time after transferring from Boston College in 2014. The forward leads the team with 15.5 points per game and 10.3 rebounds, including 13.0 boards per contest over the last three games.
Arizona State, which finished fifth in the Pac-12 last season, enters league play on a seven-game home winning streak after opening the season with a stunning 66-63 loss to Sacramento State on Nov. 13.
The Sun Devils have since beaten then-No. 18 Texas A&M at home to go along with victories over North Carolina State and at Creighton. They defeated Cal State Bakersfield 75-59 at home Monday.
First-year coach Bobby Hurley expects the strong schedule to help the Sun Devils, whose 2014 NCAA Tournament appearance is their only one the last six seasons. He went 42-20 in two seasons at Buffalo.
"I think we're battle tested. We've been in some really tough spots this year. We've challenged ourselves with our schedule, played some very good teams from the 'Power Conferences' across the country, on the road."
Tra Holder leads the team with 14.5 points per game, but he's averaged 19.3 over the past four. The sophomore guard scored a career-high 23 Monday, and he had 15 with eight assists against the Wildcats in February.
Savon Goodman had 15 points and nine boards in the win over Arizona. However, the forward has missed four games for personal reasons, and his status is unknown.