December 31, 2015

PHOENIX (AP) Arizona has been the runaway favorite to win the Pac-12 the past two seasons and lived up to those expectations by winning the conference by three games each year.

The Wildcats are again the team to beat this season, but the gap has closed.

The teams at the top end of the conference have gotten better and so have the ones at the bottom, making it one of the deepest in the country.

''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,'' Arizona 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.''

Despite losing four starters from a year ago, Arizona (12-1) is the Pac-12's top-ranked team at No. 8 in The Associated Press poll. The Wildcats' only loss was to No. 12 Providence and they've played the past eight games without 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski, who's recovering from a stress reaction in his foot.

After that are four 11-2 teams: No. 21 Utah, Colorado, Oregon and surprising Southern California.

Oregon State is 9-2, Arizona State, another surprising team, is 10-3 with California. UCLA (9-4) moved back into the poll at No. 25 this week.

The Pac-12 has 10 teams in the NCAA RPI Top 100, tying the Big Ten and ACC for most in the nation, and conference teams have combined for seven wins over Top 25 opponents.

''There is not an easy team on the schedule,'' Utah coach Larry Krystowiak said. ''I talked to some folks out east who know college basketball and they all thought that top to bottom, this is as strong of a league as there was in the country.''

A few more things to look for as the Pac-12 season gets ready to start:

TROJANS RISE: One of the season's biggest early surprises has been the rebound by USC. The Trojans went 3-15 in the Pac-12, 12-20 overall last season and were picked 10th in the preseason poll. USC hasn't exactly played the most difficult schedule in the nation, but did knock off Wichita State and has the kind of talent on its roster - particularly in the backcourt - to be competitive most nights in the Pac-12.

POELTL SHINES: The Pac-12 is loaded with talented players. Utah's Jacob Poeltl may the best of the bunch. The 7-foot sophomore was a nightmare matchup last season and has been even more difficult to defend so far this year. Poeltl was a preseason All-American and played like it through the Utes' nonconference schedule, averaging 17.8 points and 9.7 rebounds while shooting 71 percent from the field.

CAL'S TALENT: Cal opened the season at No. 14 in the AP Top 25, thanks to a talent-laden roster that included All-Pac-12 point guard Tyrone Wallace and five-star recruits Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown. The Bears didn't live up to expectations early, losing consecutive games in Las Vegas to San Diego State and Richmond. With coach Cuonzo Martin emphasizing toughness and defense, the Bears played better as they headed into conference play, their only loss in overtime to No. 5 Virginia.

INJURED DUCKS: Though Oregon has gotten off to an impressive start, coach Dana Altman spent most of the preseason juggling lineups as the Ducks dealt with injuries to key players. Senior guard Dylan Ennis, a graduate transfer from Villanova, suffered a preseason foot injury and forward Jordan Bell took a while to get back from his offseason foot injury. The Ducks had a healthy lineup for the first time in a win over Western Oregon on Tuesday and should be a team that gets better as the conference schedule continues.

BRUINS' SCHEDULE: UCLA moved back into the Top 25 this week after beating a team it was expected to beat, McNeese State. The Bruins' schedule may have had something to do with it. UCLA's resume includes wins over Kentucky and Gonzaga, while it has losses to North Carolina, Kansas and Wake Forest. There's a lot of talent in Westwood, so don't be surprised to find them battling for the top spot by season's end.

SUN DEVILS RISING: Arizona State was expected to undergo a transition in its first season under Bobby Hurley. So far, the excitement on the court has matched the buzz that came with the hiring of the former Duke point guard. The Sun Devils play hard and fast, just like Hurley, and have picked up some solid wins since opening the season with a home loss to Sacramento State. Expect them to make some noise during the Pac-12 season.

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