Conference Reset: Pac-12 has one flagship program back

By Jeff Goodman | College Basketball Insider
The Pac-12 is improved, but by how much? From top to bottom, there is still something to be desired. (US Presswire)

UCLA and Arizona were supposed to be back -- and so was the Pac-12. Well, it hasn't exactly worked out that way. The Wildcats have returned to national prominence and are considered an elite team, but Ben Howland's Bruins are still a work in progress after an up-and-down nonconference slate that included a loss to Cal Poly and concluded with a win over Missouri.

The Pac-12 is clearly better than it was a year ago. How much better? We'll see over the next few months. In the meantime, here's our Pac-12 Reset.

TEAMS ON TRACK TO MAKE THE FIELD OF 68: Arizona, UCLA, Colorado, Oregon

TEAMS WITH SOME WORK TO DO: Stanford, California

TEAMS ALREADY OUT OF IT BARRING A MIRACLE: Utah, Washington, Arizona State, USC, Oregon State, Washington State

MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT TO DATE: UCLA's overtime win over Missouri that put the Bruins back in the discussion as a legitimate threat to contend for the Pac-12 title. Shabazz Muhammad and the Wear Twins both played well and Howland's team got a much-needed nonconference resume victory.

STORYLINE YOU WERE TOO BUSY TO NOTICE: Arizona is back. Sean Miller has the Wildcats in the top five in both polls for the first time in a decade and Arizona has taken down Florida and San Diego State thus far.

COACH FEELING THE HEAT: Kevin O'Neill is trying to save his job at USC, and it's not looking all that promising. A year ago, the Trojans won just a single league game -- but were decimated by injuries. This year's group was believed to be talented enough to play in the postseason, but USC is 5-8 overall and just hasn't meshed. The brutal nonconference slate didn't help matters for a team trying to find itself.

TEAM BETTER THAN ITS RECORD: USC is still the most dangerous 5-8 team in the country. If the Trojans can ever get it together, they could do some damage in the league. However, that's a big IF.

TEAM NOT AS GOOD AS ITS RECORD: There are several teams that could fit into this category, but none more so than Herb Sendek's 11-2 Arizona State Sun Devils. Sendek's only legitimate win came against Arkansas, and one of the losses was against Big East bottom feeder DePaul. Sendek needed wins for job security -- and he's gotten them against the likes of Central Arkansas, Florida A&M, Cornell, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Sacramento State, Hartford, Cal State Northridge, Dartmouth, Texas Tech and Coppin State.

PLAYER WHO NEEDS TO STEP UP: The USC coaching staff was raving about junior college transfer and former Wake Forest guard J.T. Terrell in the offseason, but he hasn't lived up to expectations thus far, averaging 9.3 points while shooting just 29 percent from the field.

THREE MUST-SEE GAMES:

1) UCLA at Arizona (Jan. 24)

2) Arizona at UCLA (March 2)

3) UCLA at Colorado (Jan. 12)

PLAYER OF THE YEAR FAVORITE: I honestly couldn't pick between Nick Johnson and Solomon Hill of Arizona, so I'm giving them Co-Player of the Year honors. Neither has earth-shattering numbers, but both are critical to their team's success. Johnson is averaging 12.7 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists and is effective at both ends. Hill is the leader of the team, also defends and is averaging 12.7 points, 5.0 boards and 3.1 assists per contest. They are the top two players on the top team in the league.

FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR: Jahii Carson of Arizona State hasn't received the hype of Shabazz Muhammad or Jordan Adams from UCLA, but he's been phenomenal, averaging 17.7 points and 5.5 assists after being declared ineligible by the NCAA a year ago. If Sendek is to save his job, it'll be due to Carson -- who has established himself as the best point guard in the league.

PROBABLE ALL-LEAGUE TEAM: Jordan Adams (UCLA); Nick Johnson (Arizona); Solomon Hill (Arizona); Jahii Carson (Arizona State); Allen Crabbe (California).

PREDICTIONS FROM TOP TO BOTTOM

1. Arizona -- The Wildcats have put up huge wins over Florida and San Diego State, and taken care of business against everyone else, to establish themselves as the clear-cut top team in the league entering conference play. Mark Lyons brings toughness, the young big men have each shown flashes and Nick Johnson and Solomon Hill have been steady and effective on both ends of the court.

2. UCLA -- Yes, the Bruins were a train wreck early -- especially on the defensive end. However, Ben Howland's team has plenty of talent and experience. That was clear in the win against Missouri last weekend. Shabazz Muhammad is a terrific college player, fellow frosh Jordan Adams is a big-time scorer and the Wear Twins -- David and Travis -- are fully capable as veteran forwards.

3. Colorado -- Tad Boyle's team has had one slip-up, and we don't even know how bad the loss to Wyoming is since the Cowboys remain undefeated. Colorado ran the table down in Charleston, beating Dayton, Baylor and Murray State -- and the Buffs have better players than people give them credit for. There's Andre Roberson, Askia Booker and Spencer Dinwiddie, along with freshman Josh Scott, who give Boyle enough bullets this season.

4. Oregon -- The Ducks are 11-2 and have a resume win out in Las Vegas against UNLV. One loss came to Cincinnati (also in Vegas) and the other down at UTEP. Freshman point guard Dominic Artis has been solid, and the addition of Rice transfer Arsalan Kazemi (8.5 ppg, 10 rpg) has been huge for Dana Altman.

5. Stanford -- Johnny Dawkins' team lacks a resume win, but the Cardinal don't have any bad losses, either. The record is 9-4 with setbacks coming against Missouri, Minnesota, NC State and Belmont. This is a group that will ride Dwight Powell and Chasson Randle in league play.

6. Oregon State -- There was no shame in losing to Kansas, and even Alabama, but then came the setback to Towson. Roberto Nelson has finally started to figure things out, and that's a good sign for a team that has enough talent to finish in the top half of the league. This team has plenty of balance with Devon Collier, Ahmad Starks, Joe Burton and Eric Moreland all more than capable.

7. Cal -- Allen Crabbe has been sensational thus far, averaging 20.9 points and 5.8 rebounds. However, the Bears have been just OK, losing to Wisconsin, UNLV, Creighton and Harvard (at home). The issue here is that Mike Montgomery's team hasn't beaten anyone of note -- and that means they'll have to finish in the top three of the league to have any shot of going to the NCAA tourney.

8. USC -- I still don't see how this team finishes any lower than seventh in the league with its talent level. The Trojans have decent guards with Jio Fontan and J.T. Terrell and talented bigs in Dewayne Dedmon and Omar Oraby. However, you never know if Kevin O'Neill will be able to regroup the troops after a 5-8 start.

9. Washington -- This isn't a typical Lorenzo Romar team in terms of talent. The Huskies are 8-5 and the losses have come to Ohio State, UConn, Colorado State, Nevada and Albany. C.J. Wilcox is a good player, but he needs more help.

10. Arizona State -- A brutal nonconference schedule has everyone guessing how good the Sun Devils will be in league play. One thing is for certain, though: Jahii Carson gives them a chance.

11. Washington State -- Ken Bone's team is 9-4, but the wins are unimpressive. This team has a terrific player in Brock Motum, but the supporting cast needs to step up for the Cougars to make any noise.

12. Utah -- Larry Krystkowiak has won eight games, but the victims have been lackluster -- and the losses were to Sacramento State, SMU, BYU and Cal State Northridge. LMU transfer Jared DuBois and Jordan Loveridge have played well, but the Utes just don't have enough talent to compete -- even in the Pac-12.

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