The Pac-12's national perception is already in some hot water before its league play even begins. Shaky starts in nonconference play from its flagship programs, namely Oregon, Washington, UCLA and Arizona, have slumped the league's metrics and momentum before the calendar has even flipped to 2019.
The league members have time yet to improve upon the slow start overall, but struggles against other power programs -- UCLA is 1-4 against other power programs, and Oregon's not much better at 1-3 using those same parameters -- along with only a handful of days left until conference play, likely leaves the league playing it where it lies. And as things stand now, it's not a great position. It likely leaves the league in a spot where overall quality of wins within the conference may be slightly diminished.
Arizona State's the only one that has been carrying water for the league ahead of league play, much as it did last season (although it came back to Earth hard in league play.) The Sun Devils are 9-2 with losses to unbeaten, top-10 Nevada and SEC X-factor Vanderbilt, and boasts the best win of any team in the league -- and maybe in the country -- with a Dec. 22 ouster of then-No. 1 Kansas. And even still, only one of the five college basketball experts polled to predict the finish of the final league standings, yours truly, has them winning the league. It's no knock on ASU, but merely an example of how enigmatic the league is overall.
The rest of our team is split between Oregon and Washington.
Oregon's been good when healthy, but Dana Altman hasn't had its full cupboard of weapons all season. Making matters more complicated, Bol Bol, its best player, is out indefinitely, as is key role player Kenny Wooten. Still yet, the Ducks are the most talented team in the league overall, so it's no wonder they're a trendy choice to win the conference.
Finishing as an equally trendy pick is Washington, a program with an 8-4 record that is a bit misleading on its surface. The Huskies scheduled hard in nonference play and lost to Auburn, Minnesota, Gonzaga and Virginia, all either neutral or true road games. But Mike Hopkins and Co. have a senior-laden starting five, led by Noah Dickerson and David Crisp, and a defensive stalwart in Matisse Thybulle. Coupled with the steadily-improved presence of sophomore Jaylen Nowell, they have a case to surprise as a conference contender given their overall depth and experience.
Most overrated: Oregon
With Bol Bol's status in the air for an indetermined amount of time, Kenny Wooten likely out a month (and maybe a longer) and Louis King still finding his way as a contributor at the college level, this team has way more questions than answers. That makes me uneasy, and a huge reason why I went with the safe pick of Arizona State to win the league. The Ducks have talent, sure, but the injuries are piling up. All it takes is a slower-than-expected first couple weeks in conference play to work yourself behind the 8-ball. I definitely believe in the Ducks as a tournament team, but if Bol Bol doesn't get back in a hurry Oregon's going to have to restructure itself on the fly. And any team tasked with replacing a 21 and 10 player in the month of January is going to struggle.
Most underrated: Utah
Utah has won 20+ games in each of its last five seasons, and finished inside the top four in four of those instances. That is a remarkably sustainable run of success. And yet among the five experts in our panel, the average predicted finish was 9.6. Look, I get that Larry Krystkowiak lost several valuable seniors and this team is remade a bit overall. But the Utes, led by senior Sedrick Barefield, sophomore Donnie Tillman and a better-than-expected freshman in Timmy Allen, have the goods to outperform our predictions. Maybe by multiple slots.
Player of the Year: Bol Bol, Oregon
As previously noted above, Bol Bol, Oregon's 7-foot-2 star who is averaging a cool 21.0 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game, is injured and remains indefinitely out. But our panel almost came to a consensus on him as the league's Player of the Year. Bol has missed three games with an injured left foot. At some point in the not-too-distant future, he'll slip in the POY race if he doesn't return to the court and to the same form he last played in. But we're banking on him returning soon, at which time we expect him to get back to his dynamic ways as a scorer, rim protector, and the Pac-12's best player.
Coach of the Year: Bobby Hurley, Arizona State
Only a handful of coaches in the country -- and zero in the middling Pac-12 -- have guided their team to a win over a No. 1 team this season. Arizona State and Bobby Hurley are in that elite company. The Sun Devils knocked off Kansas on Dec. 22, improving to 9-2 overall and likely securing a double digit win total before league play for a second straight season. Hurley's off to a great start to securing this honor.
The Sun Devils ascended to near the top last season with their hot start, then crashed down. Hard. A similar fall could cost Hurley a shot to win this. But this Arizona State overall is more balanced, with more experience, and with a better overall talent pool than it had available last season. Yes, its start to last season -- 12-0 with wins over four top-50 teams -- was more impressive, it seems clear this season's start is likely more sustainable. If that holds true, Hurley should be guiding ASU to the postseason for a second consecutive season.
Freshman of the Year: Bol Bol, Oregon
Our panel's most popular pick for Pac-12 Player of the Year is the freshman, Bol Bol, so it's only naturally he'd take home Frosh of the Year honors, too, with this caveat: Missing 6-8 weeks -- and maybe longer -- could hurt his stock in this race overall. If his foot injury continues to linger and keeps him out, Arizona State's Luguentz Dort is the most obvious contender to steal the honor from him here.