College basketball's early season conference review: Pac-12

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College basketball league play is nearing. Here is where the Pac-12 stands so far.

<p> Arizona has taken the top spot in the Pac-12 while UCLA struggles to gain its footing.</p>

After three seasons of being a major conference by name only, the Pac-12 is starting to make a comeback. Arizona’s win over Florida (aided by a late-game collapse by the Gators) on Saturday and Oregon’s win over UNLV in late November have given the league its best non-conference wins in a while.

An influx of freshmen and transfers have helped the Pac-12 catch up, though not in the way we expected in the preseason. UCLA’s freshman class, for example, has failed to help the Bruins pull out of their funk.

As teams finish up finals and head to semester breaks, Athlon will examine the college basketball landscape through the first month or so of the season before conference play begins later this month and into January.

Here’s our look at the scene so far in the Pac-12.

EARLY SEASON CONFERENCE CATCHUP: PAC-12
Other conferences: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | SEC | Non-Big Six

Arizona guard Nick Johnson

Surprise team: Oregon
Before the season started, the question was if E.J. Singler would have help. Through the Ducks’ 9-1 start, the answer is yes. Singler’s production and efficiency is down from last season, but the arrival of freshman Damyean Dotson and Rice transfer Arsalan Kazemi have stabilized the Oregon lineup. Dotson was an unheralded recruit from Houston, but he’s leading the Ducks in scoring (11 points per game). And Kazemi is one of the league’s leading rebounders (10.2 per game).

Disappointing team: UCLA
The arrival of the nation’s top freshman class was supposed to revive the Bruins. Instead, it’s the same old story in Westwood. Even when Shabazz Muhammad was declared eligible, the Bruins have struggled to mesh the talented pieces on the roster. UCLA is still losing games in embarrassing fashion (i.e. blowing an 18-point lead at home to Cal Poly) and losing players off the roster (Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb).

Where’d he come from? Nick Johnson, Arizona
At times last season, Johnson was Arizona’s best player on the court. He’s delivered on that promise more consistently as a sophomore. He’s averaging 13.8 points this season, up from nine points per game, but his efficiency numbers are where he’s taken the biggest leap. The guard is shooting 55.1 percent from the floor, up from 37.2 percent a year ago. He also raised his rate from the 3-point line by 10 percentage points to 43 percent.

Where’d he go? Jio Fontan, USC
A healthy Fontan was supposed to lead a rebound season for the Trojans, but that hasn’t materialized yet. Fontan missed all of last season with a torn ACL. He’s averaging a career-bets 5.2 assists per game, but he’s struggled from the floor, shooting just 30.4 percent. USC is hopeful this cast of transfers will come together as the season. The point guard Fontan, who has been touted for his leadership, will be central to that goal.

Key stat: Colorado’s assist numbers
Colorado is an NCAA Tournament contender, so it’s surprising to see the Buffaloes among the worst in the country in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio. The Buffaloes are averaging 9.1 assists per game (By comparison, Pac-12 assist leader Larry Drew II of UCLA averages 8.3 assists per game). The Buffs also have a Pac-12-worst assist-to-turnover ratio of 0.6-to-1. It’s going to be difficult to maintain an NCAA Tournament-worthy season with numbers like that.

THREE THINGS TO WATCH IN CONFERENCE PLAY

UCLA coach Ben Howland

Can talent overcome adversity at UCLA? The Bruins may be slowly climbing out of the early season slump. Shabazz Muhammad is working back into game shape and answered with 25 against Prairie View A&M and 21 against Long Beach State. If UCLA is going to find the right mix among all its talented pieces, the Bruins may find out starting in less than two weeks when they face Missouri (Dec. 28), Cal (Jan. 3) and Stanford (Jan. 5).

What is Arizona’s ceiling? Undefeated Arizona already established itself as the top team in the league as the Wildcats’ veterans -- Johnson, Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom -- have meshed well with the newcomers Mark Lyons, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski. The Wildcats aren’t perfect -- they can be turnover-happy at times -- but Arizona appears to be the best chance for the Pac-12 to have a nationally relevant team this year. Arizona gave the Pac-12 one of two major non-conference wins for the league (Oregon over UNLV would be the other) and can add to its tally if the Wildcats defeat San Diego State in the Diamond Head Classic.

Which coach will save his job? The Pac-12 struggled mightily last season, but every coach kept his job at the end of the season. The crew of coaches probably won’t be so luck this season. Arizona State’s Herb Sendek, Oregon State’s Craig Robinson, Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins, UCLA’s Ben Howland, USC’s Kevin O’Neill, Washington’s Lorenzo Romar and Washington State’s Ken Bone may all be coaching for their jobs to various degrees once conference play begins.

PAC-12 POWER RANKINGS

Player of the year watch
Nick Johnson, Arizona
Allen Crabbe, Cal
Jahii Carson, Arizona State
Freshman of the year watch
Jahii Carson, Arizona State
Jordan Adams, UCLA
Damyean Dotson, Oregon
Coach of the year watch
Sean Miller, Arizona
Dana Altman, Oregon
Larry Krystkowiak, Utah

1. Arizona (9-0). The Wildcats added the Pac-12’s top signing class outside of UCLA. The difference is that Arizona’s top four scorers are returnees, including one of the nation’s best glue guys in Solomon Hill.

2. Oregon (9-1). Former Rice forward Arsalan Kazemi may be in contention for transfer of the year: He’s averaging 10.3 rebounds and leads the Pac-12 in steals (3.5 per game) for one of the nation’s surprise teams.

3. Colorado (8-2). Andre Roberson has had at least 10 rebounds in six consecutive games including 20 in Wednesday’s win over Fresno State. A third consecutive postseason trip, the first time in school history that’s happened, seems likely. But which postseason tourney will it be?

4. Cal (7-3). The Bears have dropped three of their last four, including a 25-point loss at Wisconsin, a one-point loss to UNLV and 10-point loss to Creighton. Pac-12 scoring leader Allen Crabbe (21 ppg) will try to right the ship before opening conference play on the road against UCLA and USC.

5. Stanford (7-4). After losses to Belmont, Missouri, Minnesota and NC State, Stanford is running low on chances for signature non-conference wins. The Cardinal visit Northwestern on Friday.

6. UCLA (8-3). The Bruins top freshman so far has been Jordan Adams (16.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg). In his signing class, he was the only one of the four who was not a McDonald’s All-American.

7. Arizona State (9-2). A 78-61 loss at home to DePaul a week ago signals Arizona State’s gaudy record is a mirage.

8. Oregon State (7-2). Oregon State gave Kansas trouble in an 84-70 loss on Nov. 30 and lost 65-62 to Alabama on Nov. 15. Are these signs of progress in Corvallis?

9. Washington State (7-4). Three of the Cougars’ four losses (Pepperdine, Texas A&M and Gonzaga) have come by one or two points. Brock Motum (20.4 ppg) has delivered despite a diminished supporting cast.

10. Utah (7-3). The Utes are one of the most improved teams in the Pac-12. With Tuesday's 62-53 win over SMU, Utah already exceeded last season's win total.

11. Washington (6-4). It may be one of those years for the Huskies, who have already lost to Albany, Colorado State and Nevada this season. From Dec. 29-Jan. 26, Washington will play six of eight games on the road.

12. USC (4-6). Not a bad way to end a five-game losing streak: The Trojans defeated UC Riverside 70-26 on Saturday, holding the Highlanders to 11 of 58 shooting and 1 of 14 from 3-point range.

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