Arizona, Oregon lead a Pac-12 comeback
The Pac-12 finally returned to national prominence last season with five NCAA bids, placing two teams in the Sweet 16.
This season may be even better. The Pac-12 and the Big Ten are the only conferences with two undefeated teams, and Arizona and Oregon didn’t get there cheaply.
Arizona has defeated San Diego State and Michigan on the road and Duke at Madison Square Garden. A short-handed Oregon team has wins over Georgetown, Ole Miss and Illinois.
That said, the Pac-12 is far from a two-team league: Colorado has won 10 in a row since losing to Baylor on the first day of the season, a run that included a 75-72 win over Kansas. UCLA has shown it will be a tough out in Steve Alford's first season.
Other teams still have work to do, but even if the Pac-12 doesn’t top its five bids from a year ago, the league may have the most Final Four potential since 2007.
Early Season Report Card: Pac-12
Bubble watch: Arizona State, Stanford
Best win: Arizona 72, Duke 66
Worst loss: Coppin State 78, Oregon State 73
Power rankings so far
6. Arizona State
11. Oregon State
12. Washington State
Important non-conference games remaining:
Colorado vs. Oklahoma State (Dec. 21)
Stanford vs. Michigan (Dec. 21)
Cal at Creighton (Dec. 22)
Arizona is the top team but too balanced to pick a true league-wide MVP. Oregon is balanced, too, with six players averaging double figures, but the Houston transfer stands apart at 19.3 points per game. Young helped the Ducks weather the suspensions of Dominic Artis and Ben Carter, who returned to face UC Irvine on Tuesday, with 14 points against Illinois, 19 against Ole Miss and 24 against Georgetown.
Top freshman: Aaron Gordon, Arizona
As expected, Gordon has done a bit of everything for Arizona this season, averaging 12.1 points and 8.2 rebounds. Unlike Kansas with Andrew Wiggins or Kentucky with Julius Randle, Arizona can afford Gordon to have an off night (2 of 10 with eight rebounds in a win over UNLV). But Gordon can also shoulder the load (14 points, five rebounds against Michigan, 10 points, seven rebounds, four assists against Duke).
Surprise player: Delon Wright, Utah
The junior college transfer was expected to play a major role in the Utah backcourt, but he and the underrated Jordan Loveridge may turn Utah into one of the surprise teams in the Pac-12. Wright has been a stat sheet stuffer with 16 points, 6.6 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 2.0 rebounds. Utah’s 9-1 start has been against weak competition, but Saturday’s 81-64 win over BYU (and a two-point loss at Boise State) suggests there might some legitimacy here.
Early season flop: Washington
Athlon picked Washington ninth in the Pac-12 in the preseason, so the 6-4 start isn’t all that alarming. Still, Lorenzo Romar may be heading to his first losing season in conference since 2007-08. The Huskies have lost to every quality team they’ve faced (Indiana, Boston College and San Diego State) plus UC Irvine.
Lingering concerns: Which coaches can save their jobs?
The Pac-12 was notable at the start of the season for the number of coaches who began the season fighting to remain employed — Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins, Arizona State’s Herb Sendek, Washington State’s Ken Bone and Oregon State’s Craig Robinson. Dawkins and Sendek have their teams in NCAA Tournament contention, a good sign if it’s March Madness or bust for both. Washington State and Oregon State may have trouble picking up wins against the top portion of the league.
Best NCAA resume: Arizona
The Wildcats have vaulted to the No. 1 spot in the polls with good reason: An 11-0 start with wins over Duke on a neutral floor and San Diego State and Michigan on the road. This is the kind of resume that garners a No. 1 seed in March.