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Arizona is No. 1 but barely favored to win improved Pac-12 basketball conference

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Arizona is undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country, so the Wildcats must be the overwhelming favorite to win the Pac-12 conference title, right?

Well, last year at this time, Arizona was undefeated and ranked No. 3 and was the only Pac-12 team in the top 25. The Wildcats proceeded to go 12-6 in conference play, finishing in a three-way tie for second place.

The Wildcats are the first Pac-12/Pac-10 team in seven years to hold the No. 1 rankings, but they will not breeze to a conference title this season either, because the Pac-12 is better than it has been in recent years.

Two years ago at this time, the Pac-12 did not have a single team among the top 50 in the RPI rankings. It finished the season with the indignity of having its regular-season champion (Washington) not get invited to the NCAA Tournament.

This season, three Pac-12 teams are among the top 15 in the RPI – Arizona, Oregon and Colorado. The Pac-12 is currently fourth in the conference RPI rankings, notably ahead of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Last season, four Pac-12 teams earned NCAA Tournament berths, with none seeded higher than sixth. Five or six Pac-12 teams seem capable of landing NCAA Tournament berths this season, with several vying for a top-four seed.

Heading into conference play, which begins Jan. 2, the Pac-12 seems to be separated into four groups:

The title contenders: Arizona, Oregon, Colorado, UCLA.

The dark horses: Arizona State, Utah, Stanford, Cal, USC

The bottom feeders: Washington, Washington State, Oregon State. But even the bottom feeders seem capable of beating a title contender this season.

--- The all-conference team, by position, so far:

Guard – Jahii Carson, Arizona State (19.6, 5.8 assists)
Guard – Spencer Dinwiddie, Colorado (15.7 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists)
Guard/Forward – Kyle Anderson, UCLA (14.7 points, 8.9 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 60 percent three-point shooting.)
Forward – Aaron Gordon (12.5 points, 7.6 rebounds)
Forward – Joseph Young, Oregon (19.8 points)

--- The top 10 newcomers (freshmen and first-year transfers)

1. Aaron Gordon, Arizona, freshman (12.5 points, 7.6 rebounds)
2. Joseph Young, Oregon, transfer from Houston (19.8 points.
3. Delon Wright, Utah, transfer from City College of San Francisco (15.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 2.8 steals, 71.3 field goal percentage).
4. T.J. McConnell, Arizona, transfer from Duquesne (6.5 points, 6.5 assists)
5. Zach LaVine, UCLA, freshman (12.9 points, 42.9 percent three.
6. Mike Moser, Oregon, transfer from UNLV (14.6 points, 7.5 rebounds)
7. Nigel Williams-Goss, Washington, freshman (12.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists)
8. Jason Calliste, Oregon, transfer from Detroit (12.5 points, 59.4 percent three-point percentage)
9. Jermaine Marshall, Arizona State, transfer from Penn State (15.9 points, 47.9 three-point percentage).
10. Jabari Bird, Cal, freshman (11.3 points, 40 percent three-point shooting).

--- How they'll finish: Here's how we expect the final standings to look (with the team’s current record and its projected finish in the preseason media poll in parentheses):

1. Arizona (13-0, 1st) – Best win: Duke. Worst loss: None. The Wildcats have no one among the top 10 in the Pac-12 in either scoring or rebounding, which shows its balance. T.J. McConnell provides the steady hand at point guard that was lacking last season.

2. Colorado (11-2, 3rd) – Best win: Kansas. Worst loss: Baylor. Coach Tad Boyle has made the Buffaloes a consistent contender. Having two of the conference’s most underrated players -- Spencer Dinwiddie and Josh Scott -- helps.

3. Oregon (12-0, 4th) – Best win: Illinois. Worst loss: None. None of the Ducks’ top three scorers began his college careers at Oregon, which is surviving on transfers but may find the going tougher when the pace slows in conference play.

4. UCLA (11-2, 2nd) – Best win: Drexel. Worst loss: Missouri. We still don’t know what to make of the Bruins with Steve Alford in charge, but we know Jordan Adams can score and that talent exists.

5. Arizona State (11-2, 7th) – Best win: Marquette. Worst loss: Miami-Fla. The inside-outside combination of point guard Jahii Carson and 7-foot-2 Jordan Bachynski could make the Sun Devils the surprise of the conference.

6. Stanford (9-3, 6th) – Best win: Connecticut. Worst loss: Pittsburgh. No depth, no point guard, no consistency. But that win over UConn shows the Cardinal can beat anyone in the Pac-12.

7. Cal (9-4, 5th) – Best win: Arkansas. Worst Loss: UC Santa Barbara. Injuries may slow the Bears’ start in conference play, but Mike Montgomery will keep the Bears in contention.

8. Utah (11-1, 9th) – Best Win: BYU. Worst Loss: Boise State. Comment: The 73-point win over St. Katherine and the impressive record against a soft nonconference schedule do not mean much, but the 17-point win over BYU does.

9. USC (9-4, 11th) – Best win: Dayton. Worst Loss: Long Beach State. Can coach Andy Enfield duplicate the magic he brought to Florida Gulf Coast last year? The road win over Dayton suggests the Trojans are improving.

10. Washington (8-5, 8th) – Best win: Long Beach State. Worst Loss: Boston College. C.J. Wilcox (20.3 points per game) is the star, but newcomers Perris Blackwell (transfer from USF) and freshman Nigel Williams-Goss are the key.

11. Oregon State (8-4, 10th) – Best win: Maryland. Worst Loss: Coppin State. Roberto Nelson and Devon Collier are combining for 39.4 points per game, and Angus Brandt is back from a knee injury.

12. Washington State (7-5, 12th): Best win: Purdue. Worst loss: UTEP. The decline since Tony Bennett left will continue unless DaVonte Lacy (18.9 points) returns soon from his Dec. 28 appendectomy. It may continue anyway.

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