Pac-12 builds ex­pec­ta­tions af­ter strong non­con­fer­ence start to sea­son

Antelope Valley Press - - Sports - By JOHN MAR­SHALL

PHOENIX — The Pac-12 has gone through a cou­ple of rough sea­sons the past few years. The con­fer­ence went 0 for 3 in the in 2018 NCAA Tour­na­ment and last year looked like it may have only one team in the bracket of 68 be­fore the se­lec­tion com­mit­tee pushed three through.

This sea­son, the Pac may be back. Bol­stered by loaded teams at the top and with depth nearly all the way through, the Pac-12 is poised to be among col­lege bas­ket­ball’s elite con­fer­ences again as the sea­son turns to league play this week.

“There are times when we’ve had a very good up­per tier or cou­ple of teams that re­ally could chal­lenge deep into the NCAA Tour­na­ment, but maybe the bot­tom team or a cou­ple teams at the bot­tom al­most acted as an an­chor against all of us,” Ari­zona coach Sean Miller said. “But this year, I don’t be­lieve that’s the case. I think the mid­dle has never been stronger. It’s hard to dif­fer­en­ti­ate maybe be­tween the very top teams and maybe four through eight, four through nine.”

The Pac-12 has three ranked teams head­ing into con­fer­ence play: No. 6 Ore­gon, No. 21 Wash­ing­ton and No. 24 Ari­zona. The con­fer­ence has a com­bined win­ning per­cent­age of .744 through Satur­day’s games and had three wins over top-15 teams in a span of a week in late De­cem­ber.

Ev­ery Pac-12 team has a win­ning record ex­cept 6-6 Cal­i­for­nia and five teams have dou­ble-digit wins.

Pac-12 teams could end up beat­ing up on one an­other dur­ing the con­fer­ence sea­son, as has hap­pened in the past, but the league ap­pears to be in good shape for a strong show­ing in March.

A few things to know as the Pac-12 gets ready to kick off its con­fer­ence sea­son: SOAR­ING DUCKS Ore­gon was picked to win the Pac-12 in the pre­sea­son me­dia poll and has lived up to ex­pec­ta­tions so far.

The Ducks (10-2) have three wins over ranked op­po­nents, in­clud­ing a one-point road vic­tory over then-No. 5 Michi­gan, and their only losses are to top-ranked Gon­zaga and North Carolina.

Pay­ton Pritchard has been su­perb to start his se­nior sea­son, av­er­ag­ing 19.6 points and 4.3 re­bounds, and Ore­gon has four play­ers av­er­ag­ing at least 10 points. The Ducks also got huge boost in early De­cem­ber, when 6-foot11 fresh­man N’Faly Dante be­came el­i­gi­ble af­ter re­clas­si­fy­ing as a 2019 signee. RANKED TEAMS Wash­ing­ton gen­er­ated plenty of pre­sea­son buzz af­ter coach Mike Hop­kins landed a stel­lar re­cruit­ing class, led by Isa­iah Ste­wart and Jaden McDaniels.

The 6-foot-9 fresh­man duo has lived up to ex­pec­ta­tions. Ste­wart is av­er­ag­ing 19.2 points and 8.8 re­bounds while shoot­ing 61% per­cent. McDaniels is putting up 14.4 points and 5.6 re­bounds for the Huskies (10-3).

Ari­zona (10-3) got off to a stel­lar start be­hind the fresh­man trio of Nico Man­nion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji. The Wild­cats stum­bled with losses to Bay­lor, Gon­zaga and St. John’s but have the type of ros­ter that could make a deep March run.

Colorado (10-2) dropped out of the AP Top 25 af­ter losses to No. 5 Kansas and North­ern Iowa but has plenty of tal­ent and a vet­eran ros­ter. Point guard McKin­ley Wright and for­ward Tyler Bey are the type of play­ers who could lead the Buf­faloes back to the NCAA Tour­na­ment for the first time since 2016.

SUR­PRIS­ING STAN­FORD

Stan­ford didn’t have many out­side ex­pec­ta­tions head­ing into the sea­son. The Car­di­nal were young, strug­gling with in­juries and picked to fin­ish 10th in the pre­sea­son poll.

Head­ing into Sun­day’s game against Kansas, Stan­ford was the sur­prise of the Pac-12. The Car­di­nal (111) had more wins than any team in the con­fer­ence and their only loss was by one to No. 12 But­ler at a neu­tral site.

Ju­nior big man Os­car da Silva has been ter­rific so far this sea­son, av­er­ag­ing 17.6 points and 6.0 re­bounds while shoot­ing 61%.

IN­CON­SIS­TENT TEAMS

UCLA may need a lit­tle time to find its foot­ing un­der first-year coach Mick Cronin.

The Bru­ins (7-6) lost at home to Hof­s­tra, went 1-2 at the Maui In­vi­ta­tional and closed out the non­con­fer­ence sea­son with a home loss to Cal State Fuller­ton.

Ari­zona State (9-4) got off to a strong start with a win over St. John’s in New York and shut down Georgia star fresh­man An­thony Ed­wards.

The Sun Devils fol­lowed with an ugly 40-point loss to Saint Mary’s and a home loss to Creighton be­fore beat­ing Texas South­ern to close out the non­con­fer­ence sched­ule.

Ore­gon State (9-2) has one of the Pac-12’s best play­ers in Tres Tin­kle and rolled through most of a rel­a­tively easy non­con­fer­ence sched­ule. The Beavers fol­lowed with a clunker against Texas A&M, scor­ing 49 points in a 15-point loss.

Utah (9-3) has one of the Pac-12’s best wins so far this sea­son, knock­ing off then-No. 6 Ken­tucky in Las Ve­gas. The Utes also have losses to Coastal Carolina and Tu­lane and scored 52 points in a blowout loss to No. 15 San Diego State.

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