TEMPE, Ariz. — This basketball road trip to the desert has never been the easiest in this conference, even when Arizona and Arizona State haven’t been as dangerous as they are now.
But with the Wildcats unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the nation and the Sun Devils enjoying an up-tempo renaissance keyed by sophomore guard Jahii Carson, it’s worth asking whether this trip, with which the Washington Huskies begin conference play on Thursday night at ASU, is now the most undesirable journey in the Pac-12.
To make such a proclamation, of course, would be to ignore how much better everyone else has become, too. And UW coach Lorenzo Romar doesn’t want to do that just yet.
“I was just talking to another Pac-12 coach about that,” Romar said. “Boy, there are some doozies out there. You can’t discount Utah and Colorado. Just both of those places are hard to play. You cannot discount the Bay Area. I don’t know. There are some tough trips out there.”
There are. And that makes Washington’s prospects, after a shaky non-conference slate that yielded an 8-5 record, all the more concerning.
In ESPN’s most recent RPI rankings, eight Pac-12 teams cracked the top 100, with three of them — Colorado, Arizona and Oregon — in the top 12. By comparison – and with the caveat that it is still early – UW ranks 208th.
Improving upon that number will require successful navigation of a much deeper conference than in recent years. The Ducks are still undefeated and benefiting again from Dana Altman’s collection of talented transfers. Colorado has lost only to teams currently ranked in the top 10. UCLA, under new coach Steve Alford, is out to an 11-2 record and is talented enough to qualify again for the NCAA tournament.
Stanford is senior-laden. California can’t be counted out under coach Mike Montgomery, despite an ankle injury to heralded freshman Jabari Bird. Even Utah, rebuilding under third-year coach Larry Krystkowiak, has started 11-1 thanks to a schedule of cupcakes.
“Murderer’s row this year,” Romar said when asked of the Pac-12’s improvement.
“I think it’s going to be a really exciting 10 weeks or so,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller, who is in his fifth season in Tucson. “I think we have anywhere between
five to seven teams that I’m sure right now are talking about making the NCAA tournament. The depth of our conference has never been better since I’ve been the head coach at Arizona.”
Pac-12 teams have the quality, non-conference wins to prove it, something the conference lacked as it struggled in recent seasons to get teams into the NCAA tournament. Arizona claimed victories at San Diego State and against Duke. Stanford went to Connecticut and won. Colorado beat Kansas.
“It makes it hard, but it’s a good hard,” OSU coach Craig Robinson said. “Because you get more opportunities to get some of those showcase-type wins against ranked competition. For everybody, the conference is tougher, even the guys at the top.”
There may be a bit more star power, too. Miller sees it every day in practice. Freshman forward Aaron Gordon was considered among the five best recruits in the nation, and through 13 games leads the Wildcats in rebounding and is third on the team in scoring.
Arizona’s veteran guards (Nick Johnson and Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell) and productive sophomore big men (7-footer Kaleb Tarcziewski and 6-foot-10 Brandon Ashley) make the Wildcats one of the most balanced teams in the country.
While the Wildcats are the clear favorite to win the conference championship, predicting an all-conference team might be more difficult. Talent isn’t necessarily spread evenly, but most every team has at least one player to whom opponents must tailor their game plans.
That includes Carson at ASU, Chasson Randle at Stanford, and Roberto Nelson, the conference’s leading scorer, at Oregon State. UCLA’s Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson present problems. Oregon’s top three scorers — Joseph Young, Mike Moser and Jason Calliste — are all transfers.
C.J. Wilcox, who chose to stay at UW for his senior season, is averaging 20.5 points per game and has found the free-throw line with consistency.
Washington has four players who average double figures in scoring. But the Huskies must improve their defense (335th nationally in field-goal percentage defense) and ball control if they are to keep up in what looks like the deepest, most talented Pac-12 since at least 2009.
“(There are) just not a whole lot of weak links in the conference,” Romar said. “Much improved, I think. Our league is much improved.”
Pac-12 men’s basketball preview
Teams in order of predicted conference finish.
Coach: Sean Miller
Best win so far: Beat No. 7 Duke, 72-66, in NIT Season Tip-Off.
Worst loss so far: Doesn’t have any.
Player to watch: Aaron Gordon, a freshman forward who can dribble, shoot, create his own scoring opportunities and jump through the roof. He’s a legitimate candidate for Pac-12 Player of the Year.
Coach: Dana Altman
Best win so far: Beat Illinois, 71-64, in Eugene
Worst loss so far: Doesn’t have any.
Player to watch: Joseph Young, a 6-foot-2 guard who transferred from Houston. He leads the Ducks in scoring with 20.2 points per game.
Coach: Tad Boyle
Best win so far: Beat No. 16 Kansas, 75-72, in Boulder.
Worst loss so far: Only losses are to top-10 teams: No. 9 Baylor (72-60) and No. 6 Oklahoma State (78-73).
Player to watch: Junior guard Spencer Dinwiddie. He’s picked up where he left off last season, playing 31.2 minutes per game while leading CU in scoring with 15.8 points per game. Also shoots 41.7 percent on 3-pointers.
Coach: Steve Alford
Best win so far: Doesn’t really have one. Maybe UC Santa Barbara, 89-76.
Worst loss so far: Lost, 80-71, at Missouri.
Player to watch: Sophomore guard Jordan Adams is back from a foot injury and leads the Bruins in scoring (18.5 points per game).
ARIZONA STATE (11-2)
Coach: Herb Sendek
Best win so far: Beat UNLV, 86-80, in Las Vegas.
Worst loss so far: Lost, 88-60, to Creighton.
Player to watch: Jahii Carson, a 5-foot-10 sophomore, is one of the more entertaining players in the conference (19.3 points, 5.4 assists per game).
Coach: Johnny Dawkins
Best win so far: Beat No. 17 Connecticut, 53-51, in Hartford.
Worst loss so far: Lost to BYU, 112-103, in Palo Alto.
Player to watch: Junior guard Chasson Randle has emerged as the Cardinal’s leading scorer in non-conference play (18.7 points per game, 43.4 percent on 3-pointers).
Coach: Mike Montgomery
Best win so far: Beat Arkansas, 85-77, at a neutral site.
Worst loss so far: Lost, 72-65, at UC Santa Barbara. Losing Jabari Bird to an ankle injury was also not good.
Player to watch: Senior forward Richard Solomon, a strong defensive presence, is averaging a double-double so far (11.3, 10.3 rebounds per game).
Coach: Larry Krystkowiak
Best win so far: Don’t have any good wins. Nation’s weakest schedule.
Worst loss so far: Lost, 69-67, at Boise State.
Player to watch: Sophomore forward Jordan Loveridge (17.3 points, 9.4 rebounds per game) is a big reason why the Utes lead the country in field goal percentage at 54.2.
Coach: Andy Enfield
Best win so far: Beat Xavier, 84-78, at a neutral site.
Worst loss so far: Lost, 72-71, at Long Beach State.
Player to watch: Maryland transfer Pe’Shon Howard is the team’s second-leading scorer (11.0 points) in his only season at USC, and averages 4.4 assists per game.
OREGON STATE (8-4)
Coach: Craig Robinson
Best win so far: Beat Maryland, 90-83, in College Park.
Worst loss so far: Lost, 78-73, to Coppin State in Corvallis.
Player to watch: Senior guard Roberto Nelson leads the Pac-12 in scoring with 21.4 points per game.
Coach: Lorenzo Romar
Best win so far: Nothing that stands out.
Worst loss so far: Lost, 86-72, to UC Irvine in Seattle.
Player to watch: C.J. Wilcox has been one of the Pac-12’s most consistent scorers. The senior guard is second in the conference with 20.5 points per game.
WASHINGTON STATE (7-5)
Coach: Ken Bone
Best win so far: Beat Purdue, 69-54, at a neutral site.
Worst loss so far: Lost, 64-51, to UTEP in Pullman.
Player to watch: Tacoma native DaVonte Lacy’s game continues to mature (18.9 points per game), but the 3-point specialist is out for a while after appendix email@example.com @ChristianCaple firstname.lastname@example.org