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The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

Pac-12 reset: Arizona is the class of an improved yet still mediocre league

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Arizona is one of four unbeaten teams nationally (USA Today Sports Images)

With conference play fast approaching, we'll reassess our preseason projections over the next week. Here's a look back at the Dagger's preseason Pac-12 forecast and some updated predictions for the league season:

Conference RPI: 5

Record against Top 25 teams: 4-12

Preseason predictions I'd like to have back: Oregon is better than I expected and Cal did not accomplish enough in the preseason to merit being projected to finish third in the league. Also, as some of you pointed out back in November, leaving Solomon Hill off the preseason all-league team was probably not my wisest move. He and Nick Johnson are probably the biggest reasons Arizona is unbeaten entering league play.

Preseason predictions I still feel good about: Choosing Arizona over UCLA as the preseason favorite to win the league was a good call, as was not projecting Washington as a contender this season. The Huskies still aren't a great defensive team and lack their usual array of offensive talent to make up for it, putting too much pressure on C.J. Wilcox to carry the team.

[Also: Memphis athletic director undercuts Tigers coach Josh Pastner]

Conference favorite: Arizona has established itself as the league's premier team by defeating Florida, San Diego State and Miami and avoiding upsets against the rest of its non-conference foes. Mark Lyons may not be a true point guard, but he has brought scoring and toughness. Nick Johnson may be the most improved player in the league, Solomon remains Mr. versatility and the trio of young big men have each shown flashes even if they aren't performing consistently yet.

Who else could win it: The two teams besides Arizona who have shown the most promise in non-league play are UCLA and Colorado. The Bruins are the anti-Ben Howland team, unable to stop anyone defensively yet capable of making up for it with offensive firepower and a deadly transition attack. Colorado has fallen off the radar again after getting demolished by Kansas, but the Buffs boast a standout freshman center in Josh Scott, an elite rebounder/defender in Andre Roberson and a potent backcourt in Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker.

Biggest surprise: The nod goes to Oregon (11-2) over Arizona State (12-2) because the Ducks have more high-quality wins to validate their strong start. Oregon won at UNLV and pounded Vanderbilt and Nebraska, signs it's a viable NCAA tournament threat. Freshmen Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis have made an instant impact in the backcourt, while transfer Arsalan Kazemi has solidified the frontcourt with his rebounding and defense.

Biggest disappointment: Washington is in decline, Cal hasn't been especially good and Stanford hasn't taken the step forward many expected, but the team that has been the biggest disappointment is clearly USC. Touted as a potential NCAA tournament contender before the season thanks to the return of several injured players and an influx of talent, the Trojans instead have struggled mightily. They're 5-8 with some dreadful losses, none worse than at home to UC Irvine or on the road at Georgia.

Player of the Year: Simply put, this is not an easy choice right now. Do you give it to the best player on the best team and choose between Solomon Hill, Nick Johnson and Mark Lyons? Do you reward Allen Crabbe, C.J. Wilcox or Brock Motum for being among the leading scorers in the league despite defenses geared to stop them? Or do you project that a trimmed-down Shabazz Muhammad will continue his recent tear and emerge as the best player in the league by March? I lean Muhammad because of what he's shown the past few games, but I admit it's not clear-cut.

[Related: John Calipari using technology to make sure Kentucky plays with heart]

Best freshman: At the moment, it's Muhammad but his teammate Jordan Adams is in the running, as is Jahii Carson, Arizona State's talented freshman point guard. Carson has been maybe the conference's best pure point guard and is averaging 17.8 points and 5.6 assists. He's the primary reason Arizona State has 12 wins right now and he deserves consideration over Muhammad or Adams if the Sun Devils can sustain that success in league play – a long shot but not impossible.

Three fearless predictions:

• At least three Pac-12 coaches will be fired at the end of the season. USC's Kevin O'Neill is in deep trouble if the Trojans don't regroup in league play. Missing the NCAA tournament twice in three seasons also has UCLA's Ben Howland in need of a strong conference season and a run in March to win back the fans who have turned against him. And outside Los Angeles, Washington State's Ken Bone and Arizona State's Herb Sendek probably won't feel secure if their teams again finish in the bottom four in the standings.

• Four Pac-12 teams make the NCAA tournament this season, with Arizona, Colorado and UCLA as the safest picks right now. Between Stanford and Oregon, I think one of those two will slip into the field of 68 as well. I like Oregon's resume better but Stanford's roster. If the Cardinal can get more consistency out of Dwight Powell and even slightly better outside shooting from Aaron Bright and Chasson Randle, they have promise.

• If the Pac-12 is going to land a team in the Sweet 16 this season after failing to do so last year, it's all on Arizona. Colorado is a year away, UCLA doesn't defend well enough and no team in the rest of the league has enough talent. The league is more respectable this year as a whole, but it's still a far cry from its best days five or six years ago when almost every program was stocked with NBA-caliber prospects.

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