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Wednesday, January 2, 2013
Pac-12 primer: Arizona's title to lose

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

The Pac-12 didn't put its regular-season champion in the NCAA tournament last season.

That's not likely to happen again this March, as Arizona has taken care of its nonconference opponents, something Washington was unsuccessful doing last season.

Although the league might not get the dearth of bids it had a year ago, it probably will be spared the embarrassment of not having its regular-season champ participate in the Big Dance.

Nick Johnson
Do-all guard Nick Johnson is the glue guy for third-ranked Arizona.

The favorite: Arizona

The Wildcats are not just the favorites for the Pac-12 title; they're a team to circle as a possible Final Four squad. If they continue to play at a high level, they'll be in contention for a No. 1 seed come March.

Arizona has a money point guard in Mark Lyons, a reliable scorer in Solomon Hill, a burgeoning frontcourt talent in Kaleb Tarczewski, a veteran presence in Kevin Parrom and the ultimate glue guy who makes winning plays in Nick Johnson.

Arizona has handled every challenge so far, dealt with playing from behind and handled tough games both on the road and on neutral courts, thought it is also still young in key spots.

Other contenders: UCLA certainly has the requisite talent to contend with Arizona at the top of the standings. But the Bruins are still fragile, and there isn't enough evidence that it can sustain consistent play in the next two months. If Shabazz Muhammad, Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson continue to mature and make special plays, this could be a very dangerous squad. The Bruins' win over Missouri in overtime Friday seems to have given them new life in the Pac-12. Let's see if they can build on that momentum.

Player of the year (so far): Here is the issue: There isn't a consensus top player at this point. I could make an argument for a player like Arizona State's Jahii Carson, with the numbers he has put up during the Sun Devils' turnaround. Or do Muhammad's 27 points and key 3-pointer against Missouri put him at the top? And whom do you go with from Arizona? I could make a strong case for any of these three players: Lyons, a Xavier transfer, made the winning play to beat Florida and has stabilized things at the point; Johnson blocked Chase Tapley's shot to beat San Diego State in the Diamond Head Classic title game; and Hill may be the most consistent player on the squad. And still someone else easily could emerge from Oregon, Colorado or even Cal. This isn't passing the buck; there just isn't one choice right now.

Freshman of the year (so far): UCLA has two candidates, Adams and Muhammad, who have had their moments and are scoring at a high clip. But they have each other, and there are other complements on the Bruins. No freshman has been as important to his team's success as Carson has been to Arizona State. The 5-foot-10 guard was supposed to be on last season's Sun Devils team, but he wasn't academically eligible. That team won only 10 games. With Carson, ASU enters this season's conference schedule with 11 wins. He's averaging 17.7 points and 5.5 assists a game but has to cut down his turnovers. Carson may be the difference in getting ASU to the postseason.

Wins to brag about: Arizona over Florida in Tucson, then beating San Diego State in the Diamond Head Classic; UCLA holding off Missouri in overtime at the new Pauley Pavilion; Oregon winning at UNLV.

Losses that sting: Towson winning at Oregon State in OT; DePaul blowing out ASU in Tempe; Sacramento State and Cal State-Northridge winning at Utah; UCLA losing at home to Cal Poly; UC Irvine taking down USC; Washington losing to Albany at home.

Pleasant surprise: Oregon (11-2) The Ducks got the rest of the league's attention with a road win at UNLV. Oregon's only two losses are to Cincinnati in Las Vegas and at UTEP in triple overtime. Coach Dana Altman has every reason to believe his squad can finish second in the conference behind Arizona. The Ducks have youth on the perimeter, but it's the experienced frontcourt led by transfers Tony Woods and Arsalan Kazemi that makes the Ducks so formidable. They will continue to mesh and should be taken seriously as an NCAA-bound team.

Biggest disappointment: USC (5-8) The Trojans are finally healthy and have had the toughest non-conference slate in the league. But USC has struggled to score at times and lacks consistency. The squad that beat Dayton by two in overtime lost a week earlier to UC Irvine. The Trojans start out with four of the first six conference games at home, so they have a shot to shed this disappointment tag right out of the gate.

Three questions going forward:

Will the Pac-12 produce three or more NCAA bids? A year ago, the conference put two teams in the Dance, but neither finished in sole possession of first or second in the regular-season standings. Colorado won the Pac-12 tourney, and Cal got in as an at-large. The league should get at least three teams in the field in Arizona, Oregon and UCLA this time around, barring a collapse. There is room for more, but plenty of work remains.

Shabazz Muhammad
It remains to be seen if UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad will live up to his preseason hype.

Will Muhammad live up to his preseason hype? Muhammad has the physical maturity to be a dominant player at his position. He doesn't go in the post often, but he can be a mismatch on the perimeter. He has a scorer's mentality and is becoming even more assertive for the Bruins as the season progresses. If Muhammad plays off the momentum of his 27-point effort against Missouri, then he could emerge as the player of the year in the Pac-12 and carry the Bruins to the NCAA tournament.

How will the Pac-12 tournament play at the MGM Grand? This is a new play by innovative commissioner Larry Scott. The tournament at Staples Center had been hit-and-miss, mostly missing due to the L.A. schools' irrelevance. Las Vegas is a destination site and could generate a truly neutral court. Still, Arizona travels as well as any of the Pac-12 teams, and Colorado also was impressive a year ago.

Revised predictions:
1. Arizona: The Wildcats are the only ranked team for a reason. They have the best résumé, with nonconference wins over Florida and San Diego State. This is their race to lose.
2. UCLA: The Bruins now have a competent point guard in Larry Drew II, a burgeoning star in Muhammad and a reliable scorer in Adams. Right now, this team believes in itself.
3. Oregon: The Ducks' scoring guards/wings Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis are enough to put them in contention for a top-three finish. The frontcourt of Woods, E.J. Singler and Kazemi is more than capable of keeping Oregon in play.
4. Colorado: I'll take the Buffaloes team that won the Charleston Classic over the one that got embarrassed at Kansas. CU still has three of the better players at their positions in the league in Askia Booker, Spencer Dinwiddie and Andre Roberson, meaning it soon could be back in play.
5. Stanford: The Cardinal have struggled in their elite games, but the talent is still in place for a top-five finish. Dwight Powell, Chasson Randle and Josh Huestis all have the capability to make big shots in key conference games.
6. Cal: The Bears have done little outside of beating Pacific for the Anaheim Classic title. But Cal still has a backcourt tandem in Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs that the rest of the league knows can dictate tempo if they play within themselves. And coach Mike Montgomery has yet to drop to the bottom half of the conference during his tenure.
7. Arizona State: The Sun Devils have one of the top point guards in the country in Carson. They have a soft schedule, yet fell at home to DePaul. Carson is a difference-maker, however, and should help keep them relevant throughout.
8. Oregon State: The Beavers are much more balanced than a season ago, as Roberto Nelson has settled into a leadership role, and Ahmad Starks and Eric Moreland have the ability to be X factors in close games. But the Beavers haven't done enough (best win against Purdue, worst loss to Towson at home) to instill any confidence they'll finish in the top half of the standings. The effort put forth against Kansas in a six-point loss needs to be duplicated every game.
9. Washington: The Huskies are healthy for the first time this season, but C.J. Wilcox's inconsistency has been too much of a negative. The home losses have piled up, and suddenly Seattle is no longer an intimidating stop.
10. Washington State: Brock Motum has guided the Cougars to wins in seven of eight games heading into conference play. But he alone will not be enough help to keep Wazzu in contention for a higher finish.
11. Utah: The Utes are much improved, as evidenced by their close loss at BYU and the blowout win over Boise State. Utah has quite a find in freshman Jordan Loveridge, who has become a big-time scorer, something it desperately needed to be competitive in the league.
12. USC: The Trojans were picked to be a contender/postseason team by our staff in the preseason. USC has played a tough schedule and boasts decent wins in name over Texas in Maui and Dayton at home. But it's hard to have faith in this team at this juncture, because it has been the most inconsistent club in the league.