Pac-12 builds expectations after strong nonconference season

NCAA Men's Basketball
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PHOENIX (AP) �� 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-foot-11 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 (11-1) 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.

More AP college basketball: http://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Top25

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