Pac-12 basketball: Who will rise above mediocrity in wide-open league race?

  • Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer

    Arizona State's Remy Martin, left, and the Sun Devils have the biggest nonconfence win for the Pac-12 when ASU beat Kansas.

  • Dean Rutz / Seattle Times

    Washington's Jaylen Nowell is the leading score for the 9-4 Huskies.

  • Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer

    Oregon State's Tres Tinkle and the Beavers are entering conference play without a quality win.



Perhaps none of the few highs and embarrassing lows experienced so far by Pac-12 Conference basketball teams encapsulates the woes of the league more appropriately than a recent one-week swing endured by the Arizona State Sun Devils.

On Dec. 22, ASU injected a little life into a conference that has suffered nothing but bad headlines throughout the first two months of the basketball season by knocking off top-ranked Kansas at home. A week later, the Sun Devils reminded everyone of last year’s squad by losing at home to Princeton.

The struggles of the league have been well-documented. This week marked the first time in seven years no Pac-12 team landed in the weekly AP top 25. The league went 38-36 in December, the lowest win percentage for a Power 5 Conference (plus the Big East) in the past 20 years. The Pac-12 barely got three teams into the 68-team NCAA Tournament last spring; At this point, the Pac-12 will be fortunate to get more than just the conference tournament champion into this year’s field.

There is a bright side, though, especially for perennial middle-of-the-pack clubs like Colorado. There is no consensus favorite, and just about every matchup during the 18-game league slate will be considered a winnable game.

“There’s 12 teams in the league that think that. Colorado is one of them,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “We feel like we can beat anyone on our schedule. We also know anybody can beat us on our schedule. We’re not infallible. Nobody is.

“There’s no clear-cut favorite right now. Arizona State and Oregon I think are two of the more talented teams physically. But the way everybody has played in November and December gives everybody hope. Colorado included. We feel like we can make noise in this league. But we better play better than we did in Honolulu. Because if we don’t we’ll be right in the middle of the pack.”

(NET rankings through games of Jan. 1)

Arizona State Sun Devils

Record: 9-3.

NET ranking: 45.

Good wins: Kansas.

Bad losses: Princeton.

Top performers: G Luguentz Dort, Fr., 18.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg; G Remy Martin, So., 12.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.4 apg; F Zylan Cheatham, Sr., 11.3 ppg, 10.1 rpg.

Outlook: Much like last year, ASU energized the entire league with a benchmark win against Kansas, this time when the Jayhawks were the No. 1-ranked team in the land. Also like last year, the Sun Devils couldn’t maintain the momentum. ASU goes into the league slate as a likely favorite, and the Sun Devils are a deeper and more balanced bunch than the one that struggled in Pac-12 play last year after ascending to the No. 3 spot in the nation.

Arizona Wildcats

Record: 9-4.

NET ranking: 61.

Good wins: Iowa State, at UConn.

Bad losses: Baylor.

Top performers: G Brandon Randolph, So., 16.6 ppg, .887 free throw percentage (47-for-53); F Chase Jeter, Jr., 12.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg; G Brandon Williams, Fr., 11.0 ppg, 3.8 apg.

Outlook: The Wildcats boast far less raw talent than the teams that sent Lauri Markkanen, Allonzo Trier, and Deandre Ayton to the NBA over the past two years, but UA still boasts one of the best home-court advantages in the league and should be battle-tested. The Wildcats’ nonconference schedule included dates against Gonzaga, Auburn, and Alabama, and UA is in position to take advantage of a favorable early schedule in league play.

Cal Golden Bears

Record: 5-7.

NET ranking: 190.

Good wins: None.

Bad losses: Seattle

Top performers: G Paris Austin, Jr., 14.2 ppg, 5.1 apg; F Justice Sueing, So., 13.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg; F Andre Kelly, Fr., 10.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg.

Outlook: It’s likely to be a long, cold winter for the Golden Bears. Cal enters Pac-12 play ranked last in the league in defensive field goal percentage (.489), defensive 3-point percentage (.390), and points allowed per game (77.9).

Colorado Buffaloes

Record: 9-3.

NET ranking: 73.

Good wins: New Mexico.

Bad losses: Indiana State, Hawaii.

Top performers: G McKinley Wright, So., 13.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.8 apg; F Lucas Siewert, Jr.,12.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg, .488 3-point percentage; F Tyler Bey, So., 11.7 ppg, 9.1 rpg.

Outlook: Considered a dark horse contender for the league crown at the outset of the season, the Buffs looked nothing like a team trying to ascend into the top half of the conference while going 1-2 at the Diamond Head Classic over the holidays. CU will have to overcome a seemingly annual turnover issue and a run of five of seven games on the road in league play in order to get back on track.

Oregon Ducks

Record: 9-4.

NET ranking: 83.

Good wins: Syracuse.

Bad losses: Texas Southern.

Top performers: F Bol Bol, Fr., 21.0 ppg, 9.6 rpg; G Payton Pritchard, Jr., 12.3 ppg, 4.5 apg; F Paul White, Sr., 9.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg.

Outlook: The Ducks’ outlook essentially revolves around the health of Bol’s left foot, as an injury has kept the 7-foot-2 freshman out of the lineup the past four games. With a healthy Bol, the Ducks still will be a league title contender despite an uneven run through conference play. Without him, Oregon likely is destined to finish in the middle of the pack.

Oregon State Beavers

Record: 8-4.

NET ranking: 95.

Good wins: None.

Bad losses: Kent State.

Top performers: F Tres Tinkle, Jr., 19.8 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 4.2 apg; G Stephen Thompson, Sr., 14.5 ppg, 3.3 apg; G Ethan Thompson, So., 12.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg.

Outlook: The Beavers’ starting five is as solid as it gets in the league, but OSU lacks depth and hasn’t been overly challenged during nonconference play. Tinkle ranks in the top-10 in the league in scoring, rebounds, and assists.

Stanford Cardinal

Record: 7-5.

NET ranking: 110.

Good wins: None.

Bad losses: at San Francisco

Top performers: F KZ Okpala, So., 16.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg; G Daejon Davis, So., 11.8 ppg, 3.8 apg; F Oscar da Silva, So., 9.6 ppg, 5.9 ppg.

Outlook: The Cardinal hasn’t picked up a signature win, but Stanford has tackled a demanding schedule, suffering losses against North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Florida while also pushing Kansas to overtime at Kansas. Stanford arguably will be the most battle-tested team in the Pac-12 heading into league play.

UCLA Bruins

Record: 7-6.

NET ranking: 93.

Good wins: Notre Dame.

Bad losses: Belmont, Liberty.

Top performers: G Kris Wilkes, So., 17.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg; C Moses Brown, Fr., 11.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg; G Jaylen Hands, So., 11.5 ppg, 7.0 apg.

Outlook: Seemingly on the hot seat since he arrived at UCLA, coach Steve Alford didn’t make it to league play, as he was fired last week in the wake of a four-game losing streak that includes losses at home to Belmont and Liberty. As bad as the Bruins have been, they still have as talented a roster as any team in the league. If interim coach Murry Bartow can get those players back on track, the Bruins still will be a factor.

USC Trojans

Record: 7-6.

NET ranking: 127.

Good wins: None.

Bad losses: TCU, Santa Clara.

Top performers: F Bennie Boatwright, Sr., 15.0 ppg,6.4 rpg; F Nick Rakocevic, Jr., 14.3 ppg, 10.3 ppg; G Jonah Matthews, Jr., 12.4 ppg.

Outlook: The Trojans also have played a solid schedule but haven’t acquitted themselves well, losing to Oklahoma on the road and Vanderbilt at home, while also losing by 35 points on a neutral floor in Los Angeles. USC is patiently awaiting the return of freshman guard Kevin Porter Jr., who has missed the past few weeks with a thigh injury.

Utah Utes

Record: 6-6.

NET ranking: 142.

Good wins: None.

Bad losses: Hawaii.

Top performers: G Sedrick Barefield, Sr., 15.0 ppg, 3.3 apg; F Donnie Tillman, So., 10.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg; F Timmy Allen, Fr., 9.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg.

Outlook: Another squad that has taken on tough competition — the Utes have played at Kentucky and hosted Nevada — coach Larry Krystkowiak routinely gets as much out of his personnel as any coach in the league. In a weak Pac-12, that trait alone would add a few wins to Utah’s ledger in conference play.

Washington Huskies

Record: 9-4.

NET ranking: 56.

Good wins: San Diego.

Bad losses: None.

Top performers: G Jaylen Nowell, So., 16.8 ppg, 4.7 rpg; F Noah Dickerson, Sr., 15.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg; G David Crisp, Sr., 9.4 ppg, 3.1 apg.

Outlook: The Huskies were expected to perhaps emerge at a national level in the second season under coach Mike Hopkins. It hardly has been a poor start for UW, as three of the team’s losses occurred against ranked teams — Virginia Tech, Auburn, and a near upset of then-No. 1 Gonzaga. Spurred by their Syracuse-style zone defense, the Huskies are allowing just 66.5 points a game and rank second in the league with a defensive field goal percentage of .392.

Washington State Cougars

Record: 7-6.

NET ranking: 182.

Good wins: None.

Bad losses: Montana State.

Top performers:

Outlook: At least Robert Franks returned for another season. After testing the NBA draft waters, Franks leads the Pac-12 with 22.1 points per game. But his individual heroics probably will not be enough to lift a team that ranks 11th in the league in scoring defense (76.1), 10th in defensive field goal percentage (.442), and 11th in rebounding margin (-0.6).

Pat Rooney: or