College basketball: The Pac-12 is better, but by how much?
Sean Miller sat on a stool in the Pac-12 Conference studios last November, looking at the assembled media horde with a microphone in his hand.
Then, the Arizona head coach made his declaration.
"The league is better than it's ever been since I've coached in it. I think it's more competitive from top to bottom than I've ever seen it."
His words came a week before anyone had stepped onto a court to play a game. Now, with two months of evidence, has the Pac-12 really made a dent? Has it progressed from the embarrassment of last season, when Washington became the first large conference regular-season champion ever to miss the NCAA Tournament? Is the league ready to take its place back with the elite conferences around the country?
The answers is a mixed bag. Yes, the Pac-12 is better. No, the league still isn't quite where it was. And, yes, the rival Mountain West has had a drastically better nonconference performance nationally.
"There have been good performances and there have been disappointing performances," said Ken Pomeroy, a national college basketball RPI guru. "The bottom of the league is quite a bit better than it was a year ago, and that's a good thing. People like Utah and Washington State and Arizona State have been competitive, and that helps the rest of the conference."
Arizona's climbing fortunes have made the biggest difference between now and a year ago. With a 12-0 record, and marquee wins over Florida and San Diego State, the Wildcats have established themselves as a top-five team nationally. They are a Final Four contender and a legitimate threat to garner the top seed in the West once the NCAA Tournament comes around.
That's a huge improvement from last season, when Colorado and California both went to the tournament with little hope of advancing into the second weekend.
With league play starting Wednesday with Utah at Arizona State, this much is pretty clear: Arizona, UCLA, Colorado and Oregon are all in prime position to receive bids to the NCAA Tournament. People like Stanford and California at least have a fighting chance. That makes the league a better, and more desirable, place than it was a season ago.
"It's a fun league to be in," Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "There's a lot of competition, and a lot of talent every night. It's a conference that demands the best from you in every matchup. We look forward to it."
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The favorite • Arizona is the only elite team in the league, with everyone else fighting for second place. The Wildcats have made themselves a contender, nationally.
The dark horse • Oregon has the athleticism and the scoring to beat anyone in the league. E.J. Singler is one of the most experienced players in the conference.
The MVP • Solomon Hill has been around Arizona seemingly forever. The small forward can do almost everything on a court and is the glue to the best team in the conference.
On the hot seat • Stanford's Johnny Dawkins, USC's Kevin O'Neill and UCLA's Ben Howland are all coaches who need to win and show progress to keep their jobs.