Pac-12 Contenders and Pretenders

Pac-12 play is only a week away and looks at which teams have been established as the contenders and pretenders. Read on for more.

The Pac-12 conference schedule begins within the next couple of weeks and as we draw closer to it, teams are beginning to show just how good they really are. There have been a couple of surprises thus far, but for the most part, things have gone according to plan.

There are some obvious contenders as well as teams that have little-to-no chance to win the conference crown. We will delve a little further into just who will be in the midst of the conference race and who will have to fight just to remain respectable.

Legit contenders – California, Arizona, Washington, Stanford

The Golden Bears have their core back from a season ago in Allen Crabbe, Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp. They have also received a huge boost from transfer Justin Cobbs, especially from behind the three-point line, where he is shooting just a shade under 58 percent.

Cal has experienced a couple of hiccups on their out-of-conference schedule, but in comparison to the rest of the league it certainly stands out as a legitimate contender.

Arizona has already experienced its own fair share of early season turmoil, but stands at 7-4 and seems to be steadily improving as time passes. The Wildcats nearly pulled off the upset over Florida on the road last week and handled Clemson with ease back at home before playing uninspired basketball against Gonzaga. With veterans like Solomon Hill and Jesse Perry stepping up and freshmen such as Nick Johnson and Angelo Chol improving, this UA team should continue to get better.

The real wildcard for Arizona is Josiah Turner. If the freshman point guard can get everything together and grow as a player, this team becomes much more deadly when March rolls around.

Washington may only stand at 5-5, but it has played a pretty tough schedule early and has been able to hang with some of the better teams in the country. However, Huskies do have losses to Nevada, Saint Louis, and South Dakota State which shows they are beatable. The Huskies still do have a core of players that are going to be difficult for the rest of the Pac-12 to stop.

Three players on the UW roster – Terrence Ross, C.J. Wilcox and Tony Wroten - currently average more than 14 points per game and point guard Abdul Gaddy has done a fine job of orchestrating the offense by averaging over five assists per contest. There have been some bumps in the road during non-conference play, but Washington should be right in the thick of things when the race heats up.

Stanford is 9-1 and has played surprisingly well. The lone loss for the Cardinal was against Syracuse on the road and the Orange is one of the better teams in the country thus far. Stanford possesses victories over Colorado State, North Carolina State and Oklahoma State – three teams ranked in the RPI top-100.

Not many had the Cardinal contending and it should be interesting how they play come time for the conference schedule. Stanford's two leading scorers to date are underclassmen – sophomore Aaron Bright and freshman Chasson Randle – and its third is senior Josh Owens. The youth makes them a candidate to improve as the season goes on with Owens to help guide the youth of the team. Stanford is definitely a team to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

Outside looking in – Oregon State

The Beavers have looked pretty good in non-conference play, but have a huge blemish against Idaho that makes it hard to consider them a legitimate contender. OSU hung with Vanderbilt but ultimately lost by two. Other than those two losses, Oregon State has taken care of business.

The Beavers are led by Jared Cunningham, who is a standout on both ends of the floor. The junior is averaging just a little over 17 points and is right at three steals per game. He is one of four Beavers to average double-digit scoring and gives his team one of the best go-to options in the conference. We will know more about OSU in a few weeks, but the loss at home to Idaho looks a bit scary for the Beavers at the moment.

Pretenders – Oregon, UCLA, Washington State

The Ducks have struggled – on their home floor – against the likes of Portland State, Texas-El Paso and Fresno State. The arrival of Devoe Joseph has been huge though, as he is averaging about 15 points in his first three games with the Ducks. Before Joseph was able to play, Oregon had just two players averaging double figures. Now with him active, the Ducks become an interesting team to watch during as the season rolls along.

Until they prove otherwise, the Ducks are going to have trouble with the better teams in the conference, but they also have the potential to elevate themselves above the pretenders category and could make some teams sweat towards the top of the conference.

The loss of Reeves Nelson is a huge blow to UCLA's chances. Despite the team's rough start, the Bruins could have still contended with Nelson on the roster. Without him, they still have Lazeric Jones, Tyler Lamb, Josh Smith and the Wear twins but – as a unit – that group has underachieved. It's hard to imagine UCLA competing for a Pac-12 title without Nelson being present.

Wazzu has suffered a few losses in non-conference play, but looked respectable until it dropped a game at home to UC Riverside. The Cougars don't have any really notable wins on their resumé and the loss at home to Riverside makes it hard to believe that they will threaten in the Pac-12 this season.

Below Average – Arizona State, USC, Colorado

The Sun Devils could have been an exciting team to watch with Jahii Carson but without him they are not only non-competitive but totally uninteresting. ASU is regressing at a rapid rate in a down Pac-12 conference and it would be a very big surprise to see them compete with the teams towards the top of the league this season.

USC doesn't look ready to contend either. The Trojans have lost at home to Cal Poly, Nebraska and New Mexico while failing to pick up a win against a team with a RPI rating in the top 150. Outside of Maurice Jones and Aaron Fuller, USC doesn't have too much to work with on offense. The most standout statistic for the Trojans early in the season is the 36 point output against Cal Poly.

With losses to Wichita State, Colorado State and Wyoming, it doesn't look like newcomer Colorado is ready to make any noise in conference play. The Buffaloes have three players averaging double figures, but haven't faced the toughest competition and will have much more difficulty putting points on the board when they face the elite teams of the Pac-12.

Bottom Feeder – Utah

The Utes are 2-8 to start the season. They have lost at home to Montana State and Cal State Fullerton – the latter in blowout fashion. Seven of the team's eight losses have been by double-figures. Needless to say, Utah is easily the worst team in the Pac-12 in 2011-12.

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