With Pac-12 basketball well underway, I decided to provide an update to my pre-season conference power rankings. Yesterday, I revealed the teams I believe make up the bottom of the Pac-12, and today, I will be discussing those I believe are in the top half.
6. Arizona (10-3, 4-3 Pac-12)
What a turbulent season it has been for the Wildcats. In late December, the school self-imposed a one-year postseason ban due to numerous NCAA violations relating to college basketball recruiting. Two weeks later, junior guard Jemarl Baker, who scored 29 points against Stanford, suffered a season-ending wrist fracture.
Even through the struggles, Arizona has performed about how I expected. The Wildcats are undoubtedly missing their four stars from last season — guard Nico Mannion, guard Josh Green, forward Zeke Nnaji and guard Max Hazzard — but certain players have stepped up to the extent they can. Junior guard James Akinjo is contributing 13.5 points and 5.7 assists per contest and has become the leader of the Arizona offense. The freshmen have also performed as well as head coach Sean Miller could possibly hope. Freshman guard Benedict Mathurin and freshman forward Azuolas Tubelis have found their way into the starting lineup and both are averaging double figures. Mathurin has been steadily improving as the season has progressed, scoring 31 points and securing eight rebounds in the most recent contest against Oregon State.
Overall, this is a good Arizona team, and despite a postseason ban and the injury of Baker, the Wildcats have a solid chance of finishing in the top half of the Pac-12.
5. Stanford (8-5, 4-3 Pac-12)
This Stanford team is eerily similar to last year’s Cardinal team, with tremendous defense but an offense that dies for extended periods of time. After defeating Alabama — a team that is currently top 20 in the NET Rankings — in the season opener, the Cardinal have failed to pick up another great win. To Stanford’s credit, its only bad loss is against Utah, but it’s the lacking offense that proved costly in winnable games against Colorado, Oregon and others.
There have been positives for the Cardinal. For one, senior forward Oscar da Silva has been dominant, averaging 19.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per contest. Freshman forward Ziaire Williams has had his highs and his lows — averaging 12.5 points per game and leading the team in assists, but also leading the squad in turnovers. Freshman contribution on the whole has been promising, as guards Michael O’Connell and Noah Taitz and forwards Brandon Angel and Max Murrell have become key components of the Cardinal rotation.
Onto the negatives. First, injuries have plagued Stanford’s backcourt. Senior guard Daejon Davis was forced to sit five games due to a lower-leg injury while junior guard Bryce Wills remains out with a knee injury. Wills was a member of the 2019-20 All-Pac-12 Defensive Team, and, in light of significant improvement in his scoring capabilities and comfort with the ball, his absence has been noticeable on both ends of the floor.
The second negative has been offensive cold streaks. Against both Utah and Colorado this past week, the Cardinal kept it close until the opposition went on a late first-half run and never looked back. Until Stanford can create a balanced and consistent offense, it will be unable to reach its full potential. As of now, I see Stanford as capable of beating teams like UCLA and Oregon, but without Wills and with a shaky offense, it would be impossible to put them in the top four of this power rankings.
4. USC (11-2, 5-1 Pac-12)
In fourth place is USC, which I consider to be the most inconsistent and unpredictable team in the Pac-12. One day, you’ll find USC going to overtime at home against UC Riverside or losing to Oregon State. On another, you’ll see the Trojans beating BYU by 26.
I believe USC is a genuine contender in the conference, with freshman center Evan Mobley more than proving his worth with his 16.2 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. His brother, sophomore forward Isaiah Mobley, has added to the dominant USC front-court, averaging double figures as well. Another player that has played well is one I predicted would do so back in October, and that is graduate guard Tahj Eaddy. Eaddy has stepped up given USC’s relatively weak backcourt, and his 12.9 points per game emphasize that he has adjusted quite nicely from the WCC to the Pac-12. USC has the talent and one of the highest upsides in the league, but until the Trojans play their best basketball more consistently, I will remain hesitant to move them into the top three.
3. Oregon (9-2, 4-1 Pac-12)
In terms of resume, there is a strong case for Oregon to be No. 1 or No. 2 in the conference, given an absence of bad losses. The Ducks have only fallen to Colorado and Missouri — two teams that are projected to be solidly into the NCAA Tournament come March.
Here is why Oregon is number three. First, the team has been without junior guard Will Richardson, who went down before the season even began with an injured thumb. Richardson was a Pre-Season Pac-12 First Team selection. More recently, 6’11” sophomore center N’Faly Dante had a season-ending ACL tear, leaving the Ducks with size issues. Since Dante got injured, Oregon has been playing with a starting lineup that lacks a single player above 6’6″, which could mean trouble against the bigger, stronger teams of the conference. For these reasons, despite the Ducks’ continued success and impressive resume, they sit in third place.
2. UCLA (11-2, 7-0 Pac-12)
The Bruins have the most stellar conference play resume thus far, but it’s a key injury as well as a couple shaky performances that make me doubt whether UCLA is the best team in the Pac-12. Starting with the good: UCLA is undefeated in conference play and narrowly took down Colorado at Pauley Pavilion on Jan. 2. The team has looked balanced and poised, with five players averaging double figures, although senior guard Chris Smith is now out for the season with an ACL tear. Sophomore guard Tyger Campbell has impressed, averaging an astounding 6.5 assists per game to add onto his 12 points per contest.
Then there’s the bad for UCLA. Smith’s absence leaves the Bruins without a key senior leader and scorer. I am also skeptical about UCLA due to a couple shaky performances, including most recently a narrow home win over Washington. Washington, which has only won one game this entire season, carried a double-digit lead into the half and played UCLA close right to the end. It’s games like this, along with the injury of Smith, that put the Bruins at number two in my power rankings.
1. Colorado (11-3, 5-2 Pac-12)
Colorado has been the team in the Pac-12 that has exceeded expectations the most, and it is also the best team in the conference. The Buffaloes, who were picked by the Pac-12 media to finish seventh place this season, are one of the most balanced and dominant teams in the nation. Colorado sits in the top 10 of the NET rankings, is top 20 in both adjusted offense and defense according to KenPom and has yet to pick up a bad loss this season.
Senior guard McKinley Wright has solidified himself as a prime candidate for Pac-12 Player of the Year, currently shooting above 50% from the field, averaging a team-high 5.8 assists per game and displaying his defensive prowess each game. Experience is the key to this Buffaloes team, which has four seniors among its five leading scorers, and a junior as its fifth. They are the favorites to win the Pac-12 and the most likely team to come out of the conference and make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
Contact Teddy Solomon at tedsol ‘at’ stanford.edu.