Pac-12 its old self as conference play begins

TEMPE, Ariz. – The Pac-12 has returned to the national stage this season. All it took was an influx of good players.

Third-ranked Arizona, one of the three remaining power-conference unbeatens, will enter Pac-12 play this week with the look of a Final Four contender, in large part because of transfer Mark Lyons and a talented, paint-patrolling freshman class that includes 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski and forwards Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett.

Freshmen Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and transfer Larry Drew II have revitalized UCLA.

Freshman Jahii Carson and transfer Evan Gordon have led the resurgence at Arizona State.

Senior transfer Arsalan Kazemi and freshmen Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis have plugged holes nicely at Oregon.

It’s been a happy new year. And the computers have caught on.

Defending Pac-12 tournament champion Colorado and Arizona are ranked Nos. 6-7, respectively, in Division I by RealTimeRPI, a ratings system that attempts to simulate the power ratings used by the NCAA selection committee when tournament time rolls around in March. UCLA, Oregon, Stanford, Arizona State and California are in the top 71. Sagarin ranks the Pac-12 the sixth-best conference and has five league teams among the top 51.

Arizona, ranked as high as third in the polls for the first time since Jan. 6, 2004, is the only Pac-12 team ranked in either poll, but part of that may be a residual hangover from the subpar 2011-12, when league teams failed to beat a ranked team in nonconference play and only two members were invited to the 68-team NCAA tournament.

The league has done better this time around. Arizona has two of the league’s signature victories, a 65-64 win over No. 5 Florida and a 68-67 win over No. 17 San Diego State, with Lyons making clutch plays in both. He made a layup for the deciding basket as the Wildcats overcame a 12-point deficit against the Gators on Dec. 15, and Nick Johnson blocked a potential game-winning layup from behind in the final second after Lyons hit two free throws against the Aztecs in the finals of the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii on Christmas Day.

UCLA beat No. 7 Missouri in overtime at New Pauley last Friday, with Muhammad netting 27 points and hitting two 3-pointers in overtime to push the Bruins to their best win in several years.

Colorado beat No. 16 Baylor in the final of the Charleston Classic in Charleston, S.C., on Nov. 16. Oregon beat No. 18 UNLV in Las Vegas a week later, on Nov. 23. Washington State took No. 10 Gonzaga to the last second before falling, 69-67, on Dec. 5 in a game for bragging rights in western Washington. USC (5-8) is the only team with a losing record entering conference play.

With that nonconference resume, the league could expect to double the number of teams it places in the NCAA tournament this season. The biggest snub last year came when regular-season champion and 21-game winner Washington was omitted from the field after losing in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament to Oregon State. That was the first time the champion of a power conference was not invited to the tournament.

The way the Pac-12 has gone about its business, it should not happen again.

Click here for a team-by-team breakdown of what we learned in nonconference play.