Before the college basketball season began, there was buzz around the Pac-12 because it was perceived to be stronger than its been in years.
During non-conference play, the 12 teams in the league went out and backed that up.
"I think (the Pac-12) is in a much better position than it was at this time last year," said Ernie Kent, the former head coach at Oregon and currently an analyst for the Pac-12 Network. "With the RPI being strong, the conference overall has done a good job of managing the November and December schedule."
As of Tuesday, RealtimeRPI.com had the Pac-12 fourth among Division I conferences -- behind the Big 12, Big Ten and Big East.
Three Pac-12 teams (No. 1 Arizona, No. 10 Oregon, No. 20 Colorado) are ranked among the Associated Press Top 25 this week, and UCLA has been receiving votes most of the years. Eight of the 12 teams were among the top 65 in the Sagarin power ratings this week.
Kent said that having the No. 1 team in the country is a big deal for the Pac-12 because "you've got the focus back out on the West." It certainly helped the Pac-12's reputation when Stanford went on the road to beat then-No. 10 Connecticut.
A year ago, the Pac-12 made a big leap forward by sending five teams to the NCAA Tournament. The conference might be strong enough to top that number this year.
"As long as the right schools beat each other up, they come out of conference play in good shape, with potentially five teams, I think," Kent said, "and maybe depending on who that team is ... there could be a sixth or seventh team sitting there."
Conference play gets underway on Thursday night, with 10 of the 12 teams in action. Like Kent, Colorado head coach Tad Boyle believes the conference has been every bit as good as advertised, which suggests a fun couple of months ahead.
"You look at the standings and you see Stanford in the middle of the pack; they're as talented a team as anybody in the league," Boyle said. "The way you judge a league is not necessarily at the top of it. Every league's got good teams and good players at the top of it. It's the middle of the pack and the lower end."
So far, the conference has been strong from top to bottom, and Boyle believes that will continue.
"The league is really good," he said.
Here is a team-by-team look at the Pac-12 heading into the start of conference play:
Arizona Wildcats (13-0)
National rankings: No. 1 (AP and USA Today Coaches)
Head coach: Sean Miller, fifth season (109-43; 229-90 career)
Key players: F Brandon Ashley, 6-8, So. (12.5 ppg, 54.4% FG, 7.0 rpg); F Aaron Gordon, 6-8, Fr. (12.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.2 bpg); F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, 6-7, Fr. (8.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg); G Nick Johnson, 6-3, Jr. (16.0 ppg, 83.3% FT, 3.7 rpg, 2.5 apg); G T.J. McConnell, 6-1, Jr. (6.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 6.5 apg); C Kaleb Tarczewski, 7-0, So. (10.1 ppg, 58.6% FG, 6.7 rpg, 1.3 bpg)
Dates with CU: Jan. 23 (in Tucson), Feb. 22 (in Boulder)
About the Wildcats: Considered a national title contender from the start of the year, the Wildcats have not disappointed so far. They've passed three big tests -- at San Diego State (currently No. 21), against Duke (No. 7) and at Michigan -- while blowing away several other teams. They are loaded with talent and do just about everything well. They ranked second nationally in rebounding margin (plus-13.5) and have the No. 1 scoring defense in the conference.
Arizona State Sun Devils (11-2)
Head coach: Herb Sendek, eighth season (131-111; 385-269 career)
Key players: C Jordan Bachynski, 7-2, Sr. (12.5 ppg, 60.7% FG, 9.8 rpg, 4.8 bpg); G Jahii Carson, 5-10, So. (19.3 ppg, 51.4% 3-pt, 5.4 apg); G Jermaine Marshall, 6-4, Sr. (15.5 ppg).
Dates with CU: Jan. 25 (in Tempe), Feb. 19 (in Boulder)
About the Sun Devils: For the second year in a row, the Sun Devils won 11 non-conference games. They're hoping for better than the 9-9 conference record they posted last year, though. Carson is one of the nation's elite point guards and Bachynski leads the nation in blocks. At times, ASU has looked like an NCAA Tournament team, but got crushed in its only big test of the season thus far, losing 88-60 to Creighton.
California Golden Bears (9-4)
Head coach: Mike Montgomery, sixth season (118-63; 665-307 career)
Key players: G Jabari Bird, 6-6, Fr. (11.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg); G Justin Cobbs, 6-3, Sr. (14.2 ppg, 6.0 apg); F David Kravish, 6-9, Jr. (11.9 ppg, 8.2 rpg); F Richard Solomon, 6-10, Sr. (11.3 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 55.8% FG); G Tyrone Wallace, 6-4, So. (10.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.2 apg).
Date with CU: March 8 (in Berkeley)
About the Golden Bears: Despite having four starters back from an NCAA Tournament team, the Bears have struggled of late. After a 5-0 start, Cal is 4-4 in its last eight games. They have struggled offensively at times, but have been solid on defense. Cal has also been very good at home, going 8-0 in Berkeley. Solomon is the only player in the conference averaging a double-double.
Colorado Buffaloes (11-2)
National rankings: No. 20 (AP), No. 24 (USA Today Coaches)
Head coach: Tad Boyle, fourth season (80-40; 136-106 career)
Key players: G Askia Booker, 6-1, Jr. (12.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.0 apg); G Spencer Dinwiddie, 6-6, Jr. (15.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3.8 apg); F Wesley Gordon, 6-8, Fr. (7.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg); F Xavier Johnson, 6-6, So. (9.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg); F Josh Scott, 6-10, So. (13.1 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 54.8% FG).
About the Buffaloes: So far, the Buffs have defeated everybody they were supposed to beat, while picking up a big win against perennial power Kansas. The Buffs have played very well offensively most of the season and they've been great on the boards, with a plus-10.5 margin that ranks 10th nationally. The main concern going into conference play is an inconsistent defense.
Oregon Ducks (12-0)
National rankings: No. 10 (AP), No. 9 (USA Today Coaches)
Head coach: Dana Altman, fourth season (85-47; 495-280 career)
Key players: G Jason Calliste, 6-2, Sr. (12.3 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 59.4% 3-pt); F Elgin Cook, 6-6, So. (9.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg); G Damyean Dotson, 6-5, So. (11.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg); G Johnathan Loyd, 5-8, Sr. (9.3 ppg, 6.7 apg); F Mike Moser, 6-8, Sr. (13.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg); G Joseph Young, 6-3, Jr. (20.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 54.8% FG).
Date with CU: Sunday (in Boulder)
About the Ducks: One of just seven undefeated teams in the country, the Ducks have been impressive to this point and will challenge Arizona for the title. They lead the country in scoring (90.8 points per game), while hitting 51.3 percent of their shots and 42.7 percent of their 3-pointers. So far, the Ducks have handled their schedule well, but they have yet to play any ranked teams. Their most impressive wins have come against Georgetown and BYU.
Oregon State Beavers (8-4)
Head coach: Craig Robinson, sixth season (86-93; 116-121 career)
Key players: C Angus Brandt, 6-10, Sr. (12.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg); F Devon Collier, 6-8, Sr. (18.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 1.7 bpg, 64.7% FG); G Roberto Nelson, 6-3, Sr. (21.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 4.1 apg).
Date with CU: Thursday (in Boulder)
About the Beavers: Nelson leads the Pac-12 in scoring and is the only player to earn player of the week honors twice this season. He and Collier have led a prolific offense. As a team, the Beavers have connected on 50.8 percent of their shots. As it was last year, defense is an issue this season. Opponents hit 42.6 percent of their shots, including 37.1 percent from 3-point range. The Beavers also rank last in the Pac-12 in rebounding margin (minus-0.7).
Stanford Cardinal (9-3)
Head coach: Johnny Dawkins, sixth season (103-77)
Key players: G/F Anthony Brown, 6-6, Jr. (13.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg; 52.9 FG%); F Josh Huestis, 6-7, Sr. (11.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 2.4 bpg); F Dwight Powell, 6-10, Sr. (14.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 4.2 agp); G Chasson Randle, 6-1, Jr. (18.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg)
Date with CU: March 5 (in Stanford)
About the Cardinal: Although it has lost three times, Stanford proved it can be dangerous on Dec. 18 when it upset then-No. 10 Connecticut on the road. The Cardinal have not been great in any one area, but they have been solid in just about every area. Stanford was one of the most experienced teams in the conference coming into the season and so far that has shown. Although considered a middle-of-the-pack team, the Cardinal have the ability to creep into the upper part of the standings by season's end.
UCLA Bruins (11-2)
National rankings: RV (AP and USA Today Coaches)
Head coach: Steve Alford, first season (11-2; 473-236 career)
Key players: G Jordan Adams, 6-5, So. (18.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.3 spg); G Kyle Anderson, 6-9, So. (14.5 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 6.7 apg); G Zach LaVine, 6-5, Fr. (12.2 ppg, 2.6 rpg); F/C Tony Parker, 6-9, So. (7.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 62.0% FG); G Norman Powell, 6-4, Jr. (11.2 ppg, 2.9 rpg)
Dates with CU: Jan. 16 (in Boulder), Feb. 13 (in Los Angeles)
About the Bruins: The Bruins have lost to the two best teams on their schedule (Duke and Missouri), but overall it was a good non-conference for UCLA, which won the Pac-12 title a year ago. Their top-end talent is exceptional, with Adams, Anderson and LaVine all considered potential first-round picks in the 2014 NBA Draft. The Bruins score a ton of points (85.5 per game) and play solid defense, as their 10.7 steals per game (second in the country) suggests. With the talent they have on the roster, the Bruins will contend for the title once again.
USC Trojans (9-4)
Head coach: Andy Enfield, first season (9-4; 50-32 career)
Key players: G Pe'Shon Howard, 6-3, Sr. (11.0 ppg, 4.4 apg); F Nikola Jovanovic, 6-10, Fr. (10.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 55.6% FG); C Omar Oraby, 7-2, Sr. (9.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.8 bpg, 63.6% FG); G J.T. Terrell, 6-3, Sr. (10.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg); G Byron Wesley, 6-5, Jr. (17.0 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.5 apg).
Dates with CU: Jan. 18 (in Boulder), Feb. 16 (in Los Angeles)
About the Trojans: USC certainly didn't wow anybody in the non-conference, but considering it was 5-8 at this point last year, the Trojans showed great improvement. Enfield's up-tempo style has helped the Trojans increase their scoring average nearly 10 points per game (to 75.0) this season. While they may not be a Pac-12 title contender this year, they should be more competitive and certainly can't be overlooked.
Utah Utes (11-1)
Head coach: Larry Krystkowiak, third season (32-44; 74-64 career)
Key players: F Jordan Loveridge, 6-6, So. (17.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 2.9 apg); G Brandon Tyler, 5-10, So. (11.0 ppg, 4.1 apg); G Delon Wright, 6-5, Jr. (14.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 5.9 apg, 2.6 spg, 70.7% FG)
Dates with CU: Feb. 1 (in Boulder), March 1 (in Salt Lake City)
About the Utes: A two-point loss at Boise State on Dec. 3 is the only blemish on the schedule so far. Statistically, the Utes lead the nation in scoring margin (plus 27.6), field-goal percentage (54.2 percent) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.82). Their 87.4 points per game is second in the Pac-12 and is a stunning 23.2-ppg increase over last year. The Utes, however, have yet to be seriously tested, and they've beefed up their stats against the likes of Evergreen State, Grand Canyon, Lamar, Savannah State and St. Katherine.
Washington Huskies (8-5)
Head coach: Lorenzo Romar, 12th season (245-126; 338-214 career)
Key players: G Andrew Andrews, 6-2, So. (13.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg); F Perris Blackwell, 6-9, Sr. (12.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg); G C.J. Wilcox, 6-5, Sr. (20.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.8 apg); G Nigel Williams-Goss, 6-4, Fr. (12.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.4 apg)
Dates with CU: Jan. 12 (in Seattle), Feb. 9 (in Boulder)
About the Huskies: It's been a rough season so far for the Husky defense, which ranks last in the conference in points allowed (79.2 per game) and 335th out of 345 Division I teams in field-goal percentage defense (49.6 percent). They do have some scoring punch, though, led by Wilson, who is second in the conference in points per game. A year ago, the Huskies finished 9-9 in conference and went to the NIT. They might have a hard time repeating that.
Washington State Cougars (7-5)
Head coach: Ken Bone, fifth season (77-70; 412-235 career)
Key players: G DaVonte Lacy, 6-3, Jr. (18.9 ppg, 4.7 rpg); F D.J. Shelton, 6-10, Sr. (8.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg); G Royce Woolridge, 6-3, Jr. (10.9 ppg, 2.5 apg)
Dates with CU: Jan. 8 (in Spokane), Feb. 5 (in Boulder)
About the Cougars: Last in the Pac-12 a year ago, the Cougars haven't given any indication that they'll make much of a jump this year. Lacy is the one major weapon they have, but even with him, they had a mediocre non-conference. Offensively, the Cougars rank last in the Pac-12 in scoring (70.7), field goal percentage (44.3) and free throw percentage (62.6) and 11th in 3-point percentage (31.6).