UCLA

As conference play begins, Pac-12 basketball is at bottom of power hierarchy

Arizona and Utah look like the teams to beat in Pac-12 basketball

It was there for the taking. After years of the Pac-12 Conference toiling at the bottom of the power league hierarchy, and six seasons without a Final Four bid, respectability was in reach.

The conference appeared deep enough and its schedule strong enough to offer some quality victories. And now that the nonconference season is over?

Status quo has held.

There were a few banner victories. Arizona defeated Gonzaga in overtime. Utah defeated Wichita State, Stanford beat Texas and Washington got past Oklahoma.

But that was it. Pac-12 teams have a 4-11 record against teams currently in the Associated Press top 25. Heading into conference play, basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy rates the Pac-12 last among the power conferences, a step back from the previous two seasons.

The conference dynamics haven't shifted dramatically, either. Despite its first nonconference loss in 40 games, Arizona is still "the clear favorite," Arizona State Coach Herb Sendek said.

Here's a look at how the conference is shaping up as league play begins Friday:

The favorites

Utah Coach Larry Krystkowiak is fond of questioning his intelligence. Before the season, he wondered aloud whether he might be dumb for drastically upgrading the Utes' schedule.

Asked whether he thought his team could win the Pac-12 title, Krystkowiak was emphatic — "Heck yeah," he said — but then hedged.

"I'm maybe not the most intelligent guy," he said.

Krystkowiak looks smart so far. He has guided the No. 10 Utes to a 10-2 record. He unearthed a freshman gem in Jakob Poeltl, a 7-footer from Austria. And now he has a healthy Jordan Loveridge, who returns just in time after sitting out a month because of a knee injury. Loveridge, a junior forward, averaged 14.7 points per game last season and led the team with an average of 7.0 rebounds.

Utah may be the only Pac-12 team talented enough to challenge No. 8 Arizona.

Arizona Coach Sean Miller already expects that Stanley Johnson, a freshman out of Santa Ana Mater Dei, will leave for the NBA after one season. Johnson leads the team with averages of 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.

Arizona started 12-0 but was defeated by Nevada Las Vegas, the only team to score 70 points against the Wildcats.

The question marks

Before UCLA embarked on perhaps the toughest nonconference schedule in the Pac-12, Coach Steve Alford remarked that the Bruins could play really well and still lose against more talented teams.

Turns out, Alford was right about the losing part — UCLA (8-5) has dropped three games in a row. But against those top teams, the Bruins have yet to test the other half of Alford's theory. Especially in the first halves of games, UCLA has looked lost offensively.

Without a signature victory, UCLA is under pressure in conference play. Last season, all six of the Pac-12's NCAA tournament teams finished with a record of 10-8 or better during conference play, and all had more quality victories early on.

"We're going to have to learn very quickly," Alford said.

UCLA has "about as difficult a road trip as we could ask for starting league play," Alford said, referring to games at Utah and Colorado.

Colorado had been tabbed as a rising team in the conference, but has lost to Hawaii, Wyoming and George Washington.

As the Buffaloes and Bruins tumbled, Washington surged to an 11-0 record before losing to Stony Brook. The Huskies are ranked No. 21, but little may separate them from California, Oregon, Stanford and Arizona State.

The rest

After opening the season with three losses in five games, USC (8-4) has won six of its last seven, including at New Mexico and at Boston College.

Freshman Jordan McLaughlin has demonstrated command of the offense, and is averaging team highs of 13.3 points and 5.2 assists per game. The next step for him and the Trojans, Coach Andy Enfield said, is consistency.

But the Trojans are showing signs of life. They have fewer losses than UCLA, albeit with a decidedly more forgiving schedule.

If USC can find consistency in the conference season, it might be able to fight its way into the middle of the Pac-12 pack. More likely, the Trojans will battle Oregon State and Washington State to stay out of the conference basement.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

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