Pac-12 MBB projections: UCLA, Arizona heavy favorites to control the conference race

Arizona guard Kerr Kriisa (25) (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

The full force of Pac-12 play begins this week and, for the Hotline, brings the same goal as always: Distinguishing the contenders from pretenders.

Are Arizona State and Utah as good as they looked against non-conference opponents?

Should Oregon be dismissed?

Has USC regressed?

Are Arizona and UCLA light years better than everyone else?

On that last point, we believe an affirmative reality awaits: The Wildcats and Bruins will finish multiple games clear of everyone else in a two-team duel for the regular-season title.

Our predictions are below …

— NET rankings through Monday

— Offensive/defensive efficiency ratings (national) taken from

Coach: Mick Cronin (fourth season)
NET ranking: 6th
Pomeroy offense/defense: 4th/11th
Outlook: A recent East Coast swing that featured double-digit victories over Maryland and Kentucky showed off UCLA’s potential as a Final Four contender. The Bruins rely on their veteran core of Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell, Jaylen Clark and David Singleton and two gifted newcomers in Amari Bailey and Adem Bona. The end result is arguably the best combination of experience, skill and raw athleticism of the Cronin era.

2. Arizona (12-1/1-1)

Coach: Tommy Lloyd (second season)
NET ranking: 7th
Pomeroy offense/defense: 1st/65th
Outlook: Arizona’s fate depends on its ability to impose, and execute, Lloyd’s fluid style of play. Azuolas Tubelis and Omar Ballo form one of the nation’s top frontlines, combining for 37.9 points and 17.8 rebounds. But as with point guard Kerr Kriisa, they must be effective defensively in matchups against athletic opponents. Our coin landed with UCLA’s logo facing up, but the Wildcats are plenty capable of winning the conference for the second-consecutive year.

3. USC (9-4/2-0)

Coach: Andy Enfield (10th season)
NET ranking: 86th
Pomeroy offense/defense: 86th/51st
Outlook: A program that has churned out first-class big men in recent years will rely heavily on its perimeter unit this season. And it’s a good one, with veteran point guard Boogie Ellis and savvy wing Drew Peterson combining for 29.1 points per game. But the Trojans have received tepid production up front, leaving them vulnerable against teams that can defend Ellis and Peterson. USC could finish third, or drop all the way to the middle of the pack.

4. Arizona State (11-2/2-0)

Coach: Bobby Hurley (eighth season)
NET ranking: 43rd
Pomeroy offense/defense: 102nd/32nd
Outlook: One of the early-season surprises crashed before Christmas with a blowout loss at San Francisco that underscored ASU’s thin margin for error. The Sun Devils are as guard-heavy as it gets with DJ Horne, Frankie Collins and Devan and Desmond Cambridge surrounding 7-footer Warren Washington in the middle. The New Year’s Eve duel with Arizona will tell us plenty about ASU’s legitimacy as a contender.

5. Colorado (8-5/0-2)

Coach: Tad Boyle (13th season)
NET ranking: 62nd
Pomeroy offense/defense: 59th/50th
Outlook: What should we make of a team that lost to Grambling and UMass but beat Tennessee and Texas A&M? Exactly that: The Buffaloes are as unpredictable as their main motors, point guard K.J. Simpson and forward Tristan da Silva, who combine for 31.2 points per game but have produced some clunkers. Colorado’s success through the grind of conference play depends on the emergence of a third option.

6. Oregon (7-6/1-1)

Coach: Dana Altman (13th season)
NET ranking: 71st
Pomeroy offense/defense: 46th/55th
Outlook: There are indisputable signs of slippage in Eugene, where Altman’s program can no longer be considered a lock to challenge for the Pac-12 title or qualify for the NCAA Tournament. The Ducks are once again playing from behind in that regard after confounding losses to UC Irvine and Utah Valley. The frontcourt is huge and talented, but Oregon’s fate depends on the not-so-steady hand of point guard Will Richardson and several erratic wings.

7. Utah (10-3/2-0)

Coach: Craig Smith (second season)
NET ranking: 42nd
Pomeroy offense/defense: 83rd/33rd
Outlook: The Utes are the most improved team in the conference, vaulting from dreadful to mediocre — a perfectly reasonable trajectory for Year Two under Smith. Big man Branden Carlson is a Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate while wing Gabe Madsen has improved immensely. We aren’t convinced the early success, which included a victory over Arizona, will continue. But Utah’s floor isn’t nearly as low as it was last season.

8. Stanford (5-7/0-2)

Coach: Jerod Haase (seventh season)
NET ranking: 101st
Pomeroy offense/defense: 103rd/47th
Outlook: The more things don’t change, the more they stay the same. Haase’s seventh year looks a lot like his first six, with Stanford playing reasonable defense but underachieving on offense. (Forwards Spencer Jones and Harrison Ingram are shooting less than 30 percent from 3-point range.) Look for the Cardinal to collect a few quality wins, produce a few unseemly losses and, once again, plod along to a mid-level finish.

9. Washington State (5-8/0-2)

Coach: Kyle Smith (fourth season)
NET ranking: 94th
Pomeroy offense/defense: 90th/70th
Outlook: WSU will be hard-pressed to continue its yearly improvement under Smith after heavy offseason attrition. The tandem of guard TJ Bamba and forward Mouhamed Gueye leads the way (30.3 points per game, combined), but the rest of the rotation is unproven. The Cougars lost close games to Baylor and UNLV and not-as-close games to Prairie View A&M and Hawaii. Few teams have a wider range of possible finishes. Admittedly, this spot could be low.

10. Washington (9-4/1-1)

Coach: Mike Hopkins (sixth season)
NET ranking: 117th
Pomeroy offense/defense: 150th/72nd
Outlook: The promising start to a crucial season for Hopkins includes wins over Saint Mary’s and Colorado. To land somewhere in the middle of the conference race, UW needs Kentucky transfer Keion Brooks to fill the playmaker role that Arizona transfer Terrell Brown occupied last season. Until a second option steps forward consistently — wing Cole Bajema is the top candidate — the Huskies will continue in their state of purgatory.

11. Oregon State (7-6/1-1)

Coach: Wayne Tinkle (eighth season)
NET ranking: 222nd
Pomeroy offense/defense: 269th/145th
Outlook: The Beavers have more than doubled their overall victory total from last season (three) and should improve on their 1-19 mark in league play. (Thanks to the win over Washington, they can’t be worse.) The degree of advancement appears limited due to a roster loaded with freshmen and sophomores and lacking elite playmakers. Rookie guard Jordan Pope is averaging 13.5 points. How will he manage the mid-season grind? We aren’t optimistic.

12. Cal (1-12/0-2)

Coach: Mark Fox (fourth season)
NET ranking: 319th
Pomeroy offense/defense: 302nd/156th
Outlook: It’s as bleak as bleak gets in Berkeley, where the Bears have lost to the likes of UC Davis, Southern, Texas State and Eastern Washington. Devin Askew, the former blue-chip prospect who made prior stops at Texas and Kentucky, is averaging 16.9 points and is responsible for an outsized portion of Cal’s offense. The stained and battered resume is a potential plague on every Pac-12 house. Lose to the Bears, and watch your NET ranking crater.

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