One year after emerging Oregon officially proclaimed itself a basketball power with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, the Pac-12 conference’s traditional powers have regained control of the conference.
But while the jerseys of the teams at the top of the conference may be familiar, fans only have a short window in which to watch the best players wearing them. The best freshman class since the famed 2007 group (Kevin Love, James Harden, O.J. Mayo) is behind the resurgence of the Pac-12’s prestige programs.
UCLA is ranked No. 2 for the first time since Love’s 2007-08 squad, and once again it’s thanks to a first-year player who might follow Love in winning the conference’s Player of the Year Award.
Actually, the Bruins have two plausible contenders for the honor. While 6-foot-6 guard Lonzo Ball has garnered most of the national attention thanks to his limitless range (13.7 points per game) and Pete Maravich-like passing (8.1 assists per game), fellow freshman T.J. Leaf has been just has productive.
Leaf won Pac-12 Player of the Week honors twice in a three-week span, and is averaging 17.2 points and 8.9 rebounds per game.
Another old money program experiencing a resurgence thanks to flashy new players is No. 18 Arizona. Finnish freshman Lauri Markkanen leads the Wildcats in minutes (32.2), points (16.1) and rebounds (7.3) per game.
The 7-footer’s is also the team’s best 3-point shooter.
With conference play beginning this weekend, the aforementioned programs, the only two current members of the Pac-12 to win national championships in the least 56 years, are currently the class of the conference.
Two other Pac-12 teams are currently ranked in the Associated Press Top-25 poll. One of those teams had a disappointing start to the season but is rounding into form, while the other is surprisingly good.
The Ducks, fresh off an Elite Eight appearance and with a plethora of key returners, were ranked No. 5 at the start of the year. Now they are ranked No. 21 thanks to early losses to Baylor and Georgetown.
But UO responded to the Hoyas loss by beating Tennessee and Connecticut, and have won their last 10 games. That includes a stunning upset of No. 2 UCLA on Wednesday night thanks to a last-second dagger from star guard Dillon Brooks.
Transfers and early entrants to the NBA draft in the offseason hit USC hard, but the No. 22 Trojans are off to their best start since 1971. While a lot of talent left after last season, steady point guard Jordan McLaughlin has an athletic, energetic group of teammates.
USC went 13-0 against a soft nonconference schedule then won a close game against Oregon State.
Speaking of the Beavers, OSU has followed up its first NCAA tournament appearance in decades with a disaster of a season. An injury to Tres Tinkle did not help matters, but cannot be the sole excuse for a stretch in which the Beavers lost nine of 10 games.
And while we’re on the subject of disappointing seasons,and fantastic freshmen, it does not appear that Markelle Fultz is going to be able to save the Huskies, or cool the seat under embattled coach Lorenzo Romar.
Fultz has been fantastic, leading the Pac-12 in scoring with 23 points per game. He and Ball will be competing all year to see who will go No. 1 in the upcoming NBA draft. But UW lost four consecutive games during preseason play, all but sinking the team’s tournament hopes.