Entering the season, the Pac-12 looked like UCLA’s to lose. The Bruins returned nearly everyone from a season ago, when Mick Cronin took his squad from the play-in game all the way to the Final Four.
If it weren’t for Jalen Suggs’ half-court buzzer-beating dagger, UCLA may have even had a shot at the championship.
Instead, the headliner of the conference has been Arizona in year one of the Tommy Lloyd era. The No. 6 Wildcats have surprised many en route to a 11-1 start that includes an 18-point drubbing of Michigan and a second-half comeback against Illinois.
Let’s break down the Pac-12, looking at futures and players to watch with the thick of conference play just one week away.
Best Conference Futures (Odds Via DraftKings)
Somehow, the Wildcats are not favorites over UCLA yet. This is a team that has not only taken down Big Ten powerhouse Illinois on the road, but obliterated Michigan under the national spotlight.
Don’t look too deep into the loss to Tennessee — Christian Koloko and Azuolas Tubelis were essentially taken out of the game with the amount of fouls called during Wednesday night’s showdown.
Lloyd made his way over from Gonzaga, and the fast-paced, efficient offense he brought over hasn’t missed a beat. The Wildcats love to run — they rank fourth in tempo — and are the 14th-most efficient offense, per KenPom.
Not only that, but Arizona assists on 65% of its field goals. The Wildcats play such an unselfish style of offense and have only scored less than 80 points in one game this season.
The Wildcats are also the second-tallest team in the country — their shortest player is 6-foot-3 point guard Kerr Kriisa — and they often exploit their opponents in the paint. Koloko and Tubelis hold down the fort in the low post and both shoot over 63% on 2-point field goals.
This team is not to be taken lightly. They’re athletic and they run-and-gun on offense. And I have yet to touch on their elite defense. They rank first in 2-point defense and eighth in eFG%.
To have even a shot at beating this Wildcats team, you need to light it up from beyond the arc — because if you attack the paint, there’s 6-foot-11 Tubelis, 7-foot-1 Koloko and others waiting to do what they do best: disrupt shots.
Arizona should be the obvious favorite in this conference, and there’s no slowing them down.
Another team off to a hot start is Andy Enfield’s USC Trojans, who did not stumble like expected with the departures of Evan Mobley and Tahj Eaddy.
The Trojans have been nothing short of a well-oiled machine. They are a perfect 12-0, with a blowout win against San Diego State, a road win against Pac-12 foe Washington State and double-digit wins against both Utah and Georgia Tech.
Much like conference foe Arizona, USC’s best asset is its length. The Trojans are the third-tallest team in the country and can deploy a rotation that includes four players at 6-foot-9 or taller at any given time.
They boast an elite defense that ranks fourth in 2-point defense and third in eFG%. They don’t force many turnovers, rather they use their athleticism and length to create uncomfortable looks for their opponents.
Isaiah Mobley has stepped up in a big way since his brother’s departure. He’s averaging a near-double-double (15 points and 9.6 rebounds per game) and has a great 3-point stroke.
Stretching the floor allows for Chevez Goodwin, Drew Peterson and others to attack inside and use their height advantage to create strong looks.
USC does not turn the ball over often on offense and is effective from both beyond the arc and inside the paint. The team’s sole weakness is free-throw shooting, where it connects at a 58.4% rate.
At +500 and a perfect 2-0 record in Pac-12 play thus far, the Trojans are worth a look. They aren’t quite the brute that Arizona is, but they have the potential to beat any team in this conference and could very well take home the regular-season title.
Players to Watch in Pac-12
The star of UCLA’s Cinderella run in the NCAA Tournament last season, Juzang, opted to return for his junior season and picked up right where he left off.
Juzang leads the Bruins in scoring — 16.6 points per game — and takes over 30% of the team’s shots when on the floor. It’s only been nine games, but his 3-point shooting, rebounding and assists numbers have all increased from a season ago.
Because of his offensive abilities, Juzang opens up the floor for the rest of the UCLA offense to play off of him.
To put it simply, if there’s one player you should stop and watch in the Pac-12, it’s the 6-foot-7 Juzang. There’s a reason why he entered the season as one of the favorites for the Wooden Award.
Mobley has been the steady hand and key cog in USC’s dominance during non-conference play.
The 6-foot-10 Mobley is a fantastic rebounder and is as versatile as it gets for bigs in college basketball. He can step out on the perimeter and knock down 3s just as easily as he can create second-chance opportunities on the glass. Not to mention he averages nearly three assists per game, too.
Even though he’s not the shot-blocking monster his brother was, Mobley holds his own on defense. He is extremely disciplined and doesn’t foul. He boxes out and rebounds at an efficient rate and deters the opposition from attacking.
It seems like USC will go as Mobley goes. And so far, the foot has been on the gas pedal.
I nearly went with Koloko — because he’s become one of the best shot blockers in college basketball — but his performance against Tennessee was brutal.
Instead I’ll highlight another player, the best player on the floor in that primetime matchup: Mathurin.
The sophomore year leap Mathurin has made has been nothing short of incredible during non-conference play. He dropped 30 points in the comeback win against Illinois, 28 against the Vols and has been the most efficient scorer on this Wildcats roster.
I’ve been really impressed with what I’ve seen from the second-year guard, who leads the Wildcats with 17.4 points per game. He’s shooting 38.5% from 3 and an even better 58.9% from inside the arc. Not to mention he grabs 6.5 rebounds per game.
It seems like in every big game, Mathurin shows up. He’s the go-to scorer for Arizona and that shouldn’t change anytime soon. If Arizona is going to make a run in the NCAA Tournament — and it sure seems like it has the potential to — Mathurin will be a huge reason why.
Conference Play Look Ahead
Arizona vs. UCLA
I wish this game happened later in Pac-12 play but why not start with the most exciting matchup. Arizona travels to UCLA fresh off of its first loss of the season in what should be an exciting, fast-paced matchup.
Both teams rank inside the top 15 in offensive efficiency and they do not turn the ball over. I am looking forward to the head-to-head matchup of Juzang and Mathurin, the two stars of the Pac-12 thus far.
KenPom currently projects this game in favor of UCLA by three, but I think this is a spot where Arizona will be a live underdog. That Tennessee game definitely provided a wake up call for the Wildcats, and they have a clear height advantage in this conference bout.
For UCLA to keep it close, it’ll have to keep up its hot shooting. But I think the Bruins are due for some slight regression — 39% is tough for any team to continue.
I’ll be looking to back Arizona on the road here, depending on the opening line.
Arizona vs. USC
If you want to know what the road of death is like, look no further than Arizona. The Wildcats have three straight road games against top-25 teams, including two conference powerhouses. Their last tough test before their schedule lightens comes after the new year against USC.
This game will be a fun one, as two of the three tallest teams in the country meet. I’m excited to see how Lloyd decides to defend Mobley — whether he uses Tubelis and keeps Koloko in the paint, or vice versa.
KenPom projects a one-point victory for USC and to me, this is likely a stay away game. The under may be worth a look because of the length inside, which should disrupt offensive flow at times.
USC needs to start out strong to beat the Wildcats, and it’ll have the home crowd behind it. This game may be worth a live bet if one team starts out hot.
This showdown should ultimately come down to the wire and be a one- or two-possession game.