Pac-12 basketball preview: It should be an entertaining conference race … for second place

It’s far too early to place full faith in the NET rankings — they list San Diego State as the No. 1 team in the land — but the primary evaluation tool used by the NCAA selection committee is accurate in one regard for the Pac-12:

Oregon’s superiority.

The Ducks, who beat Memphis, Michigan and Seton Hall, are No. 10 in the latest rankings — the only Pac-12 team in the top 16 and comfortably ahead of their competition.

Arizona is next (20th), followed by Stanford (21st).

Overall, the Pac-12’s position in the NET suggests a high probability of four or five at-large bids, but we see only one team, Oregon, with a resume worthy of a top-four seed.

The Hotline believes a similar division could play out in the conference race:

Don’t be surprised if the Ducks win the conference by two or three games and lock up the No. 1 seed in the Pac-12 tournament by late February.

For the order-of-finish projections below — they’re doubling as the power ratings this week — we spent far more time pondering the pick for second place.

1. Oregon (11-2)

Next up: at Colorado (Thursday)
Comment: If the Ducks sweep the Mountain trip, which stacks up as the toughest in the conference, we’ll be tempted to call the race over by Saturday night. (Their road miss, if you’re curious, is the L.A. trip.)

2. Colorado (11-2)

Next up: vs. Oregon (Thursday)
Comment: For the Buffaloes to push Oregon to the finish — both tonight and for the next two months — a reliable perimeter scorer not named McKinley Wright must emerge. D’Shawn Schwartz (20 points vs. Dayton) is the current frontrunner for that role.

3. Washington (10-3)

Next up: vs. UCLA (Thursday)
Comment: Combination of high-end talent and low-end experience creates a range of outcomes for the Huskies — not only over the course of the season but week-to-week (even half-to-half). Best case scenario: The highs and lows become highs and middles by the second half of February.

4. Arizona (10-3)

Next up: vs. Arizona State (Saturday)
Comment: Same outlook as Washington, with the potential for lower lows based on what we’ve seen from the Wildcats away from home.

5. USC (11-2)

Next up: at Washington State (Thursday)
Comment: Impressed as we are with freshman big man Onyeka Okongwu — he’s in the same class as UW’s Isaiah Stewart — skepticism remains about the surrounding pieces and USC’s ability to execute consistently in the final minutes of close games.

6. Utah (9-3)

Next up: vs. Oregon State (Thursday)
Comment: The final two non-conference games (upset of Kentucky, bad loss to San Diego State) provide the framework for the conference season: When they’re right, the Utes can beat anyone. And when they’re not …

7. Stanford (11-2)

Next up: vs. Cal (Thursday)
Comment: Better than expected in non-conference play, except in the two matchups against top-tier opponents (Butler and Kansas). In those games: Exactly as expected. The outlook for conference play: What you would expect.

8. Arizona State (9-4)

Next up: at Arizona (Saturday)
Comment: Sun Devils draw the dreaded road back-to-back-to-back opening with trips to Tucson, Corvallis and Eugene. Then they host the Mountain schools and Arizona for the toughest first month any team will face. How deep in the pack will they be when February arrives?

9. Oregon State (10-2)

Next up: at Utah (Thursday)
Comment: Assume the Beavers are a three-man team (Tres Tinkle, Ethan Thompson and Kylor Kelley) until proven otherwise. The non-conference schedule provided little clarity on the rest of the rotation, and thus the rest of the season.

10. UCLA (7-6)

Next up: at Washington (Thursday)
Comment: The most disappointing team thus far, by a wide margin. We never would have guessed a Mick Cronin team would be 199th in adjusted defensive efficiency (per Pomeroy ratings). Nonetheless, we have a funny feeling about tonight’s affair in Seattle.

11. Washington State (9-4)

Next up: vs. USC (Thursday)
Comment: Cougars have quietly won six in a row and shown just enough to expect three or four conference wins. But the gap between the top 10 and the bottom two looks as large as it was last year.

12. Cal (6-7)

Next up: at Stanford (Thursday)
Comment: No horrific losses in non-conference play, but no signs of an offense that’s capable of functioning effectively for 18 games. If the Bears win four, consider us surprised.

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Pac-12 basketball preview: It should be an entertaining conference race … for second place