Struggling Pac-12 heads into league play

Nonconference season was less than kind to the Pac-12.

Consider the performance of the conference's preseason contenders. Washington and Arizona have struggled to incorporate young players. California was blown out by a combined margin of 56 points in its only two games against ranked teams. Stanford has looked promising, but just lost to Butler at home.

And then there are the Bruins. UCLA was ranked in the preseason and the pick to win the league, but season-opening back-to-back losses to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State -- amid discord and the eventual dismissal of the team's best player, forward Reeves Nelson -- kicked off a 7-5 start that could only be described as a mess.

In other words, 2011-12 looks like another down year for the Pac-12. Why? Count the reasons: NBA defections, recruiting issues, the precipitous decline of Arizona State, the addition of a Utah team having a historically bad season … you name it, the Pac-12 is probably suffering for it.

But there is good news: Conference play begins Thursday. For the next two months, the Pac-12's struggling squads needn't worry about the rest of the country. They need only worry about the rest of the Pac-12. That must be a relief.

Here's a revised look at this league in advance of the opening games:

The favorite: Your guess is as good as mine. Seriously. Before the season started, I would have said UCLA or Washington. Maybe Arizona. Two weeks ago, I would have said Stanford or Cal.

At this point, I'm leaning toward the Bears, if only because they've been the most impressive on both ends of the floor on a per-possession basis. But with the exception of a one-point loss at San Diego State, California has looked downright awful in its only games against top opponents: a 92-53 blowout against Missouri and an 85-68 thrashing at UNLV. The Bears were supposed to benefit from returning so much personnel from last season. But are we sure this team is significantly better than the one that went 18-15 in 2011?

If you needed a testament to this league's overall early struggles, there it is: For now, Cal is (probably) the favorite. But the Pac-12 title chase is as wide-open as ever.

Other contenders: Relative to the struggles of recent seasons, Johnny Dawkins' Stanford team has looked impressive, particularly on the defensive end. If the Cardinal can avoid porous performances like last week's loss to Butler (wherein the offensively bereft Bulldogs dropped 45 points in the second half), this team is sure to make some noise. Highly touted Arizona freshman Josiah Turner has spent much of November and December in coach Sean Miller's doghouse. Zona has struggled in kind, but there have been positive signs mixed in, and all four of the Wildcats' losses have been to good teams. If Turner reaches a fraction of his potential in conference play, this young Arizona squad might deserve to be the favorite.

Washington coach Lorenzo Romar finds himself in a similar situation. His team is stocked with young talent (especially freshman guard Tony Wroten, who has been frustrating and dazzling in equal measure), but it has struggled to build chemistry and cohesion in its 6-5 start. And I wouldn't count out UCLA, which showed some progress in four straight cupcake wins to end the nonconference season. Sure, the Bruins have plenty of problems, but they also have more talent than most of their Pac-12 contemporaries. Can Ben Howland turn this thing around?

Player of the year (so far): In a league of 12 teams, you'd think there'd be at least one player who has stood out from the rest. But -- and I hate to keep dwelling on this -- no Pac-12 player has done that quite yet this season. Perhaps that gets to the heart of this league's struggles in recent seasons; with so many players on NBA rosters (the most of any conference besides the ACC), the talent drain has had a crippling effect. Most conferences, including those with far fewer resources than the Pac-12, can boast at least one player with an outside shot at national POY honors. You won't find that here. It's bad.

In any case, if Cal is able to come through this league, it will likely be due to the steadying presence of guard Allen Crabbe, who has averaged 15.8 points and
5.8 rebounds per game while shooting 45 percent from the field and 45 percent from beyond the arc. Other contenders include Oregon State's Jared Cunningham, Stanford's Josh Owens, Arizona's Solomon Hill and, in the outside-shot department, Washington's Wroten.

Freshman of the year (so far): For now, this award goes to the aforementioned Wroten, the highest-impact freshman -- and there isn't a close second -- in ways both positive and negative this season. (Even so, Wroten must restrain his erratic play if he wants that impact to be more of the former and less of the latter.) Other contenders: Arizona's Nick Johnson, Stanford's Chasson Randle, Washington State's DaVonte Lacy.

Wins to brag about: Oregon State over Texas. Believe it or not, that's it.

Losses that sting: Missouri and UNLV in blowouts over Cal; Butler over Stanford; Florida over Arizona in OT; Idaho over Oregon State; Nevada and South Dakota State over Washington; UC-Riverside over Washington State; Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee over UCLA; Cal Poly over USC; Northern Arizona and Fresno State over Arizona State; and pretty much every one of Utah's nine losses thus far.

Pleasant surprises: Oregon State tops this list, and with good reason. The Beavers have already nearly eclipsed 2011's 11-win season with their 10-2 start, a start that has included consistent scoring from Jared Cunningham and the surprising emergence of sophomore forward Devon Collier. … Washington has struggled, but sophomore forward Terrence Ross has flashed plenty of his much-touted promise, averaging 15.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. … Stanford point guard Aaron Bright has come out of nowhere to capably lead the Cardinal offense during their hot start.

Biggest disappointments: The UCLA mess, including the ugly losses, the bad Maui Invitational performance and the issues caused by Reeves Nelson's subordination, have made Howland's team the most disappointing in the conference with no close second. … Trendy sleeper Oregon has avoided bad losses, but the Ducks have also lost to the only three good teams on their schedule (Vandy, BYU, Virginia). … Arizona State's eight early losses are in part the byproduct of the absence of touted freshman guard Jahii Carson, who was ruled ineligible by the NCAA. … And though no one expected Utah to be a Pac-12 contender in its first season in the league, the depths the Utes have reached thus far -- they're 3-9 and ranked No. 315 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings, with a host of dreadful losses on their résumé -- have been difficult to watch.

Three questions

How many Pac-12 teams can make it to the tournament?
If you've made it this far, you're well aware that this collective suffers from a serious lack of quality nonconference wins, the kind that help the NCAA tournament selection committee separate at-large wheat from chaff. This league's overall RPI has already taken its lumps, and without a clear favorite or at least one team with a big-time win or two on its docket, there won't be many chances to impress the committee. We'll see how everything shakes out in time, but right now, this is looking like a two- or three-bid league. At most.

Can UCLA turn it around?
It's hard to ever call UCLA a sleeper because, well, it's UCLA. But the Bruins struggled so mightily in the first two months of the season that it might be easy to forget that this team still has some talent. If Howland's backcourt shapes up -- and if frequently winded big man Josh Smith can literally shape up -- this team could benefit from a fresh start in league play.

Is Oregon State for real?
There's no question that the Beavers are improved in 2011-12. But by how much? OSU has benefited from a rather forgiving nonconference schedule, with Texas and Vanderbilt as the only truly noteworthy games. This team could be a mirage. It could also be a title contender. We'll see.

Revised predictions

1. Cal: The Bears have struggled against top foes, but they've looked excellent more often than not.
2. Arizona: Sean Miller's team has suffered some growing pains, but if Josiah Turner figures things out, this is arguably the most talented team in the league.

3. Stanford: Johnny Dawkins is the early favorite for coach of the year. If the Cardinal practice the tight defense they used to contain Syracuse in November, they'll be tough to beat on a nightly basis.
4. Washington: The Huskies' early struggles are slightly disconcerting, but there's no denying this team's talent. I'll bet they figure it out.
5. Oregon State: The Beavers have some proving to do, but they're difficult to beat in Corvallis during league play even when they aren't this talented.
6. UCLA: The Bruins have a chance to be a dark-horse team here, but they've yet to give us much evidence of that potential. We'll see.
7. Oregon: The Ducks haven't been impressive, nor have they been awful. Another mid-table finish seems the likeliest outcome.
8. Washington State: Ken Bone's rebuilding project is ongoing, but junior forward Brock Motum will give the Cougars a chance on the low block.
9. USC: The Trojans can really defend. Unfortunately, they can't score. Expect plenty of ugly affairs -- and more than a few losses.
10. Colorado: After a near-miss on the 2011 tourney bubble, coach Tad Boyle is starting at square one in Boulder.
11. Arizona State: Right now, the only thing keeping the Sun Devils out of the Pac-12 cellar is, well, you guessed it.
12. Utah: Larry Krystkowiak might eventually get the Utes out of their new conference's basement, but not this year.

Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog. To contact Eamonn, e-mail collegebasketballnation@gmail.com or reach him on Twitter (@eamonnbrennan).