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Arizona basketball: Wildcats emerge as the favorite to win the Pac-12

With Trier back, the Wildcats are the best team in the conference and have a favorable schedule

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at UCLA Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Before the Arizona Wildcats even played a game this season, they were hit with a rather unfortunate sequence of events.

Let’s go down the list:

  • Five-star recruit Terrance Ferguson decided to play overseas instead on enrolling at the UA.
  • Former five-star recruit Ray Smith tore his ACL for the second time in as many years.
  • Lipscomb transfer Talbott Denny suffered a season-ending knee injury of his own.
  • Leading returning scorer Allonzo Trier was handed an indefinite suspension after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

Just like that, Arizona lost four scholarship players.

Then, a few weeks after the season began, starting point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright suffered a high ankle sprain that would leave Arizona with just seven scholarship players for a month.

But the Wildcats weathered the storm.

Jackson-Cartwright came back just in time for Pac-12 play and then Trier’s suspension unexpectedly came to a close just before a heavyweight matchup with the No. 3 UCLA Bruins.

With nine scholarship players in the mix, the Wildcats were able to outlast the Bruins and their relentless transition offense in Westwood.

Now, Arizona has an 18-2 record, including an unblemished 7-0 Pac-12 record, tied with the Oregon Ducks atop the conference standings (meanwhile UCLA’s chances of winning the Pac-12 have faded significantly, seeing that it already has two losses).

And when you take a look at the entire picture moving forward, the odds are in the Wildcats’ favor to outpace the Ducks to win the conference.

Here is why:

Arizona is the best team in the conference

Even when you take into account the fact Trier has only suited up in one game for the Wildcats, they are already superior to the Ducks who are without their best player in Dillon Brooks in their own right. Brooks is currently sidelined with a sprained foot.

Taking a look at the graphic above, you can see that Arizona ranks as the No. 11 team in college basketball, according to basketball analytics website, while Oregon is No. 21. UCLA ranks 15th, but the Bruins already have two losses, presumably putting them out of the Pac-12 title race unless they win out.

Comparing Arizona and Oregon, the Wildcats rank as a more efficient offensive team, while being nearly identical to the Ducks as a defensive team. Oregon does a better job of forcing and limiting turnovers, but the Wildcats are better at controlling the glass.

Arizona has an easier schedule

Not only is Arizona a better team than Oregon at the moment, it has a more favorable schedule, too.

After doing the math, the remaining opponents on Oregon’s schedule have an average KenPom ranking of 81. For Arizona, that number is substantially higher at 126.

The reason? Oregon still has to play the Rocky Mountain schools — Utah and Colorado — twice, while Arizona gets to play the Washington schools twice. Utah (35) and Colorado (81) are much higher ranked, per KenPom, than Washington (143) and Washington State (216).

Meanwhile, the Wildcats do not travel to Salt Lake City or Boulder this season which can be difficult places to play. Oregon does not have that benefit.

Both Arizona and Oregon still have to play the L.A. schools one more time, but the Wildcats get to face them at home, while the Ducks have to face them on the road.

Relatedly, Oregon has seven road games remaining; Arizona has five.

The one advantage the Ducks do have is that the lone matchup between Oregon and Arizona this season takes place in Eugene. Arizona may rank as the better team, but beating Oregon on its home floor will be a tall task. The Ducks have not lost at home since the 2014-15 season (when Arizona beat them, coincidentally).

KenPom projects the Wildcats will lose in Eugene, but still win the conference, finishing 16-2 in the Pac-12. The Ducks are projected to finish 15-3 (UCLA is projected to finish 14-4).

Of course, these things can change depending on injuries, suspensions, or other unforeseen events. Not to mention that projections are one thing, and actually playing the games is another.

Still, after getting Trier back and coming away with a big win in Westwood, Arizona now sits as the favorite to win the Pac-12.

Considering where the Wildcats were just a short time ago (remember when Sean Miller couldn’t even name who UA’s eighth man was?), it’s pretty remarkable.

You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire