The start of the season has a familiar feel for Arizona, which will hope for a different ending.
The Wildcats went undefeated in nonconference play for the second year in a row, and they take a 14-0 record into their Pac-12 Conference opener tonight when Washington State visits Tucson. Last year, Arizona was 12-0 heading into conference play and then went 12-6 to finish tied for second place.
Arizona coach Sean Miller switched his scheduling this year to give the Wildcats a 10-day break before the start of Pac-12 play.
"Last year we were in Hawaii and played on Christmas, and it was almost like we didn't have a true break to begin conference," Miller said. "Our practices were not very good when we got back and we were feeling good about ourselves and underestimating how difficult it is to compete in the Pac-12.
"We were not at our best early in conference and it took us a while to get things going. This year, we have a team in large part that went through that experience last year and they are more prepared and understand how difficult it is to win in this conference."
That's a common feeling among coaches after the conference went 119-32 in nonconference games. Every team has a winning record entering conference play.
"The league is as good as it has been, certainly since we have been part of it the last three years," Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. "The middle of the pack and lower end are much improved. The top end is still as good as it usually is, year in and year out. The top two or three teams are always solid and when you get into the 5-6-7 range, there are some good teams and good coaches. It will be a heck of a race."
Arizona is not just the conference favorite, but the No. 1 team in the nation for the past four weeks. Oregon is No. 10 in the Associated Press poll and Colorado is No. 20.
"It's going to be an exciting 10 weeks or so leading up to Vegas," Miller said, referring to the conference tournament. "Anywhere from five to seven teams are talking now about making it to the NCAA Tournament. The depth of the conference has never been better since I have been at Arizona. Every game is a real test."
The Wildcats, who were tested in wins against No. 7 Duke and No. 21 San Diego State, return three starters including junior guard Nick Johnson, who averages 16 points per game. Sophomore forward Brandon Ashley and center Kaleb Tarczewski are returning starters averaging 12.5 and 10.1 points per game, respectively.
Six-foot-8 forward Aaron Gordon is one of the top freshmen in the country, averaging 12.5 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.
"Aaron has a lot of expectations placed on him, and deservedly so," Miller said. "The greatest gift Aaron has is what a great teammate he is and how hard he works. He does what we ask him to do and isn't caught up in his own world. He rebounds well, is an incredible passer for his size and can defend multiple types of players."
Gordon has helped Arizona's defense allow 56.7 points per game, fewest in the conference, while limiting opponents to 37.2 percent shooting from the field.
"We have a team that has committed to that side of the ball," Miller said. "I think sometimes in our conference there are so many great players and teams scoring at a very high level, the separator will be what team on a given night can win when the ball is not going into the basket."
Oregon added seven transfers and had two players suspended for the first nine games of the season, but is 12-0 and leading the nation in scoring at 90.8 points per game.
"I really didn't know how we would start, how it would all come together," Oregon coach Dana Altman said. "We have a lot of new guys, and I wasn't sure how things would all blend together, but they have blended together well. I hope we can keep moving in a positive direction."
Colorado has four returning starters, including junior Spencer Dinwiddie, an all-conference guard. Boyle has five freshmen in his 10-man rotation that has the Buffaloes 11-2 with a win over Kansas and losses to Oklahoma State and Baylor, who are both ranked in the top 10.
"We feel good about the fact we don't have any bad losses, two losses to ranked teams on a neutral court, and we've got a couple nice wins." Boyle said.
"Our schedule was very good and we managed it about as well as we could have expected going in."
Colorado has reached the NCAA Tournament during both of its seasons in the Pac-12 and was one of five teams from the conference to reach the tournament last year. That's a number that some analysts around the country expect to increase this year.
"The conference is tougher, even for those guys at the top, and that makes it tougher for us, but it also gives us an opportunity," Oregon State coach Craig Robinson said. "You get more opportunities to get some of those showcase-type wins against ranked competition. It makes it hard, but it is a good hard."