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Arizona, Arizona State looking competitive after first few weeks

(AP photos)

Before the season, Oregon was billed the clear-cut favorite to win the Pac-12.

A strong core of returners, impressive newcomers and a wise leader in Dana Altman made some believe the Ducks are ready to compete for a national title. Now a few weeks into the season, that is still a definite possibility, but the race to March could be tougher than previously assumed.

This is partly because of Arizona and Arizona State.

Both teams were written off by some because of their respective key losses. For Arizona, it was the departures of Deandre Ayton, Rawle Alkins and Allonzo Trier. For the Sun Devils, it was the loss of their three leading scorers: Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice.

Even with these losses, both teams have shown prowess through the first few weeks of the 2018-19 season. Arizona is 4-2 with a quality win over Iowa State, while ASU is undefeated with wins over Mississippi State and Utah State.

Despite losing to No. 3 Gonzaga and No. 8 Auburn by a combined 33 points, the Wildcats competed much better than the score shows in both of those games. It ultimately came down to second-half runs that made Gonzaga’s and Auburn’s leads insurmountable.

Three of the Wildcats’ wins came against mid-majors in which they had no trouble. Arizona also showed late-game fight and defeated Iowa State, overcoming a 10-point deficit in its Maui Jim Maui Invitational opener.

Sophomore Brandon Randolph leads Arizona in scoring thus far, averaging 17.3 points per game, but it hasn’t been a one-man show. Three others — Justin Coleman, Brandon Williams and Chase Jeter — are averaging double digits.

Just like Arizona, it was hard to know what to expect for Arizona State coming into the season. A highly-anticipated recruiting class entered the program, complementing a solid crew of returners, but there were questions on how long it would take for the Sun Devils to gel.

That hasn’t been a problem thus far; Arizona State is 6-0 and the Pac-12’s last undefeated team for the second year in a row.

The most noteworthy aspect of this year’s squad has absolutely been Luguentz Dort. A former four-star prospect, Dort is averaging 22.3 points per game, which is second in the Pac-12.

It hasn’t just been the “Dort Show,” however. Instead, seven players are averaging at least seven points per game.

This team effort was on full display in Vegas. In the MGM Resorts Main Event, Arizona State defeated Mississippi State and Utah State, clinching the tournament for the Sun Devils. Dort was named tournament MVP while Zylan Cheatham and Remy Martin also made valuable contributions.

Sure, the Sun Devils haven’t hit the bulk of their non-conference schedule, but if the first six games are any indication, ASU may once again be a force in the “Conference of Champions”.

Picked to finish fourth and sixth in the league, respectively, Arizona and Arizona State have shown they may be able to compete for the conference crown. The Pac-12 has been a cluttered mess so far, which could allow for an open race.

Oregon, which was picked to finish first in the Pac-12, has already lost twice, and one of those was to mid-major Texas Southern. UCLA and Washington have both lost twice already.

Only one team, Oregon, is currently ranked in the AP Poll Top 25, and with its most recent loss, the Ducks will likely fall out. Arizona State, on the other hand, has the most receiving votes (156) and will probably appear in next week’s poll.

As far as RPI, Colorado is at the top of the conference at No. 33. Closely behind is Arizona State at No. 39.

Because of two consecutive losses, Arizona isn’t getting much love in the polls or rating systems. But when you look deeper into their first few games, it has been about what was expected of the Wildcats.

Nobody, at least as of right now, appears to be a clear favorite to win the conference. If based solely on the eye test in the early season, the Arizona schools have arguably looked the most impressive.

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