University of Washington

The Huskies open the Pac-12 basketball season on Friday. Here are four key questions

Huskies basketball coach Mike Hopkins goes over strategy with guards David Crisp, left, and Jaylen Nowell. UW opens Pac-12 play on Friday at USC.
Huskies basketball coach Mike Hopkins goes over strategy with guards David Crisp, left, and Jaylen Nowell. UW opens Pac-12 play on Friday at USC. joshua.bessex@gateline.com

The Pac-12 opens conference play Friday and with it comes a road map to determine who’s for real, who’s a pretender and who’s on the verge.

There’s also trying to figure out what does it all mean for Washington (10-3) and its first-year basketball coach Mike Hopkins.

Let’s find out.

AND THE FAVORITES ARE?

Try No. 3 Arizona State (12-0) and No. 17 Arizona (10-3) for starters. ASU and Arizona are the only Pac-12 schools ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 Poll going into conference play.

ASU’s hot start has people trying to search for a weakness and so far, there hasn’t been many. The Sun Devils have wins over ranked opponents in Kansas and Xavier. They also beat San Diego State, which upset Gonzaga. Kansas State (10-2) is the only team to come within five points and even then, it still lost by two points.

The neighbors to the south have won seven in a row including a win over ranked Texas A&M. Arizona went through a three-game slide with losses to then-No. 18 Purdue among others. Not to mention, the Wildcats might have the best player in America with freshman center DeAndre Ayton.

We’ll know more Saturday when the Sun Devils and Wildcats open Pac-12 play against each other.

It might not matter given how UCLA (9-3) has played of late. The Bruins grabbed a win over No. 7 Kentucky and those three losses to Creighton, Cincinnati and Michigan are understandable. Those three teams are a combined 32-7.

Oregon (10-3) has an aesthetically pleasing record but losses to Boise State (10-2) and Oklahoma (10-1) show it struggles against winning teams.

UW makes a case too. The win over Kansas helped but the blowout loss to Gonzaga showed the Huskies aren’t a finished product.

Another team to consider is Utah (8-3) given the Utes are among the better defensive teams. Utah’s three losses — Butler, BYU and UNLV — came to teams with a combined 33-7.

From here, it’s gets difficult. There’s a logjam of five teams with records above .500 but they all come with the caveat of either having bad losses or not having a strong, non-conference win.

WHO ARE THE TOP PLAYERS?

Ayton. Ayton. Ayton. Know that name. Sports Illustrated projects him to go first in the NBA Draft while CBS has him going third. He’s averaging 19.5 points and 11.4 rebounds while shooting nearly 62 percent from the field for Arizona.

UCLA small forward Kris Wilkes is another player who could get some first-round buzz. He’s averaging 12.3 points and 5.8 rebounds. Wilkes is one of five Bruins averaging more than 10 points.

USC power forward Chimezie Metu is putting up 18.0 points and 7.9 rebounds. He also has the makings of a late-first rounder, per CBS and SI.

Stanford might be in for a long season but having junior forward Reid Travis helps. The 6-foot-8 Minnesotan leads all Pac-12 scorers with 21.4 points.

FINALLY, WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR UW?

It’s not far-fetched to suggest the Huskies could finish in the Top 6 of the conference.

UW can stay with elite teams if it follows the game plan set up by Hopkins and his staff. The Huskies have an established post presence with Noah Dickerson, a star scorer in Jaylen Nowell and a strong supporting cast capable of doing several things.

The Huskies finished 2-16 in conference play last year and it appears they should improve that mark in 2017-18.

Ryan S. Clark: @ryan_s_clark

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