Nick Johnson against San Diego State

Nick Johnson and the Arizona Wildcats will try to hold onto their high ranking.
Photo by Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports

The start of the Pac-12 basketball conference season is here.

Teams will no longer be able to hide behind light schedules. Everybody has to leave the comforts of home. Familiarity will narrow the talent gaps and whoever emerges as league champion 18 games from now will have earned it.

The conference-favorite Arizona Wildcats take the next step in a season of great potential against the team that ended last year’s dream.

This Week in the Pac-12 (TWit-Pac) has your first hoops TV schedule (all times Arizona/Mountain):

Date Away Home Time TV
Thu Jan 3 Colorado ARIZONA 6 p.m. ESPNU
  Stanford USC 8 p.m. ESPNU
  Cal UCLA 9 p.m. FSN
Sat Jan 5 Stanford UCLA 1 p.m. P12N
  Utah ARIZONA 3 p.m. P12N
  Washington WSU 7:30 p.m. ESPNU
  Cal USC 9 p.m. FSN
Sun Jan 6 Colorado ASU 6 p.m. P12N
  Oregon OSU 8 p.m. FSN

Who is exceeding expectations so far this year and who is already looking toward next year? Here are the Pac-12 teams in the order they were picked in the preseason media poll:

Arizona (12-0)
Where were they picked? 1
How’s that looking now? So far, so good.
The goal was to win the conference even before the Cats posted an undefeated non-conference record. Now the goal is to win the Pac and then some.

UCLA (10-3)
Where were they picked? 2
How’s that looking now? Better than a month ago.
The Bruins had that staggering loss to Cal Poly but they’ve won their last five including an impressive OT victory over top-10 Mizzou. Speaking of drastic changes, who would’ve thought two months ago that between L.A.’s two marquee college programs, USC football would be in worse shape than UCLA basketball?

Cal (8-4)
Where were they picked? 3
How’s that looking now? On the high side.
California cupcaked itself to a 6-0 start but has lost four of six since including an unflattering home loss to Harvard. In that game the Pac-12’s leading scorer, Allen Crabbe, scored 27 of Cal’s 62 points.

Stanford (9-4)
Where were they picked? 4
How’s that looking now? Don’t hold your breath.
The Cardinal is 8-1 against the little guys and 1-3 against teams from BCS leagues. The big-guy win (against Northwestern) does not make up for the little-guy loss (to Belmont).

Washington (8-5)
Where were they picked? 5
How’s that looking now? O-ver-ra-ted.
The Dawg Pack has lost its bite as the Huskies already have three home losses. It looks like a step back for the last year’s regular season champs.

Colorado (10-2)
Where were they picked? 6
How’s that looking now? Disrespectful.
The Buffaloes won the Pac-12 tournament in their first try last year and were victorious in the opening round of March Madness. They have a win over a decent Baylor team and they’ve played the fewest home games in the conference so they’ve been tested more than others. They don’t get to ease into the conference schedule though as they have the toughest game right out of the gate.

Oregon (11-2)
Where were they picked? 7
How’s that looking now? Lowish.
Oregon has played two road games – a strong win at UNLV and a bad loss at UTEP – but they’ve taken care of business at home (10-0). That could come into play in the conference race as the Ducks face Arizona next weekend in Eugene but don’t make a return trip to Tucson.

Oregon State (10-3)
Where were they picked? 8
How’s that looking now? Not too shabby.
The Beavers have shown they are scrappy enough to hang with Kansas (only lost by six in KC) but scrappy-minus-S enough to lose to a 4-8 Towson team at home.

USC (5-8)
Where were they picked? 9
How’s that looking now? Way too optimistic.
The Trojans have the only losing record in the Pac-12 and they haven’t looked good doing it, averaging a conference-worst 62.6 points per game.

Washington State (9-4)
Where were they picked? 10
How’s that looking now? Probably about right.
Like Stanford, Wazzu has built up wins against small-timers (9-1) while struggling against the power-conferences-plus-Gonzaga (0-3). They do have a Player of the Year candidate in senior big man Brock Motum who is averaging 19 and 7 from Down Under.

Arizona State (12-2 / 1-0)
Where were they picked? 11
How’s that looking now? Well, they’re not last.
The Devils won the first conference game Wednesday night so they aren’t the worst team in the league. Other than that all we know at this point is Herb Sendek still schedules like a mid-minor.

Utah (8-5 / 0-1)
Where were they picked? 12
How’s that looking now? Maybe one rung too low.
Utah only lost by one in overtime at ASU so there’s hope for 11th place yet.

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Looking at the conference statistics Arizona doesn’t have a single player in the top 10 in scoring, rebounding or assists. Winning without superstars is the ultimate team ball.

Based on the RPI Colorado is the Cats’ toughest remaining home game. History tells us there will be challenges all throughout the conference season but the UA doesn’t have the luxury of any warm-up games. Arizona can’t afford a Honolulu (plus a week off) hangover.

Big game tonight. Because they’re all big games from here on out.

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Scott Terrell is excited about the return of old rivalries. Live the hoops on Twitter and Facebook.