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The Oregon Ducks entered this season with eight new players and a second-year coach. They were fresh off a championship in the College Basketball Invitational, a championship that carries about as much weight as bunny at a hound convention.

When it came time for the prognosticators and experts to dope the Pac-12, they put the Ducks in the middle third — the mediocre third — by ranking them fifth in the official preseason pool.

One ESPN writer at the mid-season mark described coach Dana Altman's Ducks this way:


Four weeks into conference play, however, there may need to be an update. Perhaps:

"Meh goodness, they are better than we thought!"

Now, at the risk of getting carried away with praise for a team that did lose all but five players from that CBI championship team, the Ducks are looking like a prime candidate to win the diluted Pac-12. They entered the week tied for the conference lead with California — one of just two teams to beat the Ducks.

The Ducks are 15-5 (6-2 Pac-12) after a weekend sweep of USC and UCLA, and the only conference team with three Pac-12 road wins. With Pac-12 teams a combined 33-11 at home in conference games, that's significant.

"I think that gives them a leg up on a lot of people," Colorado coach Tad Boyle said Tuesday.

In a conference marred by adversity, the Ducks have had their fair share.

Five-star recruit Jabari Brown bailed on the Ducks after just three games, and guard Bruce Barron also transferred.

Yet, while transfers and dismissals have crippled other programs, the Ducks have kept on cruising. Their two losses, to the Golden Bears and at Washington, are respectable. Two weeks ago the Ducks conducted a road sweep of the Arizona schools — just the second in school history.

How are they doing it?

With a core of veteran players who are good enough to lead the Ducks without leading the conference.

Oregon's best scorer is junior forward E.J. Singler, who whose 12.9 points is 18th-best in the conference. But senior point guard Garrett Sim, one of the conference's most reliable shooters, is right behind him with 12.6.

Senior guard DeVoe Joseph missed the Ducks' first seven games due to transfer rules (he came from Minnesota), but since gaining eligibility has averaged 14.6 points per game.

But the Ducks are not at or, really, even near the top of the conference in any statistical category.

Except wins.

The Ducks' remaining schedule is among the least challenging in the Pac-12. They host a fickle Oregon State team on Sunday, before traveling to Utah and Colorado. Games at Cal and Stanford will be tough, but the Ducks already defeated Stanford once this season.

The team whose CBI championship raised nary an eyebrow may just respond by winning the Pac-12 title.

Even if this is the CBI of major conferences.

Twitter: @oramb