- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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This much Sean Miller knows: His Arizona basketball team is better.
That's not because the Wildcats are 5-0, their best start since 2002 (albeit a hot start with an asterisk considering the level of competition). And it's not because they are shellacking teams, ousting subpar opponents by an average walloping of 30.6 points per game.
It's because they just look better to their second-year coach -- smarter, stronger and more confident.
"There's really no comparison to where we are this year and where we were last year," Miller said.
But there is better and there is good. Which is Arizona?
Are the Wildcats merely a better team than the one that finished 16-15 last season, as Miller tried to add some stability to a program rocked by four coaches in as many years? Or are they a good team, a contender that the ailing Pac-10 can count on to pull the conference out of its self-induced trenches?
We won't officially know until March, but tonight in the Nevada desert, we'll get an idea. The Wildcats face No. 6 Kansas at the Las Vegas Invitational, their first game against real competition and their first game against a top-10 team since the 2008-09 season.
"This is an exciting opportunity for a team like ours," Miller said. "It gives us a chance to see 'What level are we at with our program?'"
The Pac-10 would like it very much if the answer were top-level. The league has already suffered headline-stealing and head-scratching nonconference losses early in the season: USC lost to Rider and Bradley; Oregon State lost to Seattle and Texas Southern; Oregon lost to San Jose State.
It's been an anemic showing for a conference that didn't do much to turn attention out West last year. A win over a ranked opponent, particularly one with the name cachet of Kansas, would be a welcome Band-Aid to stop the bleeding.
But this game ultimately is more about two teams.
League salvation is merely a side benefit.
Kansas, like Arizona, remains a work in progress as it awaits the addition of freshman Josh Selby, who is out until Dec. 18 after the NCAA ruled he received impermissible benefits. But the Jayhawks are a sixth-ranked work in progress, with six regulars returning from a team that finished 33-3. (Selby, by the way, will not be with Kansas, as he's not eligible to travel until he is eligible to compete).
The Jayhawks rank third in the nation in scoring, averaging 93 points per game and haven't exactly been tested. North Texas has been closest to Kansas this year. And that was still 33 points in the Jayhawks' favor.
This will mark the second game for Kansas outside of the comfy confines of Allen Fieldhouse, where they've now won 63 in a row.
A matchup against Arizona marks the jumping-off point of a string of games that will give a better read on what kind of team KU really is. Post-Arizona, the lineup reads UCLA, Memphis and Colorado State; maybe not a murderer's row, but all decent teams.
"I've been happy because we're getting better," coach Bill Self said. "We've made a lot of progress since the season started, especially defensively, and we've scored more easily than I thought we would. But we need a game like this. You look around the country -- a lot of teams have played multiple games of this level. We need one, and after this we get a bunch of them."
Arizona's situation is similar and different at the same time. For Kansas, it is a matter of degree -- are the Jayhawks very good or just good?
For the Wildcats, it's a little more black-and-white, as they try to return from the ashes.
Arizona is a program on the second rung of college basketball's hierarchy, a prideful and successful team that may not have the longevity of the Kansas-North Carolina-Kentucky triumvirate but has a national reputation based on winning.
That stopped last season when the Wildcats failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in 25 years and mustered just one win against a Top 25 opponent (beating then-No. 22 Washington).
The demise of the Wildcats' NCAA tournament streak was a tough pill for Arizona fans to swallow, but almost served as a necessary closing of the Lute Olson Era door.
This is Miller's team now. He has turned heads with an impressive recruiting haul for next season but isn't exactly considering this year a mulligan.
"If you look around, I know people will say it's not even December 1, but there are already a lot of teams putting together what could be really successful seasons," Miller said. "Nothing is decided this early, I know, but you can have really important tests."
Derrick Williams, the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year last season, makes all things possible again for the Wildcats, including a return to the NCAA tournament. The forward, once chided for not being dominant enough, has taken the criticism to heart in the early season. He's averaging 19.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and shooting 66 percent from the floor.
The twins have picked up their offense this season -- Marcus is averaging 19.6 points per game, improved from 12 last season; Markieff has doubled his production, to 12 points from six -- and have the size to put a body on Williams.
But saying and doing it are two different things.
"He's unbelievable," Self said of Williams. "They had one play, a breakaway and he goes down full speed, jumps off two feet and does a 360 dunk. Who does that? We have great players, but we don't have athletes like that. Our game plan is to be physical, but I haven't seen that yet with this team, so that could be interesting."
Interesting. Good word choice.
Las Vegas, never accused of being dull, could be especially interesting this weekend. The weather report for the desert is highs only in the 50s and lows in the 30s.
The competition, though -- for two teams curious about just how good they are -- promises to be a little more heated.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.