Wesley Gordon

Colorado's Wesley Gordon, left, grabs an offensive rebound in front of Georgia's Donte Williams during an 84-70 win on Saturday. The Buffaloes are a favorite for the Pac-12 title. (Cliff Grassmick / The Daily Camera via Associated Press / December 28, 2013)

Time to round up the usual Pac-12 Conference suspects as well as those who may be suspect.

Arizona enters conference play ranked No. 1 in the nation, taking its familiar role as Pac-12 behemoth.

UCLA has old-school tradition and was the 2013 regular-season champion but has played a junior varsity nonconference schedule.

Oregon won the Pac-12 tournament last season and is ranked 10th, getting as much out of Phil Knight's Nike money as the Ducks' football team.

Then there is Colorado. Once again the Buffaloes appear to be a player in the conference basketball race.

Pac-12 play begins Thursday, though UCLA and USC will wait until Sunday to open against each other at Pauley Pavilion.

It's hard to ignore Colorado, which comes in as one of the top-tier teams. The Buffaloes are 11-2 and ranked 20th.

"We just want our program to get better," Coach Tad Boyle said.

It has. It's just that no one expected them to start near the top when they rolled into the Pac-12 in 2011.

The working theory when the conference expanded two years ago was that the Buffaloes' football team would eventually become a power. Basketball was along for the ride.

No one knew that things were beginning to Boyle in Boulder.

Colorado had been to the NCAA tournament twice from 1969 to 2011. Boyle, now in his fourth season, took the Buffaloes to the tournament the last two seasons, winning the Pac-12 tournament in 2012 and getting an at-large bid last season.

This season the Buffaloes walk into conference play with credibility and a record that includes a victory over No. 16 Kansas and a down-to-the-wire loss to No. 6 Oklahoma State.

That has been accomplished with a starting lineup that has no seniors. Colorado starts two juniors, two sophomores and one freshman.

"I think we weren't on a lot of people's radar when we joined the Pac-12," Boyle said.

Those people may need better radar. The Buffaloes finished 24-14 and reached the NIT semifinals in 2010-11. They finished fifth in their inaugural Pac-12 season and rolled through the conference tournament.

"Winning four games in four nights opened some eyes, and you can include Colorado fans in that bunch," Boyle said. "It's not like our fans expect us to go to Los Angeles and win. It was a defining moment."

Boyle has created an upheaval as a local boy come home. He was the Colorado player of the year at Greeley Central High in 1981 but chose Kansas after Colorado changed coaches.

He played four seasons for the Jayhawks, but eventually found his way home. Boyle was hired at Northern Colorado. His teams went from 4-24 in 2006-07 to 25-8 in 2009-10. He took over in Boulder after that season, and stresses to recruits that he is staying.

"I would have never gone to Kansas if Colorado hadn't changed coaches," Boyle said. "It's important that people know I'm a Colorado guy."