For the first time in two seasons, Arizona isn’t a lock to win the Pac-12 regular season title. Oregon started far from the preseason spotlight, and didn’t have that challenging a non-conference slate (wins against Baylor and Valparaiso were within Eugene’s friendly confines), but since Pac-12 play started, the Ducks have emerged as arguably the league’s toughest draw — wins at Utah and Arizona have been buttressed by victories over Cal, USC, and most recently, Oregon State. Yes, the team looked awful in back-to-back road losses versus Cal and Stanford, but that doesn’t diminish the Ducks’ sleeper Final Four status — the squad is trending as a popular pick — so what changed to turn the Ducks into a legitimate title contender?

Dillon Brooks is the nation’s most important player

If Brooks wasn’t as integral to Oregon as a freshman last season, he would have supplanted Providence’s Ben Bentil on every most improved player list this year. The 6-foot-7 Brooks is the face of the small-ball lineup. Brooks is the Ducks’ offensive focal point, a wing that can create for himself or others, as he functions as Oregon’s de-facto point guard, notching an assist rate of nearly 20 percent (per Ken Pomeroy).

Without Joseph Young in the lineup, Oregon has become much less pick-and-roll dependent, and has focused on slowing the pace and converting within the halfcourt — according to Hoop-Math.com, nearly 80 percent of the team’s attempts are in the halfcourt. To that end, Brooks upped his percentage of shots taken both at the rim and within the three-point line, and is making 54 percent of his two-point field goals. But he isn’t adverse to stretching the defense — he’s shooting 34 percent from deep in Pac-12 play, an improvement from his freshman year — which helps create interior space for Dwayne Benjamin, Chris Boucher and Elgin Cook to offensively operate. The trio of forwards has taken 40 percent of their shots around the rim this season.

What makes Brooks so unique is that he can play up to four positions, a luxury for a lineup that is both unconventional and versatile. Brooks can slide to the middle of a 2-3 zone — as he did during Saturday’s win over the Beavers — catch a pass and then either reverse the ball, drive the lane to finish, or execute a perfect dump-down pass for a cutting big. Put a man on him and Brooks uses his burly frame and quick first step to score in a variety of ways.

Brooks, who also rarely turns the ball over, has emerged as a favorite for the conference’s player of the year award, and no matter how Altman uses the wing, Oregon has an offensive advantage due to his skillset.

Chris Boucher is a very unusual Division I player

Boucher didn’t materialize from the Oregon mist and tall firs — the lengthy and willowy forward was a junior college star who is a jack of all trades on the court. Need a three? Check (37 percent in Pac-12 play). How about a rebound? A force on both the offensive (11 percent) and defensive glass (22 percent). What about a stop within the arc? Boucher’s block rate (12 percent) ranks fifth in KenPom’s database. And if the Ducks need a bucket, Boucher isn’t a scoring slouch: per Synergy Sports, he scores 1.11 points per possession, a rate that leads Oregon, and he is extremely efficient in the halfcourt, notching an effective field goal percentage of nearly 60 percent.

Boucher is a basketball enigma. His lanky frame suggests player that can easily be pushed around the floor, but he is so versatile on either side of the ball, with a wingspan that negates any supposed physical disadvantages. He has been the team’s X-factor this season.

Oregon’s elite interior defense

This is one of Altman’s stingiest defenses. It starts with Jordan Bell and Boucher, two bigs who use their imposing wingspans and superb timing to disrupt a high rate of opponents’ shots. The squad is blocking nearly 15 percent of their opponents’ attempts, and according to Hoop-Math.com, no other squad ranks in both the top 40 for percentage of blocks at the rim and on two-point field goal attempts.

This interior dominance allows the Duck guards to be much more aggressive on the perimeter, which is why Oregon is turning opposing teams’ over on more than 20 percent of their possessions — the most for an Altman-coached Oregon squad. The team’s overall defensive efficiency rate — 0.98 PPP — sits well inside the top 100 of KenPom’s database, a crucial marker for any team with March Madness, and Final Four, ambitions.

The combination Altman has managed to tease out of his group, which basically goes seven deep, is capable of ending the grip of Arizona (or the Southern California schools) on the conference titles. And the Ducks might just be the Pac-12’s most imposing squad entering the NCAA tournament.