Conference Preview: Pac-12

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The Pac-12 set a conference record last season by placing seven teams in the NCAA Tournament.  All seven teams wore white uniforms in their first game (seeded 8th or better), and three of them were “protected seeds” (teams seed on the top four lines).  That was the good news.  The bad news is that all seven teams left the Tournament in a loss to teams seeded worse than them.  4 seed Cal, 6 seed Arizona, 7 seed Oregon State and 8 seeds Colorado and USC all fell in their opening games.  3 seed Utah won their first round game before falling to 11 seed Gonzaga in the Round of 32.  Oregon (1 seed) had the best performance, advancing all the way to the Regional Final, but losing there to 2 seed Oklahoma.  In all, one of the better regular seasons for the Pac-12 in recent years ended with disappointment almost across the board.

This year, the conference has a chance to be just as good and it would not totally shock us if seven teams ended up dancing again.  The way will be led by Dana Altman’s Oregon Ducks, a team that is as loaded with talent as any team in the nation.  Not only do the Ducks return the majority of the key players that led them to a 1 seed last season, but they also add in a few pieces they did not have, including a now healthy Dylan Ennis, a prized freshman guard in Payton Pritchard, and one of the top JC transfers in the nation, Kavell Bigby-Williams.  The Ducks are deep and talented, and another 1 seed could be in the works.  However, the conference does not end its talent there.  Arizona has reloaded once again, UCLA has another roster filled with prized recruits (and a coach who may be out of excuses if they can’t perform this season), and teams like Colorado, Cal, Utah, USC and Oregon State could all contend for bids.  The dark horse pick to take a bid is Stanford, with a veteran roster and a solid new head coach (Jerod Haase) taking over.

Predicted Order of Finish

1. Oregon – This team seems to have all the pieces, from great depth at guard (Casey Benson, Dylan Ennis, Tyler Dorsey and freshman Payton Pritchard) to a collection of some of the nation’s best shot blockers (Chris Boucher, Jordan Bell and junior college transfer Kavell Bigby-Williams).  Also, do not overlook forward Dillon Brooks who will be a star once again assuming he is able to recover from offseason foot surgery.

2. Arizona – Allonzo Trier should score a ton of points this year as he leads a strong group in the backcourt.  Freshman forward Lauri Markkanen could be one of the nation’s top rookies this year.  One of the biggest questions will be Ray Smith, who has had surgeries on both of his knees over the past two years and left the team’s exhibition game this past week with an injury.  If he is healthy, the Wildcats could go far.  If not, they may be pining for prized recruit Terrance Ferguson, who decided not to enroll and instead opted to turn pro overseas.

3. UCLA – There is no doubt that the Bruins are loaded with talent.  They return starters Isaac Hamilton, Bryce Alford and Thomas Welsh, and Prince Ali may be ready to show the talent that had him highly rated as a freshman last year.  If that was not enough, three 5-star recruits have been added in led by Lonzo Ball, who was rated the No. 3 overall prospect heading into this season.  If the Bruins do not finish near the top of the conference standings and advance to the Big Dance this year, odds are there will be a new head coach in town next season.

4. Colorado – The Buffaloes will be solid in the backcourt with Josh Fortune, George King and newcomer Derrick White, who was one of the nation’s top Division II players while playing for Colorado-Colorado Springs.  The team will need to make up for the loss of Josh Scott down low, but having a healthy Xavier Johnson should help somewhat.

5. California – The top three scorers from last season are all gone, but Ivan Rabb’s decision not to enter the NBA Draft was huge, especially with a pair of 7-footers on the roster to join him down low.  If Jabari Bird can finally become the player we thought he could be and Columbia transfer Grant Mullins is able to succeed against this higher level of competition, the Bears should find themselves back in the Big Dance again.

6. Stanford – All but one key player return from last year’s team, but that one was their best (Rosco Allen).  New head coach Jerod Haase could have this team flirting with a bid, given that Reid Travis is healthy and that he has brought in a pair of top 100 recruits in Trevor Stanback and Kodye Pugh.

7. USC – Six players left during the offseason either via declaring for the NBA Draft or transferring out.  Despite the losses, the Trojans should still be competitive with forward Bennie Boatwright and guards Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart back.  The biggest questions are the team’s depth down low and just how good former Louisville prized recruit Shaqquan Aaron is.

8. Utah – Matching last year’s success is doubtful this season given that only two regulars return from that roster.  The addition of Utah State transfer David Collette (who won’t be eligible until after the first semester) should help down low.  This is probably a rebuilding year while the new pieces all learn to play together; however, it is tough to ever count out a Larry Krystkowiak coached team.

9. Oregon State – The Beavers will likely take a small step backwards this season without Gary Payton II, but things are still looking bright here with Stephen Thompson, Jr. and Tres Tinkle both only entering their sophomore years.

10. Washington – Markelle Fultz may be one of the top freshman guards in the nation, but losing a pair of first round draft picks (Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray) and a player that averaged over 20 points per game (Andrew Andrews) off of a team that only made the NIT does not make one confident about this season.

11. Arizona State – The Sun Devils should be solid in the backcourt with Tra Holder, freshman Sam Cunliffe and Buffalo transfer Torian Graham.  However, there are huge questions down low with a lack of size and depth.

12. Washington State – Josh Hawkinson averaged a double-double last year, but the Cougars don’t seem to have enough other pieces around him.  The good news is that it will be tough to be worse than last season’s 1-17 Pac-12 record.

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