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Pac 12 Basketball Preview: The Arizona Wildcats Are the Clear Leaders of the Pac (12)

Perhaps no league in the nation will undergo more change than the Pac-12 in 2017-2018. Last year was a golden throw-back year for the Pac-12, with UCLA, Arizona, and Oregon in the Top 10 most of the season, and with UCLA, in particular, capturing the nation’s fancy. Much of that intrigue centered around Lonzo Ball, who grew from “freshman point guard who reminds me a bit of Jason Kidd” in October to full-fledged media and internet sensation, thanks both to his stellar play and his vociferous father.

Lonzo is gone. So is almost every other key contributor from UCLA’s loaded squad. Oregon lost four of their starters from the Final Four team as well, taking a lot of the punch out of the top of this league. And to further complicate matters, the two best teams in the league, Arizona and USC, have each had a coach named in the preliminary FBI report, so controversy and distraction are sure to follow both programs all season long.

It will be a turbulent year out west, but it doesn’t mean it won’t be an exciting one, and it doesn’t mean there isn’t a TON of talent. Arizona has the potential to be the best team in the country and is my personal preseason pick to win the National Championship. You can have all your “Sean Miller can’t win the big one” talk. I’ll take the team with the best blend of veteran talent and freshman Lottery Picks, including freshman soon-to-be sensation DeAndre Ayton, a 7’1’’ man-child who can run, jump, and SHOOT. I’ve seen this kid’s athleticism. This is the future of basketball (much to the dismay of all us 6-foot-ish jump shooters everywhere…sigh…)

Vegas doesn’t think a ton of anyone other than Arizona, and while I like to stir up some interest in preseason prediction columns, it is hard to make a case for anyone other than USC really challenging the Wildcats in the regular season. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of teams who will be dancing in March, and more than a few who could be dancing late into the party…

VEGAS ODDS TO WIN THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP – PAC-12

  • Arizona +900
  • USC +2500
  • UCLA +4000
  • Oregon +6600
  • Utah +15000
  • Stanford +25000
  • Arizona State +30000
  • Cal +30000
  • Washington +50000
  • Oregon St +50000
  • Colorado +50000
  • Wash St. +50000

Arizona is fantastic. Loaded. They are my favorite value on the board to win it all, especially given all the uncertainty with Duke’s talent assimilation, Kentucky’s relatively “down” recruiting class, North Carolina’s rebuilding, and Michigan State’s offensive question marks outside of Bridges. Add in the slightly “down” Pac-12, and Arizona feels like the easiest bet on the board to be a #1 seed. A #1 seed at +900 entering the Tournament isn’t a bad value to lock in early.

The real excitement in this league is going to be what the second tier can muster.

Utah has been a quietly excellent program for five years under the “other” Coach K, remarkably consistent, and a steady producer of NBA talent. Cal has some interesting pieces, despite a rash of early entry losses the past few seasons. UCLA’s reboot will be fascinating – perhaps Alford will actually fare BETTER with a slightly less talented team (less circus, less drama, less pressure, etc.).

Last year, despite boasting some of the best teams in the country, the Pac-12 sent only four total teams to the NCAA Tournament. The extreme top-heavy nature of the league cannibalized most of the middle-of-the-pack squads, and teams like Utah were left out in the cold. I wouldn’t be surprised if the conference overall is worse this year, but ends up sneaking in an extra team or two because of the relative parity (outside Arizona and USC). Stanford, Utah, and Arizona State will push UCLA and Oregon for at-large status this season. As many as six (or seven, if you reach) teams can realistically hope for March glory. But as few as two fan bases should outright EXPECT it this season.

Here’s a look at how the Pac-12 will shake out in 2017-2018:

THE FAVORITE: Arizona

The Wildcats are probably the most overwhelming favorite in any major conference this season. They return one of the best backcourts in the nation with ball-hawking Rawle Alkins and National POY Candidate, Allonzo Trier. Trier may very well win the award…and STILL not be the best player on his own team, though his return to college (somewhat surprising) was the biggest in the non-Miles Bridges Division.

However, the honor of “Best Player on Arizona” is going to belong to 7’1’’ freshman Deandre Ayton. The quotes and early reviews on him are amazing. Sean Miller, known to temper expectations, has already called him an athlete like he had never seen after witnessing him nearly touch the top of the backboard with his 43.5’’ vertical leap. Think “DeAndre Jordan if he could shoot.” Think “Dwight Howard if he liked basketball,” and you are on the right track. I think this kid is poised to dominate college basketball and will move past Porter and Bagley Jr. as the eventual #1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. He’s going to be special.

Lofty expectations for a freshman? Sure. But pressure? Not really. Trier and Alkins will lead the team. Ayton just needs to play. And we haven’t even TALKED about heralded wing Emmanuel Akot. Or returners Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic. They have size, shooting, excellent defenders, depth, and playmaking. This team is so loaded that the monkey will finally be off Sean Miller’s back in March.

THE CONTENDER: USC

Andy Enfield has done a nice job of rebuilding USC quickly. The first year was rocky, but now, four years in, USC returns as much of their core talent as any team in the country and is the only legitimate threat to Arizona’s dominance. As a matter of fact, the Trojans bring back a whopping 97% of their minutes from last season’s 26-win team.

But more than any returners, the biggest boost might be from a newcomer, Duke transfer Derryck Thornton. Thornton was a key cog in the Duke team with Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow, starting 20 games for Coach K. He will be a crucial player in the Trojans’ rotation this season. There are some question marks with the Trojans – yes, they won 26 games last year, but they lacked the resume to make those wins look as impressive as it seemed on the surface. It is reasonable to think another year together should lead to even better results, but I don’t think it is enough to leapfrog Arizona’s massive talent advantage.

THE HOPEFULS: UCLA, Oregon, Stanford, Utah

It is unlikely this entire quartet goes dancing this season, so their respective head-to-head matchups are going to be HUGE this season. Both UCLA and Oregon were decimated by early declarations to the NBA Draft, losing nearly all their key contributors from their respective fantastic seasons. Stanford is the sleeper in the mix. They have been down the past few seasons, but the return of their excellent frontcourt keeps them a clear peg ahead of the mediocre back half of the league and could be enough to sneak them to 19-20 wins. Ditto for Utah, who would look a LOT different with Kyle Kuzma back in uniform, but this is still a veteran-laden team used to winning.

UCLA – I think the Bruins will make the Tournament. But it won’t be easy. Much will be asked of Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh, and many think their production will suffer without the gifted Lonzo Ball setting the table. That’s a fair concern, but I think the added responsibility will suit each well, and they’ll enjoy a more prominent role in the offense. Add in freshman five-star recruit Jaylen Hands, who will be asked to immediately run the team, and talented wing recruit Kris Wilkes, and power forwards Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, and the Bruins will be really young, but also potentially really good by March.

** OK – so this broke after writing the preview, but the UCLA/China arrest incident is a crazy one!  The good news, from a basketball standpoint, is that the players arrested, Cody Riley, Jalen Hill, and LiAngelo Ball, were not expected to be major contributors.

Oregon – If anyone is poised to backslide this season, it is Dana Altman’s Ducks. They lost SO much, so quickly, that it is hard for me to see them as the Top 25-30 team many still have them pegged to be. Altman went the quick-fix route with talented transfers Elijah Brown and Paul White, but both will have to be BIG quickly if the Ducks are going to compete in the top quarter of the Pac-12. They only return 17% of their minutes from last year’s Final Four squad.

Stanford – They were just 6-12 last season, so a leap into the Big Dance would be a seismic one. There is a pretty big gap between the Top Four and Stanford/Utah/etc. at most estimations, but if anyone can sneak up a rung, I think it is the Cardinal. They need some backcourt play to emerge to support, likely All Pac-12 forward Reid Travis.

Utah – I like Coach K (the other one – though I imagine that moniker will get less cute over time…). Utah has been excellent the last four seasons and has sent three legit pros to the NBA very quietly. And in a different era, all three of them would be playing for the Utes again this season. Alas, the loss of Kuzma hurts, but the Utes are hopeful that Long Beach State grad transfer Justin Bibbins and returning junior Sedrick Barefield can help lead the team back to the Field of 68.

THE SLEEPERS – Arizona State, Oregon State

Arizona State – If any team can crash the party in the top half of the Pac 12 in 2018, it is the ASU Sun Devils. Coach Bobby Hurley has brought his scrappy style to the desert. Sadly, it didn’t transfer to good defense last season. Expect that defense, which ranked well outside the Top 100 nationally, to improve this season in Hurley’s second year. He is bringing in a better-recruiting class this season, headlined by a pair of Top 100 recruits in Kimani Lawrence and power forward Romello White. They should both make an immediate impact this season, though the goal of an NCAA berth might still be a lofty one.

Oregon State – Well, Tres Tinkle is finally healthy, and if the junior can finally have an injury-free season, the Beavers should be no worse than competitive and interesting. Perhaps he can catch fire often enough to dominate the weak bottom of the conference and get the Beavers to the promised land. It is unlikely, but not impossible.

THE REST – Colorado, Washington, Washington State and Cal

It is odd to see Washington and Cal so low, but there is little reason to think either is having a banner season in 2017-2018. Early departures hurt, especially in Washington’s case, losing Markelle Fultz, but in fairness, even having the #1 NBA Pick on the roster didn’t make the Huskies too competitive last season. Cal likewise lost Ivan Rabb (and Charlie Moore), and the cupboard is pretty bare for the Bears.

It is difficult to make a case for much optimism for any of these four squads.

PREDICTIONS:

  • Arizona #1 seed
  • USC #4 seed
  • UCLA #7 seed
  • Oregon #10 seed
  • Utah #11 seed
  • Stanford NIT
  • Arizona State NIT

BIGGEST NON-CONFERENCE PAC-12 GAMES

(* indicates possible/likely opponent in a tournament)

  • UCLA vs. Kentucky
  • UCLA vs. Cincinnati
  • Stanford vs. Kansas
  • Stanford vs. Florida
  • Stanford vs. Duke
  • Arizona St. vs. Vanderbilt
  • Arizona vs. Villanova* (or Purdue*)
  • Colorado at Xavier
  • Utah @ Butler
  • Oregon vs. North Carolina* (or Oklahoma*)
  • Oregon vs. Michigan State* (or DePaul*)
  • USC @ SMU
  • USC vs. Miami FL* (or Davidson)
Chris Scheeren :