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First Look: Despite big losses, Arizona has the core to pace the Pac-12 again

 

Brandon Ashley The return of Brandon Ashley should give the Wildcats some extra offensive firepower this season. (Leon Halip/Getty)

 

SI.com is taking a first look at the major conferences for 2014-15. The series will include the AAC, Big Ten, Big East, SEC, ACC, A-10, Big 12 and Mountain West. Next up: the Pac-12.

For much of last season, the gulf between Arizona and the rest of the Pac-12 was pronounced. But the Wildcats weren't perfect against their conference peers, losing three league games – though that was three fewer than UCLA's second-place total – and then losing to the Bruins in the Pac-12 championship.

Yet even as Arizona suffered some personnel losses in the offseason, the gap between the Wildcats and the rest of the Pac-12 may have widened anyway. There will be teams with enough talent or experience – or both – to challenge Arizona on a given night. But challenging them over the long haul for a conference title might be even more difficult than it was last season.

Here's an early look at what's in store for the Pac-12 in 2014-15:

State of the champions

Arizona took the regular season title in 2013-14, but UCLA upended the Wildcats to take the conference tournament. Both teams lost leaders in the backcourt during the offseason. Arizona's Nick Johnson decided he wasn't going to grow any taller than 6-foot-3 and therefore likely wasn't going to improve his draft standing with another year in school, so he joined forward Aaron Gordon in departing for the NBA. Gordon ranked No. 1 nationally in defensive win shares (3.3) and Johnson ranked 11th (3.0), so the unit that was No. 1 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency according to kenpom.com will be without two key cogs. And don't forget Johnson's offensive prowess either (16.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists per game). But forward Brandon Ashley (11.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg), point guard T.J. McConnell (8.4 ppg, 5.3 apg), center Kaleb Tarczewski (9.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (9.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg) form a formidable core for next season. Add to them the nation's consensus No. 4 recruit, Stanley Johnson, and the Wildcats should be a top 10 caliber team again.

UCLA, meanwhile, saw Kyle Anderson bolt for the NBA as expected. Zach LaVine decided to go pro as well, after he averaged a whopping 9.4 points per game as a freshman. Leading scorer Jordan Adams (17.4 ppg) initially said he'd return, instantly reasserting the Bruins as a Pac-12 contender ... until he changed his mind and decided to enter the draft after all. Steve Alford is left to coach a team in search of a new identity. There are three top-50 recruits arriving as reinforcements in power forward Kevon Looney (No. 13 consensus recruit nationally), swingman Jonah Bolden (No. 47) and center Thomas Welsh (No. 61). Those freshmen, combined with veteran returnees like Norman Powell and Bryce Alford, give the Bruins hope to contend, but they will be without an anchor like Adams.

JOHNSON: With Stanley Johnson, Arizona sets sights on a national title run

Top contenders

In addition to UCLA, Stanford could make a push toward the top of the conference. After a Sweet 16 run in March, the Cardinal return leading scorer Chasson Randle (18.8 ppg) and third-leading scorer Anthony Brown (12.3 ppg) for their senior seasons and bring in three promising freshmen of their own: forwards Reid Travis (No. 35 recruit nationally) and Michael Humphrey (No. 67) and point guard Robert Cartwright (No. 70). Utah, meanwhile, won 21 games and made the NIT and now returns its top seven minutes-loggers from 2013-14, including conference conference player of the year candidate Deion Wright (15.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 5.3 apg, 56.1 percent shooting). The Utes shouldn't have chemistry or identity issues, which may provide a head start in trying to catch up with Arizona.

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Top freshman

Stanley Johnson, Arizona. UCLA's Looney will be a contender. The 6-9 forward will be asked to run the floor, stretch the defense and basically do everything Anderson did for the Bruins, with the exception of running the offense. But in a way Johnson will be just as important to the Wildcats. The 6-7, 220-pound five-star forward isn't an Aaron Gordon clone, but he must fill the space vacated by one of the nation's best defenders and one of its most explosive talents. Johnson, whom Rivals.com describes as “a physically explosive, strong and tough wing” appears to have the skills to mitigate Gordon's loss.

Impact transfers

Oregon's Dwayne Benjamin and Michael Chandler. They both come from junior colleges – the 6-7 Benjamin from Mount San Jacinto J.C. and the 6-10 Chandler from Northwest Florida State College. Benjamin led Mount San Jacinto in scoring (15.8 ppg) and was the No. 6 available junior college transfer, per Next Up Recruits. Chandler was a top 50 prospect in the Class of 2011 before failing to qualify academically at Central Florida. Both are four-star prospects. And after Oregon's roster losses due to graduation (Mike Moser, Jason Calliste and Johnathan Lloyd) and the sexual assault controversy (Damyean Dotson, Dominic Artis and Brandon Austin), they'll both be especially important. Benjamin and Chandler not only will be under the microscope on the court, but they'll also be scrutinized as examples of the kinds of players Dana Altman has brought to Eugene. Fair or unfair, that's what the lurid Dotson-Artis-Austin situation has wrought.

First Look, Big Ten: Badgers are a favorite in the conference and in the country

Coach on the hot seat

Lorenzo Romar, Washington. Two teams at the bottom of the league changed coaches this offseason (Washington State and Oregon State). USC's Andy Enfield is just getting started and is facing no heat after an 11-21 debut season that included just two Pac-12 wins. So it's a stretch to find any coach in obvious peril. The focus could turn to Washington's Lorenzo Romar, who signed a 10-year contract in 2010 but who hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2011. The Huskies didn't play in any postseason event this past season after a 17-15 season that included a 9-9 finish in the league. Romar has been with Washington for what feels like an eternity -- next season will be his 13th in Seattle. But with a contract that runs through 2020, the school may not be able to afford firing him. He loses two of his top four scorers for next year, but he does bring back the promising Nigel Williams-Goss (13.4 ppg) and Andrew Andrews (12.3 ppg). His boss, athletic director Scott Woodward, told the Seattle Times in March that Romar was “the right man for the job.” But especially after so much time in one place, could Romar survive another bottom-quartile Pac-12 finish and another year without an NCAA invite?

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