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  • Coming off a down year, improvement seems almost inevitable for the Pac-12 as a whole. But its traditional power, Arizona, may not be part of that narrative.
By Max Meyer
August 28, 2018

Last year was not a banner campaign for Pac-12 revenue sports, and the NCAA tournament was a microcosm for the conference’s struggles. Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA each fell in their opening contest—with the latter two coming in play-in games—as the Pac-12 became the first major conference to not a send a team to the Round of 32 since the Big 12 formed in 1996–97. I mean, even No. 16 seeds finished with more March Madness wins than the Pac-12!

It’s hard to go any direction but up when you have a campaign like that last season, but how much will Pac-12 basketball improve? To figure that out, let’s preview each team and answer the conference’s biggest questions heading into November’s tip-off.

PAC-12 SUMMER POWER RANKINGS

1. Oregon: The Ducks came crashing down in 2017 after a Final Four appearance the previous season. But Dana Altman has brought in reinforcements, and Bol Bol and Louis King headline the No. 3 incoming recruiting class in the country.

2. UCLA: If Steve Alford can’t take advantage of his last two recruiting classes, this will be his last season in Westwood. Rising sophomores Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes showed promise last season, and Moses Brown is the most talented player in a freshman group consisting of five top-100 prospects.

3. Washington: The Huskies didn’t make the NCAA tournament last season, but they were still a pleasant surprise in Mike Hopkins’s first year as coach. Washington returns every major contributor of a team that beat Kansas, Arizona and Arizona State last season.

4. USC: The Trojans lost a ton of talent this offseason, but Bennie Boatwright is back for his senior season and USC may have ended up nabbing a lottery-pick talent in one-and-done candidate Kevin Porter.

5. Colorado: George King departs, but sophomore guard McKinley Wright IV is ready to lead the stampede for the Buffaloes. As a freshman last season, he averaged 14.2 points, 5.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game.

6. Arizona State: The Sun Devils had the ultimate Jekyll-and-Hyde season in 2017 thanks to a roaring start and a stunning collapse that ended with a loss to Syracuse in an NCAA tournament First Four game. Bobby Hurley is hoping he can replace the dynamic duo of Shannon Evans and Tra Holder with a young group of promising talent.

7. Arizona: Sky-high expectations came crashing down in a season mired by scandal and disappointment. The Wildcats lost their entire starting five. Brandon Williams and Devonaire Doutrive will have to carry a heavy load as freshmen, because the cupboard has never been as bare for Sean Miller in Tucson.

8. Stanford: There was no bigger blow for the league than Reid Travis announcing he was transferring out of Stanford to go to Kentucky. The Cardinal would’ve been a trendy NCAA tournament pick with the double-double machine still in Palo Alto, but without Travis, Stanford will end up in the middle of the pack.

9. Utah: The Utes lost three of their four top scorers from 2017, with rising senior Sedrick Barefield being the one exception. Pac-12 teams can always count on a tough road game no matter who the Utes have though, given the altitude and The Other Coach K instilling a relentless attitude on defense during his time in Salt Lake.

10. Oregon State: The Beavers don’t have a lot of depth, but they have standout guys who can take over games in Tres Tinkle along with brothers Stephen Thompson Jr. and Ethan Thompson.

11. Cal: Wyking Jones’s first year at the helm couldn’t have gone much worse, as the Golden Bears were the worst major-conference team in the country last season, per kenpom.com. The team returns a lot of young players, but this is the same core that lost to Chaminade last season.

12. Washington State: The Cougars’ offseason nearly ended up being the absolute worst-case scenario, but Robert Franks decided to return for his senior season. Floor general Malachi Flynn deciding to transfer to San Diego State was a loss this team can’t afford.

BURNING QUESTIONS

Will the Pac-12 be better than last season?

It will, but you shouldn’t set high expectations for this campaign either. Oregon is the favorite to win the conference, and is the league’s best chance for making a tournament run into the second weekend, but the Ducks will still be a team led by mostly freshmen. Talent has never been a problem for UCLA in the Steve Alford era, but underachievement has. Despite having quite a few first-round picks at his disposal, Alford has never led UCLA past the Sweet 16. There weren’t many teams with stronger rosters last season than USC and Arizona, yet both schools are likely to take a step back this time around due to all of the departures. The Pac-12 simply doesn’t have very many good teams, let alone great ones, and the teams likely to find themselves in the basement are among the worst in all the major conferences. That will really hurt in conference play, whether it’s consistently playing strong competition throughout the season to prepare for March or getting enough quality wins on the résumé to boost their NCAA tournament chances.

What is Arizona’s outlook this season after a tumultuous 2017–18 campaign?

With a dark cloud looming due to the FBI’s investigation on the program and a bitter taste left in their mouths after a disappointing finish, the Wildcats had a rough offseason. Their starting lineup and five leading scorers—Deandre Ayton, Allonzo Trier, Rawle Atlkins, Dusan Ristic and Parker Jackson-Cartwright—are all gone. The situation could’ve been worse though, as Arizona’s recruiting class also looked doomed until late commits from Brandon Williams (No. 34 on the RSCI recruiting rankings), Devonaire Doutrive (No. 71) and Omar Thielemans.

Sean Miller is arguably the top coach in the Pac-12, but this will be his toughest challenge yet. The Wildcats have some potential and talent, but they don’t have much experience and this team isn’t nearly as loaded as the ones in years past. Luckily for Miller, finishing near the top of the Pac-12 is navigable, one perk of playing in the weakest major conference.

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Can Stanford survive without Reid Travis?

Travis was the top graduate transfer on the market this past offseason, and for good reason. He averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game in his junior campaign, and is simply a force to be reckoned with in the paint. With Travis off to Kentucky, that leaves a huge, figuratively and literally, hole on this Cardinal team. He was supposed to keep the frontcourt afloat with forward Michael Humphrey out of the picture, but now Stanford is in a tricky situation.

The Cardinal do return a trio of promising rising sophomores, led by Daejon Davis. The 6’3” guard averaged 10.7 points, 4.8 assists and 4.4 rebounds a game, and also buried a heroic halfcourt heave at the buzzer to stun USC. Kezie Okpala and Oscar Da Silva will also have expanded roles after getting solid minutes as freshmen. Yet, this was a potential sleeper to win the Pac-12 with Travis, and now it would be unexpected to see this squad finish in the top half of the conference.

Who can be this year’s surprise in the Pac-12?

It’s doubtful that any Pac-12 team will emerge out of nowhere like Washington did last season—what Mike Hopkins did in his first season coaching the Huskies was remarkable. If I’m picking a school outside of the conference’s projected chiefs contenders (Oregon, UCLA, Washington) and one that hasn’t had a strong track record in recent seasons (Arizona, USC), Colorado is my choice.

The Buffaloes haven’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2012, but I have a sneaky suspicion it’ll happen at some point in the McKinley Wright IV era. The sophomore is one of the most underrated players in the country coming into this season, as he showed quickly as a freshman that he is an excellent distributor and dangerous scorer. Wright IV was part of a team last season that ranked 322nd in experience on kenpom.com, so most of the key young Buffaloes will be back with a lot more experience under their belt.

Which coach is on the hottest seat heading into the season?

I was honestly surprised Washington State retained Ernie Kent for this upcoming season, and the mass exodus of his former players this offseason doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in giving him another year. Kent has gone 47–77 (18–54 in Pac-12 play) in his four seasons in Pullman, and his highest win total in any of those years was 13. The problem is, can Washington State get a bigger name than Kent if the Cougars opt to replace him? (Granted, Tony Bennett was the coach there less than a decade ago, so maybe another diamond in the rough can be found.)

But I’ll go with Steve Alford, because he’s fallen into the trap of doing less with more. Highly ranked recruiting classes can be a blessing and a curse—they give you the best chance of winning it all, but they also give you no excuse if you don’t live up to lofty expectations. UCLA’s last five recruiting class rankings, via 247Sports, starting from 2014: 7th, 24th, 11th, 5th, 6th. The number of NCAA tournament wins from those first four recruiting classes (starting from the 2014-15 season) for Steve Alford? Four. If he can’t string a run in March with this talented group, it’s hard to envision a return to Westwood.

Which player has the best chance of being picked early in the upcoming NBA draft?

Top-tier talent has not been a problem with the Pac-12 of late: the conference has seen Deandre Ayton and Markelle Fultz go number one in the last two drafts. Incoming Oregon 7’2” freshman Bol Bol was the conference’s highest-ranked pickup (No. 6 on RSCI), but given the playing style of today’s NBA, big men just aren’t valued nearly as much as they were a decade ago.

So I’ll roll with USC’s Kevin Porter Jr., who has absolutely skyrocketed up the recruiting rankings. The Seattle native has displayed a strong blend of athleticism and shooting touch that will likely make him a focal point in Andy Enfield’s system. With the Trojans having to replace the production of Chimezie Metu and Jordan McLaughlin, Porter will be relied upon heavily in his freshman campaign. He has stolen the show at the Nike Hoop Summit and the Drew League, and has the tools to be a star that basketball fans will want to stay up to watch.

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