By Kevin Sweeney
The Pac-12’s success this season will largely be dependent on the play of freshmen. While some teams, like Oregon, USC, and Colorado, will mostly rely on an experienced core, other squads will look to freshmen to fill starring roles immediately. The good thing for those teams is that many of these freshmen are NBA prospects who should be up to the challenge of carrying a team. Arizona brings in a Kentucky-esque recruiting class with 4 players with 5-star grades in various recruiting publications. UCLA has two 5-stars entering, while Washington brings in a candidate for the #1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft in Markelle Fultz. This injection of young talent, combined with the experience of other squads, should make the Pac-12 an incredibly exciting league to watch this season.
- Oregon State
- Arizona State
- Washington State
Champions: Oregon– Expectations are as high as they have ever been in Eugene, and for good reason. The Ducks bring back 4 starters from last season’s Elite Eight team, and Dylan Ennis, who was supposed to be a key reserve before missing the season due to a foot injury, also returns to action. They have one of the most exciting talents in college basketball in Chris Boucher, the junior college transfer who burst onto the scene towards the end of the season thanks to his ability to block shots while spacing the floor. He’s still very thin for a big man, but his talent is undeniable and his potential is unlimited. The biggest question for the Ducks is the health of star forward Dillon Brooks, who injured his foot in August and may not be ready for the beginning of the season. If he only misses a few games, the Ducks should be fine, but a long absence, or an inability to return to form, would be catastrophic for Oregon. The bottom line is that the Ducks are one of the top 5 teams in the country and should be the class of the Pac-12 this season.
Dark Horse: UCLA- Last season was an incredibly disappointing one for the Bruins. They stumbled to a 15-17 record and a 10th place finish in the Pac-12, its lowest finish ever. Defense was a huge problem for the Bruins, as they ranked 282nd in scoring defense, giving up 76.7 points per game. However, UCLA is a very talented team, returning 4 double-digit scorers from last season. They are one of only 2 teams in the Power 5 (Georgia) who returns 2 players who averaged over 16 points per game last season in Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton. Combine that duo with a low post force in Thomas Welsh, who could average a double-double this season, and entrance of Lonzo Ball, one of the highest-touted recruits in America, and you get a very dangerous team. If the defense improves, UCLA could be a top 3 team in the Pac-12.
Preseason First Team:
- F: Chris Boucher-Oregon
- F: Ivan Rabb-Cal
- F: Dillon Brooks-Oregon
- G: Isaac Hamilton-UCLA
- G: Markelle Fultz-Washington
Player of the Year: Dillon Brooks- Health aside, Brooks deserves to be considered the best returning player in the Pac-12. While one of the many freshmen stars, or another player like Rabb, could overtake him this season, Brooks is nevertheless one of the best players in the country. A forward who can play either the 3 or the 4, Brooks contributes with both his play and leadership for the Ducks. The unquestioned heart and soul of Oregon, Brooks was criticized by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski for his fire towards the end of a comfortable victory over the Blue Devils. The same traits that make him hated by his opponents invigorate his teammates, energizing the Ducks when they need a spark. In his junior season, Brooks should only improve, and the Ducks should be one of the best teams in college basketball.
Newcomer of the Year: Markelle Fultz (Washington)- Fultz, the 3rd-ranked player in the 2016 scout.com rankings, is expected to immediately be the star for the Huskies. The 6-4 point guard has the takeover mentality necessary for a superstar, and that was on full display at the FIBA U18 American Championships, when he played for Team USA and carried them to victory in a close battle with Canada. Fultz has long arms, great vision, and a smooth shooting stroke, practically the formula for a great point guard. The Huskies will only go as far as Fultz takes them, so Fultz must produce right away, but I believe that he will be one of the best players in college basketball this season.