By Kevin Sweeney
To me, the Pac-12 is the worst of the Power 6 conferences in college basketball (P5 plus Big East) this season. While the top of the conference features a pair of top 10 teams in Arizona and USC, the league simply doesn’t have the depth that other top leagues have. However, a talented crop of newcomers are set to join the conference this year, as the Pac-12 has 8 of the top 30 recruiting classes in the country for the 2017 class. The comprehensive strength of that class could set the tone for success now and in the future in “The Conference of Champions”.
- Arizona- The Wildcats are my preseason #1 team in the country. The combination of depth and talent that Sean Miller has at his disposal is flat-out scary, adding a likely top-5 pick in the 2018 draft in DeAndre Ayton to go along with a core that already featured an All-American-type talent in Allonzo Trier. The sky is the limit for this Arizona club.
- USC- It is absolutely remarkable the job that Andy Enfield is done at USC since coming over from FGCU. He has assembled one of the most talented rosters from top to bottom in the country. Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu are legitimate stars up front, and what was already a strong backcourt unit gets a big boost with the additions of Derryck Thornton and Charles O’Bannon.
- UCLA- This is a very interesting UCLA club. They return a pair of all-league-caliber players in Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh and bring in a loaded recruiting class, but the loss of a guy like Lonzo Ball can’t be underestimated. Holiday and Welsh should be able to lead the way as Steve Alford brings the freshmen along, but I’m still in a bit of wait-and-see mode with the Bruins.
- Oregon- it was a tumultuous offseason for the Ducks, as a combination of transfers and early draft declarations left Dana Altman scrambling for talent. However, he found plenty of that in a pair of grad transfers in Elijah Brown (UNM), and MiKyle McIntosh (Illinois State). That pairing combined with a loaded recruiting class headlined by versatile guard Troy Brown should help carry the Ducks to their 6th straight NCAA Tournament.
- Stanford- Jerod Haase quietly brings in a top-15 recruiting class to compliment one of the best players in the country in double-double machine Reid Travis. Freshmen Daejon Davis and KZ Okpala should see significant time right away at guard, ideally providing some solid floor-spacing for a team that shot just 32% from 3 a season ago.
- Arizona State- Honestly, this pick all comes down to frontcourt improvement. The Sun Devils were horrifically bad up front, and lose a solid big in Obinna Oleka. They’ll be heavily dependent on newcomers De’Quon Lake, Romello White, and Kimani Lawrence to provide good frontcourt play. If they get that from those guys, Bobby Hurley’s team has a chance to take a few steps forward.
- Oregon State- Pretty much everything that could go wrong for the Beavers did go wrong in 2016-17, and the results were beyond ugly at times. However, Tres Tinkle returns after missing almost all of last season due to injury, and his presence combined with 3 returning double-digit scorers gives this team NCAA Tournament upside.
- Utah- Kyle Kuzma’s early departure to the NBA was certainly damaging for the Utes. That leaves Utah with plenty of question marks as they enter the season. Larry Krystowiak will need more consistent play from talented guard Sedrick Barefield, as well as a breakout campaign from center Jayce Johnson in order to win 20 games for the 5th straight season.
- Washington- Last season was nothing short of a disaster for the Huskies, spoiling a season with #1 overall pick Markelle Fultz in tow. However, a new coach in longtime Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins enters, and the cupboard isn’t as bare as some think. A strong junior group highlighted by dynamic combo guard David Crisp, high-upside wing Matisse Thybulle, and steady big Noah Dickerson should win the Huskies some games this season.
- Colorado- Colorado brings in one of the most under-the-radar recruiting classes in the country, and they will need an instant impact from a few of them to compliment talented senior George King. I’ve heard rave reviews on freshman PG McKinley Wright, the former Dayton signee who flipped to Colorado after Archie Miller left for Indiana. He’ll be looked to as an immediate contributor for the Buffaloes.
- Washington State- The Cougars have an outstanding young talent in Malachi Flynn. However, prospects look pretty dim beyond him. Ernie Kent will need some big contributions from some newcomers to make any noise in the Pac-12.
- Cal- Wyking Jones has done an excellent job on the recruiting trail for future classes in his short time since taking over as Cal’s head coach. However, the cupboard is bare this season. One bright spot could be the play of Kentucky transfer Marcus Lee, a talented big man who just never really put it together in his 3 years in Lexington.
While the FBI’s investigation into Arizona and many other programs continues to hang over the Sean Miller’s head, the Wildcats enter the season as a clear national title contender. Arizona has an abundance of depth and versatility on the wing, a pair of outstanding bigs in Ayton and Dusan Ristic, and a steady point guard situation led by Parker Jackson-Cartwright. This is the year Sean Miller finally gets to the Final Four. He might even win it all.
Dark Horse: Oregon State
It’s so hard for me to predict this Oregon State team. On one hand, the return of Tinkle makes a huge difference, but at the same time, this team’s likely next 3 top scorers this season couldn’t take down Savannah State or LBSU and recorded just 1 conference win all season. Tinkle’s return makes a huge difference as a legitimate All-American-level talent, but the Beavers will have to improve taking care of the basketball (significantly negative assist-to-turnover ratio) and improve their offensive efficiency if they are going to make a run at an NCAA Tournament bid.
First Team All-Conference:
- G: Aaron Holiday (UCLA)
- G: Allonzo Trier (Arizona)
- F: Reid Travis (Stanford)
- F: Bennie Boatwright (USC)
- F: Chimezie Metu (USC)
Player of the Year: Reid Travis (Stanford)- The popular pick here is probably Trier, but I’m not sure people realize just how good Travis is. He averaged over 17 points and just under 9 rebounds per game a season ago despite having little floor-spacing around him. He’s extremely efficient as well, shooting 58% from the field. I have the Cardinal pegged as an NCAA Tournament team this season.
Breakout Player of the Year: Payton Pritchard (Oregon)- Pritchard followed up a 2016-17 season in which he played a key role on a Final Four team with a busy summer highlighted by a trip to Egypt to represent Team USA at the FIBA U19 World Cup. He makes good decisions, scores the ball effectively, and seems poised for a huge year as a leader for an Oregon club graduating so much production.
Newcomer of the Year: DeAndre Ayton (Arizona)- The upside Ayton has is nothing short of through the roof. A 7-footer with a 7-5 wingspan and a skillset that FanRag Sports’ Jon Rothstein compares to David Robinson, Ayton can step out and hit jumpers while also dominating the opposition in the paint.