To label the 2017-18 Pac-12 Conference basketball season a disaster would be akin to calling Godzilla a minor, reptilian nuisance.
Pac-12 teams finished 0-3 in the NCAA Tournament, with two — Arizona State and UCLA — exiting from the First Four. Regular-season and conference tournament champion Arizona lost in a first-round blowout to Mid-American Conference champion Buffalo.
Meanwhile, on-court futility underscored two of the conference’s preseason top 10-ranked programs, Arizona and USC, being featured prominently in the FBI probe into charges of fraud, associated with recruiting malfeasance.
Last season provided evidence of just how quickly a conference’s fortunes can change. Just a year prior, every Pac-12 team in the NCAA Tournament field won at least two games, and Oregon ended the league’s nine-year Final Four drought. As quickly as things deteriorated offers hope that the Pac-12’s outlook can just as abruptly improve.
Three of the conference’s teams begin the 2018-19 campaign ranked in the Top 25, with Oregon and UCLA featuring exciting newcomers likely to pique the interest of the ever-expanding NBA draft cottage industry. Washington, meanwhile, brings back a corps of veterans and arguably the best player in the West, big man Noah Dickerson.
As for the FBI probe, it turns out pundits who called it the greatest scandal in college basketball history — suggesting they know nothing of the 1950s point-shaving scandal, or mafia involvement in point shaving at Boston College in the 1970s, or that members of the UNLV basketball team were photographed in a jacuzzi alongside a guy nicknamed “The Fixer” in 1991 — may have overreacted.
The first trial of the investigation did not result in anything that will profoundly impact the national college basketball landscape, as was often suggested when the probe first became public in September 2017. On a more micro level for the Pac-12, nothing of consequence emerged for any of the programs named in the probe.
Former Arizona assistant coach Book Richardson stands trial after the conclusion of the season, which could change things for Wildcats head coach Sean Miller. But after the Board of Regents declared last week Miller will retain his job, Arizona pushes ahead for business as usual in 2018-19.
Oregon earned first-place in the Pac-12 preseason media poll, but the Ducks’ standing at No. 1 is more an indicator of how open the conference championship chase should be than a resounding vote of confidence for Dana Altman’s squad.
Oregon is heavily reliant on newcomers, of which there are several of note. A pair of 5-star prospects — swing man Louis King and 7-foot-2 center Bol Bol — headline the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class.
Oregon’s tendency to overachieve under Altman’s direction and the influx of talent explain the preseason buzz, but freshman-heavy rosters can be difficult to project. UCLA — tabbed at No. 2 in the preseason media poll — boasts its own impressive crop of newcomers, with a roster of veterans poised to break out.
Five-star freshman center Moses Brown gives the Bruins a post presence to feed off a rotation of returning guards, including highly touted 2017 prospect Jaylen Hands. Hands’ development into a full-time point guard will determine UCLA’s championship credentials.
The Bruins already have a potential Pac-12 Player of the Year in Kris Wilkes, but the X-factor is Prince Ali. The athletic Ali showed flashes last season of developing into an all-around weapon.
Any hesitance to tab UCLA as the preseason favorite comes from a pair of injuries: Both Tyger Campbell and Shareef O’Neal are out for the season before ever suiting up. What’s more, while Oregon has tended to overachieve, UCLA has often fallen shy of expectations under coach Steve Alford.
The Bruins eeked into the Tournament field as a First Four participant a season ago, despite sporting a Top 25 ranking to tip-off the campaign.
The preseason polling of Washington is an intriguing Pac-12 storyline heading into the campaign. Mike Hopkins earned Coach of the Year in the conference a season ago, leading the Huskies to an unexpected 21-win campaign.
Washington returns virtually its entire roster in a stark contrast to recent years, when Hopkins predecessor Lorenzo Romar lost budding stars to early entry into the NBA draft, whether they were ready or not.
Washington’s collective experience bodes well for a championship push. The Huskies blend outstanding defense from Matisse Thybulle, effective scoring touch from Jaylen Nowell, and leadership at the point from David Crisp.
If you’re looking for a preseason front-runner to win Pac-12 Player of the Year, look no further than Washington’s Noah Dickerson. Dickerson reshaped his body last offseason, and it paid off in the form of a 15.5-point, 8.4-rebound per game yield.
He outplayed No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Deandre Ayton in a meeting last season that best exemplified Dickerson’s high ceiling.
Previewing the Pac-12 without discussing Arizona as a championship contender just feels odd. The Wildcats are winners of five regular-season conference titles under Sean Miller, including at least a share of four of the last five.
Arizona has also won the Pac-12 Tournament three of the past four seasons. Las Vegas turns into Tucson North during Championship Week, which overlaps with the university’s Spring Break.
That said, the looming FBI investigation precipitated a mass exodus in the offseason. Ayton, Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins all left early for the NBA draft, with veterans Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic exhausting their eligibility.
Still, Miller’s defensive approach and a last-minute surge in recruiting — commensurate with the dwindling impact of the FBI probe — suggest Arizona could be a sleeper in the Pac-12. The Wildcats return talented role players in Emmanuel Akot and Brandon Randolph, Duke transfer Chase Jeter is eligible after spending a redshirt season practicing against Ayton, and highly touted freshman guard Brandon Williams has breakout potential.
Keep your focus on the Grand Canyon State when looking at the conference’s potential sleepers. While Arizona State withered badly in conference play a season ago, the Sun Devils’ surge into the Top 5 of the AP Poll last December signaled the lofty potential coach Bobby Hurley is beginning to tap into in Tempe.
Arizona State donned t-shirts last year that read “Guard U,” a nod to the program’s history, producing such NBA talent as Byron Scott, Eddie House (maybe the greatest scorer in the post-John Wooden era of Pac-8/10/12 basketball. Seriously. Go YouTube some of his Sun Devils highlights) and James Harden.
Remy Martin carries on the Guard U moniker in 2018-19, but a pair of post players may be Arizona State’s cornerstones for a push in the wide-open conference. Romello White and De’Quon Lake were almost automatic scoring around the rim last season. Finding ways to integrate them into the offense more — particularly while finding replacements for graduated Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice — is key.
Dates To Remember
Nov. 9: Washington at Auburn
The surprise of the SEC is against a championship contender in 2018-19. Washington — which won a virtual road game over Kansas a season ago — can justify some of the preseason hype with an opening-week win here.
Nov. 12: Stanford at North Carolina
Former Roy Williams player Jerod Haase faces his coach as the head coach at Stanford. North Carolina won’t see Stanford’s best player until Dec. 22, however — that’s when Cardinal transfer Reid Travis and Kentucky face the Tar Heels in Chicago.
Thanksgiving Week: Stanford in the Battle 4 Atlantis; Arizona in the Maui Invitational; UCLA in the Las Vegas Invitational; USC in the NABC Hall of Fame Classic
A mostly dismal Feast Week last year foreshadowed struggles to come for the Pac-12. Other than Arizona State’s showing in Las Vegas, and Washington State’s shocking run in the Wooden Classic, Pac-12 teams struggled over Thanksgiving, with UCLA sputtering in Kansas City and Arizona going winless in the Bahamas.
Arizona spending this year in Maui against a loaded field, UCLA in a four-team event in Las Vegas that includes Michigan State, Texas and North Carolina, and USC with a chance to make noise against Texas Tech could be a similar barometer for 2018-19.
Dec. 7: Arizona State vs. Nevada, USC vs. TCU in Los Angeles
The Sun Devils can make noise against a trendy preseason pick for the Final Four.
TCU coach Jamie Dixon was an oft-cited name in association with the USC job, but instead landed at his alma mater.
Dec. 19: UCLA at Cincinnati
The Bearcats shot the lights out of Pauley Pavilion a year ago.
Dec. 22: Kansas at Arizona State
Arizona State shocked the Jayhawks at Phog Allen a season ago.
Jan. 26: Arizona at UCLA
Arizona-UCLA is the preeminent rivalry in the West; that they meet only once for a third consecutive regular season is an inexcusable misfire by the conference.
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