The college basketball season tips off today. Here is a look around the Pac-12 conference before we get going.
Need to Know: Not only is Arizona the top team in the Pac-12, it might be the best team in the nation. Led by Brandon Ashley and Stanley Johnson in the frontcourt, this should be the team that finally gets coach Sean Miller to the Final Four. Last year, the Wildcats fell by one in overtime to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight. With the additions of Johnson, one of the top recruits in program history, and Kadeem Allen, who might start immediately at the two, I do not see them being eliminated until the final weekend of the season.
Bold Prediction: Arizona and Wisconsin end up meeting again, this time in the national championship game.
Toughest nonconference game: Dec. 6 vs Gonzaga
Need to Know: Sure, Spencer Dinwiddie may be gone. But I think Colorado might be even better without him. Instead of relying on one elite player, the Buffaloes have an extremely strong nucleus of Josh Scott, Askia Booker, and Dominique Collier. Based on their eight-deep rotation alone, this is my surprise team out west. Throw in an awesome home court advantage up at elevation and the Buffaloes are scary.
Bold Prediction: Colorado will only be one game behind Arizona by the time the regular season comes to a close.
Toughest nonconference game: Dec. 7 at Georgia
Need to Know: While the difference between the top two teams in this conference and the next ten is sizable, I like Stanford to at least win a game in the NCAA Tournament. The pressure is off head coach Johnny Dawkins after the Cardinal made a run to the Sweet Sixteen last March, and with a backcourt featuring Chasson Randle and Anthony Brown returning, the Cardinal should finish in the upper third of the Pac-12. The only question is whether or not a big time rebounder can step in and fill the void left by Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell.
Bold Prediction: Chasson Randle wins Pac-12 Player of the Year.
Toughest nonconference game: Dec. 23 at Texas
Need to Know: Everything hinges on UCLA's talented but young group of players. Sophomore's Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will need to do the bulk of the scoring for the Bruins, while freshman Kevon Looney will have to be a do-everything guy in the post. Don't be surprised if they struggle early against teams like Oklahoma and Kentucky, but once league play rolls around I think they find their rhythm and earn a first round bye for the Pac-12 tournament.
Bold Prediction: UCLA finishes in seventh place at the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Toughest nonconference game: Dec. 20 vs Kentucky in Chicago
Need to Know: While this is an improved Utah club, that fact might not translate directly to its record. The Utes face games away from home against San Diego State, BYU, Kansas, UNLV, and Arizona, and will also face Wichita State at the Huntsman Center. After missing out on an NCAA Tournament bid (and being forced to go on the road in the NIT) because of a weak schedule, coach Larry Krystkowiak was determined to schedule up in 2014-15. He has certainly done that.
Bold Prediction: Despite the challenging schedule, Utah makes its first NCAA Tournament in six years.
Toughest nonconference game: Dec. 13 vs Kansas in Kansas City
Need to Know: California loses its leading scorer and top rebounder from a year ago but still has the look of a solid team. I love the hire of Cuonzo Martin, and if guard Jabari Bird continues to trend upward, the Golden Bears have a decent shot at going dancing. Five of their final seven games will be on the road against teams probably ranked ahead of them in the standings. That stretch should determine whether or not they sneak into the tournament.
Bold Prediction: California shocks Arizona at Haas Pavilion, again.
Toughest nonconference game: Dec. 22 vs Wisconsin
Need to Know: Another year, another round of roster turnover in Eugene. Star players Mike Moser and Jason Calliste are gone, but Dana Altman did what he always does and added two more transfers to go along with five freshmen. Leading the team will be senior guard Joseph Young, who is arguably the top shooter in the Pac-12.
Bold Prediction: Altman's seat gets hot after a rough nonconference slate, but a .500 record in league play gets the Ducks to the NIT.
Toughest nonconference game: Nov. 24 vs Michigan in New York City
Need to Know: Now in his second year at USC, Andy Enfield has the right guys to move his team out of the basement. The roster is stacked with talented young players, led by sophomore forward Nikola Jovanoic and freshman guard Jordan McLaughlin. Don't be mistaken, there is a lot of room separating the top seven teams in the Pac-12 from the bottom five. But the Trojans should be able to compete on a nightly basis and win six or seven league games.
Bold Prediction: Jordan McLaughlin is named a freshman All-American at season's end.
Toughest nonconference game: Nov. 20 vs Akron in Charleston
Need to Know: Outside of Portland-area products Andrew Andrews and Nigel Williams-Goss, there is very little offensive firepower on this roster. Guard C.J. Wilcox is gone, and he is taking his 18.3 points per game with him. This has the makings of another long year in Seattle.
Bold Prediction: Washington finishes with only 11 wins and coach Lorenzo Romar is fired after 13 seasons.
Toughest nonconference game: Dec. 7 vs San Diego State
10. Arizona State
Need to Know: This is one confounding Arizona State team. On one hand, I can see Shaquille McKissic being dominant on both ends of the floor, and with some added help from a bevy of junior college transfers, the Sun Devils could compete for a second straight NCAA Tournament berth. On the other, I see a roster with very little proven talent that loses two of the top players in the conference. It will be interesting to see how the year plays out in Tempe.
Bold Prediction: Arizona State splits its two games with Arizona again.
Toughest nonconference game: Dec. 28 vs Harvard
11. Washington State
Need to Know: Expect Ernie Kent's first year in Pullman to be a rough one. DaVonté Lacy and Que Johnson will be bright spots, but this team just isn't very talented. Yet.
Bold Prediction: Washington State upsets Colorado at Beasley Coliseum on the final night of the regular season.
Toughest nonconference game: Dec. 10 at Gonzaga
12. Oregon State
Need to Know: Head coach Wayne Tinkle inked a top 15 recruiting class earlier this week for the class of 2015, but this season will be a dark one. Oregon State has more walk-ons then scholarship players, and we got a sneak peek last Friday of just how bad things are when the Beavers were handled by Western Oregon. It will be a major success if this team doesn't finish last.
Bold Prediction: Oregon State goes winless in conference play.
Toughest nonconference game: Nov. 24 vs Oklahoma State in Las Vegas
NCAA Tournament: Arizona (1 seed), Colorado (4), Stanford (7), UCLA (7), Utah (8), California (12)
NIT: Oregon (2 seed)