The college basketball season tips off today. Here is a look around the Pac-12 conference before we get going.
Need to Know: It won’t exactly qualify as going out on a limb, but I’m picking Oregon to defend its Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles. Gone are forwards Elgin Cook and Dwayne Benjamin from that team that made a trip to the Elite Eight a year ago, but head coach Dana Altman was able to bring in JC Player of the Year Kavell Bigby-Williams to ease the transition.
Bigby-Williams should shine alongside returners Dillon Brooks (16.7 points per game last season) and Tyler Dorsey (13.4 PPG) as Altman has shown in the past he can pair transfers with two and three-year guys with ease. This might just be the year the Ducks return to the Final Four, which would be their first trip since winning the whole thing back in 1939.
Bold Prediction: Gillette College transfer Kavell Bigby-Williams wins Pac-12 Newcomer of the Year.
Toughest non-conference game: Nov. 15 at Baylor
Postseason Outlook: 1 seed in NCAA Tournament
Need to Know: It’s rare Arizona doesn’t enter the season as the favorite to win the Pac-12, but that’s the scenario Sean Miller and company face this season. But for all the question marks that surround Allonzo Trier’s eligibility and how tough it will be to replace Ryan Anderson and Gabe York, this is still a deep, talented roster.
That talent is young and raw, however, and it might take a while for the Wildcats to realize their potential. We already saw the team struggle for periods in a tight exhibition victory against Cal State Chico, so don’t be surprised if they take some lumps against a non-conference schedule that features teams like Michigan State, Gonzaga, and Texas A&M.
Still, Miller should have everyone playing as a cohesive unit once January rolls around. Expect Arizona to go blow-for-blow with Oregon all year long as the two battle for the conference crown.
Bold Prediction: The victor in the February 4 game at Oregon will win the Pac-12 title.
Toughest non-conference game: Nov. 11 vs. Michigan State in Honolulu
Postseason Outlook: 3 seed in NCAA Tournament
Need to Know: This might be a little higher than where most see Colorado finishing, but the Buffaloes should surprise a lot of opponents this season. Tad Boyle’s team returns three starters from a team that won 22 games a year ago, including junior guard George King, who shot at a 45.6 percent clip from beyond the arc.
The returning talent combined with the built-in advantage of playing half of its conference games at elevation makes Colorado a legitimate threat to finish in the upper quarter of the Pac-12.
Bold Prediction: George King wins Pac-12 Player of the Year.
Toughest non-conference game: Dec. 7 vs. Xavier
Postseason Outlook: 4 seed in NCAA Tournament
Need to Know: The time is now for Steve Alford and company. UCLA had more than enough talent to succeed a year ago, but instead dropped their final five games to finish the season 15-17.
If Alford is to get off the hot seat, an upper-half Pac-12 finish and a return to the NCAA Tournament is a must for this talented Bruins squad. The pieces are certainly there, as a pair of five-star recruits in Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf join four returning starters to give UCLA an outside shot at the conference crown.
Bold Prediction: UCLA finishes two games out of first place in the Pac-12.
Toughest nonconference game: Dec. 3 at Kentucky
Postseason Outlook: 6 seed in NCAA Tournament
Need to Know: This isn’t the same team that finished fourth in the Pac-12 and as a four seed in the NCAA’s a year ago, but Cuonzo Martin still has a talented bunch for his third year in Berkeley. The combination of Ivan Rabb and Jabari Bird is enough to keep them in most every game they play, but the real question is whether centers like Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh can provide enough of a defensive presence in the post.
This has all the looks of a team that finishes with 10-12 conference wins - good but still forced to play on Wednesday in Las Vegas.
Bold Prediction: Cuonzo Martin leaves for greener pastures in April.
Toughest nonconference game: Dec. 21 vs. Virginia
Postseason Outlook: 8 seed in NCAA Tournament
6. Oregon State
Need to Know: Oregon State surprised many last season, making their first trip to the Big Dance since 1990 (and as a seven seed, no less). Now comes the tough part: making a return without the services of point guard Gary Payton II.
Wayne Tinkle and his staff did a good job of replicating last year’s non-conference schedule, which gamed the RPI system to a tee by scheduling winnable games against decent mid-majors.
As long as the Beavers take care of business early in the season and finish around .500 in Pac-12 play, they should make another trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Bold Prediction: Oregon State enters Pac-12 play with just one loss.
Toughest nonconference game: Dec. 16 vs. Long Beach State in Portland
Postseason Outlook: 9 seed in NCAA Tournament
Need to Know: Oregon State wasn’t the only team to make a surprise run to the NCAA Tournament last March. Despite an up and down finish to the regular season, USC ended up dancing as well behind the play of guys like Nikola Jovanovic, Julian Jacobs, and Katin Reinhardt.
This year, however, those three are gone.
Guard Jordan McLaughlin and wing Bennie Boatwright will be tasked with carrying this team, and while the Trojans will come close to making a return to the Field of 68, ultimately I think they fall a bit short.
Bold Prediction: Jordan McLaughlin will lead the Pac-12 in scoring.
Toughest nonconference game: Nov. 18 at Texas A&M
Postseason Outlook: 3 seed in the NIT
Need to Know: Things are looking up in Seattle, but Washington is still a year or two away from getting back to the way things used to be. The one-and-done rule killed Lorenzo Romar’s team this season as two of their stud freshman - Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss - left the program to become first round selections in the NBA Draft.
If they had those two back for their sophomore seasons, we’re talking about one of the top 15 teams in the country. Instead, Romar is going to have to rely on another group of talented but raw players to grow up quickly just to get back to the NIT.
Bold Prediction: Washington catches fire in Vegas but comes up one game short of winning the Pac-12 Tournament.
Toughest nonconference game: Dec. 7 at Gonzaga
Postseason Outlook: 6 seed in the NIT
Need to Know: After being the team no one in the Pac-12 liked to play for three years running, Utah is going to take a step back this season. Six members of the team’s 10-deep rotation from a year ago are gone, leaving Lorenzo Bonam and Kyle Kuzma as the only known threats on the roster.
Both Bonam and Kuzma are solid, but the pair won’t exactly strike fear into opposing defenses. This looks like a rebuilding year in Salt Lake City.
Bold Prediction: Utah loses five of its final six games to end the season.
Toughest nonconference game: Dec. 10 at Xavier
Postseason Outlook: CBI
Need to Know: The Jerod Haase era might get off to a rocky start on The Farm, but Stanford might be a little underrated down here at No. 10. Four starters return from a team that went .500 on the 2015-16 campaign, and freshman forward Trevor Stanback will provide some much-needed defense in the post for the Cardinal.
This team might be a couple of upsets away from finishing inside the top eight in the Pac-12.
Bold Prediction: Dorian Pickens is named a second team All-American at the end of the year.
Toughest nonconference game: Dec. 3 at Kansas
Postseason Outlook: N/A
11. Arizona State
Need to Know: The bad news for Arizona State? On paper, the Sun Devils look like the 11th most-talented team in the league.
The good news? There is not much difference at all between teams six through 11.
So while Bobby Hurley’s team may enter the season with low expectations, the potential is certainly there for this group to surprise and play in a good postseason tournament. Only time will tell.
Bold Prediction: Arizona State wins the Tire Pros Invitational.
Toughest nonconference game: Nov. 28 vs. Kentucky in Nassau
Postseason Outlook: N/A
12. Washington State
Need to Know: Someone’s got to be last. This year, it’s Washington State.
It is just tough to identify many wins on this schedule for the Cougars. The duo of Josh Hawkinson and Ike Iroegbu will impress just like always, but where the team goes for scoring outside of those two remains a huge question mark.
Bold Prediction: Washington State upsets UCLA on the final day of the regular season for its second Pac-12 victory.
Toughest nonconference game: Nov. 18 vs. Creighton in Saint Thomas
Postseason Outlook: N/A