Over the past couple of seasons, the top of the Pac-12 has stacked up with the very best teams in the country. But 2018-19 could mark a down year for the conference.
Arizona no longer has DeAndre Ayton leading the way, Oregon is promising but largely unproven, and UCLA just lost freshman center Shareef O’Neal for the season. It is the only Power 5 conference without a top-10 team in Sporting News’ preseason top 25, though Arizona, Oregon and UCLA all made the list.
MORE: Sporting News’ updated preseason top 25
While the league might not attract much national attention — except when ESPN announcer Bill Walton is on the broadcast — it’s shaping up to be a hard-fought race to the top. Half the conference is in contention for a regular-season crown, and it’s likely a few of the young faces to debut this campaign will shoot up NBA Draft boards.
Sporting News breaks down the Pac-12 with predictions, a sleeper team, an X-factor, player of the year hopefuls, a coach with the most to prove and the biggest regular-season games.
8. Arizona State
10. Oregon State
12. Washington State
Pac-12 champion: Oregon
Under coach Dana Altman the Ducks have made the NCAA tournament in five of the past six seasons — by far the best stretch in program history. Two years ago, they were a Jordan Bell rebound away from a national championship appearance. So why shouldn’t we expect their promising young core to evolve into the Pac-12 leader by the end of the season?
Oregon had the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class in 2018 according to 247Sports’ Composite rankings. Five-star big man Bol Bol is getting the most attention among the group, but the class is deep, with five top-100 recruits and three top-50 talents. Those players should complement returning contributors such as junior guard Payton Pritchard and sophomore forward Kenny Wooten, giving Altman more than enough firepower to lead his team to a conference title.
Pac-12 X-factor: Matisse Thybulle (Washington)
It’s extremely rare these days for a college player to evolve into an all-around juggernaut over the course of four years. Usually, once a player reaches a certain performance level, they make the jump to the NBA.
But Thybulle, the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, has a chance to complete a remarkable trajectory in his senior season. Already an absolute unit on the defensive end (he averaged 3.0 steals and 1.4 blocks last year), Thybulle possesses enough offensive potential to take the next step. By recreating his shooting efficiency of two seasons ago (40 percent from 3-point range, 84 percent from the line) while still logging heavy minutes, he could push the Huskies into contention for a favorable tournament seed come March.
POWER 5 PREVIEWS: B10 | B12 | ACC | SEC
Pac-12 sleeper: Stanford
The Cardinal showed us something down the stretch last season, even if few noticed the strides they made following a brutal nonconference slate that included losses to Portland State and Long Beach State. They went 11-7 in the Pac-12 and beat tournament teams UCLA and Arizona State (twice).
Stanford returns a handful of productive underclassmen, including Daejon Davis, who made the Pac-12 All-Freshman team last season after averaging 10.7 points, 4.8 assists and 4.4 rebounds per contest. The Cardinal are certainly a young group without the blue chip talent of conference peers, but if their returning players carry over the chemistry from the end of the 2017-18 campaign, it could be a surprisingly strong season in Palo Alto.
Pac-12’s five biggest regular season games
UCLA at Oregon, Jan. 10 — These teams have had some bonkers back-and-forth games in recent years, and this could be another fun affair early on in conference action.
Oregon at Arizona, Jan. 17 — As a rule, do not bet against Arizona unless it loses at home to the presumptive Pac-12 favorite. The Wildcats will be juiced for this early conference tilt, eager to show the world they shouldn’t be slept on this season. It should be a fascinating spectacle.
Washington at Arizona, Feb. 7 — The same sort of vibe will likely be at play in this matchup, as two potential top-25 programs duel in Tucson.
USC at UCLA, Feb. 28 — This battle for SoCal could have major tournament implications, with USC and UCLA potentially destined for the bubble. A win for either team over their crosstown rival would provide a crucial resume boost in addition to bragging rights.
Oregon at Washington, March 9 — Kudos to the scheduling gurus and/or our computer-generating overlords for selecting this matchup as the final contest of the Pac-12 slate. It very well could be a showdown for the regular season title. What could be better?
Pac-12 Player of the Year hopefuls
Bennie Boatwright, F, USC: Boatwright has had a hard time staying healthy over the course of his college career. Last season, he dealt with a foot blister and knee injury that sidelined him for much of conference play. But when he’s on the court, the 6-10 stretch forward can cause problems. He’ll be the focal point of USC’s offense this year with forward Chimezie Metu now in the NBA.
Kris Wilkes, F, UCLA: Wilkes is another guy who combines length with a serviceable outside shot. After averaging 13.7 points per game as a freshman, he has the opportunity to make an even greater impact in his second season with the Bruins.
Noah Dickerson, F, Washington: While Thybulle leads the Huskies defense, Dickerson is the unquestioned top dog at the other end, where he averaged 15.5 points and 2.7 offensive rebounds per game last season.
Payton Pritchard, G, Oregon: Simply put, people pay attention to the ball-dominant guard on the best team in the conference. Pritchard assisted on over 30 percent of Oregon’s buckets last year, and he’ll be a key figure in bringing the team’s loaded freshman class up to speed.
Bol Bol, C, Oregon: Conversely, people also pay attention to 7-2 guys who can step outside and hit from long range. At least we think so. There really hasn’t been anyone like Bol Bol in the history of college basketball.
MID-MAJOR PREVIEWS: AAC | A10 | WCC
Pac-12 coach with the most to prove: Sean Miller, Arizona
Let’s put aside the FBI probe that turned Arizona’s 2017-18 season into a circus and focus on what the Wildcats have done on the court since Sean Miller’s arrival: Three Elite 8 appearances, two Sweet 16 trips and two first-round exits in nine years. That’s roughly the same success rate as the team had over the previous nine years without Miller.
But Arizona hasn’t made a Final Four since 2000-01, a topic of conversation that inevitably will be used as fuel against Miller if the Wildcats finish fourth or fifth in the conference this year. In a season with fewer top recruits than Miller is used to, he needs to show fans he can coach a team past its expectations.
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