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Pac-12 preview: Top two teams will have cloud over them this season

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 2, 2017, 11:03 a.m.

Despite a turbulent offseason, coach Sean Miller and his Arizona Wildcats look like favorites in the Pac-12. (John Locher / Associated Press)
Despite a turbulent offseason, coach Sean Miller and his Arizona Wildcats look like favorites in the Pac-12. (John Locher / Associated Press)

Arizona spent a good stretch of the spring and summer as a projected – though not consensus – preseason No. 1 nationally. Then Duke made a late recruiting snag of Marvin Bagley III and scuttled that.

And then the FBI turned college basketball upside down, and cast a big shadow over the 2018 Pac-12 season.

Assistant coaches Emmanuel “Book” Richardson of Arizona and Tony Bland of USC – the presumptive No. 2 team in the Pac-12 in early previews – were charged in the blockbuster sting that rocked the sport alleging illicit payments among shoe companies, agents and coaches to steer recruits to specific advisers and schools. Both coaches have been suspended by their schools with the process to dismiss Richardson underway at Arizona. And while outcomes and punishments may not be decided during the course of the season, the cloud will follow both programs – and the Pac-12.

Which might be the only part of the season that doesn’t follow a familiar tack.

The Pac-12 put just four teams into the 2017 NCAA Tournament, but three were top three seeds and reached the Sweet 16 and Oregon made it to the Final Four before falling to North Carolina. Those same four – Arizona, USC, the Ducks and UCLA – are likely to return, and there’s a slight chance that Stanford could make it five if the Cardinal’s fine recruiting class can provide some help for hard-working Reid Travis.

If the hierarchy of the Pac-12 isn’t shifting, there were a couple notable changes in the coaching ranks. At Cal, Cuonzo Martin never signed his original contract, then got an extension through 2021, then bolted for Missouri at season’s end – another bad look in a troubled athletic department that responded by elevating well-liked but lightly regarded assistant Wyking Jones. And up in Seattle, Lorenzo Romar’s run of good-recruits-but-poor-results finally petered out – his firing sending the nation’s top prep recruit, Michael Porter, and a crackerjack recruiting class to the wind.

And Romar? He didn’t stay unemployed long. He’s an assistant now – to Sean Miller at Arizona. Lots of drama in the Pac-12.

Arizona Wildcats

Coach: Sean Miller (340-113), 9th year

2016-17 record: 32-5. Pac-12: 16-2, 1st (tie)

Key newcomers: Emmanuel Akot (6-7, G), DeAndre Ayton (7-1, F), Brandon Rudolph (6-6, G)

Key losses: Lauri Markkanen, Kadeem Allen, Kobi Simmons

Outlook: The FBI bribery sting that ensnared assistant coach Book Richardson will be a season-long shadow – possibly over the nation’s best team. That’s if guard Rawle Atkins makes full recovery from a broken foot and Parker Jackson-Cartwright is the point to take a team the distance. But Allonzo Trier’s return and the arrival of man-child DeAndre Ayton make UA the real deal.

Arizona State Sun Devils

Coach: Bobby Hurley (72-55), 3rd year

2016-17 record: 15-18. Pac-12: 7-11, 8th

Key newcomers: Romello White (6-8, F), Mickey Mitchell (6-7, F), Kimani Lawrence (6-7, F)

Key losses: Torian Graham, Obinna Oleka, Sam Cunliffe

Outlook: With a four-guard lineup, the Sun Devils were overmatched inside last year. That should be alleviated a bit by two players who had to sit out – Romello White (academics) and Vitaliy Shibel (knee) – and junior college rim protector De’Quon Lake. Tra Holder and Shannon Evans make for a small, but potent, backcourt, but this team has to be able to guard somebody.

California Bears

Coach: Wyking Jones, 1st year

2016-17 record: 21-13. Pac-12: 10-8, 5th (tie)

Key newcomers: Marcus Lee (6-11, F), Darius McNeill (6-3, G), Deschon Winston (6-2, G)

Key losses: Ivan Rabb, Jabari Bird, Charlie Moore

Outlook: Coach Cuonzo Martin bolting to Missouri? Not a surprise. Promoting Wyking Jones to replace him? Who-king? A low-key hire will probably get some slack, what with 7-foot defensive specialist Kingsley Okoroh the only starter back. Kentucky transfer Marcus Lee will have to have a big year, and Darius McNeill will have to blossom quickly at the point.

Colorado Buffaloes

Coach: Tad Boyle (205-161), 8th year

2016-17 record: 19-15. Pac-12: 8-10, 7th

Key newcomers: Namon Wright (6-5, G), McKinley Wright IV (6-0, G)

Key losses: Derrick White, Xavier Johnson, Wesley Gordon

Outlook: Experience didn’t get the Buffs much traction last year, so now they can try the makeover. The lone returning starter is wing George King, who doubles as CU’s top 3-point threat and best rebounder. There’s Wright stuff in the backcourt – Missouri transfer Namon and freshman McKinley – and raw athleticism in the frontcourt in Tyler Bey.

Oregon Ducks

Coach: Dana Altman (597-313), 8th year

2016-17 record: 33-6. Pac-12: 16-2, 1st (tie)

Key newcomers: Elijah Brown (6-4, G), Troy Brown (6-6, G), Kenny Wooten (6-9, F)

Key losses: Dillon Brooks, Chris Boucher, Tyler Dorsey

Outlook: No team lost more than the Ducks, but they reeled in a terrific recruiting class, including two productive grad transfers in Elijah Brown (New Mexico) and MiKyle McIntosh (Illinois State) and gifted freshman Troy Brown. The burden is on sophomore point guard Payton Pritchard to hold it all together, but he showed a great hand with veterans last year.

Oregon State Beavers

Coach: Wayne Tinkle (199-145), 4th year

2016-17 record: 5-27. Pac-12: 1-17, 12th

Key newcomers: Ethan Thompson (6-5, G), Alfred Hollins (6-6, F), Seth Berger (6-8, F)

Key loss: Derrick Bruce

Outlook: When Tres Tinkle went down six games into the 2017 season, the Beavers went into a death spiral. So they need him healthy, strong years from Stephen Thompson Jr. and incoming brother Ethan, and forward Drew Eubanks to pare back his turnovers and fouls. But the Beavers need to shoot it, handle it and board it better.

Stanford Cardinal

Coach: Jerod Haase (94-70), 2nd year

2016-17 record: 14-17. Pac-12: 6-12, 9th (tie)

Key newcomers: Kezie Okpala (6-8, F), Daejon Davis (6-3, G), Kodye Pugh (6-8, F)

Key losses: Marcus Allen, Christian Sanders

Outlook: A top-20 recruiting class and strong frontcourt should get the Cardinal into the NCAAs for only the second time in 10 years. Brawny Reid Travis is the Pac-12’s top-returning scorer and rebounder and will get help from esteemed freshmen Kezie Okpala and Oscar Da Silva. The key is backcourt production from Dorian Pickens and Marcus Sheffield, a modest scorer who had 35 points against ASU.

UCLA Bruins

Coach: Steve Alford (481-251), 5th year

2016-17 record: 31-5. Pac-12: 15-3, 3rd

Key newcomers: LiAngelo Ball (6-5, G), Jaylen Hands (6-3, G), Kris Wilkes (6-8, G)

Key losses: Lonzo Ball, TJ Leaf, Isaac Hamilton, Bryce Alford

Outlook: Only LaVar Ball thinks his No. 2 son is the centerpiece of the UCLA recruiting class. LiAngelo won’t have near the impact of Lakers-bound Lonzo, but Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes are capable replacements for Bryce Alford and TJ Leaf. Expect the Bruins to be stronger up front behind 7-footer Thomas Welsh and freshmen Cody Riley and Jalen Hill. Thirty wins are certainly possible.

USC Trojans

Coach: Andy Enfield (111-92), 5th year

2016-17 record: 26-10. Pac-12: 10-8, 5th (tie)

Key newcomers: Charles O’Bannon Jr. (6-6, G), Jordan Usher (6-7, F), Derryck Thornton (6-2, G)

Key loss: none

Outlook: What are the odds of a 26-win, NCAA Tournament team returning five starters and not losing a single player to early NBA entry? That’s why the Trojans are the biggest threat to Arizona top the Pac-12. Jordan McLaughlin is the league’s top returning point guard and Benny Boatwright, Elijah Stewart and Chimezie Metu give the Trojans top-shelf weapons inside and out.

Utah Utes

Coach: Larry Krystkowiak (157-105), 7th year

2016-17 record: 20-12. Pac-12: 11-7, 4th

Key newcomers: Justin Bibbins (5-8, G), Donnie Tillman (6-7, F), Christian PoPoola (6-4, G)

Key losses: Kyle Kuzma, Lorenzo Brown, Devon Daniels

Outlook: The Utes slipped back to NIT level last year and face difficult, if not daunting, odds on returning to the NCAAs without first-round draft pick Kyle Kuzma and two other starters. They do have a below-the-radar big man in David Collette but no other established double-figure scorers. Long Beach State waterbug Justin Bibbins and holdover Sedrick Barefield will vie to run the show.

Washington Huskies

Coach: Mike Hopkins, 1st year

2016-17 record: 9-22. Pac-12: 2-16, 11th

Key newcomers: Jaylen Nowell (6-5, G), Nahzlah Carter (6-5, G), Hameir Wright (6-8, F)

Key losses: Marquelle Fultz, Malik Dime

Outlook: The difficult decision to part with good-guy institution Lorenzo Romar was compounded when most of his splendid class of commits scattered. Longtime Syracuse aide Mike Hopkins rallied to salvage Jaylen Nowell, but will have to make do with some average core parts – feast-or-famine guard David Crisp, try-hard Matisse Thybulle and 6-8 Noah Dickerson, the closest thing to a go-to guy.

Washington State Cougars

Coach: Ernie Kent, 4th year

2016-17 record: 13-18. Pac-12: 6-12, 9th

See the WSU preview, here.


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