Men's basketball Pac-12 preview: Oregon Ducks are the favorite

Simon Asher | The Daily Wildcat Members of the Oregon Men's Basketball team link arms during the National Anthem in McKale Center.

With the college basketball season set to tip-off, Arizona finds itself in an unusual place. The Wildcats were picked to finish fourth in the conference in the preseason poll, their lowest preseason ranking since 2009-2010. 

While the underdog mentality might benefit Arizona, the conference is certainly not lacking talent as a whole. Oregon was the preseason pick to finish first, receiving 16 of 25 possible first-place votes.

UCLA placed second with six, followed by Washington with two and Arizona receiving one. While Oregon may be the favorite, there are many teams who can challenge its for the top spot.

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This is how beat writer Mark Lawson expects things to shake out in the conference.

1. Oregon

Returning Starters: 2

Key Player: Bol Bol

The Ducks should rebound from a disappointing 2017-2018 campaign that saw them miss the NCAA Tournament with a dynamic recruiting class. The consensus top-five class is highlighted by Bol Bol, the unique 7-foot-2 center with range out to the three-point line and a wingspan that will alter any shot near him. Louis King is another top-20 player who can score with anyone due to his smooth game and length. All-Pac-12 Second Team guard Payton Pritchard is back to steady the ship, with grad transfer Ehab Amin, who led all of Division I in steals last season, providing a reliable running mate. If Bol can be the game-changer many have pegged him to be on both sides of the ball, Oregon could be poised for another run to the Final Four.

UA Oregon halftime
Arizona's Brandon Randolph, right, blocks a dunk by Oregon's Elijah Brown, left. Randolph had no points in the game and two assists.

2. Washington

Returning Starters: 5

Key Player: Jaylen Nowell

Washington looks to make big strides in its second season under head coach Mike Hopkins. Returning all five starters from a team that challenged for an NCAA birth last year, Washington will be led by Jaylen Nowell, who was overshadowed during his fabulous freshman season by Deandre Ayton. Nowell averaged 16 points per game last season and could easily contend for player of the year in the conference. Three seniors also start for the Huskies, with Noah Dickerson averaging 15.5 points and 8.4 rebounds last season to provide a presence inside.


Returning Starters: 2

Key Player: Jaylen Hands

UCLA lost one of its more productive players in recent memory to graduation in Aaron Holiday, but the keys to the car should now be given to the dynamic Hands. With the ball in his hands more in a feature role, expect him to have a big breakout campaign. Kris Wilkes is a 6-foot-8 guard who is the leading returning scorer, at just under 14 points per game. Head coach Steve Alford’s leash in Westwood seems to be getting shorter and shorter with each passing season, but a recruiting class that brings in five top-100 players looks to keep him secure for the near future.

UCLA's Jaylen Hands looks to drive past Arizona's Dylan Smith (3) during the fist half of the UA-UCLA game on Thursday, Feb. 8 at McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz. Hands had 11 points in the game.

4. USC

Returning Starters: 2

Key Player: Bennie Boatwright

The Trojans appeared to be safe for the NCAA Tournament last season after going 12-6 in conference and making it to the Pac-12 title game, but the cards were not in their favor. The good news for the Trojans is that, while they have to replace three starters, including point guard Jordan McLaughlin, they bring in more than enough to do that. Back is Boatwright, who missed a good chunk of last season, probably preventing him from thinking more seriously about jumping to the NBA. Kevin Porter Jr. is a trendy pick for Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, as the lefty is athletic and has the jumper to match it.

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5. Arizona

Returning Starters: 0

Key Player: Brandon Randolph

Pegged by many last season as the favorite to win the national title before the season, Arizona experienced one of the most up and down seasons you will ever see in college basketball. From being the No. 2-ranked team in the country to unranked the next week, Arizona struggled through adversity to win the Pac-12 tournament and be a trendy national title pick yet again come tournament time, only to lose out against Buffalo in the first round. Sean Miller lost all five starters from that team, and while expectations are down in Tucson, this team should still contend for an NCAA berth. Chase Jeter is finally eligible after transferring from Duke, and more minutes could mean the coming-out party for sophomore guard Brandon Randolph, who should be among the league’s most improved.

Men's bball v West New Mexico University
Arizona's Brandon Randolph, 5, goes up through heavy contact during the Arizona-West New Mexico University game on Tuesday, Oct. 30 at the McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.

6. Arizona State

Returning Starters: 2

Key Player: Rob Edwards

Speaking of up and down seasons, the Bobby Hurley experiment was quite a ride last season for the Sun Devils. After receiving almost no national attention to start the year, ASU turned heads by going into Kansas and shocking the Jayhawks while also beating Xavier on a neutral floor. After beating two teams who would eventually go on to be No. 1 seeds in the tournament, people began to take notice. ASU was ranked as high as No. 3 in the country last season, before a collapse in Pac-12 play relegated its to the play-in game of the NCAA Tournament, where they fell to Syracuse. Hurley loses his three starting guards from last season, but expect Remy Martin to step in and continue to push tempo for a team that was first in the conference in scoring last year. When it comes to replacing the scoring itself, look for Rob Edwards, a Cleveland State transfer who averaged 16.5 points per game there before sitting out last season to come to the desert. 

Arizona State Men's Basketball Head Coach Bobby Hurley shouts at a referee during the Arizona-Arizona State game on Thursday, Feb. 15 in Wells Fargo Arena in Phoenix, Ariz.

7. Colorado

Returning Starters: 3

Key Player: McKinley Wright IV

Colorado would have probably been higher on the list had it not been for the season-ending torn ACL suffered by starting center Dallas Walton. Colorado has only one senior on the roster, which means it might be a year or two away from really making noise in the conference. What the Buffs do have is Wright, who is a sleeper pick for Pac-12 Player of the Year. Wright was one of the best freshman in all of the country last season, averaging 14.2 points, 5.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game. Head coach Tad Boyle has always had one of the better defenses in the conference, as the Buffaloes were second in the conference in field-goal defense last season, but the loss of Walton, the team’s best interior presence and shot blocker, might be a tough task to overcome.

8. Oregon State

Returning Starters: 4

Key Player: Tres Tinkle

Oregon State returns one of the more dynamic one-two punches in the conference in Tinkle and guard Stephen Thompson, who combined to score 33.4 points per game last season. Tinkle could be playing to help his dad keep his job this season, as head coach Wayne Tinkle has underperformed since taking Oregon State to its first NCAA Tournament in 26 years in 2016. Thompson will also be joined by his brother Ethan in the backcourt, as he averaged just under 10 points per game last season and should only improve in his sophomore year. If Oregon State can get contributions from people outside of those three, it could be a surprise in the conference.

9. Utah

Returning Starters: 1

Key Player: Donnie Tillman

One of the toughest places to play each season in the conference, Utah has been a consistent threat under head coach Larry Krystkowiak in the Pac-12, finishing no lower than fourth each season since 2014. Krystkowiak will have his work cut out for him this season, replacing four starters from a 23-win team a year ago. Back for the Utes is senior Sedrick Barefield, who averaged 12 points per game last season and should be the go-to guy this season for Krystkowiak. Sophomore forward Donnie Tillman is someone to look for to make the leap many Utes take after getting an opportunity, as he averaged 7.8 points and 4.8 points off the bench last season as a freshman. Utah will have a lot of new faces this season, and their development will determine the outcome of this team.

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10. Stanford

Returning Starters: 2

Key Player: Daejon Davis

Arguably no team in the country suffered a tougher departure than Stanford did when Reid Travis decided to graduate transfer to play at Kentucky for his final season. Travis would have probably been the preseason Player of the Year in the conference and could have single-handedly taken this team to an NCAA berth. The cupboard is not totally bare for head coach Jerod Haase however, as he returns Davis after an exceptional freshman year that saw him average 10.7 points and 4.8 assists. KZ Okpala also averaged double digits as a freshman, so a year of experience could lead to big things from this duo. 


Returning Starters: 3

Key Player: Justice Sueing

Cal had a rough first year under head coach Wyking Jones, going 8-24 overall and finishing last in the conference. An extremely young team last season, Jones is likely hoping some of the growing pains they may have experienced have gone away in year two, as his three leading returning scorers were all freshmen last year. The group is led by Sueing, who averaged just under 14 points per game last year, with Darius McNeill just behind him at 11.3 a game. The problem for Cal isn’t just youth, however, it is also lack of size. Gone from last season are Marcus Lee and Kingsley Okoroh, the two main interior presences for the Golden Bears last season. Cal will only have one player on the team above 6-foot-8, so expect the team to rely on tempo and the three this season.

University of California's Juhwan Harris-Dyson (2) looks past Arizona's Emmanuel Akot (24) in the first half of the Arizona-Cal game on Saturday, March 3 in McKale Center.

12. Washington State 

Returning Starters: 3

Key Player: Robert Franks

Washington State suffered a huge blow this offseason when starting point guard Malachi Flynn announced his intentions to transfer, but head coach Ernie Kent couldn’t have foreseen another four players electing to join him. Robert Franks almost left to the NBA as well, but he is back for his senior year. Franks will undoubtably be the go-to guy for the Cougars, averaging 17.4 points and 6.6 rebounds last season in the same role. Franks and the two best returning players for Washington State, Viont’e Daniels and Carter Skaggs, all shot over 40 percent from 3-point range last season. Too much roster turnover and another season at the bottom of the conference could be enough to cost Kent his job after the season is done.

Washington State Malachi Flynn tries to power past Arizona guard Rawle Alkins (1) during Arizona's 39-33 lead over Washington State in McKale Center on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017.
Washington State Malachi Flynn tries to power past Arizona guard Rawle Alkins (1) during Arizona's 39-33 lead over Washington State in McKale Center on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017.

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