College Basketball Primer: What You Need To Know About The Pac-12 This Season

Today we continue our series of college basketball conference previews with a look at the Pac-12.

The Pac-12 is a top-heavy conference in 2016-17. There are three very good teams leading the pack, but things drop off quickly from there, at least in terms of NCAA Tournament threats. Still, the conference is likely to get five bids to the Big Dance this season, and we all know once you're in, anything can happen.

Teams You Need To Know

Oregon

The Ducks return much of their roster from last season’s run to the Elite 8, a roster that's loaded with juniors and seniors. But Oregon isn't all upperclassmen. Dana Altman adds three four-star freshmen in Payton Pritchard, M.J. Cage and Keith Smith, who should combine with JUCO transfer Kavell Bigby-Williams to make an impact as well.

For Oregon, it all starts with Dillon Brooks,who led the team in scoring and assists and was second in rebounding a season ago. He's currently shelved with foot injury but remains a Wooden Award candidate. He's that good.

In the backcourt, Tyler Dorsey is a double-figure scorer who can shoot from three, and point guard Casey Benson led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio last season. Villanova transfer Dylan Ennis missed much of last season due to injury, and his return after being granted an extra year of eligibility adds stability and veteran leadership. That'll be beneficial for Pritchard, who is expected to push for significant minutes as well after entering the program as the top recruit in the state of Oregon.

The frontcourt is the true strength for Oregon, however. Last season the Ducks added NJCAA Player of the Year Chris Boucher, who contributed 12.1 points and 7.4 rebounds in his first season in Eugene. He is an excellent rim protector and can step out and knock down threes. Transfer Bigby-Williams is athletic and at 6-10 can be a major force on the boards and in the paint defensively, while 6-9 Jordan Bell is yet another shot-blocking threat who also converted 57.6 percent of his field goals last year. They'll be spelled by Cage and Smith, who aren't expected to just ride the pine in their first season.

Oregon is a deep and experienced team. The frontcourt is one of the best in the country, and Brooks gives the Ducks something not every team has: a player who can take over games and be a true go-to option. All the pieces are in place for Oregon to build on last season’s success and be a legitimate player on the national level. A Final Four run is not out of the question for the Ducks.

Arizona

Arizona lost several key players from last year, but Sean Miller reloaded with a trio of five-star freshmen in shooting guard Rawle Alkins, power forward Lauri Markkanen and combo guard Kobi Simmons. However, the Wildcats got some sad news earlier this month, when talented forward Ray Smith announced his retirement from basketball after suffering his third ACL tear. There are also questions surrounding Arizona’s leading returning scorer, sophomore Allonzo Trier, who is not playing for unknown reasons.

With the uncertainty surrounding Trier, questions abound in the backcourt. Senior Kadeem Allen becomes the focal point. He brings experience and defense and could be a double-figure scorer in an increased role — at least, that's what Coach Miller hopes. Parker Jackson-Cartwright is a decent three-point shooter and playmaker, but at 5-11 can be liability on the defensive end. Trier’s absence opens room for talented freshmen Alkins and Simmons, and their ability to contribute immediately will be huge for Arizona.

Where Arizona can find an advantage is in the frountcourt, which has some serious size. Seven-foot junior Dusan Ristic and 6-11 sophomore Chance Comanche lead the way. Ristic is a good shooter who made a surprising 38 percent from three last season, while Miller thinks Comanche has NBA potential, but he needs to show improvement in an increased role. Freshman Lauri Markkanen is a player to watch up front as well. He is more of stretch four than a traditional center who is already garnering NBA interest.

Arizona is dealing with more questions than expected as it heads into the season. The loss of Smith hurts, and the uncertainty with Trier is a major cause for concern. Despite those issues, there is a load of talent in place, as evidenced by Arizona’s season-opening win over Michigan State. If the young talent can live up to expectations and Miller can fit the pieces together, Arizona could be scary come March.

UCLA

The Bruins enter the season with a lot of intrigue. Last year they stumbled to a 15-17 record, just the fourth losing season for the program since 1948, which naturally led to coach Steve Alford's seat feeling extremely hot right now. But UCLA returns the majority of its roster while adding a top five recruiting class.

In the frontcourt, UCLA will lean heavily on seven-foot junior Thomas Welch, who averaged 11.2 points and 8.5 rebounds last season. He has a nice jump shot and is lethal in the midrange. Five-star freshman T.J. Leaf will be a key in the frontcourt as well. The McDonald’s All-American scored over 3,000 points in his high school career.

The backcourt for the Bruins is loaded. They return three double-figure scorers in Bryce Alford (16.1), Isaac Hamilton (16.8) and Aaron Holiday (10.3). As good as those players are, none of them are as good as Lonzo Ball, one of the top freshmen in the entire nation. Ball is a gifted playmaker and a likely lottery pick come June. His arrival likely pushes Holiday to a sixth man role, which is a luxury for the Bruins and something that give them one of the best backcourts in the country.

There are still concerns for UCLA, most notably on the defensive end where they lost last season's best defender, Jonah Bolden. However, despite the defensive questions, a quick turnaround from last season’s disappointment is very likely.

The Best Of The Rest:  USC, Cal, Colorado

Players To Watch

Markelle Fultz, Washington

Fultz joins the Huskies as a top five prospect. He is an elite ball-handler who can get to the rim and hit difficult shots. He can also be disruptive on the defensive end. And if his performance playing on the USA's Under 18 squad is any indication, where he put up an impressive 23-point, five-rebound, five-assist performance in the championship game in just 21 minutes of action, he's primed for a dominant freshman season.

Ivan Rabb, Cal

At 6-11, 220, Rabb is a physical force. He could be looking at a breakout season at Cal after averaging 12.5 points and 8.6 rebounds as a freshman last season. While his game is still developing, he is very skilled at playing with his back to the basket and possesses great vision, making him a nightly double-double threat. Keep an eye on Rabb this season as he looks to take the next step.

Prediction

Regular-Season Champion: Oregon

Oregon has the depth and experience that are invaluable to a college team. The Ducks have a formidable frontcourt that can match up with any in the country and a legitimate National Player of the Year candidate in Dillon Brooks. Oregon is clearly the class of the conference and should have little problem taking home the regular-season championship.

Player Of The Year: Dillon Brooks

Brooks could be a 20 point-per-game scorer and is the best player on the best team in the conference. In addition to the scoring, he makes sizable contributions rebounding the ball and setting up teammates. If he can harness his talent and pair it with season-long consistency, he is not only the Player of the Year in the conference, but also a serious contender for National Player of the Year.

Overview

As I mentioned, the Pac-12 is a bit top-heavy. Oregon enters the year as a legitimate contender for a trip to Phoenix for the Final Four, but there are questions marks after the Ducks. Arizona and UCLA have some concerns but are loaded with talent and should be major threats if they can put it together. Cal, Colorado and USC comprise the second tier of the conference and will battle for NCAA berths. The talent and intrigue in the Pac-12 are there, headlined by must-watch freshmen Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz, and it should make for a fun season out west.

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