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Pac-12 Conference: Elite players, teams lacking heading into season

Whenever Pac-12 football needs to feel good about itself, all it has to do is look across the hall at Pac-12 basketball.

As the FBI probe into college hoops’ seedy underbelly continued this year and the subsequent fraud trial unfolded involving shoe companies, agents and their seedy go-betweens, no fewer than half of the conference’s programs were name-checked in allegations about this furtive commerce. Whatever their actual involvement and culpability, that’s a lot of mud spattered on the Pac-12.

Maybe even worse, if there’s any cheating going on, the conference doesn’t seem to be getting any bang for the buck.

Only three Pac-12 teams cracked the NCAA Tournament field of 68 last year, and none made it past the first Thursday night. Arizona State and UCLA were bounced in the First Four games; proud Arizona absorbed a first-round bludgeoning by Buffalo.

So sad was the conference’s reputation that the regular season runner-up, USC, wasn’t deemed fit for even play-in humiliation – yet the No. 8 finisher, ASU, was. The Pac-12’s conference round-robin registered pretty much 0.0 on the NCAA selectors’ Brickster Scale.

Summer didn’t treat the Pac-12 any better. Perhaps the leading candidate for 2019 Player of the Year honors, Stanford’s Reid Travis, bolted – not for the NBA, as all the best players do these days, but for its top subsidiary, Kentucky.

But, hey, the league did have the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick in Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton.

That’s not likely to be repeated this year, unless Bol Bol, the enigmatic giant landed by Oregon, blossoms into a world-beater. The league’s elite returnees – Kris Wilkes, McKinley Wright – are fine players, but barely on the lottery’s margins, as are the other top newcomers like Oregon’s Louis King and USC’s Kevin Porter.

Likewise, the Pac-12 is looking for a truly elite team. Three found footing in the pre-season Top 25, but the highest was Oregon at 14 – and the Ducks, for all their talent, have a lot of new characters for Dana Altman to organize into a storybook season.

Then again, maybe all the Pac-12 can aspire to is a hopeful chapter or two.

Arizona Wildcats

Coach: Sean Miller (367-121), 10th year

2017-18 record: 27-8. Pac-12: 14-4, 1st

Key newcomers: Brandon Williams (6-2, G), Omar Thielemans (6-7, F), Justin Coleman (5-10, G) Ryan Luther (6-9, F)

Key losses: DeAndre Ayton, Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins, Dusan Ristic

Outlook: It was body blow after body blow for the Wildcats – the FBI probe, Sean Miller’s brief suspension, the NCAA exit and then the departure of all five starters. Miller was able to salvage one committed recruit, guard Brandon Williams, who toyed with Gonzaga, among others. But by Arizona standards, it’s a patchwork lineup. Grad transfers Justin Coleman (Samford) and Ryan Luther (Pitt) need to be significant contributors and sophomores Brandon Rudolph and Emmanuel Akot need to grow up quickly – as does 6-10 Chase Jeter, who was a bit of a bust at Duke.

Arizona State Sun Devils

Coach: Bobby Hurley (92-67), 4th year

2017-18 record: 20-12. Pac-12: 8-10, 8th (tie)

Key newcomers: Luguentz Dort (6-4, G), Taeshon Cherry (6-8, F), Elias Valtonen (6-7, G)

Key losses: Tra Holder, Shannon Evans, Kodi Justice

Outlook: Despite swooning in conference play, Bobby Hurley has made the Sun Devils relevant again and they should remain so, despite the loss of their three top scorers. Luguentz Dort and Taeshon Cherry highlight a Top 25 recruiting class, and Cleveland State transfer Rob Edwards may have been ASU’s top guard last season while sitting out to satisfy NCAA transfer rules. Another transfer, 6-8 Zylan Cheatham, and Romello White head a deep and versatile front line that suggests the Devils won’t be nearly as 3-point oriented. If they do need a long one, Finnish recruit Elias Valtonen can deliver.

California Golden Bears

Coach: Wyking Jones (8-24), 2nd year

2017-18 record: 8-24. Pac-12: 2-16, 12th

Key newcomers: Matt Bradley (6-4, F), Jacobi Gordon (6-6, F), Andre Kelly (6-7, F), Paris Austin (6-0, G)

Key losses: Marcus Lee, Kingsley Okoroh, Don Coleman

Outlook: Surely the Bears can’t be as hapless on the offensive end as they were last season – but even if they aren’t, there are other issues. Rebounding for one – there isn’t likely to be a rotation player taller than 6-8, unless either of the two new 7-foot giants, Connor Vanover or Matz Stockman, shocks the world. But second-year coach Wyking Jones should be able to do more with his defense if sophomores Justice Sueing and Darius McNeill step up, and Boise State transfer Paris Austin gives the Bears a legitimate point guard to run the show.

Colorado Buffaloes

Coach: Tad Boyle (222-176), 9th year

2017-18 record: 17-15. Pac-12: 8-10, 8th (tie)

Key newcomers: Shane Gatling (6-2, G), Daylen Kountz (6-4, G), Jakub Dombek (6-9, F)

Key losses: George King, Dominique Collier

Outlook: The young Buffs had trouble checking teams even in the ordinary Pac-12 but got enough done with a lineup salted with freshmen that there’s real hope of growth. McKinley Wright is one of the league’s elite talents – and leaders – at point guard and 6-7 Tyler Bey seems poised for a where’d-he-come-from year. The arrival of junior college standout Shane Gatling gives Wright a sharpshooting partner in the backcourt. Up front, 6-10 Lucas Siewert is another sleeper; 6-8 frosh Evan Battey needs to have an impact.

Oregon Ducks

Coach: Dana Altman (620-326), 9th year

2017-18 record: 23-13. Pac-12: 10-8, 6th (tie)

Key newcomers: Bol Bol (7-2, C), Louis King (6-8, F), Will Richardson (6-4, G), Miles Norris (6-10, F), Ehab Amin (6-4, G)

Key losses: MiKyle McIntosh, Elijah Brown, Troy Brown Jr.

Outlook: Four top 100 recruits should return the Ducks to the national conversation, providing Dana Altman can again turn strangers into a team quickly. He has help, though: veteran Payton Pritchard is the perfect point man to keep the kids under control. Not that you want to harness it too much. In small forward Louis King and mega-hyped Bol Bol, the Ducks have a couple of game-changers – Bol’s perimeter game being the real eye-opener for a guy 7-2. Egyptian grad transfer Ehab Amin was a typical late Altman find, and the glue guy for it all is senior Paul White – particularly when the Ducks decide to go small up front.

Oregon State Beavers

Coach: Wayne Tinkle (215-161), 5th year

2017-18 record: 16-16. Pac-12: 7-11, 10th

Key newcomers: Jack Wilson (7-0, C), Antoine Vernon (5-10, G) Kylor Kelley (7-1, C)

Key losses: Drew Eubanks, Seth Berger, Kendal Manuel

Outlook: A big guy with skills when he played, Wayne Tinkle’s savvy as a developer of big men will have a lot to say about whether the Beavers can crack the first division. With his son Tres Tinkle and brothers Stephen and Ethan Thompson, the Beavers are fairly loaded at the guards and wing, but when Drew Eubanks opted to skip his final year, it left the Beavers without a productive big man. They’ll try to find the parts in a group that includes 7-foot newcomers Jack Wilson and Kylor Kelley, plus holdover Gligorije Rakocevic. Speedy Antoine Vernon adds a waterbug element at the point.

Stanford Cardinal

Coach: Jerod Haase (123-86), 3rd year

2017-18 record: 19-16. Pac-12: 11-7, 3rd (tie)

Key newcomers: Cormac Ryan (6-5, G), Bryce Wills (6-5, G), Jaiden Delaire (6-8, F)

Key losses: Reid Travis, Dorian Pickens, Michael Humphrey

Outlook: Just wait till next year. Reid Travis’ decision to bolt to Kentucky as a grad transfer took any real promise out of this one for the Cardinal, who may still be a tough out, but are too young to contend. That’s especially true up front where only KZ Okpala is at all proven, though 7-footer Josh Sharma finished strong last season. With Daejon Davis running the show, the Cardinal play considerably faster than in the past, and if he can cut down on turnovers, there will be more opportunities for a new scorer like Cormac Ryan.

UCLA Bruins

Coach: Steve Alford (502-263), 6th year

2017-18 record: 21-12. Pac-12: 11-7, 3rd (tie)

Key newcomers: Moses Brown (7-0, C), Jules Bernard (6-6, G)

Key losses: Aaron Holiday, Thomas Welsh, Gyorgy Goloman

Outlook: Just having the Ball family out of their hair makes it tempting to declare the Bruins Pac-12 favorites, and they’ll be in the hunt in any case. That’s because the special talents pulled back from the NBA Draft – Player of the Year candidate Kris Wilkes, plus Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, who were LiAngelo Ball’s misbegotten conspirators in the Great China Sunglasses Shoplift. Add 7-footer Moses Brown as a legit threat in the middle and the Bruins should be a handful again, at least if projected starting guards Jaylen Hands and Prince Ali make reasonable steps forward. Heralded freshman guard Tyger Campbell will miss the season after tearing his ACL.

USC Trojans

Coach: Andy Enfield (135-104), 6th year

2017-18 record: 24-12. Pac-12: 12-6, 2nd

Key newcomers: Kevin Porter Jr. (6-5, G), J’Raan Brooks (6-8, F), Elijah Weaver (6-4, G)

Key losses: Jordan McLaughlin, Elijah Stewart, Chimezie Metu

Outlook: Maybe the Trojans can use the Great Snub of 2018 to motivate them against the better teams in the Pac-12, which was probably their undoing with the NCAA selectors. Keeping standout stretch four Bennie Boatwright in one piece after two injury-plagued seasons would help, too. As it is, the Trojans lost four of their five top scorers, but have a whiz in freshman Kevin Porter Jr., highlighting a Top 25 recruiting class. Still, they’ll need jumps from some holdovers who haven’t really blossomed – though 6-11 Nick Rakocevic is on the verge.

Utah Utes

Coach: Larry Krystkowiak (180-117), 8th year

2017-18 record: 23-12. Pac-12: 11-7, 3rd (tie)

Key newcomers: Both Gach (6-7, F), Timmy Allen (6-6, F), Riley Battin (6-9, C), Charles Jones (6-2, G)

Key losses: Justin Bibbins, David Collette, Tyler Rawson

Outlook: After being relegated to the NIT (and a title game appearance), Larry Krystkowiak has fully embraced the NCAA’s scheduling challenge. Road games at Kentucky and Minnesota and a home game against Nevada will test the Utes, especially with four starters departing. That leaves a lot on the shoulders of senior guard Sedrick Barefield, who drove the NIT bus. JC player of the year Charles Jones arrives for more backcourt help. Up front, Krystkowiak is predicting big things for sophomore Donnie Tillman, and 7-foot grad transfer Novak Topalovic should help some, too.

Washington and Washington State:

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