At the beginning of every college basketball season, there is a sense of optimism amongst every program that isn’t as strong the rest of the year. Each school believes that it can be a national title contender, or at least a conference title contender if everything goes right. Every team feels like they have an equal chance to be the best of them all.
Sadly this optimism is short-lived for most teams; whether it be because of injuries, poor chemistry, or just plain lack of talent. Shortly after the season starts, teams start to fall into their usual places. For the most part historically great teams end up closer to the top of the rankings and historically bad teams end up closer to the bottom. Any team looking to move up from its usual rankings has to accomplish two main goals. First, the team needs to recruit at least one potential one-and-done star. Second, the team needs to develop the players staying for multiple seasons into solid role-players or possible starters.
The elite programs--such as Duke and Kentucky--have no problem accomplishing these goals. Both teams are historically great and Duke has the additional boast of playing in the ACC, the most competitive conferences in college basketball. Nearly every conference has at least one elite team, but the ACC is currently the only conference that can boast true dominance. However, in the last few years the PAC-12 has been a conference that many of the top basketball prospects have been flocking to. With the rise of Oregon, the revival of UCLA, and the impressive recruiting of both Arizona and Washington it seems as though the PAC-12 is ready to claim a spot next to the ACC as an elite conference.
Without Duke’s and Kentucky’s dominance in recruiting (six of the top ten players in the ESPN100 signed with one of the two schools), PAC-12 schools have perhaps the most impressive incoming classes. PAC-12 schools managed to land five of the top 25 players in the 2016 ESPN100, as many recruits as the last two seasons combined. UCLA and Arizona each managed to sign two of those players and Washington signed one. Arizona would’ve had another top 25 player if Terrance Ferguson hadn’t opted to play overseas. Although many of the elite prospects for 2017 have not yet made their decisions known, the top two prospects have already chosen PAC-12 schools. Number one prospect DeAndre Ayton committed to Arizona in September and number two prospect Michael Porter Jr. has been committed to Washington since July. Arizona usually gets its fair share of top prospects, but Washington must be doing something right in order to get a top 10 prospect two years in a row. Aside from Duke and Kentucky, the PAC-12 seems like the place for top recruits to go.
This season will likely determine if the PAC-12 is ready to be an elite conference. Most of the teams in the PAC-12 have realistic tournament hopes. Oregon, Arizona, and UCLA are potential title contenders in the approaching season. For the PAC-12 to be truly respected as a conference, one of these three teams will have to make the Final Four. Oregon is going into the season with more hype than ever, UCLA has multiple top prospects along with a solid group of veterans, and Arizona has never reached the Final Four under Sean Miller and will be looking to prove itself. With the talent that these three teams have, it seems unlikely that zero of the three would make the Final Four this year. The more success the conference as a whole has, the more top prospects come flocking. This season is huge for the future of PAC-12 basketball. This is the conference’s opportunity to prove itself as one of the top conferences in college basketball or be dismissed as overhyped. Don’t be surprised if at the end of the season a PAC-12 team is hoisting the trophy.