Rejoice, college basketball fans because it’s that time of year again. Seven months have passed since Kris Jenkins hit the buzzer-beating three to win the 2016 National Championship for Villanova. As everyone knows, the road to a national title is unpredictable. The winning team needs talent, chemistry, intelligence, and luck on its side just to make the tournament. Once March Madness rolls around, any one of the 68 teams competing has a shot. Of course, to make the tournament a team first has to win or at least excel in its conference. It’s not farfetched to think that making the tournament is in the realm of possibility for just about every PAC-12 team this season. Given that whichever team wins the PAC-12 tournament held at the end of the regular season will be given an automatic tournament berth, one can imagine it will be a competitive race. The elite teams in the PAC-12 will be ready, but some of the teams ranked around the middle have the potential to be dark horses and compete for that top spot.
Oregon, Arizona, and UCLA are all beginning the season ranked in the top 25 on KenPom.com. The next six teams (California, Colorado, Utah, USC, Arizona State, and Stanford) are given rankings between 52 and 68. This cluster shows how tight of a race the middle of the PAC-12 is. The fourth highest ranked PAC-12 team, California, has a potential top ten draft pick on its roster in Ivan Rabb. USC has a probable first rounder in Bennie Boatwright. Markelle Fultz -- likely the best player in the conference -- is leading a Washington team which is projected to finish tenth in the conference. As Ben Simmons’ year at LSU showed, one great player does not make a team. But in a PAC-12 tournament game, a great player such as Fultz would have a chance to knock off one of the top seeds, especially with an NCAA tournament berth on the line.
A team looking to make up for a years’ absence from the tournament is UCLA. In an earlier piece, I wrote that UCLA’s top five recruiting class and experience of returning starters will make UCLA a legitimate contender in the PAC-12. Being headlined by freshmen will make the process difficult at the beginning, but it looks like things are finally clicking for Steve Alford and Co. The Bruins would’ve probably gone into the season as the third most likely team to win the PAC-12, but recent events have jumped them up to second.
If someone had said a of couple weeks ago that the Arizona Wildcats would win the PAC-12, I would’ve accepted that. I thought considered making them my pick, but Sean Miller’s team is falling apart before the season begins. Terrance Ferguson opted to skip college and play professionally in Australia. Redshirt freshman Ray Smith and senior Talbott Denny each suffered season ending injuries. Chance Comanche has been suspended for academic reasons. Additionally, the Wildcats’ best returning player Allonzo Trier has been absent for reasons unknown. Arizona is still in a good place with its recruiting class, but it’s hard to see this Arizona team outplaying UCLA or Oregon.
This is it Ducks’ fans. More than ever before, the pressure is on Oregon to be great. Oregon is not only the most common pick to win the PAC-12, but one of the top teams contending for the national title this year. The reigning PAC-12 champions will have to learn how to play with a target on their backs from the get-go. The other teams, especially UCLA and Arizona, will still be a threat when the PAC-12 tournament begins, but the Ducks will need to realize that they are the favorites. No one is suggesting that Oregon needs to run the table during the regular season to be taken seriously, but it will be hard to convince the world that it is a national title contender if it’s embarrassed during the conference tournament. It will be a challenging season for a team that has never had such a spotlight on it, but Oregon has the best chance in the PAC to be the champion.