When the University of Arizona’s basketball team starts the 2016–17 season, they will not be the one of the favorites to win the national championship. In fact, the most dominant PAC-12 team of the past three decades will not even be the favorite to win its conference. For now, that title is Oregon’s to lose, and deservedly so. The Ducks experience and depth make them the safest pick to win the PAC-12, but has the allure of a fresh face at the top of the conferenc kept the Wildcats from getting the preseason hype they deserve?
Early rankings put Arizona just outside of the top 10. For a school that has enjoyed preseason rankings as high as number 2 in the last five years, this can seem a little underwhelming. Thmess lower rankings are a head-scratcher when one realizes that this year’s Arizona team was rated as the number 3 recruiting class by Rivals.com at one point. However, Arizona lost its top 15 recruit Terrance Ferguson to an overseas professional team. Despite the loss, Arizona still managed a successful offseason by scooping up two top 25 recruits in Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons. The team also recruited underrated forward Lauri Markannen. Although the loss of Ferguson deservedly lowered the Wildcats from their top 3 spot, Arizona maintained a top tier recruiting class. In modern day division-1 basketball that is so influenced by the recruitment of one-and-done future NBA stars, it’s puzzling that Arizona’s ranking doesn’t mirror the ranking of its recruiting class.
Past success should also give the Wildcats the benefit of doubt. Despite only winning the national title once, in 1997, Arizona has made the tournament in 30 of the last 32 seasons. Arizona reached at least the Sweet Sixteen in 16 of those years and at least the Elite Eight in 10 years. Three of those Elite Eight appearances occurred under current head coach Sean Miller. Given that elite college basketball is usually reliant on an elite head coach, it should be reassuring to Arizona fans that Sean Miller is one of the best there is. Equipped with one of the best teams he’s had, Miller has the tools he needs to lead the Wildcats to another PAC-12 championship.
Arizona’s disappointing loss to Wichita State in the round of 64 was not how the team wanted to go out, but the loss to Oregon in the conference title game might have stung a bit more. That loss has caused many to believe that Oregon is now the leader of the PAC-12 and there’s little anyone can do to beat them. Of course, there is reason to believe that the successes of Oregon last season will likely carry over to this year. But, with star Dillon Brooks out for an unknown amount of time after a foot surgery, the road to another PAC-12 title may not be as easy for Oregon as many think it will be. Oregon may be a new and exciting face at the top of the PAC-12, but Arizona has consistently remained at the top of the PAC-12 for years. If the recent battle between LeBron James and Stephen Curry to be the NBA’s best player has taught us anything, it’s that even though a fresh face is dominating in a more exciting way one should not be so quick to bet against the one who has been consistently getting it done for years.
Aside from the chance that UCLA does a full 180 from last season, or Markelle Fultz becomes an unstoppable force for Washington, it is likely that the PAC-12 champion will be Oregon or Arizona. Both teams have a realistic shot at contending for not just their own conference’s title, but the national title as well. Oregon is coming off an Elite Eight appearance, so the Ducks will be a popular pick for the Final Four. However, with a head coach who has had three Elite Eight appearances in seven years, and possibly his squad yet, this may be the year for Arizona to break into the Final Four for the first time since losing the title game in 2001.