By Jon Rothstein
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FIVE QUESTIONS ENTERING THE PAC-12
1. IS THE PAC-12 BACK?
Without question. After years of struggling as a whole nationally, the conference is set to have its best overall season in a very long time. The PAC-12 could push for six or seven NCAA Tournament bids next March, and the most exciting thing may be how competitive the league is on a nightly basis. If you took the teams picked fifth, sixth, and seventh in the preseason, and flipped them at the end of the year with the teams picked first, second, and third, there probably wouldn’t be too many people shocked with the way the final standings turned out. There will be no games on the schedule that any team in this conference can circle and automatically expect to win. Not this season.
2. WHAT TYPE OF IMPACT WILL AARON GORDON HAVE FOR ARIZONA?
A monster one. The talented forward has the talent and ability to be one of the best players in college basketball next season as a freshman, but it will be interesting to see where he winds up playing next year for the Wildcats. Gordon has said publicly that he intends to play small forward next season for Arizona, and while that may be where he starts games, don’t be surprised if Sean Miller uses him more at the “four.” The Wildcats attempted to play a bigger lineup last season, but switched in the middle of PAC-12 play to a smaller alignment that featured Solomon Hill at power forward. With Gordon, Brandon Ashley, freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski, Arizona has no shortage of options up front — but what about their perimeter? Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell is cemented as this team’s point guard and Nick Johnson is locked in at the two. The real question will be which reserve —- either Jordin Mayes or Gabe York — emerges as a reliable third guard. The Wildcats are going to own the glass, and have a chance to be off the charts defensively, but either Mayes or York is going to have be a threat to shoot the ball if this team is going to get where they want to go.
3. WHO IS WESLEY GORDON?
He could wind up being the key to Colorado’s season. Gordon, a 6-8 red shirt freshman is the Buffaloes’ likely replacement for Andre Roberson, who left after his junior year for the NBA. The Colorado staff was high on Gordon last season in practice, and barring something unforeseen, he should start for this team at power forward. Tad Boyle has also said that he plans to use sophomore Xavier Johnson at the four in spurts when the Buffaloes opt to play faster, but Gordon will need to protect the rim defensively if this team is going to have a chance to win the PAC-12. Colorado’s back court of Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker is capable of matching up with any perimeter they’ll face, and Josh Scott and Johnson are two players that should take major steps forward in their second season of college basketball. The wild cards on this team are Gordon, and freshman wing Tre’Shaun Fletcher, a 6-6 lefty that should give Boyle another capable scorer on the perimeter.
4. CAN DANA ALTMAN DO IT AGAIN?
By do it again, we mean take a roster that has been together for less than a year and mold it into an NCAA contender. The answer? Absolutely. Altman has won 73 games in his first three seasons with the Ducks, and is unequivocally one of the more underrated coaches in college basketball. Oregon will have a potentially explosive back court in Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson, and it could become even more explosive if Houston transfer Joseph Young (18.0 PPG in 12-13) is granted a waiver to play immediately without sitting out a season. UNLV transfer Mike Moser should step right in for this team at power forward, and provide a legitimate pick and pop threat that can extend defenses. There’s no questioning this team’s firepower — but what about its intangibles? While the Ducks still have plenty of offensive pop, Altman needs to find a way to replace the grittiness that was lost after the departures of veterans E.J. Singler, Arsalan Kazemi, and Tony Woods. Kazemi was a revelation last season, and one of the biggest reasons why Oregon won 28 games and advanced to the Sweet 16. The key for this team will be getting enough toughness from Moser, Waverly Austin, and forward Ben Carter on the baseline. If that happens, the Ducks should be back in the field of 68..
5. WHO IS THE SLEEPER?
I don’t believe that there’s going to be any sleepers in a league where you’re going to have this type of competition, but it’s worth pointing out that both Stanford and Cal should be very, very good. The Bears never get mentioned among the elite teams in the PAC-12, but return four starters from last year’s team that won a game in the NCAA Tournament, and also add a McDonald’s All-American in shooting guard Jabari Bird. Cal will also have a senior point guard in Justin Cobbs, and history has proven that’s something that can’t be understated when you’re trying to win critical games in February and March. Stanford meanwhile, has the potential to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Johnny Dawkins has been head coach. A starting five of Aaron Bright, Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown, Josh Huestis, and Dwight Powell is good enough to beat any team in the PAC-12, and that’s likely what the Cardinal will go with to begin most games. Stanford is expecting a big boost from Brown, who missed all but four games last season with a hip injury. His return gives the Cardinal their best perimeter defender back, and puts less pressure on both Bright and Randle.
PAC-12 PRESEASON POWER RANKINGS
THE SKINNY: The Wildcats have the potential to be devastating defensively.
THE SKINNY: Spencer Dinwiddie has quietly become one of the best players in college basketball.
THE SKINNY: Mike Montgomery’s team returns four starters and adds a McDonald’s All-American in freshman Jabari Bird.
THE SKINNY: The Steve Alford era will begin on the shoulders of sophomores Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams.
THE SKINNY: Bouncy forward Josh Huestis is a gem.
6. ARIZONA STATE
THE SKINNY: Late addition of Penn State transfer Jermaine Marshall makes the Sun Devils an NCAA contender.
THE SKINNY: The Ducks have plenty of talent, but who replaces Arsalan Kazemi on the boards?
THE SKINNY: Lorenzo Romar could have a sneaky good team if someone emerges as a reliable four-man.
9. OREGON STATE
THE SKINNY: The Beavers have one of the more physically imposing front lines in the country.
10. WASHINGTON STATE
THE SKINNY: Que Johnson. Remember the name.
THE SKINNY: JUCO transfer Delon Wright should ease the burden on Jordan Loveridge.
THE SKINNY: Trojan fans will have to be patient with Andy Enfield.
PAC-12 PRESEASON FIRST TEAM
Jahii Carson, Arizona State
Spencer Dinwiddie, Colorado
C.J. Wilcox, Washington
Kyle Anderson, UCLA
Josh Huestis, Stanford
PAC-12 PRESEASON PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Jahii Carson, Arizona State
TEN WHO HAVE WAITED AND WILL MAKE A MAJOR IMPACT
1. T.J. McConnell, Arizona (transfer)
2. Wesley Gordon, Colorado (red shirt)
3. Delon Wright, Utah (JUCO)
4. Anthony Brown, Stanford (red shirt)
5. Angus Brandt, Oregon State (red shirt)
6. Daniel Gomis, Oregon State (red shirt)
7. Elgin Cook, Oregon (JUCO)
8. Que Johnson, Washington State (red shirt)
9. Calaen Robinson, Arizona State (red shirt)
10. Perris Blackwell, Washington (transfer)
TEN IMPACT FRESHMEN
1. Aaron Gordon, Arizona
2. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona
3. Nigel Williams-Goss, Washington
4. Jabari Bird, Cal
5. Jordan Matthews, Cal
6. Tre’Shaun Fletcher, Colorado
7. Jordan Bell, Oregon
8. Zach LaVine, UCLA
9. Bryce Alford, UCLA
10. Egor Koulechov, Arizona State
FIVE UNDER-THE-RADAR FRESHMEN
1. Wannah Bail, UCLA
2. Julian Jacobs, USC
3. Kenneth Ogbe, Utah
4. Darin Johnson, Washington
5. Hallice Cooke, Oregon State
FIVE BREAKOUT PLAYERS
1. Xavier Johnson, Colorado
2. Jordin Mayes, Arizona
3. Tyrone Wallace, Cal
4. Challe Barton, Oregon State
5. Omar Oraby, USC
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