Pac-12 Primer (Cont.)
The Ducks may be the leading dark horse league title candidate in any major conference in the nation. Coming off a CBI championship in Dana Altman's first season in Eugene, the Ducks return five solid rotation players (including 11 ppg scorer E.J. Singler) and introduce a batch of newcomers that could make this team very dangerous. Oregon is completely reloaded up front with the arrivals of Wake Forest transfer Tony Woods and Louisiana Tech postgrad transfer Olu Ashaolu, a perfect replacement for departed forward Joevan Catron. Toss in Minnesota transfer guard Devoe Joseph, who will be eligible in December, and high-profile freshman wing Jabari Brown, and there is a lot more athleticism and depth than last season. It may take the first semester for things to truly come together, but if and when they do, this team could be as good as any in the league.
The Huskies suffered some significant personnel losses (most importantly Mathew Bryan-Amaning inside), but Lorenzo Romar's crew has plenty of talent once again. UW returns six players who played at least 15 minutes a game last season and adds highly touted freshman guard Tony Wroten. Wroten should be a difference-maker from the outset on the latest guard-heavy version of the Huskies and there are some shooters to benefit from his passing. If the frontcourt comes together -- and there are some pieces back like Darnell Gant and Aziz N'Diaye -- then the Huskies are the last of five teams that have enough talent to win the league.
The Cardinal remain a young team, but at least they more experienced. Anthony Brown, Dwight Powell and Aaron Bright will combine with seniors Josh Owens and Jarrett Mann and freshman guard Chasson Randle to push the Cardinal back into the league's upper division. Losing leading scorer Jeremy Green a year early is a blow, but the continuity should help Stanford improve. The Cardinals were poor in a lot of areas last season, but turnover rate and two-point field goal percentage may be the most worrisome. Brown and Powell need to convert better than 50 percent of their shots from inside the arc and Randle may be the best bet at the point given Bright and Mann are limited offensively and didn't protect the ball well enough last season.
7. Oregon State
Jared Cunningham is a walking highlight and the Beavers have some other decent talent back, including guard Roberto Nelson, but unless they spent the summer learning how to stop someone -- anyone -- they're not making a major move in a league that looks deep at the top. As long as you didn't turn the ball over against them, the Beavers were atrocious defensively, finishing in the nation's bottom 30 in both two-point and three-point field goal percentage defense. Allowing 37.4 percent from the three was compounded by the Beavers' zones causing opponents to take over 41 percent of their shots from the arc. You cannot survive like that, especially when you do a mediocre job on the glass, too. Weirdly, the Beavers were statistically worse on the offensive end because the turnovers they caused masked some of the defensive weakness, but they appear to have more potential on that side of the ball.
The Trojans lost a huge chunk of their frontcourt with the departures of Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson, and then lost a huge chunk of their backcourt when star point guard Jio Fontan tore up his knee (he will miss the season). Kevin O'Neill is left with diminutive guard Maurice Jones and a bunch of unknowns. It will be an enormous boost if Iowa transfer Aaron Fuller and 7-foot juco transfer Dewayne Dedmon hit the ground running. O'Neill has made USC into a team that's consistently difficult to play against, but he has his work cut out for him this season. Maybe by Pac-12 play, the Trojans will have sifted through the many new options and found a lineup that can battle in the conference.
9. Arizona State
Like Stanford, the Sun Devils are a young team that has a decent amount of experience, but they will have to overcome the loss of Rihards Kuksiks and Ty Abbott as they look to bounce back from a 4-14 league campaign. The introduction of freshman point guard Jahii Carson should be a big boost and the Devils return a crop of players who averaged double-digit minutes last season. Trent Lockett is the best of that bunch and should provide some scoring pop, but the Sun Devils really lack perimeter shooting with the absence of Kuksiks and Abbott. If someone starts knocking down some threes and guys like 7-2 sophomore Jordan Bachynski take the next steps, there are enough winnable games in the league to see the Sun Devils take a decent step toward respectability.
10. Washington State
Losing Klay Thompson and DeAngelo Casto will clearly hurt, but the cupboard is not bare in Pullman. Faisel Aden returns to head up a cast of five players who averaged at least 19 minutes a game last season. Reggie Moore should also be improved after being limited some of last season with a wrist injury. Can Marcus Capers and Brock Motum take the next steps? Will a freshman like DaVonté Lacy immediately add some scoring pop? They won't need much on that end if the Cougars can repeat what they accomplished defensively last season. As an up-tempo team, they did extremely well defending the three-pointer and kept people off the free throw line, as well.
The Utes start their maiden Pac-12 voyage with a new coach (Larry Krystkowiak) and a slew of newcomers, with just four returnees from last season's roster after numerous transfers. Incredibly, two of those four are 7-footers, so David Foster and Jason Washburn will provide their new coach with an anchor in the middle. What happens around those two is really anyone's guess. Despite poor shooting numbers, Josh Watkins averaged more than 14 points a game last season, so you'd expect he'd be somewhere centrally in the mix. Beyond that? Someone will have to emerge from the bevy of jucos and freshmen entering the program.
The other Pac-12 newbie enters the league off a hosing from the NCAA selection committee and then losing almost every good player on the roster. Now with Alec Burks, Cory Higgins, Levi Knutson and Marcus Relphorde all gone, Tad Boyle needs to completely rebuild. That could start with Aussie big man Shane Harris-Tunks, who missed last season with injury, and Carlon Brown, a transfer from Utah who led the Utes in scoring two seasons ago. Even with all of that talent on the roster, the Buffs were a train wreck away from home last season. Now they likely will be scratching just to keep their home court relatively secure. Only the presence of several other teams in transition gives hope that the Buffs can avoid the league cellar.