From an unusual Pac-12 regular season, with three dominant teams and a load of mediocrity, flows an unusual Pac-12 offseason.
And I’m not referring to Lorenzo Romar reportedly dining with Sean Miller.
(Romar joining the Arizona staff, by the way, would be a victory for the Wildcats and for the conference, which is much better off with Romar in it.)
This exercise is about the 2017-18 conference race, not dinner companions. The roster uncertainty facing all the top teams makes forecasting even more difficult than usual for this time of year.
* Arizona’s outlook takes on a different shape if Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins return next season.
* Oregon’s prospects swing wildly depending on the NBA Draft decisions of Tyler Dorsey, Jordan Bell and Dillon Brooks.
* USC could be the conference favorite or a middle-of-the-pack pick based on the 2017-18 intentions of Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu.
* UCLA, gutted by attrition, will rely heavily on freshmen in order to remain a contender.
* Even Utah could be affected by the early-entry process (Kyle Kuzma).
It all goes hand-in-hand, right? Elite players make elite teams but have the potential to leave school early.
When the top teams and the next-best all have NBA-related issues, the last morsels of clarity disappear.
The order-of-finish projections below 1) are based on the Hotline’s draft assumptions and 2) will assuredly be adjusted in late May/June to reflect NBA departures, spring recruiting and the transfer market.
(Please note three key dates: The deadline for early-entry applications is April 23, the NCAA-mandated withdrawal deadline is May 24, and the NBA’s withdrawal deadline is June 12.)
12. Washington State: After an uptick — the Cougars were markedly better than I expected (or was the league worse?) — WSU could be due for a backslide. They lose four of their top scorers, including Josh Hawkinson. Ernie Kent’s fourth season in Pullman could look much like his second, which wasn’t pretty.
11. Washington: Rookie coach Mike Hopkins won’t have Markelle Fultz, Michael Porter, Jr., or (probably) Noah Dickerson. In fact, he won’t have much of anything. The bottom of the conference is muddled enough that UW could avoid a double-digit finish, but ninth place would be the ceiling. Or is it the roof?
10. Oregon State: Could be the most improved team in the conference if Tres Tinkle is healthy and either Stephen Thompson or Drew Eubanks return. (Both are testing the waters.) But that’s largely because the Beavers cannot realistically be any worse.
9. Cal: Point guard Charlie Moore is the top returnee on a roster that lost more than it returns. Marcus Lee, the Kentucky transfer, should be an impact player, but there is no proven wing scoring. Add a rookie head coach, Wyking Jones, and the Bears will be closer to last place than first.
8. Colorado: Hammered by eligibility-expirations (Josh Fortune, Derrick White, Wesley Gordon and Xavier Johnson), which only serves to highlight the missed opportunity that was CU’s 2016-17 season. The onus will be on George King and Dominique Collier, but that’s not nearly enough to contend. The Buffs will need contributions from Missouri transfer Namon Wright and a recruiting class that features three touted prospects.
7. Stanford: Reid Travis, Dorian Pickens and Michael Humphrey, who combined for 40 points per game, are all expected back. But the Cardinal is short on proven perimeter playmakers and shooters. Don’t be surprised by a move up the standings, but Stanford again appears to be a long haul from contention.
6. Arizona State: The Sun Devils lose two key players in Torian Graham and Obinna Oleka (plus Sam Cunliffe, who left for Kansas). But everyone else is back, and coach Bobby Hurley has two large recruiting classes entering their impact zones. Shooters aren’t a problem, but ASU needs someone to offset Oleka’s lost production underneath.
5. Oregon: No team has a wider range of potential finishes. It’s hard to envision Bell, Dorsey and Brooks all returning. But if just two of them come back, the Ducks become the favorite. Incoming wing Troy Brown should make an immediate impact, Georgetown transfer Paul White will bolster the frontcourt, and Dana Altman usually creates a whole greater than its parts.
4. Utah: Finished fourth in what was supposed to be a transition year, which was both a credit to Larry Krystkowiak and a reflection of the league’s soft middle. The Utes lose Lorenzo Bonam, which is significant but not necessarily a guarantee of mediocrity. If Kuzma returns, Utah should contend — and might even win the title (depending on attrition elsewhere). If he leaves, then a second-tier finish seems likely.
3. UCLA: The Hotline’s view of UCLA begins, and ends, with this premise: Lonzo Ball made his teammates better to a degree not seen in the Pac-12 in eons. As a consequence, the Bruins’ returning core (Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsch) won’t be nearly as good in as their 2017 production might indicate. The sensational recruiting class, which features five-star point guard Jaylen Hands and wing Kris Wilkes, should keep the Bruins from a significant stumble.
2. USC: No seniors of consequence in 2016-17 and several notable additions, including recruit Chuck O’Bannon and Duke transfer Derryck Thornton — all of which places the Trojans in stellar position for a breakthrough next winter. Shaqquan Aaron is testing the waters, but his future carries only modest significance to the conference race. If Boatwright and Metu return and Arizona loses Trier, a case would exist for USC as the frontrunner. If both depart, the Trojans will be hard pressed to make the great leap upwards in the standings.
1. Arizona: Kadeem Allen and Lauri Markkanen are gone. I’m guessing Trier leaves, too, but that Alkins returns. Add Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Dusan Ristic, Chance Comanche and DeAndre Ayton, the No. 1 big man in the prep class of 2017, and the Wildcats are the very early, very tentative favorite — one that will have to prove itself from the perimeter. If Trier returns, they become the heavy.
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