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Pac-12 Preview: Influx of talent should begin the league’s climb back to respectability

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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To improve, the Pac-12 needs UCLA and Arizona to be its flagship programs again (US Presswire)

Yahoo! Sports is breaking down each league for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 31 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 6 league, the Pac-12.

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At the end of a train wreck of a season rife with damaging injuries, underachieving teams and horrendous nonconference losses, the Pac-12 finally hit rock bottom on Selection Sunday last March.

That was the day Washington became the first major-conference regular-season champ not to earn an invite to the NCAA tournament.

The bad news is the conference has performed so poorly the past three seasons that it has produced only eight NCAA tournament bids during that stretch and twice flirted with receiving only one bid. The good news is an influx of talented newcomers has raised hopes that better days could be ahead as soon as this season.

If the Pac-12 is ever going to regain its former stature, it will probably be tradition-rich UCLA and Arizona leading the charge. The Bruins and Wildcats have both missed the NCAA tournament two of the past three seasons, yet there's optimism on both campuses that this season may be the start of a revival.

Arizona can win the Pac-12 and contend nationally if its newcomers meet expectations, something last year's recruiting class did not do. The Wildcats need their trio of decorated freshmen big men to make an immediate impact and high-scoring Xavier transfer Mark Lyons to make a smooth transition from playing off ball to point guard.

UCLA's chances of challenging Arizona for the conference title likely depend on whether or not the NCAA clears top recruits Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson. Add an elite scorer and a deft playmaker to a roster that already features perhaps the league's premier frontcourt, and the Bruins would have a high ceiling, even if  valid questions remain about their ability to defend man-to-man.

Behind Arizona and UCLA, the Pac-12 appears to feature more quality teams than it has the past few seasons.

Stanford returns four starters from last year's NIT championship team including perhaps the conference's best freshman last season, guard Chasson Randle. Cal brings back guards Justin Cobbs and Allen Crabbe and regains suspended forward Richard Solomon, giving the Bears a good chance to survive the loss of conference player of the year Jorge Gutierrez. Colorado has a quality sophomore backcourt, the league's best rebounder and defender in Andre Roberson and a highly touted freshman big man in Josh Scott. Heck, even USC, which finished last in the league a year ago, could be much improved now that Jio Fontan is healthy and a handful of transfers are eligible.

All that may not be enough to have the Pac-12 back where it was when it was producing Final Four teams and lottery picks five years ago, but the conference should at the very least begin the gradual climb back to respectability.

MAKING A LIST
Best shooter: C.J. Wilcox, Washington. With Tony Wroten and Terrence Ross moving on to the NBA and Abdul Gaddy more facilitator than scorer, the Huskies need someone to emerge as a go-to perimeter threat. That guy should be last year's third option, Wilcox, who could emerge as one of the Pac-12's top scorers this season. The 6-foot-5 junior shot 41.3 percent from behind the arc last season and averaged 14.2 points per game.

College Hoops Countdown, No. 6: Pac-12

Pac-12 Preview Capsule: Influx of talent should begin league's gradual rise back to respectability
Ranking the Pac-12's 15 most intriguing non-league games
• Thursday: Transfer Mark Lyons may be the key to Arizona's Pac-12 title hopes
• Thursday: An ex-Pac-12 player projects the league race

For more news on the Pac-12, visit Rivals.com

Best playmaker: Kyle Anderson, UCLA. It's unusual for a 6-foot-8 forward to be known for his playmaking skills, but Anderson has drawn comparisons to Magic Johnson for a reason. The freshman is the quintessential point forward, more adept at setting up his teammates than he is scoring himself. Larry Drew II will guard opposing point guards for UCLA, but it's Ben Howland's intent to run his offense through Anderson.
Best defender: Andre Roberson, Colorado. It's hard to believe Cal's Jorge Gutierrez edged Roberson for Pac-12 defensive player of the year last season considering the season the Colorado forward had. Roberson led the Pac-12 in rebounds (11.1), blocks (1.8) and steals (1.3), showing why he's a potential first-round draft pick despite not scoring in double figures consistently. 
Top NBA prospect:
Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA. This should come with an asterisk at this point since it's looking more and more uncertain whether Muhammad suits up for the Bruins. If the NCAA clears him, he's easily the best future pro in the league. If not, Roberson, Anderson or Wilcox are all viable choices, as is UCLA center Joshua Smith.
Best backcourt: Cal. This could be Arizona if Mark Lyons thrives at point guard and Solomon Hill makes a smooth transition to the wing. Washington also has a case if Scott Suggs has a breakout season after returning from injury and Abdul Gaddy shows the ability to score in addition to facilitating. But for right now, the team with the league's most proven backcourt is Cal, thanks to smooth game of Allen Crabbe, the scoring ability of combo guard Justin Cobbs and the intangibles of senior point guard Brandon Smith.
Best frontcourt: UCLA. For all the uncertainty surrounding the Bruins, the one sure thing is that their frontcourt should be deep and talented. Joshua Smith didn't shed as much weight as he needed to in order to play more than 20-25 minutes per game, but he still has soft hands and good touch around the basket. It's unlikely the Wear twins will ever emerge as the stars they were once pegged to be, but they're solid contributors, as should be promising freshman Tony Parker.
Best recruiting class: Arizona. The nod goes to the Wildcats over UCLA for one reason: All of Arizona's newcomers are eligible. Freshman trio Grant Jerrett, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski will bolster Arizona's frontcourt and enable Solomon Hill to move to the wing this season. And Xavier transfer Mark Lyons may be the most important newcomer of all if he can assume the role of scoring point guard for the Wildcats.
Coach on the rise: Tad Boyle, Colorado. Thanks to the hire of Boyle and the move to the Pac-12, Colorado basketball is thriving after years of irrelevance. Not only did the Buffs follow up their 2011 NIT run with a Pac-12 tournament title and a win in the NCAA tournament last year, Boyle also added a second straight formidable recruiting class highlighted by forward Xavier Johnson and center Josh Scott.
Coach on the hot seat: Since no Pac-12 coaches were fired despite the league enduring maybe its worst season in history, the new season begins with a long list of coaches whose jobs are in jeopardy. Chief among them is UCLA coach Ben Howland, who likely needs to avoid missing the NCAA tournament for the third time in five years to keep his job. Others facing pressure to show progress include Arizona State's Herb Sendek, Washington State's Ken Bone, USC's Kevin O'Neill and perhaps even Oregon State's Craig Robinson and Stanford's Johnny Dawkins.

FACTS AND FIGURES
New coaches: None
Regular-season winner last season: Washington
Tourney winner last season: Colorado
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2011-12: 10th ; 2010-11: 7th, 2009-10: 8th
NCAA bids the past three seasons: 8 (Washington 2, Cal 2, USC, Arizona, UCLA, Colorado)

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