The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

Pac-12 Preview: No longer a laughingstock, the league is poised for a resurgence

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Arizona guard Nick Johnson (Getty Images)

Yahoo Sports will break down the top 12 leagues for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 12 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 3 league, the Pac-12.

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At its peak during the 2007-08 season, the Pac-10 produced six NCAA tournament bids, sent its champion to the Final Four and featured at least one future NBA player on nine of its 10 teams including stars Kevin Love, O.J. Mayo, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

The 2013-14 season likely won't approach those heights, but it's the closest the league has been in a while.

Having begun the climb back from rock bottom to respectability last season, the Pac-12 is poised to reestablish itself as the West Coast's premier league and one of the nation's better conferences this winter. A handful of returning stars and an influx of promising newcomers could help the league produce as many as six or seven NCAA tournament contenders.

The class of the league appears to be Arizona, the lone Pac-12 team ranked in the top 10 in most preseason polls. Sean Miller has been to the NCAA tournament's second weekend twice in his tenure in Tucson, but the combination of depth, size and athleticism on this year's roster represents his best chance yet at a Final Four.

For the first time under Miller, Arizona has a pure point guard in Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell, a staunch defender and excellent shooter whose ability to distribute will make everyone else around him better. McConnell has plenty of talent around him too with returning starter Nick Johnson at shooting guard, sharpshooter Gabe York and defensive stopper Rondae Hollis-Jefferson coming off the bench and a deep frontcourt headlined by Aaron Gordon, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski.

No other Pac-12 team has Arizona's upside, but several teams are capable of eclipsing the Wildcats if they take too long to jell or don't live up to their potential.

Oregon boasts the league's deepest and fastest backcourt, but the Ducks need transfer Mike Moser to provide some of the toughness, rebounding and defense Arsalan Kazemi brought a year ago. UCLA has an abundance of perimeter talent including all-league candidates Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson, but Steve Alford's inaugural team lacks a true point guard and is suspect defensively and rebounding-wise in the frontcourt. And Colorado also has high expectations thanks to the return of guard Spencer Dinwiddie and three other starters from a team that made the NCAA tournament for the second straight season.

Whether the 2013-14 season is viewed as another baby step for the Pac-12 or a full-fledged resurgence likely depends on the quality of the next few teams in the pecking order.

Most likely to exceed expectations nationally is probably Cal, which has finished fourth or better in the Pac-12 in each of Mike Montgomery's first five seasons in Berkeley. It would be no surprise to see the Bears do it again this season either with four starters back from last season and top freshman Jabari Bird ready to help make up for the scoring lost when Allen Crabbe left early for the NBA.

Stanford has underachieved the past couple seasons under Johnny Dawkins, but nearly every key player from last season returns including standout forwards Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis. If the frontcourt is as good as advertised, talented guard Chasson Randle enjoys a bounce-back season and oft-injured Anthony Brown provides outside shooting and perimeter defense, the Cardinal has the potential to not just make the NCAA tournament but do damage there.

Arizona State will lean heavily on sophomore star Jahii Carson, perhaps the conference's best returning player. Shot-blocking center Jordan Bachynski, high-scoring Penn State transfer Jermaine Marshall and stretch forward Jonathan Gilling provide a solid supporting cast, but the Sun Devils will probably go as far as their dynamic point guard can take them.

Washington shouldn’t be counted out either despite a lackluster 2012-13 season in which the Huskies lost 16 games and finished .500 in league play. C.J. Wilcox is a returning star at wing, top freshman Nigel Williams-Goss will inherit point guard duties immediately and San Francisco transfer Perris Blackwell should bolster the frontcourt with his scoring and rebounding.

Two years ago, the Pac-12 flirted with one-bid status for most of February and March and failed to even get regular season champion Washington into the NCAA tournament. The fact that so many teams enter this season with high expectations shows how far the league has come since those days.

MAKING A LIST

Best shooter: John Gage, Stanford. There's only one reason Gage managed to crack Stanford's frontcourt rotation off the bench last season: His superb outside shooting. The wiry 6-foot-10 senior isn't much of a rim protector or back-to-the-basket scoring threat and he frequently gets out-muscled for position in the paint, but oh can he stroke it from the perimeter. His conference-leading 44.6 percent 3-point shooting was far better than his 40.9 percent clip on shots inside the arc.
Best playmaker: Jahii Carson, Arizona State. Forced to sit out his true freshman season as a result of eligibility issues, Carson quickly proved he would be worth the wait. The dynamic 5-foot-10 point guard nearly led Arizona State to the NCAA tournament as a freshman, averaging 18.5 points and 5.1 assists and bringing explosiveness, pace and pizazz to a program that had lacked all those qualities prior to his arrival. If Carson were to cut down on his turnovers and improve his outside shot, he has a chance to challenge for both Pac-12 player of the year and All-American honors as a sophomore.
Best defender: Josh Huestis, Stanford. Nobody contributes in more areas defensively than Huestis, one of two returning members of last year's Pac-12 all-defense team along with Arizona State center Jordan Bachynski. From his 2.0 blocks per game, to his 9.0 rebounds, to his outstanding on-ball defense in the paint or on the perimeter, the 6-foot-7 Huestis was Stanford's most consistent player in his first year as a starter. He also enjoyed a breakout season on offense, averaging 10.5 points per game and showing increased range with his jump shot.
Top NBA prospect: Aaron Gordon, Arizona. Though Gordon doesn't possess a silky jump shot or a polished back-to-the-basket game, the 6-foot-9 freshman has lottery potential as a result of his quickness, aggressiveness and high-energy style. Offensively, he gobbles up offensive rebounds, finishes well in transition and can score in spurts in the low post or off the dribble. Defensively, he sucks up loose balls, defends the rim and locks down opposing scorers in the paint or on the perimeter thanks to his unique combination of athleticism and relentless effort.
Best backcourt: Oregon. Dana Altman has ample talent and depth to adopt his preferred fast-paced three-guard look this season. Speedy sophomore Dominic Artis will return to start at point guard this season with 5-foot-8 senior Johnathan Loyd serving as an experienced backup. Sophomore Damyean Dotson brings size, quickness and slashing ability to one wing position, while high-scoring Houston transfer Joseph Young and Detroit transfer Jason Calliste deliver the consistent perimeter shooting Oregon lacked last season.
Best frontcourt: Arizona. Even though stretch four Grant Jerrett made an ill-advised decision to leave for the NBA after his freshman season, Arizona still has three big men with NBA potential. Kaleb Tarczewski is a sturdy 7 footer who defends and rebounds well and is improving as a low-post scorer. Six-foot-8 Brandon Ashley is quicker, more agile and more skilled offensively than Tarczewski, though he sometimes had a tendency to disappear for stretches as a freshman. And Gordon has the potential to be the best of the three because of his combination of athleticism and relentlessness. He'll start at small forward but likely see plenty of time at his more natural power forward as well.
Best recruiting class: Arizona. Sean Miller continues to consistently recruit at a higher level than any other program in the West. The highly touted Gordon is the centerpiece of Miller's 2013 haul, but Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is already an elite perimeter defender and Elliott Pitts is a lanky shooter who likely won't crack the rotation as a freshman but could blossom into a contributor in future years.
Coach on the rise: Tad Boyle, Colorado. The long-struggling program Boyle inherited from Jeff Bzdelik scarcely resembles the perennial power Boyle has built. Thanks to shrewd talent evaluation and increased interest from California prospects intrigued by Colorado's move to the Pac-12, Boyle has recruited at a higher level than his predecessors. He also has consistently developed that talent, taking the Buffs to the NIT semifinals in his debut season and to the NCAA tournament the past two years. The result is Colorado is just outside the preseason top 25 this season and has already sold out every home game at the Coors Event Center, pretty amazing considering how desolate and quiet that arena once was.
Coach on the hot seat: Johnny Dawkins, Stanford. Of the many Pac-12 coaches under pressure to win this season, the one who can least afford a down season is Dawkins. He has failed to finish higher than a tie for sixth in the Pac-12 in any of his first five seasons at Stanford, and his new athletic director has made it clear he expects Stanford to contend in the Pac-12 and reach the NCAA tournament this season. The good news for Dawkins is his senior-laden roster has the talent and experience to achieve both those goals. He also has recruited well enough that he'll likely get the benefit of the doubt as long as the Cardinal don't underachieve yet again under his leadership.

FACTS AND FIGURES

New coaches: Steve Alford, UCLA (From New Mexico), Andy Enfield, USC (From Florida Gulf Coast)
Regular-season winner last season: UCLA
Tourney winner last season: Oregon
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2012-13: 6th, 2011-12: 10th ; 2010-11: 7th
NCAA bids the past three seasons: 11 (Arizona 2, Cal 2, UCLA 2, Colorado 2, Washington 1, Oregon 1, USC 1)

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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