Five-minute season preview: Pac-12

The Dagger
Arizona guard Gabe York reacts after scoring against Mount St. Mary's during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Friday, Nov. 14, 2014, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

No. 2 Wildcats beat Mountaineers 78-55

Arizona guard Gabe York reacts after scoring against Mount St. Mary's during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Friday, Nov. 14, 2014, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Yahoo Sports will break down the top 10 leagues for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 10 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 4 league, the Pac-12.

When Arizona's four leading scorers either graduated or turned pro last spring, the landscape in the Pac-12 instantly changed.

No longer does it feel like the rest of the league is merely competing for second place.

Arizona remains a contender to capture a third straight conference title thanks to an influx of promising newcomers, but the gap between the Wildcats and other challengers has closed. Cal has its most talented roster since the days of Jason Kidd and Lamond Murray, Oregon will build around a collection of promising forwards and Utah brings back nine of its top 11 scorers from a Sweet 16 team. Don't count out UCLA either given the return of Bryce Alford and the collection of young guards and established big men surrounding him.

If Arizona repeats as Pac-12 champions, it will be a testament to Sean Miller's ability to reload on the fly. Only four rotation players return from last season's 33-win Elite Eight team, yet the arrival of four promising freshmen and three impact transfers give Miller the deepest, most offensively gifted roster he's had since coming to Tucson.

Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson has been Arizona's best player since practice began, no surprise considering for the Eagles he was a three-year starter who averaged 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds as a junior before leaving in search of a winning program. Anderson will be the offensive focal point of an elite frontcourt that also includes lone returning starter Kaleb Tarczewski, reserve 7 footers Dusan Ristic and Chance Comanche and versatile combo forward Mark Tollefsen.

How Miller will divvy up playing time in the backcourt is anyone's guess since he has plenty of options even with freshman small forward Ray Smith lost for the season to an ACL tear.

Kadeem Allen's defensive prowess and ability to score off the dribble earned him starting nod at point guard in Arizona's exhibition game on Sunday night, but the junior college transfer will split time with pass-first sophomore Parker Jackson-Cartwright as the Wildcats search for an heir to T.J. McConnell. Sharpshooter Gabe York, polished freshman Allonzo Trier, veteran Elliott Pitts and defensive standout Justin Simon each bring different qualities at wing, while Tollefsen is also an option at small forward if Miller prefers not to go with a three-guard look.

Cal can't match Arizona's depth this season, but the Bears may be the only Pac-12 team with a more talented starting five.

Excitement for Cal basketball is at its apex since the days of Jason Kidd and Lamond Murray thanks to an incoming class featuring a pair of top 10 recruits. Oakland native Ivan Rabb is an athletic 6-foot-11 big man who blocks shots, rebounds and scores over either shoulder in the post. Georgia product Jaylen Brown is an explosive athlete and aggressive slasher strong enough to overpower opposing wings on his way to the rim.

Those two will join a Cal roster loaded with returning perimeter talent as conference player of the year candidate Tyrone Wallace, former five-star wing Jabari Bird and sharpshooter Jordan Mathews each are back. Brown will probably spend some time at power forward to accommodate those three but he'll also play his natural small forward position when the Bears opt to go bigger with Rabb at power forward and either 7-foot-1 Kingsley Okoroh or 7-foot Kameron Rooks at center.

Oregon must replace reigning Pac-12 player of the year Joseph Young, but the Ducks have a collection of scorers who are up to the task. Power forward Elgin Cook averaged 13 points per game last season, forward Dillon Brooks could be poised for a breakout season after improving his body over the offseason and freshman guard Tyler Dorsey is a polished scorer who starred for Greece's U-19 team this past summer.

While finding a go-to scorer in crunch time will be key for the Ducks, the bigger issue will be dealing with injuries to starting point guard Dylan Ennis and shot-blocking big man Jordan Bell. Pass-first sophomore Casey Benson and Dorsey will likely share time at point guard while Ennis recovers from the foot injury he suffered last week, while junior college transfer Chris Boucher will see additional playing time until Bell returns in a few weeks.

No contender must replace a more important player than Utah, which lost Delon Wright to graduation. The all-conference guard was the engine offensively for a Utes team that reached the Sweet 16 last year and its premier perimeter stopper on defense.

Whereas Utah put the ball in Wright's hands and asked him to create off a high screen and roll in almost every late-clock situation last season, the Utes will probably play through potential first-round pick Jakob Poeltl in the post more often this year. The 7 footer will have plenty of help from returning starters Brandon Taylor, Jordan Loveridge an array of shooters on the perimeter and some skilled young forwards in the frontcourt, most notably potential breakout candidates Kyle Kuzma and Brekkott Chapman.

UCLA is a year away from contending for conference titles and Final Fours again, but the Bruins can still finish in the Pac-12's upper tier if a supporting cast emerges around high-scoring junior Bryce Alford. Skilled 7 footer Thomas Welsh, veteran low-post scorer and rebounder Tony Parker and promising 6-10 stretch forward Jonah Bolden form a capable frontcourt. Meanwhile in the backcourt, Isaac Hamilton will seek to score with more consistency as a sophomore and freshman Aaron Holiday has drawn frequent praise this preseason for his on-ball defense and ability to create for himself and others off the dribble.

The Pac-12 champion will likely emerge from that pool of five teams, but Oregon State has the chance to be the best of the rest. The Beavers add their most talented freshman class in years to a returning core that includes elite defender Gary Payton II and quality guard Malcolm Duvivier. The newcomers will provide much-needd depth and scoring for a team that somehow won 17 games last season seemingly on defense, hustle and grit alone.

Beyond the Beavers, there are teams with lots of question marks.

Four of Arizona State's five leading scorers from last season return, but new coach Bobby Hurley may not have enough depth to coax an upper-division finish out of the Sun Devils in his first year. Colorado boasts one of the best post players in the league in a now-healthy Josh Scott, but the Buffs desperately need sophomore Dominique Collier and others to provide perimeter scoring. Stanford has an intriguing young frontcourt anchored by sophomores Reid Travis and Michael Humphrey, but guard play was already going to be an issue even before promising junior Marcus Allen went down with a stress fracture and point guard Robert Cartwright broke his arm. And USC is awash with enough young talent to finally escape the Pac-12 basement, but Andy Enfield's team is probably a year away from finishing in the upper half of the conference.

MAKING A LIST

Best shooter: Brandon Taylor, Utah. One formula for Utah to generate offense without Delon Wright is to surround center Jakob Poeltl with shooters capable of burying threes if left open. The Utes were among the nation's 10 best 3-point shooting teams, and Taylor was a huge reason for that. The 5-foot-10 guard made the fourth most threes of any player in a single season in school history with 82, yet still shot an impressive 43.9 percent from behind the arc.  
Best playmaker: Tyrone Wallace, Cal. While Wallace has had to learn to play point guard and is still more comfortable as a scorer than distributor, there's nobody else in the conference more dangerous with the ball in his hands. The 6-foot-5 senior averaged 17.1 points and 4.0 assists as a junior for Cal primarily because he is so tough to keep out of the lane off the dribble.
Best defender: Gary Payton II, Oregon State. Following in the footsteps of his father, Gary Payton II emerged as the most disruptive player in the league last season, taking Pac-12 defender of the year honors. The 6-foot-3 Payton has good length for a guard, quick hands and feet and the ball-hawking instincts of a free safety, all of which contributed to him averaging 3.1 steals per game last season. That's the most in the Pac-12 and second most in the nation.
Top NBA prospect: Jaylon Brown, Cal. It would be a surprise if Brown doesn't get taken in the lottery next June. The 6-foot-6 freshman is a strong, athletic wing capable of bull rushing his way to the rim in transition the way Stanley Johnson did last season at Arizona. Expect Brown to see some time at both forward spots since Cal is loaded on the perimeter but lacks interior depth.
Best backcourt: Cal. While incoming McDonald's All-Americans Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown have received the most preseason attention,Tyrone Wallace may be Cal's most indispensable player. The 6-foot-5 senior averaged 17.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists last year, establishing himself as the Bears' top scorer, playmaker and perimeter defender. Wallace will be flanked on one side by sharpshooting Jordan Mathews and on the other by now-healthy Jabari Bird. Backup point guard Sam Singer will give Wallace the freedom to shift off ball when he enters the game. Brown will spend time at small forward when Cuonzo Martin goes big. 
Best frontcourt: Arizona. The lone returning member of last year's starting five will anchor Arizona's frontcourt. Kaleb Tarczewski, the 7-footer with an NBA body and a slowly improving skill set, will start at center once again for the Wildcats and provide low-post scoring, solid defense and leadership. Joining Tarczewski in the starting five will probably be versatile 6-foot-8 forward Ryan Anderson, a three-year starter for Boston College who averaged 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds as a junior. San Francisco transfer Mark Tollefson and skilled 7-footer Dusan Ristic give the Wildcats solid depth at both spots..
Best recruiting class: Cal. First Cuonzo Martin persuaded Rabb to stay close to his Oakland home for college. Then in one of the biggest surprises of the 2015 recruiting cycle, Martin got Brown to spurn numerous national powers to head West and join Rabb at Cal. Martin nearly got a third McDonald's All-American to join his program, but 6-foot-10 Caleb Swanigan eventually chose Purdue over the Bears and Michigan State this past spring. Regardless, this is already a potentially program-changing class for Cal.
Coach on the rise: Wayne Tinkle, Oregon State. Expected to be among the nation's worst power-conference programs last season, Oregon State instead emerged as a pleasant surprise. New coach Wayne Tinkle squeezed 17 wins out of a modestly talented roster by slowing the pace to a crawl and installing a stingy zone defense. Tinkle also simultaneously recruited the most highly touted class the Beavers had signed in years, raising hopes that Oregon State can end its 25-year NCAA tournament drought in the next year or two.
Coach on the hot seat: Three Pac-12 coaches face varying degrees of pressure to appease their respective fan bases this season. Stanford's Johnny Dawkins has only made the NCAA tournament once in seven seasons and graduated his three leading scorers from last year's NIT championship team. Washington's Lorenzo Romar hasn't made the NCAA tournament in four seasons but has begun to recruit at an elite level again. And USC's Andy Enfield has finished last in the Pac-12 both of his first two seasons, but boasts enough young talent to make a jump this winter.  







Tyrone Wallace (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Tyrone Wallace (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

FACTS AND FIGURES

New coaches: Bobby Hurley, Arizona State
Regular-season winner last season: Arizona
Tourney winner last season: Arizona
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2014-15: 5th, 2013-14: 3rd, 2012-13: 6th
NCAA bids the past three seasons: 15 (Arizona 3, UCLA 3, Oregon 3, Colorado 2, Utah, Cal, Stanford, Arizona State)



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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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