Pac-12 preview: Once again, everyone is chasing Arizona

Pac-12 preview: Once again, everyone is chasing Arizona

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.

To put into perspective how much of an overwhelming favorite Arizona is entering the season, consider the results of last month's Pac-12 preseason poll.

The big story wasn't that 31 of 32 panelists projected the Wildcats to finish first in the league. It was that someone had the gall to predict they wouldn't.

It's hard to envision a scenario in which Arizona doesn't win the Pac-12 this season both because of the talent and depth on the Wildcats' roster and because of the roster attrition some of the league's other top contenders endured this offseason.

Arizona returns all but two key players from a team that won the Pac-12 regular season title, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and came within one basket of taking coach Sean Miller to his first Final Four. Granted the two missing players are leading scorer Nick Johnson and NBA lottery pick Aaron Gordon, but the incoming recruiting class Miller landed should help fill those holes.

The arrival of McDonald's All-American Stanley Johnson, the development of elite small forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson should give Arizona plenty of firepower at wing. Both are potential first-round picks next June because of their size, athleticism, slashing ability and ability to defend multiple positions. Arizona will also benefit from the passing ability and leadership of senior T.J. McConnell at point guard and the outside shooting prowess of junior Gabe York off the bench. Throw in high-scoring former junior college standout Kadeem Allen and pass-first freshman point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Arizona has an absurd amount of perimeter options at its disposal.

The collection of frontcourt talent is nearly as impressive. Power forward Brandon Ashley returns from the foot injury that cost him the second half of last season, providing Arizona with a pick-and-pop specialist who also defends capably and scores with his back to the basket. Seven-footer Kaleb Tarczewski provides an excellent complement since he is also a sturdy defender but is more comfortable scoring in the paint than further from the basket. Depth should also be abundant for Arizona in the form of freshmen Dusan Rustic and Craig Victor.

Dethroning Arizona would have been difficult under any circumstances, but the challenge for the rest of the Pac-12 got tougher because of all the personnel losses the upper-echelon teams sustained.

UCLA waved goodbye to first-round picks Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson and Zach LaVine, leaving the Bruins with no true point guard and only three scholarship guards on their roster this season. Oregon brings back only three scholarship players from last season as a result of graduation, transfers and the dismissal of three players accused of rape last March. Colorado and Arizona State had guards Spencer Dinwiddie and Jahii Carson turn pro with eligibility remaining, while even Stanford lost its two standout frontcourt weapons, Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis, to graduation.

The result is that the one team that did not sustain any major losses could be Arizona's top challenger this season. Utah returns its top six scorers from a 21-win team and adds a solid recruiting class, two huge reasons it should ascend in the standings.

The biggest catalyst for Utah's rapid improvement is point guard Delon Wright, a first-team all-league selection last year with the size, quickness, court vision and ball-hawking instincts to be selected in the first round of next June's NBA draft. He and versatile small forward Jordan Loveridge will carry the offense, but the Utes need complementary scorers to emerge. They also must prove they can perform down the stretch in tight games and on the road after losing eight games by four or fewer points last season and dropping their first six Pac-12 road games.

The question marks for the rest of the Pac-12's upper echelon are even bigger.

Does UCLA have the depth to survive a five-month season and will its freshmen emerge as impact players right away? Can a Colorado team that went 9-10 without Spencer Dinwiddie last season find enough ways to score without him this season? Will Stanford's vaunted freshmen class help ease the pressure on Chasson Randle to carry the Cardinal? And can Washington find any semblance of a frontcourt to offer support for Nigel Williams-Goss and Andrew Andrews on the perimeter?

Arizona doesn't have nearly as many glaring questions entering the season. That's why the Wildcats are the prohibitive Pac-12 favorites and everyone else is fighting for the title of biggest challenger.

MAKING A LIST

Best shooter: Joseph Young, Oregon. The only proven returning player on the Ducks averaged 18.9 points per game as a junior and sank 41.5 percent from behind the arc and 88.1 percent from the foul line. The 6-foot-2 senior will have to take on more of a leadership role this season with Oregon returning just three scholarship players and relying on mostly freshmen and other newcomers.
Best playmaker: T.J. McConnell, Arizona. The pass-first point guard Sean Miller previously lacked made a huge impact in his first year in Tucson. He took care of the ball, averaged 5.3 assists per game, played excellent on-ball defense and even sank open shots when opponents dared him to shoot.
Best defender: Delon Wright, Utah. One of two returning all-Pac-12 defensive team selections along with McConnell, Wright impacts a game on defense in all sorts of ways. The 6-foot-5 senior forces turnovers, he led the country in blocked shots among point guards last season at 1.2 per game and he guards the opposing team's best perimeter scorer, whether they're a point guard or a wing.
Top NBA prospect: Stanley Johnson, Arizona. It would be no surprise to see Johnson take over Nick Johnson's go-to scorer role by season's end. A powerfully built 6-foot-6 wing who commanded high-major scholarship offers by the end of his freshman year of high school, Johnson has blossomed further as his skill level has begun to catch up to his ample strength and athleticism. No longer does he merely overpower opposing wings. Now he can also make those who play him to drive pay with an improving jump shot.
Best backcourt: Arizona. This perimeter corps is simply an embarrassment of riches. McConnell is a classic pass-first point guard who can also knock down an open jump shot and play fierce on-ball defense. Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson are both powerful slashing wings who excel in transition and off the dribble. Allen will provide scoring off the bench and York provides a badly needed outside shooting specialist.
Best frontcourt: Arizona. Though the Wildcats will miss Aaron Gordon's rebounding, energy and ability to defend multiple positions, they still boast the Pac-12's best collection of big men. Brandon Ashley has fully recovered from the foot injury that cost him the second half of last season, giving Arizona an athletic, smooth power forward with pick-and-pop range out to the 3-point line. He'll pair with rapidly improving 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski, who boasts an NBA body, solid defense and rebounding and a developing offensive game. And off the bench, skilled Serbian 7-foot freshman Dusan Ristic has big upside and bruising freshman power forward Craig Victor will be an asset in the paint. 
Best recruiting class: Arizona. In addition to the ultra-talented Johnson, the Wildcats have also landed a handful of other prospects who will make an impact before leaving Tucson. Craig Victor is a hard-working power forward who excels in the paint and gets to the foul line, wing Kadeem Allen had a huge season last year in junior college, Dusan Ristic is a skilled European big man who will provide interior depth and Parker Jackson-Cartwright is a quick pass-first point guard who will add strength and learn behind T.J. McConnell this season.
Coach on the rise: Wayne Tinkle, Oregon State. Although the Beavers may be one of the worst major-conference teams in the nation in Tinkle's debut season, don't expect the struggles to last long. The former highly successful Montana coach has a history of getting the best out of lesser-talented teams and he has landed a remarkable 2015 recruiting class featuring a quartet of Rivals 150 prospects.
Coach on the hot seat: Dana Altman, Oregon. has taken the Ducks to the NCAA tournament both of the past two seasons and to the Sweet 16 in 2013, Altman has come under fire for his team's slew of off-court issues this offseason. Of course, the most egregious was the rape accusations against former Ducks Dominic Artis, Damyean Dotson and Brandon Austin. Altman drew intense criticism for signing Austin despite previous allegations of sexual assault while he was at Providence and for playing Artis and Dotson in the NCAA tournament even while they were under investigation by the police.

FACTS AND FIGURES

New coaches: Wayne Tinkle, Oregon State. Ernie Kent, Washington State. Cuonzo Martin, Cal.
Regular-season winner last season: Arizona
Tourney winner last season: UCLA
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2013-14: 3rd, 2012-13: 6th, 2011-12: 10th
NCAA bids the past three years: 13 (Colorado 3, Arizona 2, Cal 2, UCLA 2, Oregon 2, 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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