Three preseason burning questions about the Pac-12

October 11, 2018

Ready for some three-on-three about the upcoming Pac-12 basketball season? We’ve assembled three basketball expects and asked them three questions. They’ve got answers.

1. How many teams (and which ones) will the Pac-12 send to the 2019 NCAA tournament?

Jeff Borzello: I think a lot will come down to what happens with the Arizona schools. Oregon is the likely favorite heading into the season, with UCLA and Washington right behind them. USC is a good bet to get to the NCAA tournament if its newcomers perform as expected. Then there’s Sean Miller’s group in Tucson and Bobby Hurley’s team in Tempe. Arizona lost its entire starting five from last season, and its top returning scorer averaged 4.3 points. Miller will have to hope a touted recruiting class from two years ago takes a big step forward as sophomores and a few transfers make an impact. Meanwhile, Hurley loses his top three scorers from last season — but brings in a slew of impact freshmen and transfers that should help fill holes. It’s a deep and versatile rotation. Colorado will be on the bubble, as well. But I’ll go with Arizona State edging out Arizona and the Pac-12 getting five bids.

John Gasaway: Tough one! (Who comes up with these?) No conference has varied its tournament population in recent seasons as much as the Pac-12, which has received everything from just two (2012) to seven bids (2016) since the league assumed its current form. Let’s split that difference and call it four bids for 2019: Oregon, UCLA, Arizona State and USC. The Ducks will make it with ease, and a young Arizona team will just miss. In between, the Bruins, Sun Devils and Trojans will get it done with Kris Wilkes, Remy Martin and Bennie Boatwright, respectively.

Myron Medcalf: Always the question with this inconsistent league. I think they’ll send four teams to the NCAA tournament. I think Oregon, Washington, USC and UCLA will earn berths. I think Arizona and Arizona State just have too much production to replace from last season. But they’ll both be in the mix on Selection Sunday.

2. Who’s the freshman or incoming player who will make the biggest impact this season?

Borzello: There are plenty of candidates, and most eyes will look toward Eugene — even though I think they might be going toward the wrong newcomer. Bol Bol will get most of the attention in Oregon’s class, but I think the Ducks’ freshman who will make the most noise is Louis King. A five-star prospect in his own right, there is a case to be made that King is as good offensively as any incoming freshman in the country — and he possesses the skillset to make an immediate impact. He’s got good size at 6-foot-8, and can even play some small-ball 4 in certain lineups to create matchup problems. King can stroke it from the perimeter, drive to the rim and finish, or score in the mid-range. It wouldn’t surprise me to see King lead Oregon in scoring as a freshman, and then head to the NBA to get drafted in the first round.

Gasaway: I’ll throw a curveball here and go with a non-freshman: Chase Jeter at Arizona. The Duke transfer will have the opportunity to get minutes in Tucson right away, and it wasn’t so long ago when the 6-foot-10 junior was the No. 11-ranked recruit in the ESPN 100. Even in his (very) limited minutes in Durham, Jeter showed he’s a force to be reckoned with on the offensive glass. Now he has his chance.

Medcalf: I think it has to be Bol. He’s so unique. He’s a fluid big man surrounded by athletes. And that’s the kind of team that Dana Altman has led to Pac-12 championships in the past. I just think he’s a unique force who changes the way teams will try to defend Oregon. I think he’ll make the greatest impact.

3. Is this finally the season a plane does not fly over Westwood with a “FIRE STEVE ALFORD” banner?

Borzello: Considering the only time fans weren’t calling for Alford’s firing in the past three years was when Lonzo Ball, T.J. Leaf & Co. were running the show and the Bruins won 31 games, I have my doubts. With that said, UCLA should be a top-25 team this season. Kris Wilkes is an all-conference player, Jaylen Hands is a high-ceiling point guard and Prince Ali is back. Then there’s a top-five recruiting class featuring five-star Moses Brown, as well as the return/arrival of Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, who were suspended alongside LiAngelo Ball last November. This team will get better as the season goes along and chemistry improves, but the Bruins should be a team that can win a game or two in the NCAA tournament. Whether that’s enough to avoid banners calling for Alford’s firing, I’ll go with no.

Gasaway: Easy one. That answer is no, for reasons ably marshaled by my esteemed colleague Mr. Borzello. Apparently, the only way Alford can prevent such a banner from flying over his head is to put an insanely and indeed historically great offense on the floor that rips through the Pac-12 to the tune of 1.20 points per possession, the way the Bruins did in 2016-17. That won’t happen every day, plus in 2019 Coach Alford will once again fail, as do we all, the crucial and moderately demanding “Are you John Wooden?” test.

Medcalf: Oh, the banners are coming if Alford underperforms. He has his third consecutive top-five recruiting class and he still hasn’t won a conference title. We’re always on Alford Watch, especially this season with his buyout coming down to $3.6 million compared to the $6.2 million it would have cost UCLA to fire him after last season. But Alford has the power and the talent to end the noise.

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