College basketball: Is this the season Arizona, Sean Miller break through?
The Pac-12 finished with three teams ranked in the top 10 of the final AP Top 25 college basketball poll last season, including No. 3 Oregon, which made its first Final Four since 1939. What does the conference have in store for an encore?
Arizona and UCLA both enrolled highly touted freshman classes, while Oregon will rely on a heavy dose of incoming transfers as the Ducks seek to defend a share of their Pac-12 title.
Like Michigan State in the Big Ten, our Pac-12 preview comes with a heavy dose of the Arizona Wildcats, who enter the 2017-18 season as the conference favorites and one of the teams on the short list to win the national championship.
Best player: Allonzo Trier, Arizona
Trier is the Pac-12's third-leading returning scorer at 17.2 points per game, an increase of almost 2.5 points per game from his freshman season. If he takes another jump this winter, the 6-5 guard from Seattle could find himself on multiple All-American lists and under consideration for national player of the year honors.
He scored in double figures in all but two games he appeared in last season, including his final 10. Trier is also among the conference's top 15 returning rebounders at 5.3 rebounds per game. He's a good shooter at every level – from two (51.4 percent), three (39.1 percent) and the free throw line (81 percent) – while also being a capable playmaker at nearly three assists per game.
Trier will be the engine that makers Arizona run this season.
Best team: Arizona
The Wildcats return three of their top four scorers from last season, when Arizona won a share of the Pac-12 regular season championship, won the conference tournament and advanced to the Sweet 16 as a No. 2 seed. Sean Miller's team returns three starters – Trier, plus guard Rawle Alkins (10.9 ppg) and center Dusan Ristic (10.9 ppg) – in addition to senior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright and rotational forward Keanu Pinder.
What makes the Wildcats the Pac-12 favorite and a team that can make a deep run in the tournament is the influx of new talent in Tuscon combined with the returning core.
Freshman forward DeAndre Ayton, who's listed at 7-1 and 250 pounds, should be an immediate starter after averaging more than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game in the Nike EYBL summer circuit. Freshmen guards Brandon Randolph and Emmanuel Akot are highly regarded talents, and newly eligible transfer Dylan Smith will suit up for Arizona after averaging a team-high 13.5 points per game as a freshman at UNC-Asheville in 2015-16.
Sleeper team: Oregon State
Oregon State finished in the cellar of the Pac-12 last season with a 1-17 conference record but the Beavers only had Tres Tinkle, the team's best player and coach Wayne Tinkle's son, for six games. They had just one senior on last year's roster (center Cheikh N'diaye, who returns after receiving a medical hardship waiver) and every starter is back this season, which means things should be looking up in Corvallis.
Tinkle averaged 20.2 points and 8.3 rebounds per game before breaking his wrist and the 6-8 forward could be among the best players in the conference now that he's healthy. Guard Stephen Thompson Jr. was ninth in the Pac-12 in scoring last season (16.3 ppg) and forward Drew Eubanks was 21st (14.5).
The Beavers may not contend for the Pac-12 title but they should take a major leap in 2018.
Freshman to watch: DeAndre Ayton, Arizona
The aforementioned Ayton could be one of the most exciting players in college basketball this season. He's listed at 7-1 with a reported wingspan of 7-5. His listed position on the Arizona roster? Forward, not center. He will almost always be the biggest player on the floor and at the very least, he projects to be a contributor on the glass, a rim protector and a rim runner in transition.
7 footer, 260 lbs, 43.5 inch vert pic.twitter.com/7oJbq2rJDk— Deandre Ayton (@RealDeandreAy) September 26, 2017
Arizona has enough returning talent, especially in its backcourt, and surrounding pieces that Ayton will be another piece to the puzzle rather than having to carry the Wildcats through Pac-12 play.