Ayton, Trier lead Arizona in top-heavy Pac-12


This is the 20th in a series of 32 college basketball conference previews.

Conferences and teams tend to get defined in March. Although the Pacific-12 was extremely top heavy last season, it was a successful year for the conference. All four teams that made the field of 68 won at least two games in the NCAA Tournament, and Oregon had the deepest run by reaching the Final Four.


Arizona enters the season in the top five in all of the polls, while Oregon and UCLA retool their rosters and Southern California attempts to build on its momentum from the end of the 2016-17 season.

The Wildcats must venture onward without 7-foot Lauri Markkanen, but even with a key NBA departure the team on paper has more than enough talent to go to the Final Four — if an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball does not interfere with coach Sean Miller’s potential dream season in Tucson.

Arizona replaces Markkanen, a first-round pick by the Chicago Bulls, with the top-rated center in the 2017 recruiting class, DeAndre Ayton. He’s a smooth passer, elite rebounder, alters lots of shots and has a 7-foot, 260-pound frame. He’s not the 3-point shooter Markkanen was, but Ayton can hit mid-range jumpers and will give this team more second-chance scoring opportunities.

Allonzo Trier is also back for his junior year. In 18 games last year, he made 39.1 percent of his 3s and averaged 17.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists.

He will be joined at some point in the backcourt by Rawle Alkins, who decided to return for his sophomore year despite NBA hype swirling around him. He underwent surgery to repair a fractured bone in his right foot in late September, and his return date is set for sometime between late November and late December. Alkins had 10.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game last season and was a 37-percent 3-point shooter.

Parker Jackson-Cartwright played a lot of point last year, as well, getting nearly 25 minutes per game and averaging 5.9 points and a team-high 4.2 assists. Also, 6-foot-5 freshman guard Brandon Randolph was rated by ESPN as a four-star recruit and has a tremendous amount of athleticism and plays sticky defense.

The frontcourt has a bit more returning parts than the backcourt thanks to senior Dusan Ristic staying in the program. He had 10.9 points and 5.5 rebounds as the starting center. With Emmanuel Akot and Ira Lee entering the program as 6-foot-8 freshmen forwards, this team has the best stable of big guys west of the Mississippi.

This is a Final Four-or-bust season for Arizona, which should rip through the Pac-12 with ease.

Oregon won 33 games and made its first trip to the Final Four since winning the first NCAA Tournament in 1939. But this Dana Altman-coached team looks drastically different from last year as all five of the top scorers are gone.

With the likes of Tyler Dorsey, Jordan Bell and Dillon Brooks departed, point guard Payton Pritchard will have to be more of a team leader. He will lean heavily on graduate transfers MiKyle McIntosh and Elijah Brown for support.

McIntosh comes over from Illinois State, where he did a little of everything with 12.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. Brown was one of the top players in the Mountain West last year, gong for 18.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 3.1 assists per game for New Mexico. Troy Brown, a 6-foot-7 freshman from Las Vegas, also will be in the starting lineup as a highly-rated recruit.

Altman has a history of overachieving at Oregon and he should get the program back into the NCAA Tournament and likely threatening the Top 25.

UCLA is in a similar spot with Oregon, as the Bruins made the Sweet 16 and lost four of their top five scorers.

Aaron Holiday will return to the backcourt after scoring 12.2 points and shooting 41.2 percent from 3. The team was fourth in D-I basketball in 3-point shooting percentage as coach Steve Alford's squad converted 40.6 percent of its shots from deep.

Seven-foot Thomas Welsh is UCLA's top returning big man, notching 10.8 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. He’s also a remarkably good free-throw shooter, hitting 89.4 percent of his free throws a year ago.
Welsh and Holiday will be surrounded by a bunch of highly touted freshmen as Alford tries to duplicate last year's success.

Freshman point guard Jaylen Hands is a five-star recruit thanks to his outstanding ability to get to the rim. UCLA will try to build around those three with a glut of wings and stretch forwards, including 6-foot-7 Kris Wilkes, who figures to be a good defender also capable of knocking down mid-range jumpers.

ESPN-rated top 100 recruits Cody Riley and Jalen Hill should both play a lot of minutes alongside Welsh in the forward rotation. Both were arrested for shoplifting in China along with LiAngelo Ball, a controversy which could throw a wrench into things. Many eyes will be on LiAngelo Ball, the middle of the three Ball brothers. Those hoping he will put up numbers like Lonzo Ball will be disappointed. He is unlikely to be much more than a situational sharp shooter as his overall game needs work. Even father LaVar Ball said in June that he won't make the NBA, and that’s not a ringing endorsement from a guy who has made plenty of foolish comments.

This team's ceiling is high, though UCLA has a pretty significant chance of failure, too.

USC had an uneven season, going 14-0 to begin the year, before going 7-8 in its next 15 games prior to pulling things together to make the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Trojans coach Andy Enfield has the pieces needed for a mammoth season as the top eight players return.

Chimezie Metu is a favorite for Pac-12 Player of the Year honors for a reason as the 6-foot-11 big man had 14.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game.

Bennie Boatwright returns after leading the team with 15.1 points per game and chipping in 4.5 rebounds and shooting 36.4 percent from 3. He missed 17 games last season due to injury. ESPN-rated five-star freshman Charles O’Bannon Jr. arrives and is expected to make an immediate impact.

Duke transfer Derryck Thornton gives the backcourt an additional option at the point. Senior Jordan McLaughlin will round out the starting group in the backcourt after he had 12.9 points and 5.5 assists per game. He also had a 40.2 3-point shooting percentage.

USC has perhaps the deepest stable of guards west of the Mississippi and should be poised to take the next step in the NCAA Tournament. Much like last year, there is a massive dip in quality in the Pac-12 after those four teams.

Utah actually finished fourth in the conference ahead of USC last year but could not muster quality wins to make a case for the NCAA Tournament. It was the only team in the conference to fall to Oregon State, and that loss in February sunk the Utes’ at-large hopes.

Coach Larry Krystkowiak must replace do-it-all forward Kyle Kuzma, who has since went on to be a bit of a sensation with the Los Angeles Lakers. He led the team with 16.4 points and 9.3 rebounds per game.

Senior forward David Collette is in charge of getting the team to fire on all cylinders. The 6-foot-8 transfer from Utah State was a big reason the team ranked third in the nation in shooting percentage as he made 59.6 percent of his shots while posting 13.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game.

The team will look to a new face to run the point as Long Beach State graduate transfer Justin Bibbins enters the program after he posted averages of 13.1 points, 4.6 assists and 3.1 rebounds. He is also a weapon from long range, as the past two years he shot 43.8 and 37.5 percent from 3, respectively.

Six-foot-7 freshman Donnie Tillman is an explosive dunker who can block shots and was rated by ESPN as a four-star recruit. Utah's guard play is not good enough to be a force in the conference, and the team will likely go from winning 20 games to being around .500.

The first two seasons of the Bobby Hurley era in Tempe have not gone too well as Arizona State followed up a 15-17 record in 2015-16 with a 15-18 mark.

The backcourt duo of Tra Holder and Shannon Evans played well last year, combining for 31.2 points, seven rebounds, 2.2 steals and 7.6 assists per game. Hurley also has 6-foot-3 Kodi Justice returning after he led the team in 3-point shooting percentage at 41.7.

The Sun Devils ranked 335th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing an average of 81.7 points.

Romello White redshirted last season after being a top 100 prospect in ESPN’s 2016 recruiting ratings. He should lend a helping hand as he provides length and is a solid defender. Ohio State transfer forward Mickey Mitchell also should give the interior some depth and improved defensive prowess.

An NCAA Tournament appearance is a bit too far-fetched for this team, but it should take a step forward and get above .500.

California needs to replace its top five scorers from a year ago and under the guidance of a new coach. Cuonzo Martin bolted the program in the offseason for the Missouri opening, leading to assistant Wyking Jones being elevated to the top job.

Former Kentucky forward Marcus Lee is eligible after sitting out the 2016-17 season per NCAA transfer rules. As a junior, he had 6.4 points, six rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game while also starting 20 times for the Wildcats’ team that began the 2015-16 season 38-0. Lee and 7-foot-1 senior Kingsley Okoroh should form a front line that shuts down opponents. Okoroh had 4.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game.

Cal is a very, very poor man's Virginia. This team will play super defense, but it lacks offense. Unproven freshman Darius McNeill might be the go-to guy in crunch time. It is hard to see the Golden Bears finishing anywhere other than in the bottom half of the league.

Colorado had a starting lineup loaded with seniors and was coming off a trip to the 2016 NCAA Tournament, but it disappointed in a big way and landed a 5-seed in the NIT. Four of the top five scorers from a year ago are gone. It leaves 6-foot-6 George King to lead the team after he had 11.1 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, converting 37.6 percent of his 3s.

It’s hard to see the Buffaloes being any better than .500 unless their freshman overachieve on a massive scale.

Oregon State had its second-worst win percentage in the program’s 116-year history last year, posting a 5-27 record after making the NCAA Tournament in 2016.

Tres Tinkle, the son of coach Wayne Tinkle, played in just six games due to injuries to his foot and wrist. He returns with a redshirt awarded so he still has sophomore eligibility after he posted 20.2 points and 8.3 rebounds per game last year. He provides 3-point shooting as a 6-foot-8 stretch four. He will form a good one-two combo down low with 6-foot-10 Drew Eubanks, who has been appearing on many NBA mock drafts as a possible second-round pick.

Ethan Thompson, the brother of Stephen Thompson Jr., is the headliner of Oregon State's recruiting haul. He is an ESPN top 100 recruit for the 2017 class. If Tinkle can stay healthy and the Thompson brothers can boost the backcourt, Oregon State can take a massive leap forward.

Stanford went 14-17 last year as its guard play was downright awful. The Cardinal ranked 333rd in the nation in made 3-point field goals per game with 5.1, which was worst among power-five teams.

ESPN-rated top 100 prospect Daejon Davis played more of a shooting guard role in high school but could start at point as a freshman for coach Jerod Haase's club. Dorian Pickens, a 6-foot-5 senior, will start alongside him in the backcourt after he shot a team-best 39.6 percent from distance while averaging 12.6 points and 3.5 rebounds.

Reid Travis and Michael Humphrey are starters and the top rebounders. Travis led the way with 17.4 points and 8.9 rebounds as a junior. He's dealt with injuries in his time at Stanford, including missing four games last year and appearing in just eight games during the 2016-17 season. The team has an 11-15 record with him out of the lineup the past two years.

Stanford has a lot of talent entering the program, but now it must all mesh in order for the team to get to the NCAA Tournament. The Cardinal will likely be riding the bubble and miss the big dance, but the program is certainly heading in the right direction.

Washington is in search of its first NCAA Tournament appearance since Isaiah Thomas hit a buzzer-beater in the conference title game in 2011 to send the Huskies to the dance.

The Huskies were as far away from the field of 68 as ever last year despite having the eventual No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick on their team in Markelle Fultz. Washington went 9-22 overall and 2-16 in conference play, leading to Lorenzo Romar being fired as coach and the administration bringing in Syracuse associate head coach Mike Hopkins as the boss.

Hopkins hired former UNLV coach and Nevada assistant Dave Rice, and they did a good job of keeping the current roster together. Fultz was the lone contributor from last year who bolted, and he was going to leave whether a coaching change occurred or not. David Crisp will be tasked with running the offense after the junior registered 13.8 points and 3.1 assists per game. He also made 36.7 percent of his 3s and will be joined by a wing in Matisse Thybulle, who shot 40.5 percent from 3. The 6-foot-5 Thybulle had 10.5 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game.

Washington will take its lumps this year, but things will get better.

Washington State went 13-19 overall with a 6-12 record in Pac-12 play, which is sadly six more conference wins than the Cougars had the prior season.

Guard Malachi Flynn is the only one of the team's top five scorers back from last year after he averaged 9.7 points. The team needs Robert Franks to play a big role on this team after he had 6.3 points and 3.3 rebounds per game off the bench a year ago. Washington State is completely wiped of talent and this figures to be the second time in three years that this team finishes dead last in the conference.

The Pac-12 is unique in that there is a clear divide between the top four teams and the rest of the conference, but all four of its NCAA Tournament teams could make a run.

Greg Peterson’s Pac-12 Conference forecast:
1. Arizona
2. USC
4. Oregon
5. Stanford
6. Oregon State
7. Arizona State
8. Utah
9. California
10. Washington
11. Colorado
12. Washington State

Related stories:
As always, Big 12 belongs to Kansas, Self: https://vsin.com/as-always-big-12-belongs-to-kansas-self/
Florida has talent to clip Calipari in SEC: https://vsin.com/florida-has-talent-to-clip-calipari-in-sec/
Musselman-led Nevada still best in Mountain West: https://vsin.com/musselman-led-nevada-still-best-in-mountain-west/
College basketball conference preview page: https://vsin.com/news/latest-college-basketball-headlines/

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Greg, originally from Wisconsin and a UW Oshkosh alumnus, is widely recognized in the sports media industry, particularly for his expertise in college basketball, which earned him the nickname "Hoops" from Brent Musburger. He has worked with Vanderbilt and Oregon's flagship stations and joined VSIN in 2017. Greg contributes to various channels, hosting "The Baseball Betting Show" and "Coast To Coast Hoops" podcasts, and writes for DK Nation, building on his experience with over 500 articles for the New York Post. Known for his analytical approach, he produces daily spreadsheets for college basketball and MLB games, focusing on educating bettors about the importance of betting on numbers rather than teams.