College basketball preview: Pac-12 Conference

The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country. These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.

As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team's first game. With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball's 32 conferences.

A busy regular season in the Pac-12 was followed up by a historic postseason for the so-called "Conference of Champions". A league record seven Pac-12 teams made the NCAA Tournament, highlighted by Oregon's trip to the Elite Eight.

However, the Ducks would ultimately fall to Oklahoma in the West Regional thanks to a sizzling performance from former Sooners guard Buddy Hield.

The conference race was actually quite closely contested all year long, with the Ducks ultimately outpacing the Utes of Utah by one game to win the regular-season crown. And despite what a 31-point win over runner-up Utah in the Pac-12 Championship game might imply, Oregon had to reel off five wins in a row to finish the season in the top spot and hold off Utah.

There's normally a good degree of parity within the top half of the standings in any power conference, but nine of the Pac-12's teams won at least 8 conference games a year ago. In other words, there are few nights off for any team.
However, following the departure of five Pac-12 players who were selected as first round picks in the 2016 NBA Draft, the makeup of the standings come season's end are likely to change.

California — Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics)
California —Tyrone Wallace (Utah Jazz)
Washington — Marquese Chriss (Phoenix Suns)
Washington — Dejounte Murray (San Antonio Spurs)
Utah — Jakob Poeltl (Toronto Raptors)
Best Player

A string of four straight years with an upperclassmen taking the Pac-12 Player of the Year Award was broken when Utah's Jakob Poeltl took home the honor in 2016. Poeltl is off to the NBA, but the question of who will take his place remains.

There is an awful lot of talent coming into the league to replace some of those who have departed for professional careers overseas or greener pastures after collegiate life, but it would be tough to expect a newcomer to take to things so swimmingly.
That said, one of the players who had a pseudo coming-out-party in his sophomore season — not to mention a subsequent trip to the NCAA tournament — was Oregon's Dillon Brooks. Whether it was a 25-point outburst to help Oregon beat Saint Joseph's in the Round of 32, or a number of long 3-pointers to knock out Duke in the Sweet Sixteen — a performance that initially drew the ire of Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, before Coach K recanted and called Brooks' performance a "terrific game".

More to the point, all of this adds up to an already talented player who will be coming back to school with oodles of confidence in stock.

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It remains to be seen how things gel, especially with the departure of two forwards who also like to operate out of the wing area in Dwayne Benjamin (7.8 ppg) and Elgin Cook (14.8 ppg), but their absence could create more space for Brooks to operate when he is on the floor.

But it is worth mentioning that Brooks is coming off a summer surgery on his left foot, which could slow the initial stages of his 2016-17 campaign. Odds are when Brooks does take the floor, it will be more of the same from the Canadian-bred forward.

Honorable mention:

The backcourt tandem of Bryce Alford and Issac Hamilton at UCLA could be one of the best scoring combos in the country. The pair ranked sixth (16.1 ppg) and third (16.8 ppg), respectively, in the conference in scoring a year ago. Toss in a few talented freshmen and each might be making a case for Pac-12 Player of the Year honors, if not for the fact that they could steal scoring opportunities from one another. Nonetheless, they will both still be in the mix come time for voters to cast their ballots.

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