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Mather: Pac-12 basketball power rankings

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Any avid readers of my column out there probably know this spiel already, but traditional media polls and preseason power rankings have never done all that much for me. Most analysts don’t give much more than a cursory glance to teams before the season begins, and, as a result, most rankings end up reflecting past seasons more than they do the unique circumstances of the upcoming year.

In an attempt to fix that, I’ve put together my own rankings of what should happen based on this season alone. These rankings are likely to be significantly wrong, but if my preseason football power rankings are any indication there’s a chance I get a few things significantly right as well.

Without further ado, I bring you my preview of the 2016-17 Pac-12 men’s basketball season, a year that is already shaping up to be one of the most exciting in recent memory.

No. 1: Arizona

Man, this team is going to be fun. Allonzo Trier is back, which should on its own guarantee that the Wildcats will be competitive for the Pac-12 crown. Joining him will be a characteristically strong Sean Miller recruiting class, including Kobi Simmons, Rawle Alkins and, my personal favorite, Lauri Markkanen. Markkanen has obtained mild notoriety by leading the Finnish team at home in the FIBA U20 European Championship, and between his impressive 3-point shooting and surprisingly solid handling he appears to have the whole package. It’s going to take a lot for Markkanen, Trier and company to rise above the fray of the conference this year but, with Miller at the helm, the sky is the limit.

No. 2: Oregon

Oregon is the best team on paper in this conference, and, at least in the last couple years, head coach Dana Altman can probably lay claim to being the Pac-12’s best coach as well. I’m honestly a huge believer in what the Ducks can achieve — they’ve got a solid “Big Three” going for them in Tyler Dorsey, Chris Boucher and Dillon Brooks, and the return Dylan Ennis should add some more depth to a talented backcourt. The only question this year is really how Altman and his gang can handle high expectations — starting at the top is a new situation for the crew from Eugene, and I’m not sure it goes 100% smoothly.

No. 3 California

Last year wasn’t the ideal season for Bay Area native Ivan Rabb, but this season very well might be. With Jaylen Brown and Tyrone Wallace moving on, it’s up to Rabb to be the focal point of the Cal offense this year. While the sophomore still has a lot to prove, if Rabb can live up to the potential he’s shown the results could be quite spectacular. With a little luck, the Bears might become this year’s Utah and seriously challenge for the conference title.

No. 4: UCLA

Isn’t the conference just a little bit more exciting when UCLA is a decent team? Steve Alford still has a long way to go before he proves he’s worth his lofty salary, but this year seems like a great chance for him to start. If Alford can build some synergy between his experienced returners and five-star recruits Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf, this team could take a big step toward getting back to its glory days. If he can’t, Bruin fans may be in for another long, disappointing year.

No. 5: Stanford

Yes, this is a hometown pick. But there seems to be quite a drop-off between the top four teams in the conference and everyone else this season, and if everything works out right for Stanford then I think a top-five Pac-12 finish is within the realm of possibility. As dangerous as it is to get excited about the prospects of Cardinal basketball, there’s at least some reason to hope that the new energy brought in by Jerod Haase can lead to real improvement on the court this year. This program needs a bit of optimism, and I say we get that started now.

No. 6: USC

Andy Enfield seems to be proving the doubters wrong at USC, and this season has a chance to be his best yet. While has USC faced some attrition after its first return to the NCAA Tournament since 2011 last year, it seems like Enfield still has a talented group of players that believe in his process (like Jordan McLaughlin and Bennie Boatwright). Like most teams in the middle stretch of the conference this year, a lot could go right for the Trojans too. If nothing else, the days of easy road wins at the Galen Center are long over.

No. 7: Colorado

The Buffaloes are probably the safe pick to get No. 5 in the conference this season. While lead-everything forward Josh Scott is gone, the team returns most of the rest of a 2016 tournament roster and also gets a boost from the return of 2015 starter Xavier Johnson. I doubt Colorado will be some flashy upset king but, more than most other teams outside the top of this conference, they should be able to take care of business against the league’s bottom feeders. That just might be enough to see them back in action next March.

No. 8: Oregon State

I honestly expected the Beavers to do a bit more with the talent that they had last year. Making the tourney is always a good thing, but a first-round exit isn’t ideal when your program theoretically has its best roster in years. Oregon State’s sophomore core of Tres Tinkle, Stephen Thompson Jr. and Drew Eubanks has a lot of potential, however, and with few key breaks, the Beavers could put together another strong season. Doing better than a first-round tourney exit will still be a tall order.

No. 9: Washington

The Huskies have to be one of the most bizarre participants in the one-year wonder era of college basketball. Washington has cobbled together some pretty impressive recruiting classes as of late, yet, unless you follow the Huskies closely you wouldn’t necessarily know it. This year, the Dawgs add top-10 recruit Markelle Fultz to the roster, who has the unenviable task of replacing Andrew Andrews, Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray. If Fultz can add some offensive productions and the Huskies can get some stops then this team could accomplish a lot — if not, their time might be better spent getting ready for the even better class that’s on its way next year.

No. 10: Arizona State

It seems like Arizona State’s rebuild is finally going somewhere. Bobby Hurley put a really nice recruiting class together for the 2016 season, and Tra Holder has become a solid option to run the team’s offense through. It’s probably a little early to ask for too much from Arizona State, especially with top recruit Romello White ruled academically ineligible for the season, but don’t sleep on this team going into 2017.

No. 11: Utah

Good teams don’t tend to fall off drastically, but Utah is facing a seriously difficult situation this season. The team lost Jakob Poeltl to the NBA, lost Jordan Loverage and Brandon Taylor to graduation and then lost a number of their bench players to transfer. Kyle Kuzma should provide Larry Krystkowiak with one solid piece to build around, but it’s going to take a lot of young guys stepping up to move the Utes to the top of the pack. Other than history, I don’t see much that suggests they do.

No. 12: Washington State

I looked for every reason to bring Washington State out of the gutter of the Pac-12, but unfortunately it just doesn’t look like this is the year. Still, this is a fairly exciting squad for a consensus worst-in-conference pick, led by one of the nation’s best double-double earners in Josh Hawkinson. I’m almost certain that Washington State will get more wins than the lone conference victory it earned last season. I’m less sure that it’ll get enough to meaningfully move up the latter.

 

Contact Andrew Mather at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Andrew Mather served as a sports editor and as the Chief Operating Officer of The Daily. A devout Clippers and Iowa Hawkeyes fan from the suburbs of Los Angeles, Mather grew accustomed to watching his favorite programs snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He brought this nihilistic pessimism to The Daily, where he often felt a sense of déjà vu while covering basketball, football and golf.