The Pac-12 gave us one of the most entertaining conference races in college basketball last season, with Oregon, Arizona and UCLA finishing a combined 47-7 in league play. All three were top 3 seeds in the NCAA tournament.
But the Pac-12 sent only four teams to the tournament (Southern California was the other one), the fewest of any high-major conference. The league was talented. It just lacked depth.
We’ll see if a few more Pac-12 programs can break through this season. Here are five conference games you’ll need to watch.
*Feb. 8: UCLA at Arizona
One of the greatest rivalries in the sport. The Wildcats took two of three from the Bruins last year but, of course, the personnel will be different this season. Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf are gone from UCLA, as is Lauri Markkanen from Arizona.
Still, these will both be Top 25 teams. Rawle Alkins, who just broke his foot, should be back for Arizona by the time these two teams play. The Wildcats return Allonzo Trier, a possible first-team All-American, and add DeAndre Ayton, who has superstar potential. Arizona has the inside track to a Pac-12 title.
UCLA won’t make it easy, though. The Bruins have a nice combination of veterans and young studs. Thomas Welsh, master of the 15-footer, is back on the front line. Aaron Holiday is a breakout candidate with Ball and Bryce Alford gone. He shot a blistering 54 percent from 3 as a sophomore. If Holiday averages close to 20 points, don’t be shocked. Steve Alford also adds Kris Wilkes, an uber-talented 6-foot-8 wing who can do it all.
Arizona has the talent edge and is at home. But if UCLA maintains this up-tempo, run-and-gun style, it can catch anyone on the right night. That includes the Wildcats.
*Feb. 10: USC at Arizona
USC returns every significant contributor from a team that reached the second round of the NCAA tournament, while Arizona will likely open the year in the Top 5. On paper, these are the two best teams in the league.
The Trojans are extremely balanced. Seven players averaged seven or more points per game last season. USC may not have obvious superstars like Trier or Ayton, but it has continuity is on its side. In a sport where roster turnover is baked in, that matters. There’s a reason why, for one example, Wichita State will likely open as a Top 10 team. The Shockers have won at a high level and return all of their key pieces.
Same with USC, though on a lighter scale. Watch Arizona’s Ayton vs. Chimezie Metu inside in this matchup. Ayton oozes raw talent, but his motor isn’t always running. Metu, a junior, led the Trojans in scoring and rebounding. He might have 75 percent of Ayton’s ability, but he’s a proven interior force at this level.
Circle the date on your calendar for this one.
*Feb. 24: Arizona at Oregon
In a top-heavy league, Arizona, USC and UCLA are bound to make a lot of appearances. Oregon would normally fit into that category, but it lost a ton from its Final Four team. Dillon Brooks, Jordan Bell, Dylan Ennis, Chris Boucher and Casey Benson are gone. What will these Ducks look like?
We probably won’t know until conference play starts. Payton Pritchard, who started at point guard in the Final Four, will have to be a leader as a sophomore. He was a ball-mover and a spot-up shooter as a freshman, but he’ll have to create more offense now. Transfer Elijah Brown, son of NBA coach Mike Brown, will likely lead Oregon in scoring. He averaged 22 points as a sophomore at New Mexico, but the efficiency wasn’t great. Outside of those two, Oregon will rely on a lot of young guys.
So while Arizona should be able to handle Oregon, it’s no guarantee. The Ducks are so tough at home. Last year, Dana Altman’s squad beat Arizona in Eugene by 27. Of course, the personnel will be way different. The Ducks won’t win by 27 again.
And if this game comes down to the final seconds, don’t be surprised.
*March 3: Colorado at Utah
These two teams just missed the NCAA tournament after making it in 2016, so perhaps a bounceback is in store. Utah initially struggled to find its footing with big man Jakob Poeltl gone, but eventually found its rhythm, going 11-7 in the Pac-12. It went a combined 0-4 against Arizona, UCLA and Oregon, though, and a lack of quality wins left the Utes out of the dance.
Colorado also ended the season on a high note. The Buffaloes lost their first seven Pac-12 games yet managed to finish 8-10 in the league. Colorado even beat Oregon. Ultimately, the slow start was too much to overcome. But perhaps the Buffaloes can carry that momentum into this season.
As mentioned before, just four Pac-12 schools reached the tournament last year. If a fifth or sixth team can make it, these are the next two in line. This game could have bubble implications.
*March 3: UCLA at USC
UCLA vs. USC has always been a fierce football rivalry, but in basketball, both teams are rarely good at the same time. That changes this year.
USC has more proven veterans than it can start, while UCLA has a few high-level upperclassmen with some freshmen phenoms on the way. The crowd dynamic should be fascinating here, too. Again, both teams (likely) being this good is unprecedented. Will Bruin fans travel to USC? Or will it be all Trojan red and yellow?
These are two likely tournament teams. But on the last day of the regular season, seeding could be up in the air. When pure talent meets what could be the start of a lasting rivalry, you’re going to want to watch.