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Pac-12 Season Preview: Can Oregon or Arizona break the league’s Final Four drought?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Pac-12 conference.

The Pac-12 hasn’t had a Final Four team since UCLA made three straight from 2006-2008, and the conference has had a long stretch without an elite program.

Oregon is hoping to change that this season, as the Ducks return most of last season’s team that had a breakthrough year. Arizona and UCLA also have talented teams, and the Pac-12 has a lot of intriguing newcomers to keep an eye on this season, including the potential No. 1 pick in the draft in an unlikely spot.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Oregon remains a major threat: For a No. 1 seed with nearly everyone returning, the Ducks aren’t getting a lot of preseason hype. That shouldn’t be the case. Oregon brings back lethal scorers in Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey and Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell are back to protect the rim. Senior Dylan Ennis and freshman Payton Pritchard add guard depth to a team with Final Four aspirations.

2. Arizona reloads with some talented freshmen: The Wildcats lost plenty of talented seniors but Sean Miller reloaded with a strong recruiting class with some talented returning pieces. The Wildcats have a proven scorer in Allonzo Trier and they’ve added five-star freshmen Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons. Five-star big man Lauri Markkanen could also make an impact and Dusan Ristic returns up front, as does former top 10 recruit Ray Smith, who is coming off of his second ACL tear.

PROVIDENCE, RI - MARCH 17: Head coach Sean Miller of the Arizona Wildcats reacts in the first half against the Wichita State Shockers during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Dunkin' Donuts Center on March 17, 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Arizona’s Sean Miller (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

3. Arizona’s freshmen aren’t even the best freshmen entering the league: Arizona is bringing in three five-star prospects but the most exciting freshmen to watch will be Washington’s Markelle Fultz and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball. Fultz is getting buzz as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft while Ball is an exceptional passer with a high IQ and skill level.

4. UCLA has a lot to prove: Speaking of the Bruins, they’re in for an intriguing season after a disappointing 15-17 record. They return most of the core from last year with Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday all returning and Lonzo Ball is coming in. This Bruins offense should be tough to stop. But defense is the huge question mark and they have to learn to get stops.

5. Ivan Rabb returned to lead Cal: The former five-star center had a very good freshman season, averaging 12.8 points and 8.6 boards per game in only 28 minutes — and limited touches. But he opted to return for his sophomore season and now the Golden Bears are his team. Rabb has a serious chance to be an All-American and a lottery pick with a good season.

CONFERENCE PREVIEWS: Big 12 | ACC | Pac-12 | Big Ten

PRESEASON PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Markelle Fultz, Washington

Potentially the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, Fultz is an immensely talented guard who can play on or off the ball and scores in a number of ways. Also a skilled passer with good vision, it will be interesting to see how Fultz plays this season and if he’s able to carry Washington to the NCAA tournament with a relatively young roster.

THE REST OF THE PAC-12 FIRST TEAM:

  • Jordan McLaughlin, USC: Efficient and talented, the junior point guard should get full point-guard duties with Julian Jacobs leaving.
  • Kyle Kuzma, Utah: Kuzma was impressive in spurts as a sophomore, but with the amount of talent the Utes lose, he should put up monster numbers this season.
  • Dillon Brooks, Oregon: Health will be a factor for Brooks, but he’s a matchup nightmare with confidence in big games.
  • Ivan Rabb, Cal: If Rabb can protest the rim and add to his 1.2 blocks per game, he could be the best two-way big man in college hoops.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Lonzo Ball, UCLA
  • Tyler Dorsey, Oregon
  • Allonzo Trier, Arizona
  • Lauri Markkanen, Arizona
  • Tres Tinkle, Oregon State

CONTENDER SERIES: Duke | Oregon | Kentucky | Kansas | Villanova

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - FEBRUARY 10: Kyle Kuzma #35 of the Utah Utes gestures after a three-point play in the second half of Utah's 90-82 win over the Washington Huskies at the Jon M. Huntsman Center on February 10, 2016 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
Kyle Kuzma of the Utah Utes (Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR: Utah junior forward Kyle Kuzma has the look of potential star and with the Utes losing Jakob Poeltl and so many key players it could be his chance to shine. The 6-foot-9 forward can attack off the dribble or knock down jumpers, but he has to be more consistent.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar is bringing in NBA-caliber talent the last few recruiting classes, but he has to start winning games and making consistent runs to the NCAA tournament. The Huskies haven’t made the NCAA tournament in

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : There are some intriguing teams here with future pros, but the conference needs to prove it can make a run to the Final Four to quiet the doubters.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT : The Pac-12 might be the most exciting league in the country this season when it comes to freshman guards. Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Rawle Alkins, Kobi Simmons are all headliners, but players like Charlie Moore, JaQuori McLaughlin and Payton Pritchard could also have key roles.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • Nov. 11, Arizona at Michigan State
  • Nov. 15, Oregon at Baylor
  • Dec. 3, UCLA at Kentucky
  • Dec. 7, Washington at Gonzaga
  • Dec. 21, California vs. Virginia

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @pac12

California's Ivan Rabb encourages the crowd to cheer in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Saint Mary's Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
California’s Ivan Rabb (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Oregon: This team has scoring, solid guard play and a nice mixture of post defenders to make another deep tournament run. If Dillon Brooks is healthy and others around him step up, Oregon has a serious chance to make a Final Four run.
2. Arizona: Watching how the new five-star pieces will mesh will be fascinating but this team undoubtedly has a lot of talented players. If former five-star freshman Ray Smith can return from multiple knee injuries then Arizona has a real shot at the league title.
3. UCLA: Defense is going to be the huge question for UCLA since we already know their offense is going to be tough to stop. If Lonzo Ball can help rally together this talented group of returnees, the Bruins could easily make a deep run in March — or have another chaotic season and miss the tournament.
4. Cal: This Cal team will look dramatically different from last season as this is clearly Ivan Rabb’s team. The sophomore big man should get more post touches and he has some decent players coming back like Jabari Bird, Kameron Rooks and Sam Singer.
5. Colorado: The Buffaloes have quietly been to four of the last five NCAA tournaments and have George King and Josh Fortune back this season. This team can really knock down perimeter shots and its gives them a huge boost on offense.
6. USC: The Trojans lost plenty of pieces from the rotation but they also have a lot of talent coming back. Point guard Jordan McLaughlin is efficient and forwards Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu have the talent to make a leap.
7. Washington: This will be Markelle Fultz’s team but a lot of the role players from last season return. Noah Dickerson and Matisse Thybulle both started as freshmen and shot blocker Malik Dime returns as well.
8. Oregon State: The Beavers lost Gary Payton II but return most of their young core and add four-star point guard JaQuori McLaughlin. Sophomores Tres Tinkle, Stephen Thompson Jr. and Drew Eubanks give Oregon State a bright future.
9. Utah: With so many talented players leaving, there will be a lot of question marks for the Utes as Kyle Kuzma and Lorenzo Bonam lead. Transfers like David Collette (Utah State) and Sedrick Barefield (SMU) need to make an impact.
10. Arizona State: This team should have a lot of talented guards but the frontcourt remains a question mark. Tra Holder and Kodi Justice are back and they get Buffalo transfer Shannon Evans and Sam Cunliffe in the rotation.
11. Stanford: New coach Jerod Haase gets 10 of the team’s top 11 scorers back and the return of injured players like Robert Cartwright and Reid Travis will help. Marcus Allen, Dorian Pickens and Michael Humphrey are all returning double-figure scorers.
12. Washington State: The Cougars lost 17 straight to end last season as they’re in rebuilding mode. Seniors Josh Hawkinson and Ike Iroegbu should put up numbers but they need more help.

Bryce and Steve Alford, Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Bryce and Steve Alford, Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.