It almost sneaks up on you - popping up right in the middle of football season - but Pac-12 basketball is back. And after four years of being the laughingstock of major college basketball, the Pac-12 is primed to return to national prominence.
This year's conference will likely be led by Arizona and UCLA, which both received preseason top 25 rankings thanks to talented recruiting classes, and Stanford doesn't trail too far behind.
The Cardinal ran through last season's NIT to bring home a tournament title for Johnny Dawkins, and now it looks like he has his deepest, most experienced team yet on the Farm. Even without Jarrett Mann, Josh Owens, Jack Trotter and Andrew Zimmermann, the Cardinal appears ready to return to the NCAA tournament - and all three of our panel picked them to do so. Without further ado, here's our predictions of how Pac-12 and Stanford basketball will shake out this season:
Jack: Arizona. They've got everything you look for in a preseason title winner: good coaching, experience, youth, and all-around explosive playmakers. It all has to jell together down in the desert for the Wildcats to win the title, but I don't see that being an issue, especially with their unspectacular early non-conference schedule.
Jacob: Arizona. Tons of young talent, a good coach, and proven experienced leaders. What more can you want from a team? The difference between Arizona and UCLA, to me, is that the Wildcats have veterans they can count on, whereas the Bruins can't exactly ride Joshua Smith while their freshmen adjust.
Scott: Arizona. Sean Miller's got the Wildcats trending upward and I don't expect the preseason favorites to disappoint.
Pac-12 Biggest Surprise
Jack: Colorado. I don't understand why this team isn't receiving more love in the preseason Pac-12 polls right now. They went to the tournament last year, return the most complete player in the conference, have a nice supporting cast, and they have an excellent coach. Perhaps the only thing that hurts them that they play Arizona and UCLA twice.
Jacob: Colorado. Maybe the league's best player in Andre Roberson, combined with momentum from last year and a strong recruiting class (including a couple guys from a sports powerhouse near me in Mater Dei), could put last year's Pac-12 Tournament champs in contention for a return trip to the Big Dance.
Scott: USC. Just how big a turnaround the Trojans can make after last year's horrific 1-17 showing in Pac-12 play depends a lot on how healthy Jio Fontan and his teammates stay, as well as whether the NCAA allows 7-foot-2 Rice transfer Omar Oraby to play immediately. With or without Oraby, I think USC surprises a lot of people this season.
Pac-12 Biggest Disappointment
Jack: Oregon. The Ducks surprisingly finished with the league's second-best record last season, but they don't have the depth to repeat that feat this season.
Jacob: Cal. I hate to question a Mike Montgomery-coached team, and I hate to praise Jorge Gutierrez (who annoyed the heck out of me), but I'm afraid I'm going to do both. Gutierrez was the soul of last year's team, and without him and Harper Kamp, there are some good players but not enough grit and guts to make this team a top-four squad.
Pac-12 Coach of the Year
Jack: Sean Miller. He did some great work in the offseason to put together the conference's deepest team, and now he'll reap the benefits.
Jacob: Tad Boyle. I'll stick with my feeling about Colorado and say that if Boyle can get the Buffaloes back in the Tournament, he'll win COY.
Scott: Sean Miller. The Wildcats are expected to do well, sure, but if the team lives up to the hype and wins the Pac-12 title, I think Miller will get the nod.
Pac-12 Player of the Year
Jack: Andre Roberson. The guy is the best all-around player in the conference - scoring, rebounding, defense - so I don't see any reason why he isn't the preemptive favorite. I think the only way he loses this award is if an Arizona freshman or UCLA freshman has a freakishly good year.
Jacob: Brock Motum. I'm tempted by Roberson, Solomon Hill (who I swear was on Mike Bibby's team at Arizona), and Shabazz Muhammad (who everyone says is the real deal, if the NCAA will clear him already). But I'm going with Motum, last year's leading scorer and a guy you probably don't know because he plays in Pullman. Everyone else will have to share the load to some extent, but it's going to be all Motum at Wazzu.
Scott: Andre Roberson, Colorado. The double-double machine will put the Buffs on his back this season.
Pac-12 Breakout Player of the Year
Jack: Shabazz Muhammad. Based on everything I've seen, he'll be the star for the Bruins this year - and even if he isn't as overwhelmingly good as many expect him to be, he'll get a big boost thanks to the conference's increased visibility this year. Thanks, new Pac-12 broadcast deals!
Jacob: Abdul Gaddy. Every year, Washington loses stars to the NBA, and seemingly every year, new stars replace them. Gaddy has been a solid player for a few years, but now he will get a chance to shine.
Scott: Shabazz Muhammad. Assuming he's declared eligible, the freshman phenom should make the most of his one year in Westwood.
Pac-12 NCAA tournament teams
Jack: Arizona, UCLA, Colorado, Stanford. I really don't like picking Cal to miss the tournament - Mike Montgomery is the wrong guy to underestimate - but I am not ready to buy that more than four teams make it to the NCAA tournament. In the conference's salad days a few years ago, only six teams made the tourney.
Jacob: Arizona, UCLA, Colorado, Stanford. Arizona and UCLA should be no-doubters. I like Colorado and Stanford to make it, while Cal and Washington come up just short. There are plenty of interesting teams like Oregon and Oregon State that could make some noise, but I don't think they'll be consistent enough to really threaten.
Scott: Arizona, UCLA, Cal, Stanford, Colorado. Yes, I just put five Pac-12 teams in the NCAA tournament.
Stanford Player of the Year
Jack: Chasson Randle. He was far and away the best player on the team last season - and most enjoyable player to watch - and I expect he'll have another awesome year.
Jacob: Chasson Randle. Randle looked like a freshman for a lot of last year, but he also showed several glimpses of his potential, such as his 27-point first half against Arizona State in the Pac-12 Tournament. There's often a big jump for players between their first and second seasons, and I expect Randle to be the team's leader as a sophomore.
Scott: Chasson Randle. I thought he was the Cardinal's best player last year and I'm only expecting more out of Randle in 2012-13.
Stanford Breakout Player of the Year
Jack: Rosco Allen. The 6-foot-9 freshman will benefit from Mark Madsen's coaching on the block, and he also has a smooth jump shot that could make him a nice outside threat. I think he could combine all the best attributes of John Gage and Andrew Zimmermann and become a nice surprise for the Cardinal.
Jacob: Josh Huestis. I could go for one of the freshmen, but I'll stick with Huestis, a guy who was dominant on the glass for several stretches last season, but also disappeared a lot of the time. Without Josh Owens, Jack Trotter, and Andrew Zimmermann, it'll be up to Huestis to shoulder a bigger load inside, and I think he'll be up to the challenge.
Does Stanford make the NCAA tournament?
Jack: Yes. I say this with trepidation, but the Cardinal is much deeper than in recent years - including a huge group of solid juniors - and they'll be able to push themselves into the field of 68. (Also, the further away this team gets from the Jeremy Green years, the closer they are to a return to the Final Four.)
Jacob: Yes. The Pac-12 looks to be improved this season, which will give more legitimacy to Stanford nationally. Several early tests (Belmont, at NC State, at Northwestern, and particularly the Battle 4 Atlantis) will help the team and its strength of schedule, and I think there's enough talent on this team to make the Dance as a middle seed.
Scott: Yes. Overcoming the loss of Josh Owens won't be easy, but a difficult non-conference schedule provides the opportunity to pick up some resume-worthy wins. The Cardinal will be battle-tested and pissed off for greatness come the start of conference play.
If Stanford does not make the NCAA tournament, is Johnny Dawkins' job safe?
Jack: No. If he doesn't make the tournament this year, there are no more excuses for Dawkins. I've never been a huge fan of his, but I think he really needs to put forward an improved (as in, better than seventh in the conference) team this year or he might be packing his bags.
Jacob: No. It's tough to answer this considering we don't know what the circumstances would be. Players could get hurt or suspended, the team could barely miss out or be way out of the running. But all that said, I think Dawkins could really use a tourney berth, and another down year with all this talent could be his undoing.
Scott: No. Last year's team was much improved and winning the NIT title was a nice way to end the season, but a fifth straight year without an NCAA tournament appearance should put Dawkins on the hot seat.
Stanford's conference finish (and predicted conference record)
Jack: Fourth, 11-7.
Jacob: Fourth, 11-7. Stanford should be very solid at home, and three of its road games (USC, Utah, and Arizona State) are very winnable. Add in only having to play Arizona once, and the conference schedule sets up pretty well.
Scott: Third (22-9,13-5)