Pac-12 preview: Cloud of uncertainty envelops Arizona, USC

The 2016-17 Pac-12 season featured one of the nation's most exciting teams in Lonzo Ball-led UCLA, a 30-win season from Arizona and an impressive showing in the NCAA tournament, with 10 tourney wins including a Final Four appearance for Oregon.

There's a very different feeling heading into the 2017-18 season.

The dark cloud that currently envelops college basketball heavily implicates the Pac-12's preseason favorites, Arizona and USC, as both teams are currently at the center of the explosive FBI investigation into allegations of fraud and corruption. Arizona assistant Emanuel "Book" Richardson and USC's Tony Bland are among the four assistant coaches accused of accepting bribes to steer players toward agents, financial advisors and apparel companies.

What sort of on-court impact this will have on either team is unknown at this point, and neither Arizona's Sean Miller nor USC's Andy Enfield has been willing to talk in much detail about the probe or how their respective schools were involved outside of the allegations against those former assistants.

In terms of talent and experience, the Wildcats and the Trojans stand out in the Pac-12. Arizona coach Sean Miller has the preseason player of the year in junior guard Allonzo Trier, and he calls the Wildcats' incoming freshmen "the best class that we've brought in at Arizona," which is saying something considering the Wildcats have finished no lower than No. 7 in ESPN's Recruiting Nation the past five seasons.

"We have a great mix of very talented newcomers, freshmen, with returning players that have been starters in all-conference players like [guard] Rawle [Atkins], like [guard] Allonzo [Trier]," Miller said.

USC returns every meaningful contributor from last season's team that made it to the Round of 32, including double-figure scorers Bennie Boatwright (15.1 points per game), Chimezie Metu (14.8 PPG), Jordan McLaughlin (12.9 PPG) and Elijah Stewart (12.3 PPG). The Trojans add Duke transfer Derryck Thornton, who started 20 games for the Blue Devils in 2015-16 and was ESPN's 17th-ranked player in the Class of 2015.

"Someone gave me the statistic: 98 percent of our scoring from last year is back, and hopefully we have a high percentage of our defense back, but we're going to have to improve on that if we're going to rise up in the rankings on a national scale," Enfield said. "It's the first time we've had a full roster of 13 scholarship athletes, and it's more of an even distribution between seniors, juniors, sophomore and freshmen, which is nice as a program to be able to walk in the gym and see guys that have been there with you a few years and also the newcomers that are the future of USC basketball."

The player who will own the conference

Arizona freshman DeAndre Ayton is the crown jewel of Miller's 2017 class. The 7-foot-1 center is a highly skilled big man who will likely be one of the first players taken in next year's NBA draft.

"The other day, DeAndre, at 7-foot, 260 pounds, on a 15-foot run, jumped 43.5 inches," Miller said. "It's something I've never seen before. He touched the top of the backboard."

The freshman you will want to tune in to see every time he plays

Obviously, Ayton is the main attraction, but Jaylen Hands should be sensational to watch in Westwood. He might not be the prolific passer that Ball was, but he pushes the ball up and down the court well, and his speed is tremendous. He'll work with veteran Aaron Holiday in the backcourt at either the 1 or 2, but in some form or fashion, he'll get on the court, and with his hops and slicing ability, UCLA might have another Russell Westbrook on its hands.

"He's doing well. He's adjusting pretty well," Holiday said of Hands. "He's a great passer, he's quick, he's athletic, so he knows the game. He likes to get into the paint and kick it out and all that. He plays defense pretty well. He pressures up [on defense] a little bit, and I like that."

Coach with the toughest job

It doesn't get any tougher than the job Ernie Kent has at Washington State, but when it comes to coaching one of the top programs in the league, Dana Altman has a mountain to climb in Eugene. After its first Final Four appearance since 1939, Oregon returns just three players from last season's roster, including one starter in point guard Payton Pritchard. Stud freshman forward Troy Brown arrives but has big shoes to fill with All-American forward Dillon Brooks (16.1 points per game) gone. Fellow big man Jordan Bell (10.9 points per game) and guard Tyler Dorsey (14.6) have also departed, which means it's going to take some time for this team to find an identity.

"It's going to take some time, November and December," Altman said. "I wouldn't get real comfortable if you're sitting in the first couple rows because the ball may be coming at you. But other than that, I think eventually they'll blend together and be a pretty good team."

The team that will surprise you

Do not sleep on Stanford. Last season, Reid Travis was the only player in the Pac-12 and one of only five individuals in the top six conferences to finish the season ranked in the top five of his conference in both scoring (11.8) and rebounding (7.2). Travis should definitely compete for the title of Pac-12 Player of the Year. Although most teams in this league are looking to replace multiple key players, Stanford returns its top three scorers.

"When I look back at year one, certainly the wins and losses are not what I want it to be," second-year coach Jerod Haase said. "But when I look back at year one, I do think we've laid a strong, strong foundation to be able to move forward right now, that the core values are taking root."

The team that will disappoint you

For all the talent Arizona has, you can't escape the fact that this team has underachieved on the big stage in recent years. Yes, the FBI probe could affect this team during the season, especially losing such an important member of the staff as Richardson, but remember that despite ridiculous talent in the past, Arizona is 0-5 in regional final games since reaching the national championship in 2001.

When it comes to purely on-court play, Arizona is still searching for a dynamic point guard to lead a deep tourney run. Senior Parker Jackson-Cartwright is back, but he's a bit undersized and isn't much of a scorer (5.9 PPG). There's still another level he can take to be that dynamic point guard made for a deep tourney run. You also can't overlook guard Kadeem Allen's absence after he was one of the Wildcats' top defenders.

The league title will come down to ...

It'll come down to whether Arizona and USC are further affected by the FBI investigation this year. Those are the two best teams in the conference, and without any outside obstacles, the conference title should come down to them. They meet Feb. 10, but what could really decide everything is that final stretch, which is slightly more difficult for USC, as the Trojans play their final two games at Utah and against rival UCLA. If both can navigate this season without any more repercussions, it's their title to contend for. If not, UCLA will have a fight with Oregon and Stanford on its hands.