If any major conference is in need of improvement, it's the Pac-12. Can the league improve upon its poor postseason showing in 2018-19?
Here are five questions for the Pac-12:
1. Can the conference fix its perception issue?
There's no sugarcoating it: The 2017-18 season was among the most disappointing in conference history. The Pac-12's best team, Arizona, was its only representation in the NCAA tournament's field of 64, where the Wildcats promptly got blown out by 13th-seeded Buffalo.
It was an unmitigated disaster of a postseason that came on the heels of a regular season dominated by headlines about the FBI's investigation into corruption in college basketball -- an investigation that saw Arizona assistant coach Book Richardson and USC assistant coach Tony Bland arrested before the season began.
So, what now? It's easy to adopt a sky-is-falling mentality, but the reality is one bad season doesn't indicate a trend. Just two years ago, three teams qualified for the Sweet 16 and there is enough incoming talent this year to boost the conference back to respectability. That should never be the case. As a basketball conference, the Pac-12 should never be in a place where it merely hopes to chase national respect -- and relevance -- but here we are.
2. Can Steve Alford make use of UCLA's wealth of talent?
When UCLA fired Ben Howland after he guided UCLA to a regular-season conference title and an NCAA tournament berth in 2013, athletic director Dan Guerrero gave a fairly boilerplate explanation: "We went into the season with high aspirations of winning the conference championship and making a run in the tournament. We were successful at the former, but not the latter."
Keep in mind Howland won the conference four time in his 10 seasons and took the Bruins to a pair of Final Fours. It seemingly set the bar extremely high for the next coach -- a bar that Steve Alford, in his five seasons, hasn't come close to reaching.
The Bruins have reached the Sweet 16 three times in Alford's five seasons -- an accomplishment that would be celebrated in many programs across the country -- but have yet to finish atop the Pac-12 standings. That relative lack of success hasn't affected recruiting, however, as the Bruins pulled in ESPN's No. 3 class, capped only recently by Shaquille O'Neal's son, Shareef O'Neal.
Mixing that group with arguably the conference's best crop of returning talent makes the Bruins, on paper, the favorite in the Pac-12. If Alford can't deliver with this team -- taking into account Guerrero's decision to fire Howland -- it's hard to imagine him remaining in Westwood beyond this season. And to deliver, in this case, would be to win the Pac-12 and advance past the Sweet 16.
3. What will Arizona's reset look like?
There might not be a team in college basketball that lost as much talent as the Wildcats. That starts, obviously, with Deandre Ayton, the top pick in the NBA draft and the Pac-12's Player of the Year, and includes the rest of Arizona's starting five. The Wildcats have to replace 84.6 percent of their scoring from players who made up 76.5 percent of the team's total minutes played. Five contributors who averaged at least nine minutes per game return, most notably Dylan Smith, Brandon Randolph and Emmanuel Akot, all of whom started at least four games.
Despite not having any commitments when the season ended, Arizona landed a three-man recruiting class that features two guards from Southern California -- Brandon Williams and Devonaire Doutrive -- and Belgian small forward Omar Thielemans. Possibly more important is the addition of a pair of transfers. One, 6-foot-10 Chase Jeter, sat last season after arriving from Duke, while the other, point guard Justin Coleman, is a graduate transfer from Samford where he averaged 13.5 points and 6.6 assists last season.
That's a lot of new pieces to fit together, which makes it tough to get a real sense of how this team will look when the season begins Nov. 7 at home against Houston Baptist.
4. How strong will Oregon bounce back?
After reaching the NCAA tournament in five straight seasons -- including a Final Four run in 2017 -- the Ducks' ascension finally dipped for the first time in coach Dana Altman's eight-year tenure. That a 23-13 record is viewed as a down season is telling about the state of the program, and after securing one of the nation's best recruiting classes, the Ducks are in line for a bounce-back season.
Oregon signed five ESPN 100 players, including five-star talents center Bol Bol and forward Louis King. The Ducks' leading scorer, guard Payton Pritchard (14.5 ppg), returns along with important contributors forwards Paul White and Kenny Wooten, and guard Victor Bailey.
It shouldn't come as a surprise if Oregon wins the conference and makes another deep run in March.
5. Is this the end of the line for Ernie Kent at Washington State?
Good luck trying to find a reason Year 5 of the Ernie Kent era in Pullman will be any different than the first four. The program was in dire straits when he inherited it, but instead of building from the ground up -- and taking the lumps that come with that process -- he has been content to bring in transfer after transfer, perhaps hoping for a quick fix. It has had the opposite effect, setting the program back even further.
Washington State is just 11-43 in conference play over the past three seasons. Eight of the 13 players on the current roster didn't begin their college careers at Wazzu and with each season the fan base has grown even more apathetic. It's obvious the program should go in a different direction, but Kent is under contract through 2021-22 and is still owed in excess of $5 million.
For WSU, that's not an easy buy-out, which leaves new athletic director Pat Chun low on options. However, when Chun was announced as the school's new AD, the official news release said he "has earned a reputation as an outstanding fundraiser with record successes at two institutions." It won't take long to find out how serious Chun is about basketball.
Five players to watch
Son of the late NBA player Manute Bol and the No. 4-ranked recruit in the country (and top-ranked player who didn't sign with Duke), Bol is one of the primary reasons Oregon is expected to contend for the conference title.
At 7-foot-2 with a reported wingspan of roughly 7-foot-8, Bol is a unique talent who will make the Ducks worth checking out early in the season.
A five-star center from New York, Brown headlines the impressive UCLA recruiting class referred to above. The 7-footer was the No. 15-ranked recruit in the country and should immediately help the Bruins on both ends of the floor, but at this stage of his development he's known more for what he offers on the defensive end.
Had Boatwright remained healthy and De'Anthony Melton been allowed to play, the Trojans would have been a major factor in the NCAA tournament. There was some speculation that Boatwright would make the jump to professional basketball but he opted to exhaust his final year of eligibility, giving the Trojans an experienced big man (68 career starts) who has averaged double-digit scoring in each of the past three seasons.
After averaging 15.4 points and 8.4 rebounds and being named first-team All-Pac-12, Dickerson flirted with entering the NBA draft but opted to return to school after it was clear he probably would have gone undrafted (Dickerson was not invited to the draft combine). A key piece in the Huskies' resurgence under first-year coach Mike Hopkins, Dickerson's return boosts expectations for a team that will return its top eight scorers from a season ago.
The Beavers' 11-win improvement in 2017-18 (from 5-27 to 16-16) had a lot to do with having Tinkle healthy and back in the lineup after he missed most of the previous season because of a broken wrist. A first-team All-Pac-12 selection, Tinkle averaged 17.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists during his redshirt sophomore season. Playing alongside Stephen Thompson Jr. gives the Beavers something to work with, but they'll still project to wind up near the bottom of the standings.