- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Editor’s note: For two weeks, we're rolling out Blue Ribbon previews for every team in the country. We'll also have comprehensive preview coverage of the nation's top 10 conferences. As part of that, we're asking our writers to share what they're most looking forward to in each of those leagues. Today we take a look at the Pac-12.
1. Will the Pac-12 recover?
Last season was not the Pac-12's finest moment. In fact, it was historically bad, basically from top to bottom. The best example? Its regular-season champion, 14-4 Washington, was deemed unworthy of an at-large NCAA tournament bid -- and rightfully so -- thereby becoming the first Big Six team to accomplish that dubious feat. The league appears poised to recover in 2012-13. UCLA will be better, as will Arizona. Cal will be solid. USC won't be anywhere near the horrid depths of last season's 1-17 conference record. Oregon could compete for an NCAA tournament spot, Stanford is coming off an NIT title and is steadily improving under Johnny Dawkins, and Colorado may have the nation's best rebounder in Andre Roberson. Even if UCLA isn't a national title contender, the Pac-12 as a whole should be better than last season. Given how awful the conference was last season, that is not a high bar to clear.
2. Will UCLA's star freshmen be eligible?
This is easily the most important question about the Pac-12 this preseason, and even at this relatively late date, we still don't know the answer. Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson -- both top-five players in the incoming class of 2012 -- are the subjects of NCAA investigations for amateurism issues. Per a Monday update from the Los Angeles Times, both investigations are still ongoing, both are taking longer than expected (particularly Anderson's), and lawyers for the players "feel as if they are operating in the dark." With a small, arguably overwhelmed staff, this is how NCAA Eligibility Center cases can go. UCLA will know when it knows, and no sooner.
That is not a particularly appetizing place to be in, but surely all would be forgiven if both players are declared eligible. Losing even one from the talented incoming duo would be a blow; losing both is the difference between UCLA as the Pac-12 favorite and a potential Final Four team and UCLA as a more talented but not particularly exciting version of its thoroughly mediocre 2011-12 self. Needless to say, everyone affiliated with Bruins hoops is hoping for the former. Whether or not they'll get it remains an open question, and easily the most pressing one in the Pac-12.
3. Will Arizona be ready?
With all the talk surrounding UCLA's incoming freshmen -- not only their eligibility status but their sheer talent and ability to change the recent trajectory of the Bruins -- it has been easy to gloss over Arizona this offseason. That would be a mistake. Wildcats coach Sean Miller brought in the third-ranked recruiting class in the country (UCLA was No. 1, Kentucky No. 2). It features the No. 3-ranked center, Kaleb Tarczewski, whose name I have already begun practicing spelling; No. 2-ranked power forward Grant Jerrett, No. 3-ranked power forward Brandon Ashley; and No. 12-ranked shooting guard Gabe York. Which brings us to the other pressing question about Arizona ...
4. Can Mark Lyons lead?
Even with all that fresh talent arriving, Miller's biggest offseason acquisition comes in the form of former Xavier guard Mark Lyons, a senior transfer with one final year of college hoops eligibility available. Lyons, a scoring combo guard who played alongside Tu Holloway in Cincinnati, has a boatload of talent. He also has a well-earned reputation for attitude concerns, for on- and off-court selfishness, for leaving Xavier without addressing what coach Chris Mack in a statement called "expectations [that] were outlined for his fifth and final season, areas in which [Mack] believe[d] needed improvement ... Mark did not recognize these expectations as being important." Lyons has said all the right things this offseason, and Miller, who recruited him to XU five years ago, knows him as well as any coach in the country. But asking him to lead a team of brand-new freshmen seems inherently risky. Will it work?
5. Will Brock Motum become a star?
Washington State's Brock Motum is arguably the best high-major player you've never heard of. He had an excellent 2011-12 season, leading the Pac-12 in scoring while using 29.3 percent of his team's possessions and 30.0 percent of its shots, posting a solid 109.0 offensive rating and a 17.0 percent defensive rebounding percentage, per KenPom.com. Now a senior, Motum is the Pac-12's best returning player, a big man with a variety of post moves and the height to get his buckets effectively. The question isn't whether he'll be good. He will. The question is whether Ken Bone's team has the pieces to take pressure off its big man, especially without the dismissed Reggie Moore. And if not, whether Motum can be as effective when he's facing constant double- and triple-teams.
Editor’s note: For two weeks, we're rolling out Blue Ribbon previews for every team in the country. We'll also have comprehensive preview coverage of the nation's top 10 conferences.