When the 2016 college basketball season starts this fall, the Arizona Wildcats will find themselves in a unique position. Instead of being the top dog in the conference, they are looking up at a new leader in the Pac-12.
While the Wildcats do not have to worry about Wisconsin standing in their way anymore, the Pac-12-winning Oregon Ducks look to be as strong as last season. The Ducks only lost two key players in starter Elgin Cook (14.8 points and 5.1 rebounds) and sixth-man Dwayne Benjamin (7.8 points and 3 rebounds). Last season, the Ducks lost Pac-12 Player of the Year Joe Young and never lost a beat, so do not expect Oregon head coach Dana Altman to not lead his team to the top ten again.
Arizona might not even have the top recruiting class to lean on as that distinction could belong to the UCLA Bruins. With a class led by T.J. Leaf and Lonzo Ball, UCLA should also be in the mix for the conference title. Add in Oregon and Arizona State's strong recruiting classes and the Pac-12 could be very deep this year.
Despite a 2016 team that includes three five-star recruits and the return of Allonzo Trier, the Wildcats will likely start next season on the outside of the top ten looking in. Last year's team received a lot of grief, but they were still a top-25 team and conference contender. A lot of Pac-12 teams would gladly accept Arizona's season, but some Wildcat fans consider it an epic failure.
This year, they have all the potential to be a top-five team, but they will likely be buried behind the Duke's, Kentucky's and UNC's of hoops next season. No matter Arizona's ranking, basketball will never be played on paper and when was the last time the preseason top team won it all?
If Mark Tollefsen makes both free throws against the Ducks in the Pac-12 Tournament, maybe the complexion of last season changes for both teams, but Oregon still likely advances further in the NCAA Tournament than the Wildcats. Arizona is improving substantially this offseason, so an improvement from last season's one-and-done should somewhat be expected. Trier missed a few games, Ray Smith missed the whole season, and they were still ranked for the entire year. If Smith and the freshmen contribute, maybe Arizona is a consistent top ten threat in 2016-17.
Maybe this lack of attention will work to Arizona's advantage in the end. The Wildcats cannot go into the season thinking they have the conference locked up or Oregon (or possibly UCLA) will shut that up in a hurry. How can you not be excited for Arizona/Oregon this season?