SAN FRANCISCO — Dana Altman has a theory as to why Oregon was picked as the Pac-12 favorite.
“Nobody else to put there,” the UO coach said at the conference’s men’s basketball media day Thursday. “There wasn’t a dominant team.”
The media poll seemed to say as much when the Ducks were picked as the favorite on 16 of 25 ballots, but were followed closely by UCLA and Washington with Arizona making it four teams that got at least one first-place vote.
It’s the second time that Oregon was picked to win the conference, but two years ago Altman felt much different in that role.
“We were coming off an Elite Eight with Jordan Bell, Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey, Casey Benson and Chris Boucher all back,” Altman said. “It was a little easier prediction then.”
Oregon lived up to the hype in 2017 when it shared the title with Arizona and went on to reach the Final Four.
The Pac-12 may not have a team pegged by prognosticators to contend for the national title this season because some of the usual contenders had a makeover in the offseason.
That includes the Ducks, who lost three of their top four scorers while adding a top-five recruiting class.
Defending champion Arizona doesn’t return a player who averaged more than five points per game. The Wildcats were picked to win the conference in five of the past six years and won it four times during that stretch.
“I think it's the first time I’ve come to Pac-12 media day and not been favored or the co-favorite in some time,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller, who said the fourth-place projection in the media poll was higher than he expected. “If you go back five or six years, we’ve been predicted to win it or finish second and that is a different type of pressure, a different type of team. For us this year, we don’t have that. We can play with a healthy chip on our shoulder trying to be better than maybe everybody else thinks we are.”
UCLA has lost two of its top recruits for the season with injuries while adding two redshirt freshmen who were suspended for all of last season.
“I think it is a little different from last year because Arizona had everybody back and we had everybody back and a couple other teams too,” said USC coach Andy Enfield, whose Trojans were picked to finish fifth. “This year, there are a lot of unknowns.”
The most experienced team in the conference is Washington, which brings back its top seven scorers who helped the Huskies go 10-8 last year.
“I figured Washington would be picked first or second,” Altman said. “I was a little surprised they had them third.”
Oregon had a two-year run at the top of the conference come to an end last year when they went 23-13 and snapped a run of five straight trips to the NCAA Tournament.
Payton Pritchard and Paul White are the two returning starters with sophomores Victor Bailey, Kenny Wooten and Abu Kigab also back. Bol Bol headlines the recruiting class that also includes five-star Louis King, who will miss at least the start of the season with a knee injury.
“I know we can be really good because we are talented, but we have a lot of work ahead of us,” Pritchard said. “The ceiling is high. We have a lot of talent, but with that, we have a lot of work to put in to get people buying in and figuring out roles.”
Last year marked the first time under Altman that Oregon finished below its projection in the media poll when it placed sixth after being picked fourth. The Ducks welcome higher expectations this season.
“We like to hear those kinds of things, but we know what comes with that,” White said. “You have to keep working and keep pushing because once you get complacent, that’s when they knock your head off.”