The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country. These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.

As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team's first game. With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, NCAA.com is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball's 32 conferences.

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The Pac-12 reigns supreme on this day.

Recap:

A busy regular season in the Pac-12 was followed up by a historic postseason for the so-called "Conference of Champions". A league record seven Pac-12 teams made the NCAA Tournament, highlighted by Oregon's trip to the Elite Eight.

However, the Ducks would ultimately fall to Oklahoma in the West Regional thanks to a sizzling performance from former Sooners guard Buddy Hield.

 
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The conference race was actually quite closely contested all year long, with the Ducks ultimately outpacing the Utes of Utah by one game to win the regular-season crown. And despite what a 31-point win over runner-up Utah in the Pac-12 Championship game might imply, Oregon had to reel off five wins in a row to finish the season in the top spot and hold off Utah.

Oregon battled all the way to the Elite Eight last year before falling to the Oklahoma Sooners.
Robert Hanashiro | USA TODAY Sports Images
Oregon battled all the way to the Elite Eight last year before falling to the Oklahoma Sooners.
There's normally a good degree of parity within the top half of the standings in any power conference, but nine of the Pac-12's teams won at least 8 conference games a year ago. In other words, there are few nights off for any team.

However, following the departure of five Pac-12 players who were selected as first round picks in the 2016 NBA Draft, the makeup of the standings come season's end are likely to change.

  • California — Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics)
  • California —Tyrone Wallace (Utah Jazz)
  • Washington — Marquese Chriss (Phoenix Suns)
  • Washington — Dejounte Murray (San Antonio Spurs)
  • Utah — Jakob Poeltl (Toronto Raptors)

Best Player

A string of four straight years with an upperclassmen taking the Pac-12 Player of the Year Award was broken when Utah's Jakob Poeltl took home the honor in 2016. Poeltl is off to the NBA, but the question of who will take his place remains.

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There is an awful lot of talent coming into the league to replace some of those who have departed for professional careers overseas or greener pastures after collegiate life, but it would be tough to expect a newcomer to take to things so swimmingly.

That said, one of the players who had a pseudo coming-out-party in his sophomore season — not to mention a subsequent trip to the NCAA tournament — was Oregon's Dillon Brooks. Whether it was a 25-point outburst to help Oregon beat Saint Joseph's in the Round of 32, or a number of long 3-pointers to knock out Duke in the Sweet Sixteen — a performance that initially drew the ire of Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, before Coach K recanted and called Brooks' performance a "terrific game".

More to the point, all of this adds up to an already talented player who will be coming back to school with oodles of confidence in stock.

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It remains to be seen how things gel, especially with the departure of two forwards who also like to operate out of the wing area in Dwayne Benjamin (7.8 ppg) and Elgin Cook (14.8 ppg), but their absence could create more space for Brooks to operate when he is on the floor.

But it is worth mentioning that Brooks is coming off a summer surgery on his left foot, which could slow the initial stages of his 2016-17 campaign. Odds are when Brooks does take the floor, it will be more of the same from the Canadian-bred forward.

Honorable mention:

The backcourt tandem of Bryce Alford and Issac Hamilton at UCLA could be one of the best scoring combos in the country. The pair ranked sixth (16.1 ppg) and third (16.8 ppg), respectively, in the conference in scoring a year ago. Toss in a few talented freshmen and each might be making a case for Pac-12 Player of the Year honors, if not for the fact that they could steal scoring opportunities from one another. Nonetheless, they will both still be in the mix come time for voters to cast their ballots.

Best Team

Despite sending seven teams to the NCAA Tournament, Oregon was the lone team to make it past the Round of 32. In other words, there were a lot of eyes on head coach Dana Altman and company last postseason.

During the Ducks final seven games of the season, including the NCAA Tournament, Brooks' scoring average was in lockstep with his per night tally on the year (16.7 ppg). That might not seem like a big deal, but when the lights were brightest last year Brooks was his usual steady self.

As mentioned earlier, some departures at forward could be a thorn in the side for the Ducks early on, but the Ducks do return three other significant contributors from their Pac-12 tournament championship team.

Guard Tyler Dorsey (13.4 ppg, 40.3 percent from 3-point land) will be back along with forwards Chris Boucher (12.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 2.9 bpg) and Jordan Bell (7.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.8 bpg) to help round out a squad that will be as seasoned as any other program in Division I college basketball.

It may be tough for Oregon to engineer a repeat performance in the Pac-12, but departures across the conference should work to level the playing field. In that case, the road to a Pac-12 Championship in the 2016-17 season must go through the Ducks.

Sleeper Team

One of the team's to watch in this year's Pac-12 race will be leaning heavily on a highly-touted freshman phenom. That team is the Washington Huskies, and the player in question is incoming freshman Markelle Fultz.

There’s normally a lot of pressure on players that are expected to come in and be “the guy” on any college campus, but for Fultz that type of pressure shouldn’t be anything new.

The timing of his arrival is quite interesting though, given the departure of Washington's leading scorer, Andrew Andrews (20.9 points per game, 19th leading scorer in the nation) and a pair of freshman standouts in Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss.

Long story short, this is a team with a bit of an identity crisis. But that’s not to sound the alarm just yet.

There is no shortage of talent for the Huskies with sophomores Noah Dickerson, David Crisp, and Matisse Thybulle all back in the mix, as well as junior forward Malik Dime, but it will be interesting to see how the offense jibes under the supervision of head coach Lorenzo Romar. 

A two-week summer trip overseas to Australia and New Zealand gave the team a chance to play five games together at the beginning of August, and it could be just what the doctor ordered in terms of getting acclimated to one another on the hardwood.

Opening tip for the Huskies this season will come against Yale on Nov. 13, which should be a good opportunity for Washington to test their mettle against a solid NCAA Tournament team that upended Baylor in the Big Dance.

Freshman to watch

This is a rough decision to make and there's really no wrong answer any way you go because the 2016-17 season will be another year with a number of high-impact freshmen out west in the Pac-12.

UCLA's Lonzo Ball and Washington's Markelle Fultz were both ready to contribute on the first day they stepped on campus, but classes and practice come first y'all.

Nonetheless, there's no denying the hype around the Pac-12 with arguably some of the most talked about freshmen entering the college game and residing within the same conference. Washington got the nod as the sleeper team in the Pac-12, so UCLA gets its turn here with a spin in the freshman spotlight.

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UCLA's Lonzo Ball (2) is one Pac-12 freshman who will be called on heavily to contribute this season.
UCLA Athletics
UCLA's Lonzo Ball (2) is one Pac-12 freshman who will be called on heavily to contribute this season.
Ball will join a team that undoubtedly has some playmakers already in tow, as noted by Brian Mull of NCAA.com in a September breakdown of college basketball teams looking to bounce back this year.

As Mull puts quite bluntly:

Apathetic defense ruined a sharp balanced offense for the Bruins last season. ... UCLA allowed 76.7 points per game and vanished in the final month, winning twice after Jan. 30 and closing the year on a five-game skid to miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012.

Leading scorers Isaac Hamilton (16.8 ppg) and Bryce Alford (16.1 ppg) form a veteran backcourt and freshman point guard Lonzo Ball is expected to improve the Bruins’ playmaking. T.J. Leaf, a 6-10 freshman, should help solidify the frontcourt and improve the Bruins defensive rebounding.

Defensive efforts in college basketball can wane over a season, but it's not clear this team ever really developed their defensive mindset a year ago.

Sure, UCLA had no trouble scoring the basketball, to the tune of a 77.5 points per game average in the 2015-16 season (71st in the nation), but the Bruins gave up points just as easily (76.7 points allowed per game). As such, the team's meager scoring margin of +.8 points a game was only good enough for No. 182 in the nation.

In other words, outscoring the opponent just didn't yield the intended results for UCLA.

Head coach Steve Alford is the beneficiary of a team that will share the basketball and can certainly make plays for one another (most assists per game in Pac-12, 15.7; and highest assist-to-turnover ratio, 1.28), but the team's defensive effort will be the most important measuring stick going forward

Ball's skillset and physical makeup jibe with the strengths of UCLA's uptempo offense, but the Bruins would be best served if the young, athletic wing made a name for himself defensively on the backboards and in passing lanes — at least initially.

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