The Pac-12 experienced a tumultuous ride last season, putting only three teams in the NCAA Tournament with its regular season champion, Washington, earning only a No. 9 seed. It looks to be a better year for the conference this time around, with Arizona and Oregon looking to have bounce-back campaigns after disappointing showings in 2018-19 (excluding the run the Ducks made in the final few weeks of the season) and highly-rated recruiting classes sprinkled among its members.
The top shouldn’t be particularly heavy outside of the Wildcats and Ducks, but a healthier middle should mean more bids for the Pac-12 in the Big Dance, plus a higher quality conference season. Colorado should take a step forward, USC has plenty of talent (per usual), and Arizona State is looking like the same bubble team it always does. March should be kinder to the Pac-12 in 2020.
Here is how I see the Pac-12 breaking down as we’re only days away from the start of the season:
National Competitors: Arizona, Oregon
After starting 6-8 in the Pac-12 and staring down a 15-12 overall record after a 90-83 loss at UCLA on Feb. 23 last season, Oregon rattled off 10 victories in a row – four to close the regular season, four to win the Pac-12 Tournament, and two in the NCAA Tournament to advance to the Sweet 16 – to completely change the narrative on its season. There have been some noteworthy departures since – Louis King, Ehab Amin and Kenny Wooten, to name a few – but the most important piece of the puzzle, Payton Pritchard, is back for his senior year. He is the engine that makes Oregon go, and the more usage head coach Dana Altman got from his point guard, the better the team performed at the end of last year. Add in some valuable transfers, such as Chris Duarte from junior college and Anthony Mathis from New Mexico, plus some returning role players in Francis Okoro and Will Richardson, and you’ve got yourself a team that can compete for a Pac-12 title and then some.
It was a rough go for Arizona in the 2018-19 campaign, and the offseason might have been even more rocky. Ignoring the FBI mess, the amount of drama surrounding the team’s roster for the upcoming season was insane. Players who promised to come to Tucson didn’t, players wavered on whether they’d come and injuries struck to ensure that Arizona fans would have zero idea what the team would really look like until the day the season started. The dust seems to have settled, and it looks like a strong collection of returners, transfers and freshmen will have the Wildcats back near the top of the Pac-12 like they’re used to. Chase Jeter, Dylan Smith and Ira Lee headline the players back for another go, with Max Hazzard from UC Irvine and Stone Gettings from Cornell serving as two crucial transfers into the program eligible for this season. Then Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji are the incoming freshmen who help form the No. 6 class in the country. The amount of distractions surrounding this program could be its downfall this season, but one thing is for sure: it won’t be the talent, which is plenty good enough to win this league and go deep in March.
NCAA Tournament Hopefuls: Arizona State, Colorado, Oregon State, UCLA, USC, Washington
Washington won the Pac-12 last season first and foremost with its defense. Matisse Thybulle, one of the best college defenders I have ever seen and the key to the Huskies defense, is gone, though, along with Jaylen Nowell and Noah Dickerson, who were the driving force behind the team’s scoring. To replace their offensive production, head coach Mike Hopkins added Kentucky transfer Quade Green and brought in the No. 11 class in the nation, with five-star recruits Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels as the biggest-named newcomers. While that might help stabilize the offense some, there is a lingering question mark as to whether a collection of mostly-new players can learn Hopkins’s complex defensive schemes well enough in one offseason to execute them effectively. This will remain to be seen, and how well that transition is made will say a lot about how Washington’s season goes.
Colorado lost no one and brings back everyone from last season. No, seriously, this team brings back more than 94 percent of its minutes from the 2018-19 campaign. Naturally, this means an expectation of a step forward, which would equate an NCAA Tournament berth for the Buffaloes in 2020. Colorado has turned its home court into a fortress under head coach Tad Boyle, and taking care of the biggest opponents on its schedule in Boulder first would be a huge step in that direction. The team should at least be as good as it was last year, and essentially the whole roster coming back should be exciting for Colorado fans. One little bit of concern, though: if this roster couldn’t do any better than a 10-8 record and tied for fourth in last season’s atrocious Pac-12, how is it guaranteed to do all that much better in an improved version of the conference this go around?
The Sun Devils have played a dangerous game for a few years now, toeing the line between NCAA Tournament elation and NIT deflation. Tempe can expect the same kind of heart attacks in 2020 as the team looks to be right on the line again. Remy Martin and his 12.9 points, 5.0 assists and 15.3 stank faces per game are back, plus Rob Edwards, Kimani Lawrence, Romello White and Taeshon Cherry. But Luguentz Dort, Zylan Cheatham and De’Quon Lake are gone, and the team will miss them, especially Cheatham’s force around the rim and Dort’s athleticism. There’s enough here for Arizona State to remain in the top half of the Pac-12 and dance yet again, but with how close the Sun Devils like to keep it, this could be the year they find themselves on the wrong side of the cutline.
Another preseason, another USC team that looks good on paper. Those paper victories haven’t translated to actual victories on the court in the past, though, and it’s time for head coach Andy Enfield to finally have his team play up to the level of its talent. Nick Rakocevic, who averaged 14.7 points and 9.3 assists per outing last season, is the most important player back, with Jonah Mathews and Elijah Weaver accompanying him. Bennie Boatwright, Shaqquan Aaron, Derryck Thornton and Kevin Porter have been replaced with two high-scoring transfers in Daniel Utomi from Akron and Quinton Adlesh from Columbia, plus the No. 7 class in college basketball. Five-star talents Isaiah Mobley and Onyeka Okongwu are the lead names of the group, but Max Agbonkpolo should make an impact, too. In all, nine new players join the Trojans to give Enfield a roster capable of dancing in March. But the question still remains: can he bring it all together to make it work, or will it be another wasted season for USC?
It’s difficult to know what to expect out of UCLA this year. New head coach Mick Cronin will likely have his team look quite different than it did under the previous regime. There was a departure from the team’s normal position near the top of the national recruiting rankings, perhaps a sign of change in how things will be done around Westwood. Either way, Cronin will have a crop of returners to work with, including Prince Ali, Chris Smith, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill. Tyger Campbell will play his freshman season after missing all of what should have been his debut year with a torn ACL, and Shareef O’Neal, Shaquille O’Neal’s son, will be a redshirt freshman after a heart condition held him out in 2018-19. Even though there is talent here, we have no idea how the transition from Steve Alford’s offensive, fast-paced style into Cronin’s first-to-50 method will work out. UCLA could be dancing, or it could be on the outside looking in from the Pac-12’s basement.
With the return of Tres Tinkle, Oregon State finds itself on the very edge of this tier, teetering on the verge of enter “The Fodder.” But, the son of head coach Wayne Tinkle is that good, and with him, the Beavers have a shot at improving on their 10-8 mark in conference last year. Tres can do it all, posting a 20.8/8.1/3.8 stat line, plus 1.7 steals per night, in 2018-19 as a redshirt junior. Back to serve alongside him are Ethan Thompson and Kylor Kelley, the two other important offensive pieces from the previous campaign. Depth was an issue last season, and it will be again this year as there’s a massive drop off from Tinkle, Thompson and Kelley and the rest of the roster. The league has improved, and that’s going to make it tough for the Beavers to finish in the top four again. However, with its big three players, Oregon State should avoid the basement, and if it finds one or two complementary pieces somewhere in its lineup, an NCAA Tournament bid is possible, though not probable.
The Fodder: California, Stanford, Utah, Washington State
It has been since 2014 that Stanford appeared in the NCAA Tournament, and Palo Alto is going to wait another year to see it happen. The Cardinal entered 2018-19 with expectations to take a step forward as a program with plenty of returning talent, but that didn’t pan out for them at all. Instead, the team finished below .500 and appeared rudderless. Now, the team will be without two of its most important defenders from a season ago in Josh Sharma and KZ Okpala, and the only clear offensive threat it has is Daejon Davis. Oscar De Silva and Bryce Willis are also back to help ease Stanford into the new year, plus four-star freshman point guard Tyrell Terry. But there’s not enough here to make me believe the Cardinal will be so much improved from last season that they will contend for a spot in the Big Dance.
Timmy Allen, Both Gach and Riley Battin. This trio of sophomore are the only three players on the 2019-20 Utah roster who were on the 2018-19 one, and boy is head coach Larry Krystowiak going to have some fun this year. The list of players gone from last season is too long to bother with, but it’s headlined by Sedrick Barefield and Jayce Johnson, whom the Utes will sorely miss. Ten new players enter the fold in Salt Lake City, and it’s hard to see this as anything but a rebuilding year. Krystowiak is a fantastic coach, and that coupled with the three returning players should be enough to keep Utah respectable enough, but an NCAA Tournament bid seems out of reach. The future is where Utes eyes should be focused with this program.
Washington State axed Ernie Kent in the offseason, hiring Kyle Smith from San Francisco to replace him. I believe in Smith and think he will have the Cougars playing respectable basketball in due time, but the squad won’t be ready to compete for an NCAA Tournament bid in Year One. Smith will have CJ Elleby, Jeff Pollard and Marvin Cannon from last season’s squad to work with, plus Colorado State transfer Deion James and a collection of other transfers and freshmen. This team shouldn’t be as horrendous as in 2018-19, but I don’t expect it to finish any better in the standings. This season will be about showing progress and little more for Pullman.
Like Wazzu, Cal got rid of its head coach, too, hiring Mark Fox to fill in for Wyking Jones. Now, Fox has quite the mess to clean up, and it’s going to happen in one offseason. Paris Austin, Matt Bradley and Andre Kelly are back, plus Texas A&M-Corpus Christi transfer Kareem South, who averaged 13.8 points per outing last season. A tandem of freshmen – DJ Thorpe and Joel Brown – give Bears fans something to look forward to in the future. But for the present? Eh, not so much. Again, this team shouldn’t be as horrendous as a year ago, but there’s still a long way to go before this program can be thinking about March.