The Pac-12 had a ridiculous March Madness in 2021, with four teams in the Sweet 16 and three in the Elite Eight, all from seeds outside of the top five. There’s a bit more respect for Pac-12 basketball heading into the 2021-22 campaign as a result.
After a shock run to the Final Four, UCLA has huge expectations in the preseason. Oregon is a preseason top-15 side in the Preseason AP Top 25, Arizona is expected to improve, and a couple of other challengers could rise up to relevance.
Let’s dive into the tiers of the Pac-12 men’s basketball crown contenders, including the non-contenders.
Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Preview 2021-22
Favorites: Oregon, UCLA
Head coach: Dana Altman (12th season)
2020-21 record: 21-7 (14-4 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 1st
Oregon isn’t without losses from a 2020-21 team that finished in sole possession of first in the Pac-12 – Chris Duarte, Eugene Omoruyi, and LJ Figueroa are a few of the names gone. But the faces returning, and the fresh ones in the mix, have Dana Altman’s Ducks right back in the conversation for another conference title.
After missing half of last season with an injury, Will Richardson figures to be one of the most well-rounded players in Pac-12 men’s basketball. N’Faly Dante, a former five-star recruit who tore his ACL in the sixth game of last season, will finally be available to Altman. De’Vion Harmon (Oklahoma), Quicny Guerrier (Syracuse), and Jacob Young (Rutgers) have all entered the program via the transfer portal and each bring tons of scoring to the table.
Presuming Oregon remains healthy in 2021-22, Altman goes from a thin roster decimated with injuries to a deep one capable of keeping the program at the top of the Pac-12 for the third season in a row.
Head coach: Mick Cronin (3rd season)
2020-21 record: 22-10 (13-6 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 4th
Well, this is a surprise.
Did anyone see this coming at the start of March 2021? UCLA is the preseason No. 2 team in the country and considered a national title contender a handful of months after barely getting one of the final at-large bids into the NCAA Tournament. I guess that’s what happens when you fully take advantage of that opportunity, explode to a Final Four run, and then bring back most of the talent that took you there.
But here we are. Johnny Juzang, Tyger Campbell, and Jaime Jaquez all became household names with their March heroics, and they’re all back to do it again. Other contributors to the cause, like Jules Bernard, David Singleton, and Jake Kyman, are also still in Westwood. Myles Johnson (Rutgers) offers Cronin a very legitimate rim protector, and top-10 prospect Peyton Watson is another option who should develop into something useless in 2021-22.
I’m not sure I’d put UCLA as high as No. 2 in the country before the start of the season, but the Bruins are one of my two favorites to win the Pac-12 and will be one of the best teams in the nation. But the pressure will be on to prove the long tournament run wasn’t a fluke.
Contenders: Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, USC, Washington State
Head coach: Tommy Lloyd (1st season)
2020-21 record: 17-9 (11-9 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 5th
The tumultuous tenure of Sean Miller is in the past, and Tucson is looking forward to the future under Tommy Lloyd.
The long-time Gonzaga assistant has a crop of returning talent, including Pac-12 All-Freshman Team inclusion Azuolas Tubelis, a 6-foot-11 stretch-4 who is ready to present himself to a more national audience. Christian Koloko and Gonzaga transfer Oumar Ballo offer a couple of more trees for Lloyd to toil with, allowing the Wildcats to play with one of the league’s larger frontcourts. Lloyd will also have Kim Aiken (Eastern Washington), whose transfer saga first had him committed to Arizona, then switching to Washington State, and then switching back after the Cougars wouldn’t let him into his preferred graduate program. He was the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year in 2020-21 and immediately improves Arizona for this season.
James Akinjo, Jemarl Baker, Bennedict Mathurin, and Jordan Brown – four of Arizona’s biggest producers from last season – are all gone. There’s a lot to be worked out in Lloyd’s first campaign, and while I think the Wildcats are capable of improving on last season and putting the drama of the last few years in the rearview mirror, they’re not yet a favorite to claim the Pac-12 men’s basketball throne. But they should be one of the top contenders biting at the heels of the favorites.
Head coach: Bobby Hurley (7th season)
2020-21 record: 11-14 (7-10 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 9th
It’s time for Bobby Hurley to make a statement and prove if he can take Arizona State to the level its talent deserves. Remy Martin is gone, and that really, really hurts, as are some other good pieces from 2020-21, but with so much coming in and some quality returning talent, Hurley has to make his seventh season at ASU count.
Marcus Bagley played only 12 games last season, and a full slate from him should help a good deal. Jalen Graham and Kimani Lawrence round out the rest of the rotation back from 2020-21. Otherwise, it’s all newcomers.
Luther Muhammad (Ohio State) didn’t play last season because of a shoulder injury, but he offers a defensive presence on the perimeter and can shoot from deep. Marreon Jackson (Toledo) scored 18.1 points per game last season, plus dished 5.9 assists per night, which could really help ASU – the Sun Devils settled for lots of bad shots last season because of a lack of quality ball movement. Jay Heath (Boston College), DJ Horne (Illinois State), and a slew of new recruits should also help shift the tide more positively in Tempe.
Will Hurley get the most of out his talent? That always seems to be the question. I view ASU as Pac-12 contenders because of the talent it has, but if it lived life on the bubble and didn’t live up to expectations, would anyone be surprised?
Head coach: Tad Boyle (12th season)
2020-21 record: 23-9 (14-6 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 3rd
Pac-12 men’s basketball has learned the hard way that for as long as Tad Boyle is in Boulder, the Buffaloes will be difficult – last season was Boyle’s seventh with a winning Pac-12 record, and CU has never won fewer than seven conferences games with him at the helm.
So, you can trust that Colorado will be in at least the middle of the pack, but I view the Buffaloes on the lower end of this contender tier. McKinley Wright IV was a huge part of what made the 2020-21 team, and he’s no longer around. That’s a huge hole that I’m not sure Colorado can properly fill this season.
As a whole, Colorado is replacing a lot of veteran players with youth. Evan Battey, who will be one of the best bigs in the league, and Eli Parquet are the only upperclassmen on the roster, and it’ll be on them to lead the way. It will be required for players like Keeshawn Barthelemy and Jabari Walker to take steps forward in their progressions to fill some shoes, and it would be awfully nice for one or more of the incoming freshmen – maybe four-stars Quincy Allen or Lawson Lovering – to make an impact immediately.
Boyle will probably have the Buffs playing stingy defense, and they’ll win some games on physicality on the defensive end and glass. Another top-four league finish is possible, but some pieces will have to fall into place for that to come.
Head coach: Andy Enfield (9th season)
2020-21 record: 25-8 (15-5 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 2nd
Isaiah Mobley and his 9.9 points and 7.3 rebounders per game are back, and so are some other key members of last season’s rotation, like Isaiah White, Drew Peterson, Chevez Goodwin, and Ethan Anderson. Add in Memphis transfer Boogie Ellie, and there is a good core here that should have USC somewhere in the top half of Pac-12 men’s basketball.
Even after last season, I still have my questions about Enfield, and there is no five-star freshman coming through those doors. He will mostly have to develop what he had from last season, and whether or not he’s capable of that will have a massive impact on how comfortable the Trojans feel come Selection Sunday.
Head coach: Kyle Smith (3rd season)
2020-21 record: 14-13 (7-12 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 10th
This could be a bit bullish on Wazzu, but I’m a believer in Kyle Smith, and I think he could have the Cougars in the mix for a tournament bid and top-half Pac-12 finish in 2021-22. A pair of excellent transfers – Michael Flowers (South Alabama) and Tyrell Roberts (UC San Diego) – are a big reason why.
Both Flowers and Roberts scored better than 19 points per game last season, and while you have to imagine those numbers will decrease given their new situation, they can obviously score the rock. Pair them with Noah Williams, and the Cougars have one of the most potent perimeter cores in the conference.
Washington State won’t be as formidable in the frontcourt as it will be in the backcourt, but as long as sophomores Efe Abogidi and Dishon Jackson can successfully fulfill their roles, the guards should be free to carry the team. When you combine the depth, talent, and coaching the Cougars have in 2021-22, a Big Dance bid and top-half finish in the league isn’t at all outlandish.
Stuck in Purgatory: Oregon state, Stanford, Utah, Washington
Head coach: Wayne Tinkle (8th season)
2020-21 record: 20-13 (10-10 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 6th
Oregon State went on an unforgettable run to the Elite Eight in March, and that might give people a false idea of what to expect from the Beavers in 2021-22.
Ethan Thompson, who was responsible for a good chunk of the miracle run OSU experienced in the Pac-12 Tournament and NCAA Tournament, is gone. He was also responsible for mostly everything positive for the Beavers during the entire season. So often, Oregon State would intentionally bog down the game and rely on Thompson to make something happen himself or for a teammate late in the clock. That luxury no longer exists.
Jarod Lucas, Gianni Hunt, and Warith Alatishe played important roles in the late-season surge last year, and they’re all back. The Beavers also have a slew of transfers coming in to bolster their depth, including Tre’ Williams (Minnesota) and Xzavier Malone-Key (Fairleigh Dickinson). But will it be enough to be a contender in this league?
Thompson and Tinkle’s defensive adjustments were huge in getting OSU to where it got in March. Frankly, Oregon State wasn’t especially good last season, and I don’t think an out-of-body month changes that. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a top-half finish in the Pac-12 for the Beavers, nor would a tournament bid shock me. But I don’t view them as contenders for the league.
Or maybe I’m just a hater. Time shall tell.
Head coach: Jerod Haase (6th season)
2020-21 record: 14-13 (10-10 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 7th
Oscar da Silva was everything for Stanford last season, and he’s no longer in Palo Alto. Gone too are Daejon Davis, Ziaire Williams, and Bryce Willis. And at this point, I haven’t seen enough from Jerod Haase to feel confident that he’ll get the most out of the talent he has, particularly on the offensive end.
But the Cardinal will have talent, and possibly enough to get into the NCAA Tournament. Jaidan Delaire and his 12.5 points per game are back for a senior year, and a couple of defensive stalwarts in Michael O’Connell and Spencer Jones are returning, too. A collection of mostly underclassmen surround them, and they’ll have to learn quickly.
A lot will fall on Delaire’s shoulders – possibly too much – and I haven’t felt convinced enough by Haase to give Stanford any benefit of the doubt.
Head coach: Craig Smith (1st season)
2020-21 record: 12-13 (8-11 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 8th
It’ll be a transition year in Salt Lake City as the program shifts from Larry Krystkowiak’s decade-long reign to Craig Smith, who carries a strong legacy of outperforming preseason expectations at both South Dakota and Utah State.
Timmy Allen transferred out, and there aren’t many returners on this roster at all – Branden Carlson and Riley Battin are the only members of last season’s rotation still with the Utes. So, Smith hit the transfer portal hard and recruited six players to join him at Utah, including two of his former USU players in Rollie Worster and Marco Anthony.
With such massive turnover and a roster not loaded with talent like some others in this league, you’d expect a bottom-half finish for Utah, and that’s what I’m predicting. But Smith has proven that he can get the most out a collection of players, even in his first season, so look for the Utes to bother some of the league’s top teams and surprise a little bit.
Head coach: Mike Hopkins (5th season)
2020-21 record: 5-21 (4-16 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 11th
Washington had an abysmal season in 2020-21. Anything will be better than that.
And it should be a better year in Seattle. This roster is unrecognizable from the last one, and for good reason. Mike Hopkins brought in Terrell Brown Jr. (Arizona), Daejon Davis (Stanford), Emmitt Matthews Jr. (West Virginia), and PJ Fuller (TCU) through the transfer portal, plus added five players via the recruiting class. Combine them with Jamal Bey, Nate Roberts, and Cole Bajema – the small group who is still around from the previous campaign – and the Huskies shouldn’t lose 20-plus games again.
In fact, they should improve a good deal from their 5-21 mark last year, and their KenPom rank of 54 in 2020-21 showed the team was better than its record. But will Washington be good enough to contend in this Pac-12? No.
The Basement: California
Head coach: Mark Fox (3rd season)
2020-21 record: 9-20 (3-17 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 12th
Look, Cal men’s basketball has been in shambles for years now, and Mark Fox feels more like a sacrificial lamb than a head coach.
The Pac-12 is improving as a men’s basketball program, and while you could argue that the Golden Bears will be better in 2021-22 than they were in 2020-21 and are moving in the right direction, they’re so far behind the rest of the league that it’ll take a lot more than incremental improvements to make a meaningful difference.
Almost everyone from last season is back, with lots of seniors and juniors in the mix. Jordan Shepard (Charlotte) and his 11.9 points and 2.9 assists per game have been added, too.
But I’ll pose the question to Pac-12 basketball fans who watched the league last season: even with so much of its team returning, does Cal concern you at all? I don’t see how the answer could be yes.
2021-22 Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Players to Watch
Johnny Juzang – Guard – Junior – UCLA
The main superstar of UCLA’s Final Four run has to be considered one of the players to watch in the 2021-22 Pac-12.
Juzang averaged 22.8 points per game in the NCAA Tournament and scored at will from any spot on the court. He comes into this season as not only one of the favorites for Pac-12 Player of the Year but a candidate to be the best men’s college basketball player in the country.
Will Richardson – Guard – Senior – Oregon
A wrist injury limited Will Richardson in 2020-21, and a full season from him will showcase just what a difference he can make for Oregon running the point.
He won’t have to solely care for the ball, though, with De’Vion Harmon and Jacob Young coming to Oregon. That means he can also thrive off the ball, which is perfect for his shooting and off-screen abilities.
I expect a huge season from Richardson, which will be crucial in the Ducks being national players.
Marreon Jackson – Guard – Senior – Arizona State
Marreon Jackson might not be the one of the top-three overall players in the Pac-12, but I’m very much looking forward to seeing what he can do in Arizona State’s system.
Bobby Hurley has earned deserved criticism for not getting everything he maybe should out of the talent he’s brought to Tempe, but that doesn’t mean it’s not exciting.
Jackson was the MAC Player of the Year last season, and he can absolutely fill it up. He is Toledo’s seventh all-time leading scorer and third all-time leader in assists. He’s going to get his, and it’s going to be exciting, even if ASU doesn’t do as well as it should.
2021-22 Men’s & Women’s College Basketball Conference Previews
Learn more about the upcoming 2021-22 men’s and women’s college basketball seasons with Nothing But Nylon’s extensive conference previews, with a new conference covered every week before the campaign tips off in November.