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  • After no-showing in March, can the Pac-12 salvage its reputation in a year that appears to be wide open at the top?
By Max Meyer
October 22, 2018

As part of SI.com's preview of the 2018–19 college basketball season, we're breaking down each of the seven major conferences, plus the best of the rest. Our predicted order of finish for each league is drawn from our master 1–353 rankings, the full list of which will be revealed later this month. We did the AAC, ACC, the Big East, the Big Ten and the Big 12; Next up for our conference previews is the Pac-12, complete with our analyst’s breakdowns of each team and anonymous scouting takes from coaches or analysts around the league.

The Big Picture

It was not a banner campaign for Pac-12 basketball last season. The conference finished with zero wins in the NCAA tournament. Arizona, a team with preseason title aspirations, was blown out in the Round of 64 by Buffalo. The Pac-12’s second-place team (USC) was left out of the field, a major indictment on the league’s overall depth.

Since there aren’t any elite teams this season, the Pac-12 is wide open at the top. It feels like nine teams have a shot at landing a top-three finish in the conference. But after this past season’s lackluster finish in postseason play, it’s imperative that the season starts with some big non-conference wins to elevate the Pac-12’s reputation as a whole.

Conference Player of the Year: McKinley Wright, Colorado

As a freshman, Wright greatly exceeded expectations as a scorer and distributor for the Buffaloes, averaging 14.2 points, 5.5 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game and playing solid defense against opposing point guards. Colorado was a very young team last season, and Wright’s play has expedited the Buffaloes’ attempt at challenging the top of the Pac-12. With key contributors George King and Dominique Collier having graduated, even more responsibility will be put on Wright’s shoulders. The sophomore is still slightly underrated nationally, but he won’t be for much longer.

Newcomer of the Year: Kevin Porter Jr., USC

Surprised to not see Bol Bol here? Don’t be. Porter Jr. has exploded onto the scene this past offseason, with his stock reaching its peak after an impressive performance at the Nike Hoop Summit. The 6'5" wing is an incredible athlete who can score at all three levels. USC is undergoing a transition year with Jordan McLaughlin and Chimezie Metu now in the NBA, and Porter Jr. will have ample opportunity for playing time and the chance to establish himself as the go-to scorer. While Bol is the higher-rated recruit, there isn’t a freshman that will be more critical to his team’s success this season than Porter Jr.

Dark Horse Team to Win the Conference: Arizona State

The Sun Devils lost their top three scorers from last year’s squad that made the First Four: Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice. But Bobby Hurley will have the most depth he’s had in Tempe thanks to some major incoming additions, headlined by freshmen Taeshon Cherry (the highest-ranked forward prospect to ever sign with ASU) and Luguentz Dort along with transfers Zylan Cheatham and Robert Edwards. Key pieces from last season’s team like point guard Remy Martin and forward Romello White will be prominent parts of the rotation as well, and ASU will be improved on defense thanks to its length. Don’t expect the Sun Devils to shoot the ball as well, but if they don’t suffer too much of a dropoff in that aspect, they can beat any Pac-12 team.

1. Oregon

The Skinny: Following a Final Four appearance in the 2016–17 season, the Ducks never really seemed to jel after adding a few new pieces—most notably grad transfers Elijah Brown and MiKyle McIntosh along with one-and-done Troy Brown Jr. With those three gone, Oregon adds more talent with highly regarded freshmen Bol Bol and Louis King. The headliner out of the returnees is junior Payton Pritchard, a savvy floor general who is one of the conference player of the year favorites. The 7'3" Bol (who has a 7'8" wingspan) and sophomore Kenny Wooten (who finished last year with the nation’s third-highest block percentage at 15.3%) will make life miserable for opposing offenses trying to put up shots in the paint.

Scout’s Take: “Dana Altman employs one of the country’s most complex defensive systems, often switching between man and zone within a single possession, while also utilizing effective half-court traps. Last year’s inexperienced roster comprised of grad transfers and freshmen never really caught on to the system, and thus the Ducks’ defensive efficiency plummeted. With Payton Pritchard being joined in the backcourt by former Texas A&M Corpus Christi ballhawk Ehab Amin, who was second in steal rate nationally two seasons ago, Altman should be able to trap effectively. Add in the shot-blocking tandem of Kenny Wooten and frosh Bol Bol—think Jordan Bell and Chris Boucher from two seasons ago—and Oregon should once again be one of the better defensive teams in the country.”

2. UCLA

The Skinny: All eyes will be on Steve Alford, and for good reason. Despite all the incredible talent UCLA has had during his tenure, the Bruins have failed to advance past the Sweet Sixteen. Former five-star recruits Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands are back for their sophomore campaigns in Westwood, while Alford brings in another strong incoming class, led by five-star big man Moses Brown. The Bruins lost two integral freshmen, however, as point guard Tyger Campbell (torn ACL) and forward Shareef O’Neal (heart surgery) will miss the upcoming season. Jalen Hill and Cody Riley both return from season-long suspensions due to roles in a shoplifting incident in China, and they will give the Bruins a stronger interior presence. The loss of Campbell is a major blow to UCLA’s depth in the backcourt, as now more responsibility will fall onto Hands’s shoulders.

Scout’s Take: “Jaylen Hands is their only true point, and last year they played him off the ball more than with the ball. They played Aaron Holiday probably 38 minutes a game. I think the problem you had with Jaylen Hands last year is that he was trying to score too much. … Last year it seemed like his coaches were frustrated with him with the ball in his hands. Nine times out of 10 when he was touching it, he was trying to score it. They’ll have some other guys bring the ball up by committee, but they don’t really have another point guard, so that’s putting a lot of pressure on him.”

3. Washington

The Skinny: Mike Hopkins’s first season in Seattle was supposed to be a transition year. Instead, the Huskies surprised everyone, finishing 20–12 in the regular season with victories over Kansas and Arizona. Coming over from Syracuse, Hopkins’s 2–3 zone was a smashing success in the Pac-12 in its inaugural year out west. Washington gets everyone back, including arguably the best inside-outside duo in the conference in Noah Dickerson and Jaylen Nowell. Matisse Thybulle is relentless on defense and finished fourth in the country last season with a 5.2% steal percentage. The outside shooting is a question mark (the Huskies ranked 11th in conference play after making just 32.6% of their three-point attempts), but David Crisp and Dominic Green will get a fair amount of open looks per game with defenses focusing on primarily stopping Nowell and Dickerson. This is a team with a great blend of talent and depth that has a good shot at making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011.

Scout’s Take: “They do a nice job of really playing together. They have probably the league’s best low-post scorer [in Noah Dickerson] and I think Jaylen Nowell is probably the best one-on-one scorer from the perimeter as well. And then defensively their zone is pretty damn good. But I’d say at the same time, after a while your zone—what they do because they do it differently, it’s unique, especially the first time you play them in league—the longer you’re in the league, the more it’s not as novel. Now year two, some teams know how to prepare against them.”

4. USC

The Skinny: Despite finishing in second place in the conference standings and advancing to the Pac-12 tournament final, the Trojans were left out of the NCAA tournament. Two staples of the Andy Enfield era, Jordan McLaughlin and Chimezie Metu, are now vying for NBA playing time, so there will likely be an adjustment period for this team, but make no mistake: This is still a talented group. Uber-athletic freshman forward Kevin Porter Jr. could end up being the highest-drafted Pac-12 player this upcoming June. Senior Bennie Boatwright is one of the best shooters you’ll see for someone who stands at 6'10". Duke transfer Derryck Thornton takes over for McLaughlin at the point, and he has a five-star recruit’s pedigree. Freshman Elijah Weaver underwent ankle surgery, so the spotlight will be on Thornton in non-conference play as USC’s floor general. With how integral McLaughlin’s play was to the Trojans’ success, USC is hoping that Thornton can take the reins of the offense early on.

Scout’s Take: “Andy Enfield desperately needs Elijah Weaver to be healthy, as so much of his offense is predicated on steady point guard play. Defensively, the Trojans had a lot of holes, both on the perimeter and at the rim. Those holes are still on the roster, and it forced Enfield to play more zone than he was comfortable with, which also slowed the pace of the game and prevented the Trojans from running in transition off the defensive glass, a staple of any Enfield offense.”

5. Arizona

The Skinny: Arizona was a popular preseason pick to cut down the nets, but it turned into a nightmarish year instead, as a disappointing campaign marred by scandal was capped by a lifeless defeat to No. 13-seeded Buffalo in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats’ entire starting five is gone, and they appeared to be in serious trouble before Sean Miller locked down some impact players late in the recruiting cycle. Transfers Ryan Luther, Chase Jeter and Justin Coleman add some much-needed veteran presence to an otherwise young team. But the X-factor will be five-star freshman Brandon Williams, who will likely start from Day 1 and can thrive at either guard spot. The Wildcats don’t have the same top-end talent they had with last year’s squad, but they have enough pieces to compete with the best in the Pac-12. The big question will be if Miller can get this group to be stronger on the defensive end. That’s where Arizona really fell short in 2017–18 compared to Miller’s other teams in Tucson.

Scout’s Take: “They don’t have the same physical presence up front. The last couple years they were very big around the basket. They were playing two bigs, really Ayton at the four and Ristic at the five. They’ll probably be more athletic in how they play. … Their Achilles’ heel every year is no secret. I’d say 95% of [Sean Miller’s] losses have come against zone.”

6. Colorado

The Skinny: Per kenpom.com, Colorado ranked 322nd out of 353 teams in experience last season. The Buffaloes saw one of their young’uns emerge onto the scene, though: point guard McKinley Wright. Wright was sensational as a true freshman, stepping up massively with Colorado’s backcourt depth lacking. He’s a strong scorer, distributor and rebounder, and he can certainly hold his own on defense as well. He’s someone who can make the leap to All-America consideration as a sophomore. If Colorado wants to finish in the top half of the Pac-12 standings, the Buffaloes will need to find a viable sidekick for McKinley. The Buffaloes received a devastating hit in the form of a season-ending ACL injury to big man Dallas Walton, who showed promise as a strong rim protector during his freshman year. Keep an eye on Tyler Bey as a potential breakout candidate in Boulder.

Scout’s Take: “They go from being an inexperienced team to being a pretty experienced group overall. I don’t think they don’t have a low-post scorer at all. Everybody loves McKinley Wright, and I think he’s a really good player. If you look at the stats, one of the things he does, they have him crash the glass because he’s a good low rebounder, he just has a nose for the ball. But one of the things that was feast or famine was that if he didn’t get the rebound when he crashed the glass, you could be off to the races and get a bunch of layups in transition.”

7. Arizona State

The Skinny: Last season was a tale of two halves in Tempe. Arizona State was the last undefeated team in the country thanks to a roaring start that included wins over NCAA tournament No. 1 seeds Xavier and Kansas. The Sun Devils then slumped to a ninth-place finish in the Pac-12 and were beaten in the opening round of the Pac-12 tournament and then in the First Four of the NCAA tournament by Syracuse. ASU will have a completely different look this time around, as guards Tra Holder (18.2 points per game), Shannon Evans (16.5 ppg) and Kodi Justice (12.7 ppg) all graduated. An intriguing mix of returnees, freshmen and transfers will improve this team’s defense and length, but it seems unlikely that the scoring will reach last year’s prolific levels. The electric Remy Martin seems primed to be the team’s go-to bucket-getter, and if he raises his offensive game to the next level, the Sun Devils will be an extremely tough out.

Scout’s Take: “The additions of Rob Edwards. Luguentz Dort and Zylan Cheatham alongside expanded roles for Kimani Lawrence and Mickey Mitchell gives Bobby Hurley a lot of length and versatility 3 to 5, and most importantly, depth—a luxury he hasn't had during his tenure in Tempe. … ASU’s glaring weakness last year was on the defensive end, where it was 123rd nationally in efficiency rating per kenpom.com. When a Hurley-coached team is in zone, you know the situation is bad. However, this year’s Sun Devils will be longer and more active on the perimeter, and last season’s weakness could turn into a relative strength, making ASU perhaps the highest ceiling team in the league.”

8. Utah

The Skinny: Larry Krystkowiak’s Utes are always a well-coached squad, but will they have enough offensive firepower to compete? Last year they were led by grad transfer point guard Justin Bibbins, and Kyle Kuzma, Jakob Poeltl and Delon Wright were the focal points in recent seasons. Now that responsibility falls to senior guard Sedrick Barefield, an SMU transfer who averaged 12 points per game in his second year with the Utes, the only double-digit scorer returning. Krystkowiak will have to replace Bibbins, David Collette and Tyler Rawson, but the Other Coach K has been in this situation before and exceeded expectations, and there’s no reason to think that he can’t surprise again in a wide-open Pac-12.

Scout’s Take: “If Sedrick Barefield is forced to play the point, Utah is going to struggle mightily on the offensive end. If big-bodied ball handlers Both Gach and Timmy Allen—both freshmen, both a poor man’s Delon Wright—can move Barefield off the ball, Utah can contend for a top-half finish, especially with emerging sophomore Donnie Tillman on the wing.”

9. Oregon State

The Skinny: Oregon State actually rivals any Pac-12 team in terms of top-end talent. Usually a squad featuring the conference’s top returning scorer (Tres Tinkle at 17.9 ppg) and third-highest returning scorer (Stephen Thompson Jr. at 15.8, which tied him with Cal’s Justice Sueing and was behind Washington State’s Robert Franks at 16.9 ppg) would garner a lot more hype. Both Tinkle and Thompson Jr. are seniors, and that experience will certainly give the Beavers an edge over the rest of the conference. Add in sophomore Ethan Thompson, who had a very encouraging freshman campaign, and you may have the best Big Three in the entire conference. The depth of this group is a major issue, hence its 10th-place ranking, but not many Pac-12 teams have Oregon State’s ceiling if one or more of its stars catches fire.

Scout’s Take: “Tres Tinkle, the versatile Thompson brothers, emerging wing Alfred Hollins and center “Big G” Rakocevic form a formidable starting five for Wayne Tinkle. The Beavers should be more efficient defensively in Tinkle’s tricky matchup zone, and Tinkle and the Thompsons pose issues for even the league’s best defenses.”

10. Stanford

The Skinny: There wasn’t a bigger transfer this offseason than Reid Travis, and his decision to move on to Kentucky turned the Cardinal from a trendy Pac-12 sleeper to a bottom-half team in the conference. So Travis is gone, as is fellow giant Michael Humphrey. The Cardinal have a promising future highlighted by Daejon Davis, KZ Okpala and Oscar Da Silva. Without a true frontcourt force on the roster, however, it’ll be interesting to see how Stanford coach Jerod Haase will adjust his scheme that has primarily relied on bigs in the past, whether in Palto Alto or at UAB. Stanford seems a year away from truly competing in the conference, but it is capable of surprising some of the teams ranked higher in these projected standings.

Scout’s Take: “Their guard play is much improved. But will they make up for Reid Travis, who was really a problem last year? So now they have some talented bigs, but I think they’re going to be more of a team that’s gonna stretch the floor than they are gonna be a team that pounds it in.”

11. Cal

The Skinny: Cal’s offense was abysmal last season, last among major-conference teams in kenpom.com’s offensive efficiency (296th; the next lowest was Pitt at 278th) and ranked 349th in the country with a 28.6% from three-point land. Those marks will go up, as the sophomore group of Justice Sueing, Darius McNeill and Juhwan Harris-Dyson has a year of experience under its belt. Boise State transfer Paris Austin will give the Bears improved point guard play as well. This will be a small team though, as the tallest players likely to get legitimate minutes are 6'8", a major contrast from last year’s group that included Kentucky transfer Marcus Lee and senior Kingsley Okoroh.

Scout’s Take: “I think their backcourt is pretty strong, but they have no up-front presence at all. They’re going to be small, and maybe extremely small. So they’re going to rely a lot on the three-point shot. This is a very limited frontcourt, and not just being able to score in the frontcourt, they have no rim protection at all.”

12. Washington State

The Skinny: Ernie Kent is very lucky that Robert Franks decided to return to school after testing the NBA draft waters, or else this roster would be absolutely barren. Instead, Franks will be the poster child for an offense that will shoot the three ball religiously. Other than Franks coming back, this was a rough offseason in Pullman: Five players transferred out of the program, including star point guard Malachi Flynn, who landed with San Diego State. While the Cougars can shoot the ball proficiently, there aren’t many other things that this team can do well, especially on the defensive end. It’s hard to see how this season ends up any differently than the previous ones under Kent, who is 44–77 in four seasons and 18–54 in Pac-12 play.

Scout’s Take: “Robert Franks plays like a Splash Brother on the wing, and Viont’e Daniels and Carter Skaggs joined to him to shoot over 40% from deep as well. In fact, no team in the country scored more points via the three-pointer than WSU. 6'5" juco transfer Marvin Cannon could immediately be the league’s most explosive athlete.”

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