- After a poor 2018-19 season, will Pac-12 basketball bounce back this winter? It starts with the teams at the top, including an unlikely No. 1 in our summer power rankings.
As the midpoint of college basketball’s offseason approaches, it’s time to check in on every major conference. Every team in the country has questions at this point of the summer, some more pressing than others. So in addition to power ranking each league, we’ll be asking some burning questions about the conference that won’t be answered until tip-off. With the AAC, ACC, Big 12, Big East and Big Ten down, next up is the Pac-12.
Pac-12 Summer Power Rankings
1. Colorado: Surprised? You shouldn’t be. While other schools that are expected to contend atop the conference have lots of incoming talent, the Buffs return every major player from a team that was among the Pac-12's hottest to end last season.
2. Arizona: After a catastrophic 2018-19 campaign, Sean Miller has reloaded the roster. Nico Mannion headlines a top-five recruiting class tasked with bringing the Wildcats back to their usual place among the Pac-12’s best.
3. Oregon: The Ducks are primed to do damage once again in March. But when Dana Altman has to integrate several new pieces into his system, it often takes a while for them to all gel.
4. Washington: Like Oregon, Washington will look pretty different from last year’s NCAA tournament team. Landing five-star frontcourt freshmen Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels along with five-star transfer Quade Green replenishes the lost star power.
5. USC: The Trojans have plenty of talent, but that hasn’t been an issue in the past couple seasons under Andy Enfield filled with underachievement. USC could be the best shooting team in the Pac-12 with grad transfers Daniel Utomi and Quinton Adlesh joining Jonah Mathews.
6. Arizona State: This is another Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde team, with the Sun Devils often appearing two-faced in Bobby Hurley’s tenure in Tempe. ASU has a few very intriguing players though, including one of the most energetic players in the country in Remy Martin.
7. UCLA: All eyes are on Mick Cronin in his first season in Westwood. The Bruins are the biggest mystery in the Pac-12 in terms of projecting the pace they’ll play at, but the roster Cronin inherited is far from barren.
8. Oregon State: Tres Tinkle opted to return for his senior season, and is the favorite to win Pac-12 Player of the Year. Getting Ethan Thompson back too was a huge boost.
9. Utah: I’m afraid to put Larry Krystkowiak’s bunch down here, since it seems that the Utes always exceed expectations with “The Other Coach K” at the helm. Utah has a nice young core, but losing Sedrick Barefield and Parker Van Dyke will decrease the offensive firepower.
10. Stanford: The Cardinal should not have finished in 10th place last season in a down Pac-12 with as talented a roster as they had. It’ll be tough to top that position now after having to replace their best player, KZ Okpala.
11. Washington State: Analytics-minded Kyle Smith was one of the most intriguing hires this offseason, and he’ll definitely shake things up in Pullman. CJ Elleby was one of the best freshmen that no one talked about in 2018-19.
12. Cal: Mark Fox takes over, and he has a low bar to start after how bad Cal was the past two seasons. The Golden Bears, however are still a long way from relevancy, even in the Pac-12.
But seriously… why is Colorado in the top spot?
From February on, Colorado won 10 of its 13 games in the Pac-12, with two of those losses coming to first-place Washington. The young Buffs (320th in experience, per KenPom) had turned a corner, and quickly became one of the most frightening teams in the league. Juniors McKinley Wright and Tyler Bey are two of the three first-team All-Pac-12 players back for this campaign (with Oregon State’s Tres Tinkle being the other), and each can take over a game by himself. Colorado also has plenty of size, whether it’s stretch forward Lucas Siewert or more traditional bigs Evan Battey and Dallas Walton (who missed all of 2018-19 with a torn ACL). Shane Gatling and D’Shawn Schwartz combined for 18.9 ppg last season, and if either guard can emerge as a legitimate third scoring option game in and game out, this will be a tough team to beat.
While other Pac-12 teams have a higher ceiling than the Buffaloes, none can match their floor thanks to a huge advantage in returning production. Arizona or Oregon could be more popular picks to advance further in brackets when March rolls around, but I think Colorado is the safest pick to win the regular season title. Having KenPom’s second-highest home-court advantage in all of college basketball certainly helps.
What should we expect in Mick Cronin’s first season in Westwood?
UCLA’s offseason coaching search was a punchline with how much it dragged on, but it could have gone a lot worse than ending up with Cronin. Granted, he doesn’t have a great resumé in March, and that welcomed comparisons to his predecessor, Steve Alford. Cronin, however, will bring tough-nosed culture and leadership to the table that UCLA hasn’t had in a long time.
Even though defense is Cronin’s reputation, Cincy has finished with a top-50 adjusted offensive efficiency in each of the past three seasons. The big question, though, will be how fast of a pace UCLA will play at.
Under Steve Alford and Murry Bartow last season, the Bruins ranked 17th in adjusted tempo. Meanwhile, the Bearcats were 338th. It’s hard to envision that Cronin will drastically slow down UCLA; this roster simply isn’t built for that. And good coaches always adjust to their rosters. But there definitely will be some changes offensively, and pace figures to be one of them.
The Bruins’ roster is also quite a mystery. Tyger Campbell and Shareef O’Neal each missed their entire freshman seasons, and both should play key roles this year. David Singleton came off the bench for a majority of his freshman year, yet had by far the best offensive rating and shooting numbers on the entire team. An increased role for him and fellow sophomore Jules Bernard could give Cronin a very potent backcourt along with Campbell and senior Prince Ali. In the frontcourt, bigs Jalen Hill and Cody Riley give UCLA some punch in the paint.
With Jaylen Hands, Kris Wilkes and Moses Brown all chasing their NBA dreams, there will need to be new star power that emerges from this young group. Overall, UCLA fits in snugly in my “wild-card tier” along with USC and Arizona State. All three schools have the capability to surprise with the talent they have and rise to the top of the conference. Yet, I think it’s more reasonable to expect a middle-of-the-pack finish for the Bruins in Cronin’s first year at the helm, as we start to see his typical basketball identity unfold onto this team.
Which coach could really use a strong season the most?
I think there’s two high-profile answers to this question, along with an under-the-radar third.
There wasn’t much that went right on and off the court last season for Arizona. Sean Miller has already had the “never made a Final Four” cloud looming over his head, and the pressure will be cranked up this season.
Admittedly, a Final Four would be a big ask for the conference as a whole (the Pac-12 has appeared in one Final Four over the past decade—Oregon in 2017), but Arizona has enough intriguing pieces to potentially pull it off.
The Wildcats add two five-star freshmen into the fold in point guard Nico Mannion and forward Josh Green. Four-star big man Zeke Nnaji has been getting early rave reviews in practice. One grad transfer, UC Irvine star Max Hazzard, figures to see significant playing time, while another (Cornell big man Stone Gettings) could be an intriguing wild card. Brandon Williams, Chase Jeter, Ira Lee and Dylan Smith all return, and each are firmly in the rotation.
With the amount of talent Arizona has, there will be no excuses for Miller come March.
Speaking of talent, that hasn’t been the issue for Andy Enfield the last couple of years at USC. Yet, despite stacking up favorably against most of the conference, inconsistency has severely plagued the Trojans in back-to-back disappointing seasons.
While I do place USC currently below the Pac-12’s first tier (Colorado, Arizona, Oregon and Washington), once again the Trojans have the pieces to make a run in the conference. Double-double machine Nick Rakocevic and sharpshooter Jonah Mathews headline the group, and USC also brings in a top-10 recruiting class. Grad transfers Daniel Utomi and Quinton Adlesh will each help with spacing given their perimeter shooting prowess.
The name to keep an eye on here, though, is sophomore point guard Elijah Weaver. USC under Enfield has been at its best with a capable distributor running the show, and the Trojans looked lost last year adjusting to life without Jordan McLaughlin. Weaver played well to end his first season, and with Derryck Thornton’s transfer out, the point guard gig is all his.
Enfield projects to have another strong incoming 2020 recruiting class with potential No. 1 recruit Evan Mobley—son of USC assistant coach Eric and brother of USC freshman Isaiah—in the mix. But another campaign without meaningful March contests could give Enfield one of the hottest seats in the country.
Finally, it feels like Jerod Haase could use a step in the right direction at Stanford. Despite all of the young talent he had last season, including 2019 NBA draft second-round pick KZ Okpala, the Cardinal only mustered an 8–10 record in conference play. In Haase’s first three seasons in Palo Alto, that mark is 25–29.
Stanford had consecutive top-20 recruiting classes in 2017 and 2018, yet the Cardinal have felt largely irrelevant in the Haase era. With junior Daejon Davis and sophomore Bryce Wills, Stanford has very capable guard play. If the Cardinal have another underwhelming year, though, there will be major questions surrounding Haase heading into the offseason.
Which team has the most upside to make a deep March run?
Arizona would be the school that likely comes to mind for most, but I’ll go with Oregon here. Simply put, Dana Altman is the best coach in the conference, Payton Pritchard is one of the most trusted point guards in the country and the Ducks have the potential to be a deadly shooting team.
Remember, Oregon finished sixth in the Pac-12 regular season in 2018-19 and needed to win the conference tournament to sneak into March Madness. The Ducks were 15–12 on the season after a 90–83 loss at UCLA, but completely turned it around afterward: Oregon won its final eight Pac-12 games and lost to eventual champion Virginia 53–49 in the Sweet 16.
The Ducks lost quite a lot from that team, headlined by scorer Louis King and shot-blocker Kenny Wooten (not counting Bol Bol here since he missed most of the season due to injury). Perimeter hound Ehab Amin and senior leader Paul White are also gone.
However, the veteran floor general Pritchard returns, along with plenty of incoming talent.
Five-star forward CJ Walker leads a top-15 recruiting class. Oregon under Altman has routinely excelled loading up on the transfer market, and this offseason was no different. JUCO Player of the Year Chris Duarte and New Mexico grad transfer Anthony Mathis are both high-level shooters that will benefit greatly by playing with Pritchard. UNLV transfer Shakur Justin only played in eight games last season due to injury, but the forward averaged 14.6 points and 10.0 rebounds per game as a freshman.
Duarte and Mathis (who both shot over 40% from three last season) give Altman the type of perimeter threats that he hasn’t had since Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey. But all of the new players adjusting to a matchup zone defensive scheme will take time, which is why Altman’s teams often peak in February and March. Replacing Wooten and Amin will be a tough task given what each brought to the defensive end.
So while I do think there will be struggles to start the season and maybe some ups-and-downs in conference play, Oregon will have the highest ceiling of any Pac-12 team come March.
Who is the most important Pac-12 newcomer?
To me, Washington’s Quade Green will be one of the biggest X-factors in Pac-12 play this season. The former five-star prospect and Kentucky transfer will be eligible to join the Huskies in January 2020, so he could miss the entire non-conference slate.
Joining a team midseason is tough enough already, but being expected to fill in for Pac-12 Player of the Year Jaylen Nowell at point guard will make this transition even tougher. Green played in 34 games as a freshman in Lexington, averaging 9.3 points and 2.7 assists in 25.6 minutes. He only played in nine games as a sophomore, as his court time dropped (17.8 minutes per game) and he subsequently transferred out. Green has showcased strong passing and shooting skills on the collegiate level, and has good instincts on the defensive end too.
Adding two five-star big men in Jaden McDaniels and Isaiah Stewart gives the Huskies a huge boost down low, especially since Noah Dickerson is gone. Along the perimeter, though, Nowell, David Crisp and the best defender in the country, Matisse Thybulle, also have to be replaced, and Green is the one guard on the roster who has the capability to take over a game.
Mike Hopkins and the 2–3 zone aren’t going anywhere soon, and those two things will always keep Washington competitive in the Pac-12. In order for the Huskies to return to the NCAA tournament, though, they need Green to shine once he’s thrown into the fire in January.