The 2020 NCAA tournament was shaping up to be something of a return to relevance for the Pac-12. Heading into conference tournament week, SI's Bracket Watch had seven Pac-12 teams in the field, which would have been tied for the league's most tournament bids since it expanded to 12 teams in 2012.
Instead, the Pac-12 (like the rest of the college basketball world) had to settle for anticlimactic disappointment. It's been 23 years since the conference last won a national title (Arizona, 1997), and the league has only one Final Four appearance (Oregon, 2017) in the past dozen seasons. Given that context, the sting of a lost 2020 NCAA tournament felt amplified throughout the west coast's premier conference.
Despite the expected exodus of several talented players to the NBA draft, there's reason for optimism heading into the 2020-21 campaign—namely in the potential return to prominence for the league's marquee program. Here's an early look at power rankings and burning questions for the conference’s 2020–21 season.
Pac-12 Summer Power Rankings
1. UCLA: On Jan. 15, the Bruins were owners of an 8–9 record overall and were 1–3 in conference play, providing cause for concern over the program's decision to hire Mick Cronin as its latest head coach. Two months later, UCLA finished the season on an 11–3 run and a game behind Oregon for a share of the conference crown. Now, with virtually their entire roster back (assuming forward Chris Smith ultimately withdraws from the NBA draft), the Bruins have the depth, talent and experience to win the conference in Cronin's second season.
2. Oregon: The Ducks relied plenty on four-year starting point guard Payton Pritchard during his career, and they'll have a tough task in replacing his steady production. Also gone are starters Anthony Mathis and Shakur Juiston. Dana Altman is among the nation's best coaches, though, and he'll have returners Chris Duarte and Will Richardson—as well as transfers Amauri Hardy, Eric Williams Jr. and Eugene Omoruyi—in tow to help with the transition.
3. Stanford: Is Stanford ready to break through in Jerod Haase's fifth season? The pieces are certainly in place. Though we project guard Tyrell Terry to remain in the draft, the rest of the team's nucleus returns, led by first-team all-conference forward Oscar da Silva. The headlining piece for the Cardinal next season will be five-star freshman wing Ziaire Williams, who chose Stanford over North Carolina and UCLA.
4. Arizona State: The Sun Devils are a tough team to peg at this juncture, as guard Remy Martin is still considering bolting for the NBA draft. Assuming he sticks around in Tempe, Arizona State should contend for the conference title. Incoming freshmen Joshua Christopher and Marcus Bagley bolster an already talented bunch, though front court depth could be an issue after forward Romello White transferred to Ole Miss.
5. Utah: The Utes appear poised to end their four-year NCAA tournament drought, with plenty of firepower set to return for the 2020–21 season. Forward Timmy Allen is one of the league's best-kept secrets, ranking in the top 15 last season in points (17.3), rebounds (7.3) and assists (3.0) per game. Both Gach's transfer to Minnesota will hurt, but Rylan Jones should be able to take the next step after a successful freshman campaign, and four-star prospect Ian Martinez represents an additional playmaker.
6. USC: Few teams have more to replace than USC in 2020–21. The Trojans lose their top five scorers from last season, including a likely lottery pick in forward Onyeka Okongwu. Coach Andy Enfield will rely on a quartet of transfers—Tahj Eaddy (Santa Clara), Chevez Goodwin (Wofford), Isaiah White (Utah Valley) and Noah Baumann (San Jose State)—as well as five-star freshman center Evan Mobley.
7. Arizona: The Wildcats have a ton of talent to replace, as they're expected to lose a trio of freshmen (Nico Mannion, Zeke Nnaji and Josh Green) to the NBA draft. Arizona's 2020 recruiting class doesn't appear to match last season's from a talent perspective. Instead, Sean Miller will rely upon a pair of transfers to lead the charge in guard James Akinjo (Georgetown) and forward Jordan Brown (Nevada).
8. Colorado: Colorado's forecast heading into next season depends largely on the NBA draft decisions of McKinley Wright IV and Tyler Bey. Wright has averaged 13.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists over the past three seasons, while Bey is the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. Beyond them, the Buffaloes' top leading returner is guard D'Shawn Schwartz, who averaged 9.8 points and 3.6 rebounds on 36.7% 3-point shooting in 2019–20.
9. Washington: Few things were as surprising last season as the Huskies' last-place finish, at least if you were to have watched Washington during non-conference play. Talented freshmen Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels are expected to stay in the NBA draft, which dampens hopes of a significant turnaround for Mike Hopkins's program that won the league's regular-season title just two years ago.
10. California: Mark Fox's first year in Berkeley represented a much-needed step in the right direction after the program floundered in its two seasons under Wyking Jones. The Golden Bears should return every significant piece from last season, led by guard Matt Bradley, who averaged 17.5 points on 38.4% three-point shooting.
11. Washington State: We're projecting the Cougars to lose forward CJ Elleby to the NBA draft—a tough loss after Elleby led the team in scoring (18.4 points per game), rebounding (7.8) and steals (1.8). Everyone else is slated to return, a group headlined by guard Isaac Bonton, who could take a leap in his senior season if he can improve his outside shooting (30.7% on three-pointers in 2019–20).
12. Oregon State: The Beavers lose forwards Tres Tinkle and Kylor Kelley, and guard Ethan Thompson's status is up in the air as he plays out the pre-draft process. Even if Thompson returns, this is likely the league's most questionable roster, presenting a difficult challenge for coach Wayne Tinkle in his seventh season with the program.
Pac-12 Burning Questions
Does the Pac-12 have a national title contender?
In the three seasons since Oregon made the Final Four in 2017, the Pac-12 has been largely excluded from the national championship conversation. The league put just three teams in the NCAA tournament field in 2018 and three in 2019, with just one team making it to the Sweet 16: Oregon in 2019 as a No. 12 seed. In 2018, all three Pac-12 teams in the field were eliminated before the round of 32.
That the conference was projected to put as many as seven teams in the 2020 field is a significant sign of progress, but can one team (or more) rise above the rest of the crop and become a legitimate threat to win a national championship? A strong showing in marquee non-conference matchups will be needed to drastically alter the Pac-12's national perception. Recent flops in high profile games—like UCLA's loss to Michigan State last season and Arizona's defeats against Baylor and Gonzaga—have gone a long way toward damaging the conference's reputation. Nabbing a few headline-grabbing wins before league play begins could put the Pac-12 in a position it hasn't been in for some time: garnering serious national title buzz.
Can UCLA reclaim the league's top spot?
As for which team is best positioned to thrust itself into that national championship conversation, UCLA is likely the team most equipped to do so. The Bruins possess the talent, depth, experience and coaching needed to ascend to those lofty heights, and their strong finish in 2019–20 has the arrow firmly pointed upward heading into next season.
It took Cronin five seasons at Cincinnati to reach the NCAA tournament, which started a nine-year tournament streak. He obviously won't be granted that kind of time at UCLA, but given how quickly he turned the Bruins' season around after it appeared to be careening off a cliff, it's not unreasonable to think he could take a big leap in Year 2.
UCLA's length will present problems for opponents next season, with front court pieces in Chris Smith (should he withdraw from the NBA draft), Cody Riley and Jalen Hill forming a strong front line. In the backcourt, Jaime Jaquez and Tyger Campbell should make strides as sophomores. The loss of blue-chip recruit Daishen Nix, who opted to play in the G-League next season, will hurt, but Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang will help. Juzang, a former five-star prospect, should benefit from a change of scenery and a move closer to home.
Will any marquee freshmen spring their team to postseason success?
Despite its relative lack of success in recent years, the Pac-12 has not been lacking in top-tier talent, particularly of the one-and-done variety. Two of the last three top overall picks in the NBA draft have been Pac-12 freshmen, and three of the past five Freshman of the Year award winners became top-three picks.
The issue, though, is few have been able to lead their teams to on-court success. Deandre Ayton and Arizona were bounced in the Round of 64 in 2018, while the 2016-17 Washington Huskies went 9–22 with future top pick Markelle Fultz in tow. Last season, USC had perhaps the league's most talented player in Okongwu, who projects as a top-10 pick. Though Okongwu could very well have led the Trojans to a March run, USC wasn't slated to be a high seed in the 2020 tournament.
The Pac-12 will feature more high-profile freshmen in 2020–21, as five-star prospects Mobley (USC), Williams (Stanford) and Christopher (Arizona State) arrive with high expectations. Williams and Christopher will join teams with more firepower and stability than what Mobley will have to work with, so they are the best bets to become household names come next March—and potentially be the catalysts to help lead their teams to postseason glory.
Which veteran coach can lead his program to the next step?
After welcoming three new coaches into the fold a season ago, the Pac-12 had no head coaching changes this offseason. Four of the league's coaches have been at their current posts a decade or more, while four more have been at their current jobs for at least five years.
Only Oregon's Dana Altman has been to a Final Four, though Sean Miller has made three Elite Eight appearances with Arizona. With the Wildcats looking unlikely to break through in 2020–21, which of the established coaches could reach new heights next year?
Bobby Hurley will be the popular pick among the group after reeling in Christopher in this recruiting class. The Sun Devils are as talented a group as the Pac-12 has to offer, yet weren't as consistent as they should have been last season. A sleeper pick here would be Larry Krystkowiak, who's yet to lead Utah back to the NCAA tournament since 2016. The Utes posted a losing conference record last year for the first time since 2012–13. A group of experienced returners should be poised for a big turnaround.
What does Oregon look like post-Payton Pritchard?
In short: different. Pritchard played in 144 games for the Ducks over the past four seasons, a run that saw Oregon go 105-39 with a Final Four, two conference championships and a slew of school records. Simply put, there won't be one player to replace what Pritchard provided to the Ducks.
But that doesn't mean Oregon won't be dangerous next season. Incoming freshman point guard Jalen Terry chose the Ducks over Louisville and LSU, and he'll be counted on to contribute right away. He won't have to shoulder the load alone, though. Transfer Amauri Hardy averaged 14.5 points and 3.3 assists per game for UNLV last season and will help stabilize the backcourt. The Ducks also landed St. John's transfer LJ Figueroa, though it's unclear whether he'll have to sit out next season or not.
Without Pritchard, the Ducks will likely be less polished and more unpredictable. But they'll have plenty of talent to maintain the level of success Pritchard helped achieve during his career.
Which under-the-radar team is poised to break out?
For a league that operates almost exclusively under the radar, any team is eligible to be picked here. Commits from top-flight freshmen have brought some national attention to otherwise sub-top billing programs like Stanford and Arizona State, so it feels like something of a copout to choose those teams.
The two mountain schools—Utah and Colorado—feel like the right picks here. If Colorado gets McKinley Wright and Tyler Bey back from testing the NBA draft waters, it immediately vaunts itself into the top half of the conference, at the very least. And Krystkowiak is one of the game's most underrated coaches. The Utes have an intriguing mix of returners coming back next season, and they were talented enough to beat the likes of Kentucky and BYU a year ago. The Pac-12 will likely be judged on how well its top teams perform, but breakouts from the conference's middle tier can only help to boost the fortunes of the Conference of Champions.