Pac-12 Preview: UCLA Reclaims Top Spot as Conference Looks for Resurgence

The Conference of Champions boasts a bevy of household names returning along with a strong crop of newcomers for what should be a resurgent season.
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As part of Sports Illustrated's preview of the 2020–21 men's college basketball season, we're breaking down each of the six major conferences. We've done the ACCBig 12Big East and Big Ten, with the SEC still to follow. All will be complete with our analyst's breakdown of each team and a projected order of finish.

The Big Picture

As the Pac-12 gears up for a most unusual 2020–21 season, those who occupy the league’s orbit must be wondering what might have been. The outcast of the high-major conferences—it hasn’t won a national championship since Arizona cut down the nets in 1997—was in a position to have a strong presence in the 2020 NCAA tournament, only to suffer the same disappointing fate as the rest of the college basketball world.

Heading into a new season, though, there’s a lot to be intrigued about in the Pac-12, which features three teams ranked in the AP preseason top 25 poll: No. 18 Arizona State, No. 20 Oregon and No. 22 UCLA. Standout upperclassmen—like preseason All-American Remy Martin and two-time all-conference selection McKinley Wright IV—make for an impressive group of headliners, while a crop of potential one-and-done freshmen have infused the conference with elite talent. The Pac-12 might not get as many teams in the tournament as it would have in 2020, but this year’s group appears to have a higher ceiling.

Arizona State point guard Remy Martin is the Pac-12's leading returning scorer and a preseason All-American.

Conference Player of the Year: G Remy Martin, Arizona State

The leading returning scorer in the Pac-12, Martin has made strides each season at ASU, growing from a prolific bench scorer as a freshman to earning first-team all-conference honors as a junior. He’s increased his efficiency as his team has relied on him more. Martin ranked fifth in the conference last season in usage rate (29.2%) and third among guards in player efficiency rating (21.0). The Sun Devils have brought in a lot of talent this offseason, so opposing defenses won’t be able to key in on Martin as much as they did a year ago. Expect another stellar season from Arizona State’s leader.

Newcomer of the Year: F Evan Mobley, USC

The Pac-12 is not short on high-profile freshmen, but Mobley gets the nod here as the Trojans will try to replicate the success they had with freshman big man Onyeka Okongwu a season ago. The 7-footer is a dominant low-post scoring threat and prolific shot-blocker, ranked as a consensus five-star prospect who won the California Gatorade Player of the Year award twice. Okongwu had tremendous instincts defensively that Mobley may not match right away, but Mobley is viewed as far more polished on the offensive end, and USC will likely run its offense through him. Stanford wing Ziaire Williams is also a threat here, as both players were named to the preseason all-conference team.

Utah forward Timmy Allen is a preseason all-conference selection.

Dark-Horse Team to Win the Conference: Utah

There’s value in continuity, and the Utes have that in spades as they return seven of their top eight scorers from a season ago. The group is headlined by underrated star forward Timmy Allen, who led Utah in points, rebounds and steals during conference play. Utah was one of the youngest teams in the conference last season, and the team’s 7–11 record against Pac-12 foes marked the program’s first losing season in league play since 2012–13. Here’s betting Larry Krystkowiak surprises some people and leads the Utes on a turnaround season and back into the NCAA tournament.

First-Team All-Conference

Timmy Allen, forward, Utah
Remy Martin, guard, Arizona State
Evan Mobley, forward, USC
Chris Smith, guard, UCLA
McKinley Wright IV, guard, Colorado
Sixth Man: Oscar da Silva, forward, Stanford

Chris Smith was named the Pac-12's most improved player in 2019-20.

Predicted Order of Finish

1. UCLA

After their miraculous turnaround in Mick Cronin’s first season—which began with an uninspired 8–9 start and ended with an 11–3 finish—the Bruins are the favorites heading into the 2020–21 campaign. UCLA returns its top five scorers from a season ago and adds reinforcements in Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang and four-star freshman guard Jaylen Clark. Senior Chris Smith, who led the Bruins in points and won the Pac-12’s Most Improved Player award last year, is the straw that stirs the drink in Westwood and returns after testing the NBA draft waters.

2. Oregon

Most programs would face lowered expectations after losing a player like Payton Pritchard, a four-year starter at point guard who was last season’s conference Player of the Year. But most programs don’t have a coach like Dana Altman, who year after year finds a way to retool his roster into a contender. This year’s Ducks squad will rely on holdovers Chris Duarte and Will Richardson—both preseason all-conference selections by the media—along with an impressive group of transfers in Amauri Hardy (UNLV), Eugene Omoruyi (Rutgers) and Eric Williams Jr. (Duquesne). That trio is already eligible for this season, while a pair of others are awaiting waivers to be cleared: guards LJ Figueroa (St. John’s) and Aaron Estrada (St. Peter’s). Figueroa led St. John’s in scoring last year, while Estrada averaged 8.1 points per game and was named the MAAC Rookie of the Year.

3. Arizona State

Bobby Hurley has overseen incremental improvements each season in Tempe, and this feels like the year that the Sun Devils are ready to make the big leap. Remy Martin and Alonzo Verge Jr. return from last year’s squad, and highly touted freshmen Josh Christopher and Marcus Bagley should help replace departures Rob Edwards and Romello White. That group will be joined by Portland State transfer Holland Woods, a 6' 1" guard who averaged 17.7 points and 5.2 assists last year as a junior and is immediately eligible to play in 2020-21. Figuring out how to dole out minutes to so many talented players will be a challenge for Hurley, but it’s a problem many of his peers would be happy to have.

Stanford senior Oscar da Silva averaged 15.7 points and 6.4 rebounds for the Cardinal last season.

4. Stanford

Among the nine Pac-12 coaches who have been at their schools longer than one year, Jerod Haase is the only one who hasn’t led his team to the NCAA tournament. The Cardinal were on the bubble a season ago, but we're betting they’ll safely secure a bid this time around as Haase embarks on his fifth season. Guard Tyrell Terry is the only starter not returning after he left his name in the NBA draft, as Stanford returns five of its top six scorers from last year, led by senior big man Oscar da Silva. The Cardinal ranked seventh nationally last season in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, though struggled at times on offense. The addition of Williams, the five-star freshman wing, should considerably improve their scoring and vault Stanford into the conference’s upper tier.

5. Utah

From 2015–19, Utah ranked no worse than 59th nationally in offensive efficiency, racking up 113 wins in five seasons and winning at least 11 conference games each year. Last season, the Utes ranked 100th in offensive efficiency, but expect significant improvement on that end of the floor this year as Allen and point guard Rylan Jones return to spearhead what should be a much more dangerous attack.

6. USC

In his eighth season with the Trojans, Andy Enfield will rely on a slew of transfers for a quick revamp of a lineup that loses its top five scorers from last season. Five-star freshman big man Evan Mobley will join his brother, fellow McDonald’s All-American Isaiah Mobley (a sophomore), to form what should be a formidable frontcourt. USC was among the best defensive teams in the country last season, and has a lot of length throughout the roster to be disruptive again on that end of the floor. The Trojans will need to see point guard Ethan Anderson make a big jump as a sophomore in order to get to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017.

7. Arizona

The Wildcats will be nearly unrecognizable from a season ago, as they lost their top six scorers and seven out of nine players that played at least 200 total minutes. Sean Miller has replenished the roster with the nation’s No. 5 recruiting class, according to 247Sports, which features five four-star prospects. Transfer guard James Akinjo (Georgetown) will be counted on to infuse some stability into what should be a talented (if inexperienced) bunch.

Colorado senior guard McKinley Wright IV (25) is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection.

8. Colorado

Getting McKinley Wright IV back was a gift for Colorado coach Tad Boyle, who’s quietly led the Buffaloes to back-to-back 20-win seasons. Colorado returns three of its top four scorers from last season, though the departure of reigning Defensive Player of the Year Tyler Bey will sting. KenPom ranked the Buffs as one of the unluckiest teams in the country last season, as six of their eight conference defeats came by single digits. If Wright can help Colorado pull out a couple more of those tight games, he’ll likely contend for conference Player of the Year honors and lead the Buffs into the top half of the Pac-12.

9. Washington

It was a train wreck of a season for the Huskies, who fell from first to worst after winning the conference in 2018–19 and finishing last in 2019–20. There’s hope for a bounce-back, though, as point guard Quade Green returns after being ruled academically ineligible for the second half of last season. Senior guard Nahziah Carter is also back to form for what should be a strong backcourt. The Huskies received good news when Wichita State transfer guard Erik Stevenson was granted immediate eligibility, and the team is still waiting to hear about the status of Michigan transfer Cole Bajema.

10. California

The Golden Bears surprised many with a 7–11 conference record in Mark Fox’s first season at the helm. The leader of the pack was guard Matt Bradley, who averaged 17.4 points per game and shot 38.4% on three-pointers. Incoming grad transfers Makale Foreman (Stony Brook) and Ryan Betley (Penn) should help improve Cal’s perimeter shooting, as the team shot just 33.5% from deep last year.

Oregon State senior guard Ethan Thompson averaged 14.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game in 2019-20.

11. Oregon State

The program’s all-time leading scorer, Tres Tinkle, is gone, as is big man Kylor Kelley, but the Beavers received good news when guard Ethan Thompson decided to return for his senior season. Thompson is a skilled scorer and strong all-around player who led Oregon State with 4.5 assists per game last year. The Beavers return five of their top seven scorers from last season, but were picked to finish last in the media’s preseason poll. Head coach Wayne Tinkle in response: “I promise you, we won’t finish 12th.” We believe you, coach.

12. Washington State

Washington State loses all-conference forward CJ Elleby, who opted to remain in the NBA draft. Elleby led the Cougars in points (18.4), rebounds (7.8), steals (1.8) and blocks (0.8) per game last season, so his presence will certainly be missed. Senior Isaac Bonton will be tasked with shouldering the load after averaging 15.3 points and a team-high 4.0 assists a year ago. The Cougars were among the worst outside shooting teams in 2019-20 (30.9% on three-point attempts), so they’ll need to improve in that regard to progress out of the conference’s bottom third.