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Pac-12 Men's Basketball Preview: UCLA Sets Sights on Final Four Return

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As part of Sports Illustrated’s preview of the 2021–22 men’s college basketball season, we’re breaking down each of the seven biggest conferences (AAC, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC), plus a “best of the rest.” All will be complete with our analyst’s breakdown of each team, plus a projected order of finish drawn from SI’s master 1–358 rankings, to be revealed before the season’s kickoff. Next up is the Pac-12.

The big picture

The Pac-12 had been the butt of many a joke before last season’s March revival, which saw the conference send three teams to the Elite Eight. What does the league have in store for an encore? While in past years the discussion around conference success revolved around maximizing tournament bids, this year the Pac-12 enters the season with an obvious national title contender in UCLA, followed by an impressive collection of strong teams in the second tier that could emerge as the year progresses. There’s a lot of talent to replace, though: The Pac-12 had three lottery picks in the 2021 draft—more than any other league—and only three of the 15 first- or second-team all-conference selections return for the '21–22 campaign. All three play in the UCLA backcourt, which should provide a clear picture of the Pac-12 hierarchy at the season’s outset. Will the Bruins live up to the hype? And which team (or teams) will join them in the upper echelon?

UCLA's Johnny Juzang

Conference Player of the Year: Johnny Juzang, UCLA

Juzang enters the year fresh off a March Madness performance for the ages. He averaged 22.8 points per game on 50.9% shooting during UCLA’s Final Four run, hitting big shot after big shot to turn himself into a household name. Juzang is the lone Pac-12 player on the Associated Press preseason All-American team, and he’s the lead dog in a loaded Bruins backcourt. UCLA doesn’t need Juzang to be the same player he was over his last six games—it just needs him to add consistency. Juzang was held below double-digit points in seven of his 20 regular-season games last year and had more turnovers (22) than assists (20) over his last nine games before the NCAA tournament. The 6' 7" guard is a gifted scorer with a bevy of tricks in his offensive bag and showed plenty of ability to shine in the biggest moments. If the Bruins are to return to college basketball’s mountaintop, it will likely be Juzang who leads them there.

Newcomer of the Year: Marreon Jackson, Arizona State

From the standpoint of top-end talent with an obvious path to a starring role on his team, there isn’t an Evan Mobley–type freshman in this year’s class (though that’s admittedly quite a high bar to clear). There are four 2021 McDonald’s All-Americans who could emerge, but instead the nod goes to Toledo grad transfer Marreon Jackson. The 6' 1" guard was the MAAC Player of the Year last season, averaging 18.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.9 assists and nearly two steals over 30 games. Coach Bobby Hurley overhauled nearly his entire roster, and Jackson will be counted on to steer the ship after a down season for the Sun Devils. Jackson scored in double figures in all but one game last year, topping 20 points 11 times with two triple doubles. Arizona State will need a similar level of production to return to NCAA tournament contention in '21–22.

Dark-horse team: USC

The Trojans lost their star performers from a season ago in Evan Mobley and Tahj Eaddy, but return virtually the entire supporting cast to form a strong nucleus that should provide a high floor. There’s no one on the roster that can replace Evan Mobley’s production, but older brother Isaiah enters his third season and came on strong during USC’s run to the Elite Eight, averaging 16 points and 6.5 rebounds across four NCAA tournament games on 61% shooting. USC has ranked among the top 20 defensively in the past two seasons, per KenPom, and should remain strong on that end given its length along the perimeter. Entering his ninth season with the program, Andy Enfield has guided the Trojans to at least 21 wins in five of the past six years.

First-team All-Conference

Jaime Jaquez Jr., junior, UCLA
Johnny Juzang, junior, UCLA
Isaiah Mobley, junior, USC
Will Richardson, senior, Oregon
Noah Williams, junior, Washington State

SI's predicted order of finish

1. UCLA

The Bruins went from the First Four to the Final Four and return their entire starting lineup, positioning themselves as the No. 2 team in the preseason AP poll. On the reinforcements front, Rutgers big man Myles Johnson arrives via the transfer portal. The Southern California native notched eight double doubles a season ago, all against either Big Ten or ACC competition. Consensus five-star wing Peyton Watson adds another jolt of talent into what appears to be one of the best rosters in the country.

2. Oregon

Once again, Dana Altman has restocked Oregon’s roster by hitting the transfer portal hard to replace a surge of departures from the Pac-12’s defending regular-season champions. Quincy Guerrier (Syracuse), De’Vion Harmon (Oklahoma) and Jacob Young (Rutgers) will all play big roles for the Ducks this season, but it’s returning point guard Will Richardson who will be the key. Richardson missed the start of last season due to injury but averaged 13.9 points and 5.3 assists on 56.7% shooting from deep over Oregon’s last seven games. Freshman Nate Bittle is a skilled big man with high upside who chose Oregon over UCLA and Gonzaga and could evolve into one of the Ducks’ best players by season’s end.

3. Arizona

The Wildcats enter a new era under Tommy Lloyd following the end of Sean Miller’s run in Tucson. Arizona hasn’t reached the men's NCAA tournament since 2018 following the cancellation of the '20 edition and last year’s self-imposed postseason ban. Lloyd has enough talent to end that drought in his first year, with sophomores Azuolas Tubelis and Bennedict Mathurin headlining the returners. If incoming transfers Justin Kier (Georgia), Kim Aiken Jr. (Eastern Washington) and Pelle Larsson (Utah) can jell together quickly, Arizona has the pieces to get back into the March Madness picture.

drew peterson isaiah mobley

4. USC

The Trojans return six of their top eight scorers from last year’s Elite Eight team, and they’ll need role players from that squad to step up as go-to guys in order to stay among the top of the conference. Isaiah Mobley has perhaps the most upside of any returner, but 6' 9" guard Drew Peterson is the team’s most dynamic player. The senior averaged nearly three assists per game and shot 38.5% from deep last year and should be USC’s go-to playmaker this season. Memphis transfer Boogie Ellis will be counted on to provide perimeter scoring and could be the key to elevating the Trojans’ ceiling.

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5. Washington State

The Cougars enter the season as a trendy dark-horse pick, and have the talent to end the program’s 13-year NCAA tournament drought. Noah Williams is an under-the-radar star while returners Efe Abogidi and Dishon Jackson provide a strong foundation on the interior. Coach Kyle Smith has worked the margins in his first two seasons on the Palouse to build a top-half-of-the-conference contender. This could be the season when Washington State breaks through to reach new heights.

6. Arizona State

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more revamped roster this year than Bobby Hurley’s at Arizona State. That’s not necessarily a negative—the Sun Devils were a major disappointment last season, finishing with a losing record for the first time since 2016–17. Five of Arizona State’s top nine players in minutes per game have transferred away, including guards Remy Martin and Alonzo Verge Jr. SI conference Newcomer of the Year pick Jackson will likely lead the charge toward a resurgent campaign, as will fellow incoming transfers DJ Horne (Illinois State) and Jay Heath (Boston College). Marcus Bagley’s return was a significant win for Hurley, while freshman big man Enoch Boakye has potential to be a force inside. Entering his seventh season, this feels like a critical juncture for Hurley to get things back on track in Tempe.

7. Colorado

The perennially underrated Buffaloes will have their work cut out for them to make a return trip to the tournament this year. Gone are McKinley Wright IV to graduation and transfers Jeriah Horne, D’Shawn Schwartz and Dallas Walton, leaving a lot to be replaced on the fly. Evan Battey and Elijah Parquet return in the starting lineup, while Jabari Walker is ready to assume a larger role. Tad Boyle has brought in a top-15 recruiting class to infuse the program with talent, so another year of outperforming expectations is not out of the question.

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8. Stanford

Stanford enters the season still in search of its first NCAA tournament berth under sixth-year coach Jerod Haase following a disappointing 2020–21 campaign. Three of the Cardinal’s top four scorers are gone, but the returners are headlined by reigning Pac-12 Most Improved Player Jaiden Delaire. Five-star freshman Harrison Ingram is one to watch as a potential all-conference caliber player while freshman point guard Isa Silva is also expected to contribute early.

warith alatishe

9. Oregon State

Rejoice, Beavers fans: After being picked to finish in last place a season ago in the media poll (but 11th by yours truly), this year’s forecast is optimistic by comparison. Perhaps a ninth-place finish is a slight to a team that was a couple of possessions away from making the Final Four, and coach Wayne Tinkle will surely use such modest predictions as motivation. Ethan Thompson is gone, but six of last year’s top eight scorers return. Jarod Lucas showed plenty of big-shot ability during Oregon State’s magical March run, and forward Warith Alatishe has budding star potential.

10. Utah

In 2018, new Utah coach Craig Smith took over the reins at a Utah State program that had not made the NCAA tournament in seven years and immediately took the Aggies to the Big Dance. He’ll look to engineer a similar turnaround for the Utes, who must replace four of their top five scorers from a year ago after some high-profile transfers—most notably from Timmy Allen (Texas), Alfonso Plummer (Illinois) and Larsson (Arizona).

11. Washington

It’s been a lean couple of seasons for Mike Hopkins, who’s just two years removed from winning back-to-back Pac-12 Coach of the Year awards. The Huskies are 9–29 in conference games over the past two years, and must replace four of their top five scorers from last season. Freshman big man Jackson Grant was a McDonald’s All-American, and transfers Emmitt Matthews Jr. (West Virginia), Daejon Davis (Stanford), Terrell Brown Jr. (Arizona) and PJ Fuller (TCU) will add depth and experience. Washington’s early schedule will do the team no favors, as the Huskies face Arizona, UCLA and Gonzaga in consecutive games in early December.

12. Cal

The Golden Bears lost all-conference guard Matt Bradley to the transfer portal (San Diego State), and lack top-end talent to replace him. Cal went a respectable 7–13 in Pac-12 play in Mark Fox’s first season but cratered to 3–17 and a last-place finish in 2020–21, which featured 12 losses in its last 14 games. Fox was granted leeway at Georgia, notching losing seasons in three of his first four years before ripping off three consecutive 20-win campaigns. Entering his third year in Berkeley, he’ll need more time to shape Cal into a competitive squad.

More College Basketball Coverage:

Top Men's Breakout Candidates for 2021–22
ACC Men's Basketball Preview, Rankings
64 Reasons to Be Excited for the CBB Season

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