By Kevin Sweeney
The Pac-12 has seen better days. The league as a whole is down, and several of its premier programs have been implicated in the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball. Last year, the conference didn’t win a single NCAA Tournament, with its losses coming to Buffalo, St. Bonaventure, and Syracuse, none of whom were top-10 seeds. Simply put, it was a brutal year for the conference, and the league will have to try and turn things around to avoid the label of worst Power 6 conference sticking.
With an elite recruiting class coming in and one of the best players in the conference returning in Payton Pritchard, Oregon is the preseason favorite in the Pac-12. They aren’t without question marks though, with no clear second scorer and a talented but inexperienced frontcourt. Bol Bol headlines the incoming group, a unicorn-type prospect who can shoot the ball and block shots, but may be too lean to deal with experienced post players. Louis King and Will Richardson will have to pick up big scoring loads as freshmen as well.
After a successful year one under Mike Hopkins, the Huskies virtually run it back in 2018-19. I had some reservations about the top-25 hype UW was receiving, but the Huskies looked outstanding in a blowout win over preseason #7 Nevada in Reno this past weekend despite playing without perhaps their best player in Noah Dickerson. This team has a lot of offensive firepower and should continue to be solid on defense in the Syracuse-style 2-3 zone Hopkins deploys.
A season hyped up for so long fell off the rails before it began last year, when the Trojans were implicated in the FBI investigation into college basketball corruption. That investigation led to swiss army knife De’Anthony Melton being ruled ineligible for the season, and USC was never right. While this team loses some key pieces from that group, Andy Enfield has continued to recruit extremely well and this team has a ton of talent. Bennie Boatwright is back for seemingly his 15th year of college basketball, a star whose health has long been a concern. Enfield also brings in star freshman Kevin Porter, a dynamic 2-way wing whose NBA Draft stock continues to rise. The biggest question with this team centers around the point guard spot, where Jordan McLaughlin graduates. Duke transfer Derryck Thornton appears to be the guy, but he was unproductive last season. He’ll have to find a way to live up to his once-lofty recruiting ranking for this team to reach its lofty ceiling.
After a season filled with turmoil ended in an embarrassing NCAA Tournament defeat to Buffalo, Arizona virtually starts over. The WIldcats’ top 5 scorers depart, leaving Dylan Smith’s 4.3 points per game the leading returner for U of A. A trio of highly-regarded pieces from the 2017 class return in Brandon Randolph, Emmanuel Akot, and Ira Lee, but none of those players were impactful last season. Duke transfer Chase Jeter gets a fresh start and should start at center (perhaps next to Pitt grad transfer Ryan Luther), while Samford grad transfer Justin Coleman will compete with highly-touted freshman Brandon Williams for point guard duties.
I have no idea how these pieces will fit together, but there’s talent here.
A questionable inclusion in the preseason top 25, I don’t get the early love for the Bruins, especially in the aftermath of losing Shareef O’Neal and Tyger Campbell to season-ending injuries before play has begun. The loss of Campbell is especially impactful because it leaves Jaylen Hands as the only true ball-handler on the roster, and I don’t see Hands dominating the ball as a recipe for success for UCLA. Kris Wilkes should be excellent, and the Bruins have a lot of options (albeit mostly inexperienced) options up front.
Facing an NCAA-or-bust season, Steve Alford could very well be out of work in late March if he doesn’t finish higher than this.
It was an enigmatic 2017-18 for the Cardinal in year 2 of the Jerod Haase era, as a talented unit with some preseason hype fell to multiple Big Sky teams in the non-conference before going on a big run early in league play but cooling down the stretch. Losing Reid Travis to Kentucky is far from ideal, but I love how deep this backcourt is thanks to the additions of freshmen Cormac Ryan and Bryce Wills next to stat-sheet-stuffing Daejon Davis. Haase could trot out some super-intriguing lineups with Oscar Da Silva at the 5, KZ Okpala at the 4, and three guards.
#7. Arizona State
The Sun Devils branded themselves as “Guard U” thanks to their dynamic backcourt during their early-season run last season, but this year’s Sun Devil squad takes on a far different look. ASU still has plenty to work with in the backcourt with promising sophomore Remy Martin running the show and newcomers Rob Edwards (Cleveland State transfer) & top-50 freshman Luguentz Dort, but the strength of this team is up front. Bobby Hurley has loaded up on versatile combo forwards like high-end recruit Taeshon Cherry, SDSU transfer Zylan Cheatham, and returner Mickey Mitchell, and the Sun Devils also have 2 solid big men in Romello White and DeQuon Lake. How this stylistic transition goes will be interesting, but the Sun Devils have the pieces to move up in a wide-open Pac-12.
The last team in the league that I feel has a legitimate chance to earn an NCAA bid this season, Colorado is built around one of the best returning players in college basketball in McKinley Wright and some intriguing post players in Tyler Bey, Lucas Siewert, and Evan Battey. Battey is especially interesting, a heavy-set big man with an unorthodox skillset coming off suffering a stroke last season. It feels like the Buffs need one more good guard to push them over the top, and may have found the answer in JUCO product Shane Gatling. Gatling didn’t shine in his freshman season at Niagara, but was outstanding last season at Indian Hills and is known as a high-level shooter.
Larry Krystowiak brings in an excellent recruiting class for the long term, but the Utes seem a year away to me. They lose 3 of their top 4 scorers, leaving behind only inconsistent Sedrick Barefield as a known commodity. Donnie Tillman breaking out in year 2 would be big, and Krystowiak’s teams are always solid, but this team seems like a pretty clear NIT team.
#10, Oregon State
Things have gone downhill quickly for Wayne Tinkle in Corvallis, as the Beavers’ head coach has struggled to consistently recruit Pac-12 talent. His son Tres should help keep them afloat, but beyond him and the Thompsons, there’s just not much meat on the bone beyond that. Tinkle’s seat is certainly warming, and there’s no guarantee he’d survive another middling season.
Wyking Jones has done a solid job accumulating talent since taking over in a tough spot, but it’s going to take some time before they can move up the standings. He found two foundational pieces last season in sophomores Darius McNeill and Justice Sueing, and adding Boise State transfer Paris Austin to the mix at point guard should help as well. Jones has a nice 2019 class brewing, so that might be the year the Bears break through.
#12. Washington State
Losing Malachi Flynn to transfer was a crushing blow for a Washington State team that wasn’t very good to begin with. Robert Franks is a legit all-league player in that combo forward role, and Ernie Kent brings in several potential contributors from the JUCO ranks.
All-Conference First Team:
- Payton Pritchard– Oregon (14.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 4.8 apg, .447/.413/.774)
- McKinley Wright– Colorado (14.2 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 5.5 apg, .451/.304/.770)
- Jaylen Nowell– Washington (16.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.7 apg, .451/.351/.800)
- Kris Wilkes– UCLA (13.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.7 apg, .441/.352/.655)
- Bennie Boatwright– USC (13.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.0 apg, .415/.346/.726)
Player of the Year: Jaylen Nowell (Washington)
One of the best isolation scorers in college basketball, Nowell’s ability to consistently create offense for himself is hugely important for this Washington team. He’s capable of scoring at all 3 levels and taking over the game. If he can get to the free throw line more frequently this season, he can become an even bigger force in the Pac-12.
Breakout Player: Remy Martin (Arizona State)
Martin was excellent in a scoring role of the bench last season, but now likely steps in as the Sun Devils’ starting point guard. He’s electric with the ball in his hands and is a scrappy defender who recorded 5 steals in ASU’s win over Kansas last season. He should compete for all-conference honors this season.
Newcomer of the Year: Kevin Porter (USC)
Porter wowed scouts last year when invited as a practice player at Hoop Summit and was perhaps the best player in the scrimmage he participated in. He’s a competitive slasher with high-level athleticism who should make a big impact at USC this season and perhaps go one-and-done.