By Kevin Sweeney
Ahh, the Pac-12. How fun it was to ridicule you last season.
Somehow, the league found three bids a season ago, but its struggles were well-documented. In KenPom’s conference rankings, it scored the worst it has since 2004. Also per KenPom, the Pac-12 had just one top-40 team, an Oregon group that skyrocketed up the rankings late in the season after disappointing for most of the way.
A bounceback year seems in store on paper, but the conference as a whole still has its flaws. With revenues falling behind as a result of the fiasco that is the Pac-12 Network, it’s critical that teams get the next few years right.
#1. Oregon– There was a point in the offseason where Oregon had six eligible players locked in for 2019-20. But one piece at a time, Dana Altman built a roster that has national title talent, with a group of newcomers headlined by Peach Jam MVP N’Faly Dante. Dante should be a gamechanger once he arrives on campus on December 14, a big with elite physical tools who should control the paint at both ends when on the floor. They’ll pair Dante with a deep unit of playmaking guards: Payton Pritchard headlines the backcourt, but elite shooter Anthony Mathis should help and JUCO product Chris Duarte is incredibly talented as well. Key will be finding a way to hold things down in the frontcourt with Dante out for the first semester: some small-ball looks with UNLV transfer Shakur Juiston at the five are likely, but sophomore Francis Okoro has to give them steady minutes. Dana Altman’s ability to mesh so many new faces together after struggling to do so in back-to-back years is also worth watching.
#2. Washington– Mike Hopkins engineered a 12-win turnaround in year one, won a Pac-12 title in year two, and is now bringing in two five-stars in year three. Seems pretty good, right? Those two elite talents, physical big man Isaiah Stewart and skilled wing/forward Jaden McDaniels, have major responsibilities right away as Hopkins looks to replace four starters and almost 80% of their “possession minutes” per T-Rank. Kentucky transfer Quade Green will take over at point guard once eligible at the semester break, but this is a thin backcourt until he arrives. I’m bullish on athletic wing Nahziah Carter taking the next step, but one more guard will have to step up with him.
#3. Arizona– Sean Miller is still alive in Tuscon despite all the heat of the last two years, and brings in a terrific recruiting class with eyes on getting back to the top of the Pac-12. That class is headlined by a pair of five-star recruits: crafty point guard Nico Mannion and silky-smooth wing Josh Green, both of whom should star from the get-go for Miller’s bunch. The primary objective for that duo has to be finding a way to get the Wildcats to improve on the offensive end: they really struggled to get good shots all season long and were inefficient as a result. Losing sophomore guard Brandon Williams to a season-ending injury won’t help matters, but Devonaire Doutrive has earned rave reviews this fall as a potential breakout performer. The bottom line: a return to the NCAA Tournament, and likely to the top 25, should be expected.
#4. Colorado– Seton Hall was 60th in KenPom a season ago. Colorado was 63. Seton Hall brings back 89% of its “Possession Minutes”, Colorado brings back 95%. Yet, a quick scroll through top 25’s will show you a whole lot of Seton Hall love and not very much conversation about the Buffaloes. CU is an interesting bunch– with an excellent veteran at the point guard spot in McKinley Wright and a deep, talented frontcourt, Tad Boyle has the core he needs to bring this team to the NCAA Tournament. What this team needs is a shooter: last year’s JUCO import Shane Gatling was supposed to be that guy, but he shot just 32% from beyond the arc a season ago. Boyle goes the JUCO route to solve the problem again with Maddox Daniels, who made 88 triples at a 43% clip a season ago. If Daniels can provide a sharpshooting wing presence, this team will be tons of fun to watch.
#5. Arizona State– Can the Sun Devils escape First Four purgatory in 2019-20? Remarkably, this team feels like they could find themselves in the same spot they have the last two seasons: the definition of a bubble team. Bobby Hurley has quite the engine to lead the attack with star point guard Remy Martin– a fun guy to watch thanks to his ability to play with pace all game long. Rob Edwards likely gets the starting nod at the two, but I can’t wait to see JUCO product Alonzo Verge in action in the backcourt. A breakout year could be in store for rangy combo forward Taeshon Cherry, a former highly-touted recruit who showed flashes but struggled with injuries a season ago.
#6. USC– At some point, Andy Enfield has to show he can take a talented roster and have it come close to living up to expectations. This year’s haul includes a pair of five-star big men, giving a jolt to a team that went just 16-17 a season ago. There’s been some discussion that we could see the Trojans zone up and play three bigs on the floor at once– pairing Isaiah Mobley and Onyeka Okongwu with Nick Racocevic in a lineup that could be ugly to watch but successful. In modern positionless basketball, the idea is to play your best players, no matter if they fit into positional constructs. This usually applies to teams going small, but I suppose it should be considered equally for teams with size. However, a dominant interior won’t matter if Enfield can’t get steady point guard play from Elijah Weaver, who’ll take over for Derryck Thornton at the point after contributing a season ago.
#7. UCLA– UCLA’s coaching search provided a lot of laughs for all, but while I don’t see Mick Cronin as a natural fit for Westwood, I do think he’ll do well there in time. Cronin isn’t a high-powered recruiter, nor will he sell his soul to power brokers in the grassroots game to get kids. However, he is a winner who will find guys who fit what he wants to do and develop talent over four years. The Bruins should have a strong frontcourt: the trio of Jalen Hill, Cody Riley, and Shareef O’Neal should pound the offensive glass in typical Cronin fashion and protect the rim. The big question for this team if it has any hopes of dancing: how will redshirt freshman Tyger Campbell look running the show?
#8. Oregon State– The Beavers just feel stuck. Even with a superstar in Tres Tinkle, getting to the NCAA Tournament would be stunning. However, at a fairly tough job, how much more can you reasonably expect from Wayne Tinkle? Blowing it up doesn’t make sense either. Wayne will hope not to waste his superstar son’s senior year: Tres is truly a do-it-all guy who impacts the game in every way when on the floor. Unfortunately, there just isn’t quite enough around him: Ethan Thompson and Kylor Kelley are nice pieces, but who else can step up? A recruiting class without a top-200 recruit feels like a group of lottery tickets– Wayne Tinkle needs at least one to cash in.
#9. Utah– Larry Krystowiak’s team hasn’t been to an NCAA Tournament since 2016, and that has Ute fans antsy after a terrific two-year stretch that had the program seemingly destined for major success going forward. Transfers have hit the program hard, losing key pieces in Donnie Tillman and Jayce Johnson this offseason and several others over the last few seasons. I love the young trio of Timmy Allen, Both Gach, and Riley Battin, and there are some promising pieces in a seven-man freshman class. That said, the defense was a nightmare last season, and it’s hard to buy that improving too much with such a young group in 2019-20.
#10. Stanford— Recruiting hasn’t been the problem for Jerod Haase– doing something with talent has been. Despite having a draft pick in KZ Okpala, a talented point guard in Daejon Davis, and a terrific recruiting class, the Cardinal were horrible once again. Much of the hype with this incoming group surrounds talented scoring point guard Ty Terry, who in theory should create a dynamic backcourt with Bryce Wills and Davis. Terry needs to help the Cardinal take care of the ball better: they ranked 310th in turnover rate a season ago.
#11. Washington State– I liked the Kyle Smith hire for Wazzu– realistically, no one is going to come to Pullman and compete in recruiting against the Oregon’s, Washington’s, and Arizona’s of the world. Instead, you have to “zig” when everyone else “zags”, and hiring a guy who brings Moneyball philosophies to college basketball makes tons of sense. It may take awhile to get “his guys” in, but Smith did a terrific job at San Francisco and runs awesome offense. The Cougars will definitely pick off a few unsuspecting teams in league play.
#12. Cal– While the Smith hire was inspiring, Mark Fox at Cal wasn’t. Recycling a failed high-major coach who had just one top-50 team in nine seasons at Georgia and plateaued at Nevada after walking into an incredible situation after Trent Johnson was a “we don’t want to suck” move, not a “we want to win” move. Fox inherits a pretty brutal roster from one of the worst high-major teams in the country as Cal still recovers from the mess that Cuonzo Martin left behind.
All-Conference First Team:
- Payton Pritchard (Oregon)
- Nico Mannion (Arizona)
- Remy Martin (Arizona State)
- Tres Tinkle (Oregon State)
- Isaiah Stewart (Washington)
Player of the Year: Payton Pritchard (Oregon)
This is more than just a “best player on the best team”. Pritchard is my kind of point guard, a tough, scrappy kid who hits outside shots and defends. This year, he can step into a pure table-setting role as the Ducks have so many options. He’ll go down as an all-time great for Oregon, but another deep run in March Madness would secure that status.
Breakout Player: Taeshon Cherry (Arizona State)
Cherry is a perfect fit for modern basketball, a slashing forward who can play multiple positions with a nose for the rim. Cherry had some very bright moments a season ago: 15 points in 21 minutes against Utah State, as well as a big road trip to Oregon and Oregon State in mid-January. However, he never quite put it all together. If he can this year, watch out.
Newcomer of the Year: Isaiah Stewart (Washington)
A coach who watched Stewart for several years on the EYBL circuit once told me that Stewart was the only player he has ever watched who brought the same intensity to an 8am pool play game as he did to a Peach Jam primetime showdown. That’s what Stewart brings: the blue-collar work ethic of a 3-star kid trying to earn his keep with the talent and frame of a future NBA player. He should be a beast in what likely will be his lone season of college basketball.