2020-21 32×32: Pac-12 Preview

After the original announcement of not playing basketball until at least January, the Pac-12 is back and ready to play on time! There was concern in August that players on the fringes of the NBA could leave and enter the draft in the week following the Pac-12’s cancellation announcement, but rosters stayed intact and daily antigen testing swooped in to save the day. So what can we expect from the league on the court? Let’s jump in:

  1. Oregon – The talent level for the Ducks is sky high. Dana Altman’s roster is one loaded with former elite recruits and highly-rated transfers, giving UO what should be a top-15 team in 2020-21. It starts in the backcourt, where near-2,000 point scorer Payton Pritchard graduates but a pair of high-level shot-makers return in Will Richardson and Chris Duarte. Richardson does such a good job of picking his spots and making smart decisions, while Duarte is a capable shooter who is tough to stop when he gets downhill. Expect to see point guard by committee: Richardson can be a primary ballhandler, as can UNLV grad transfer Amauri Hardy and freshman Jalen Terry. How often the Ducks go with a three-guard look may be dependent on a waiver for St John’s transfer LJ Figueroa. Figueroa was a touch disappointing in a high-usage role last season for the Red Storm, but he’s terrific as a complementary piece when freed up to slash and hunt shots. Figueroa can play the 3 or the 4 for the Ducks and would be a huge addition if eligible. Altman also has a more traditional option at the 4 in Rutgers transfer Eugene Omoruyi, who averaged 14 points and 7 rebounds per game in the Big Ten in 2018-19 and provides all kinds of toughness. Omoruyi might even be able to anchor some small-ball lineups depending on how N’Faly Dante develops: Dante was an elite recruit out of high school who arrived in Eugene at the semester break last season and could never quite find his footing, but he has the potential to be one of the bigger breakout guys in the country. Dante led MoKan Elite to a Peach Jam title in 2019 and is a tough guy to deal with on the block. Altman has all kinds of options for how he wants to deploy this incredibly talented roster, and I’m excited to watch how the pieces all come together. 

  2. Arizona State – The 2017-18 Sun Devils team that was coined “Guard U” may have some competition for that title. Few teams in America have a more talented backcourt rotation than Bobby Hurley’s bunch, a group loaded with experience, talent, and scoring ability. Remy Martin’s return for his senior season was huge – Martin will be one of the best seniors in college basketball and loves to take and make tough shots. Then there’s Alonzo Verge, who can be deployed as a sixth man or traditional off-guard and can absolutely light it up. I wish I had as much confidence in any facet of life as Verge has in his ability to score the basketball, and few guys are as willing to attack at all times as Verge is. Then there’s 5-star recruit Josh Christopher, who isn’t shy about firing away in his own right and is one of the better pure scorers in the 2020 class. Meshing together three guys who love to play with the ball and fire away may be this team’s largest challenge: having an experienced point guard like Martin to put winning before ego should help in this regard. Another area Hurley’s club is deep is the combo forward spot: top-50 recruit Marcus Bagley has earned rave reviews, and both Kimani Lawrence and Taeshon Cherry were well-regarded recruits with experience in the rotation. Where the question marks lie is the pivot spot: the grad transfer of Romello White to Ole Miss was a surprise to many and leaves the Sun Devils with no proven options up front. Springy sophomore Jalen Graham becomes one of the more important players in the country, a guy who in limited minutes last season was impressive with his feel around the rim and defensive instincts. He’ll have a large say on whether this team can be a second weekend-type team in the NCAA Tournament. 

  3. UCLA – Figuring out how “real” the Bruins’ late-season surge was is one of the bigger challenges to crack with this team, but it’s certainly true that Mick Cronin had this team playing much better basketball down the stretch. Per T-Rank, the Bruins were the 30th-best team in the country from January 30th on, driven mostly by a defense that made major strides as the season wore on. During the Bruins’ 9-10 start, they ranked 167th nationally in defensive efficiency per T-Rank before producing the 43rd-best unit during that 9-2 finish. That jump on defense wasn’t driven by any significant personnel shift, but rather a renewed sense of purpose and intensity on that end of the floor. Given that Cronin’s Cincinnati teams finished in the top 30 in KenPom’s defensive efficiency in each of his final nine years with the Bearcats, I’ll bet on the Bruin defense looking more like it did late than early last season. This team’s upside centers around how consistently they can score. Returning starting PG Tyger Campbell struggled shooting the ball last season but finished strong, averaging 11 points and 6.5 assists (compared to just 2 turnovers) in the season’s final 11 games. Continued growth on the offensive end for Campbell will be absolutely critical for this group to reach its ceiling. A second scorer next to senior wing Chris Smith is critical: Cronin undoubtedly hopes that can be Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang, a high-level shooter who bounced in and out of the Wildcat rotation last season. The bottom line: UCLA played together down the stretch in a way that few UCLA teams in recent years have. If they replicate that, they’ll win plenty of games this season. 

  4. Stanford – Look, I’ll never get mad at a kid for chasing a bag. But man, Tyrell Terry breaking up what could have been the best Stanford team since the early 2000’s still makes me sad. Terry was the driving force behind a Cardinal team that exceeded expectations and was set to make the NCAA Tournament before the pandemic. Not only was Terry a terrific outside shooter, but he also keyed an offense that was hard to guard thanks to his ability to operate in ball screens. Terry and fellow freshman Spencer Jones did a terrific job of spacing the floor, which opened tons of avenues for terrific big man Oscar Da Silva to score inside or out. Replacing Terry’s minutes with more shots for Bryce Wills and Daejon Davis could hurt the spacing and the flow of Jerod Haase’s offense, which is why I’m hoping top-100 freshman Noah Taitz or late stock-riser Michael O’Connell can give the Cardinal more backcourt options. The main reason for optimism is the addition of 5-star Ziaire Williams, an elite athlete with great skill level who can play every position on the court. Pushing Williams into more of a creator role with Jones and skilled freshman 4-man Max Murrell next to him in a jumbo lineup could be an interesting option. There’s plenty of talent here to make things work, but I’m concerned that guard play could plague this group from taking further leaps up the Pac-12 standings.

  5. Arizona – Despite having five Level I allegations hanging over his program, Sean Miller continues to hang around in Tuscon with an “I’M IN MY OFFICE” George Costanza-level stubbornness. He enters what could be the final season before a postseason ban hits with a roster in transition – seven freshmen and three transfers who’ve never played a game for the Wildcats join the fray, with only Jemarl Baker, Ira Lee, and Christian Koloko as returners from a team that saw three freshmen go one-and-done. So much of this team’s upside is built around two highly-touted transfers: Georgetown’s James Akinjo and Nevada’s Jordan Brown. Akinjo won Big East Rookie of the Year honors in 2018-19 and seemed to be on the path to stardom before things falling apart early in his second season in DC. While undersized, Akinjo loves to fire away from deep but has struggled at the rim in his career. How much will he contribute to winning is an open question though, particularly given Georgetown seemed to improve in his absence. A former 5-star, Brown struggled to earn consistent run on a loaded Nevada team under Eric Musselman, who is notorious for his shorter rotations. Brown always profiled best as a 5 at the college level but was forced down to the 4 at times at Nevada – we’ll see if Brown winds up playing mostly the 5 for the Wildcats this season. Meanwhile, watch out for freshmen Azuolas Tubelis and Kerr Kriisa, the two most well-regarded of a loaded class of international imports for Miller’s bunch. There’s plenty of raw talent here, but it’s reasonable to question how the pieces all fit together, particularly given Akinjo’s prior chemistry troubles and the challenges of getting international players on campus and fully acclimated during the pandemic.

  6. Colorado – This Colorado team is a tough one to figure out given a few key departures and the Buffaloes’ late-season swoon. The biggest departure is that of Tyler Bey, an NBA sleeper thanks to his athleticism, defensive smarts, and shooting potential. I think it’s reasonable to say Bey was the team’s best player last season, and him leaving a year early for the pros is a tough blow. However, the departures of Lucas Siewart and Shane Gatling are also significant: Siewert brought great size and some floor-spacing ability, and Gatling was the team’s second-best guard a season ago. Grad transfer 4-man Jeriah Horne will certainly help – Horne was a double-figure scorer for a top-75 team at Tulsa who is about as good a plug-and-play option as any grad on the market this season. A five-man freshman class bringing something from day one will also be critical: Keeshawn Barthelemy redshirted last season and is seen as the future at point guard, but could make an impact from day one.

  7. USC – Consensus top-3 recruit Evan Mobley joins the fray in SoCal. Is it enough to make a jump in the Pac-12? I’m not sure. For all his upside as a 7-footer that can handle the ball, move incredibly fluidly, and protect the rim, he’s not yet wired to be a guy who takes over games at the college level. When reviewing high school tape, I’d see Mobley fade in and out of games and spend much of his time running around the perimeter. His talent level is immense, but he’s not a clear-cut All-American in the way fellow elite recruit Cade Cunningham is at Oklahoma State. Mobley also has big shoes to fill: replicating what Onyeka Okongwu brought as a rim protector and finisher will be tough to match, and Okongwu will likely be a top-10 pick in his own right with teams hoping he could wind up on a similar developmental path as Bam Adebayo. Mobley’s brother Isaiah could take steps forward after being in the rotation as a freshman – expect him to start next to Evan in the frontcourt. But much of the rotation is built around second-tier mid-major transfers: Tahj Eaddy (Santa Clara) adds some ballhandling and scoring, Noah Baumann (San Jose State) will be a 3-point specialist, Isaiah White (Utah Valley) brings versatility and athleticism, and Chevez Goodwin (Wofford) is a solid rim protector up front. All four of those guys can play minutes in the Pac-12, but none seem like difference-makers to me. That’s why this team’s key might be the play of sophomore point guard Ethan Anderson, who is reportedly in better shape and ready for a big season after averaging 5.5 points and 4.2 assists per game as a freshman.

  8. Washington – It’s somewhat hard to believe how little momentum the Washington program seems to have right now considering where they were one year ago today. The Huskies had just finished a 27-win second season under Mike Hopkins, were set to welcome in two five-star recruits and a Kentucky transfer at point guard, and the potential for this program seemed limitless. But last season was without a doubt disastrous – while UW was a top-60 team in KenPom, they finished in last place in the Pac-12 and saw the wheels really come off once Quade Green was ruled academically ineligible. Then, top returning scorer Nahziah Carter earned himself an indefinite suspension during the offseason, and it’s unclear when or if he’ll be able to return. Green’s return to action will be critical for an offense that really scuffled in his absence – he flashed much-improved point guard skills than what he showed at Kentucky and picked his spots well from deep. Assuming he gets a waiver, the addition of Wichita State transfer Erik Stevenson could also be big despite his struggles shooting the ball the last two seasons. Seattle native J’Raan Brooks is a worthwhile reclamation project: he’ll likely replace Isaiah Stewart and start in the frontcourt and brings a versatile skillset at 6-9. One other concern is that this will be a smaller team than what would be ideal for Hopkins’ 2-3 zone defense, particularly if Carter doesn’t return. But with Carter and a waiver for Stevenson, there’s NCAA Tournament upside here.

  9. Utah – Back-to-back middling seasons in Salt Lake City have some Ute fans on edge, and so much of the future of this program relies on what is a young but talented core. With just one senior on the roster, Larry Krystkowiak enters a two-year window that feels pretty important for the program’s trajectory, with at least one NCAA Tournament berth in that stretch feeling very important to get back the momentum they had earlier this decade. The Utes have a scorer you can build around in Timmy Allen, a junior who averaged 17 points and 7 boards last season who can put up shots with the best of them. Building out the roster around him is the challenge now, and there are plenty of options. Sophomore point guard Rylan Jones likely would get questioned if he tried to get into an R-rated movie, but the kid is tough as nails and fought through multiple injuries last season. He’s the point guard of the future in Salt Lake, and priority no. 1 might be putting on some pounds so he can’t get roughed up as easily. I’m bullish on sophomore center Branden Carlson, who moves extremely well for a 7-footer and fared well for being thrown into the fire last season. The other guy who could give this core a real lift is highly-touted freshman Ian Martinez, who will likely see a big role from day one thanks to the departure of Both Gach for Minnesota. The California product was 247Sports’ #63 recruit in the country and brings explosive athleticism with a scoring mindset.

  10. Washington State – Kyle Smith had the Cougars looking feisty in year one in Pullman for Smith, who brings his moneyball-style system to a place that is extremely difficult to win. Wazzu was particularly tough to crack at home, going 11-5 in the friendly confines of Beasley Coliseum (including 5-4 in Pac-12 play). But hopes of a significant climb up the standings were dashed when star wing CJ Elleby elected to head to the NBA after two seasons in Pullman – he’s unlikely to get drafted, but also didn’t have a ton more to prove in college basketball after averaging 18 points and 8 rebounds per game last season. The Elleby/Isaac Bonton duo was one of the better ones in the Pac-12, and look for Bonton to play an even bigger role in this offense this season as both the team’s primary shot-creator and shot-maker. Where the Portland native struggled was efficiency: while he was slightly better in league play, Bonton only shot 34% from the field and 30% from deep. He’ll need to be much better than that this season for this offense to be efficient. Smith brings in an incredibly talented international product in Andrej Jakimovski, a skilled forward from Macedonia with experience in international competition. This will without a doubt be a one-piece-at-a-time rebuild, and losing guys early to the pros are the quickest way of blowing that up. But Smith is a sharp enough coach to keep this group competitive even if it has one of the least talented rosters in the league.

  11. Cal – I wasn’t overly high on the Mark Fox hire in Berkeley, and I still think it was a low-upside move at a program that has to be willing to take some swings. But I do think Fox deserves credit for how improved the Bears were last season: 14-18, 7-11 in league play, and 153rd in KenPom aren’t exactly terrific numbers, but they represent a significant improvement from where the program was a year ago under Wyking Jones. Much of that improvement had to do with the growth of wing Matt Bradley into one of the better shot-making wings in the conference. Bradley was steady as a freshman but turned into a star as a sophomore, averaging 17.5 points per game and shooting 38% from distance for the Golden Bears. Unfortunately, the talent level still lags behind much of the conference. Grad transfer guards Makale Foreman (Stony Brook) and Ryan Betley (Penn) should be solid but not spectacular, and I don’t see a breakout player in this mix. Perhaps sophomore big man Lars Thiemann can make a jump?

  12. Oregon State – The end may be near for Wayne Tinkle’s time in Corvallis after failing to capitalize on some talented rosters with his son Tres (a 2,000-point scorer) in tow. Tres Tinkle was special not just because of his ability to score, but also thanks to his high-level passing and instincts. The Beavers also lose one of the more underrated players in the conference in elite rim protector Kylor Kelley, who was second nationally in blocks and 4th in the conference in true shooting percentage. Left to replace that duo is a collection of JUCOs and underrecruited freshmen – Tariq Silver should bring shooting, and Maurice Calloo is skilled for a 6-10 guy and could plug into the rotation as well. Still, the talent level beyond Ethan Thompson feels really low, and it’s hard to imagine things getting better in the near future with Thompson set to graduate after this season.

All-Conference First Team:

  • Remy Martin (Arizona State)
  • McKinley Wright (Colorado)
  • Will Richardson (Oregon)
  • Chris Smith (UCLA)
  • Oscar Da Silva (Stanford)

Player of the Year: Remy Martin (Arizona State) – Martin could have chosen to go pro with all the uncertainty that surrounded college basketball this summer, but his return is a boon for team now with the talent to beat anyone in the conference. What impressed me last season about Martin was how poised he was in big spots: oftentimes when guys migrate into a starring role from the supporting cast, they struggle when the lights shine brightest. That wasn’t the case at all for Martin, who was remarkably consistent and had some absolutely massive games when he was needed most. He may score less this season with so much guard talent around him, but his impact on the game will remain quite high.

Breakout Player: N’Faly Dante (Oregon) – As mentioned up top, Dante is an obvious choice for a superlative like this. It wasn’t so much that Dante was disappointing last season: he simply never had the chance to get his feet under him. Had he not reclassified, Dante would be entering college now as a consensus top-10 recruit and expected to be a key reason why Oregon would compete for a championship. His game hasn’t changed, only the perception. Expect a big year in Eugene.

Newcomer of the Year: Ziaire Williams (Stanford) – Williams’ versatility will make his impact on Stanford greater than Evan Mobley’s at USC. Expect Jerod Haase to deploy him in a number of ways: in ball screens as both a screener and initiator, creating at the elbows, and grab-and-goes off the glass to push in transition. By surrounding him with high-skill guys, Haase really opens the floor for Williams to have a terrific year in Palo Alto before heading to the pro ranks.

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