Connor Hope | @CondorianFM | 08/31/20
After multiple years of being the laughing stock of the high-major conferences, the Pac-12 finally showed some improvement last season. With a ton of their stars coming back, and multiple five-star recruits bringing their talents to non-traditional powers, the Pac-12 should be one of the most exciting conferences to watch in 2021.
It is unfortunate that we will not get to see the conference play during the non-conference season, barring a delay by the NCAA, but conference play is better anyway. Right?
Let’s start by taking a look at how the Pac-12 rankings shape up after the NBA Draft deadline.
Tier Three: The Rebuilds
12) Oregon State Beavers (2019-20 Finish: T-8th | 18-13, 7-11)
Wayne Tinkle has to be on the hot seat, right? I understand that the Beavers have not been a traditional power in the Pac-12, but having an All-Conference First Teamer for three straight years and plenty of weapons around him without recording a single 20-win season, or even an NCAA Tournament appearance, certainly doesn’t scream success.
Taking a look at this year, the loss of Tres Tinkle definitely limits the ceiling of the Beavers, and gives them the lowest floor in the conference. Seniors Ethan Thompson, Zach Reichle and Alfred Hollins should make Oregon State competitive in most games, but given Tinkle’s tendency to coach to the floor, rather than the ceiling, I have no confidence in the team’s ability to reload in the post-Tres Tinkle era.
11) Washington State Cougars (2019-20 Finish: 11th | 16-16, 6-12)
After spending most of the offseason looking like an improved team, Head Coach Kyle Smith suffered the most impactful draft decision in the conference when star wing CJ Elleby chose not the withdraw and return to school. While I still believe in the Smith’s ability to make Washington State a competitive team in the conference within a few years, the loss of their only true star will keep them in the cellar for now.
With seniors Isaac Bonton and Tony Miller leading a team of young players, including four-star freshmen Andrej Jakmovski and Carlos Rosario, it wouldn’t be a surprise to still see the Cougars improve their overall competitiveness from last season. However, with most of the teams towards the bottom of the Pac-12 showing improvement, the Cougars will find it difficult to finish anywhere outside the bottom three.
10) Washington Huskies (2019-20 Finish: 12th | 15-17, 5-13)
If there was one thing we should take away from Washington’s season last year, it is that Quade Green may have been the most important player in the country. The Huskies looked like an NCAA Tournament caliber team before he was ruled academically ineligible, after which they plummeted to the worst position in the conference.
With Quade Green back, the Huskies should have a guy that can spread the ball around and open up the offense, even with the loss of star forward Isaiah Stewart to the draft. Naz Carter’s senior season should bring All-Conference quality play, especially without Jaden McDaniels packing the box score with missed shots, turnovers and fouls. I am still not convinced that Head Coach Mike Hopkins can coach a roster up, but the Huskies should have enough firepower to finish outside the bottom two.
9) California Golden Bears (2019-20 Finish: T-8th | 14-18, 7-11)
While I do not believe that Mark Fox is the long term solution at head coach for Cal, I do think he was a safe choice to help make the program respectable in the middle of the Pac-12. Sitting at the top of the bottom tier, Cal’s roster is surprisingly solid compared to the last half decade of below average play. This rise out of the basement will start with Matt Bradley, who has the potential to become an All-Conference player if he can manage to lift Cal into the middle third of the standings.
Cal should once again have a respectable defense, but their offense will need to improve around Bradley if they hope to put themselves in a position to win games against the Pac-12’s best. Hometown freshman Monty Bowser should help with this, and Andre Kelly could be a force inside moving forward. If Stony Brook transfer Makale Foreman can bring his experience and effectively play the point guard position, the Bears’ starting five could be surprisingly good this year.
Tier 2: The NCAA Tournament Hopefuls
8) USC Trojans (2019-20 Finish: T-3rd | 22-9, 11-7)
I would like to start by saying that the Mobley brothers should be one of the best frontcourts in the conference nest season, and Ethan Anderson has the makings of being one of the best players in the conference by his senior season. The roster around them is filled with solid mid-major transfers, who look like they can be solid role players in the Pac-12. Despite all this, however, there are still concerns about Head Coach Andy Enfield’s ability to coach players up at the high-major level.
Last season’s success was due in part to USC’s greater defensive effort and improved half-court offense. Losing a ton of talent, the Trojans will take an understandable step back in the conference, but their talent at the top should keep them in the race for a potential at-large bid. However, if it turns into the Evan Mobley Show without any of the role players taking the next step, it could be a very frustrating season for fans.
7) Utah Utes (2019-20 Finish: T-8th | 16-15, 7-11)
Returning almost everyone from last season, Utah should be expected to move up from their 8th place finish last season. Head Coach Larry Krystkowiak is one of the best player development coaches in the country, and this team should have show improvement on both ends of the floor. If the defense can return to Coach K’s usual performance, this team has the potential to be really good. Rylan Jones should continue developing as a true point guard, Alfonso Plummer and Riley Battin have the tools to be much better on the defensive end, and Timmy Allen may be the best wing in the conference.
The Utes, like USC, could go either way depending on development and defense. If they can’t find a consistent seventh and eighth player in the rotation, the depth will be the teams Achilles heel. When it comes to Larry Krystkowiak though, it is best to expect the most out of his roster, even if his roster isn’t the most impressive on paper.
6) Colorado Buffaloes (2019-20 Finish: T-5th | 21-11, 10-8)
If there is one thing that can be expected from any Tad Boyle coached squad, it is a toughness that is virtually unrivaled out west. Tyler Bey, the team’s best player last season, may be gone, but McKinley Wright is back to lead a potential tournament team. The Buffs will have an interesting roster with only seniors and freshman, outside of junior forward Evan Battey.
Jeriah Horne’s arrival won’t replace Bey’s ability, but should alleviate the hole left on defense. I am a huge fan of Maddox Daniels to establish himself as the third scoring option, behind Wright and D’Shawn Schwartz, but his game is likely going to be limited to a catch-and-shoot option due to his poor defense and inability to effectively attack the rim. It will be interesting to see how the incoming recruits perform, and whether Dallas Walton can remain healthy, but this team should be a solid pick to finish in the middle of the Pac-12 pecking order.
5) Arizona Wildcats (2019-20 Finish: T-5th | 21-11, 10-8)
It should be noted that Arizona is currently one scholarship over the limit, and there is not clear indication of which player is likely to leave. My best guess would be Brandon Williams, who could lose minutes to Georgetown transfer James Akinjo. With that caveat out of the way, the Arizona Wildcats will likely be in this spot regardless of who leaves.
With the Pac-12 not playing games until 2021, James Akinjo should be eligible for the entire season and could easily be the best incoming transfer in the conference. Head Coach Sean Miller will need to find his top scoring options if the Wildcats aim to safely earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Ira Lee and Jemarl Baker seem like the obvious options, but former 5-star transfer Jordan Brown could show improvement under his new system. This Wildcats team may not be as “exciting” as last year’s freshman led roster, but I fully expect them to play a better brand of team basketball.
Tier 1: The Top 25 contenders
4) Stanford Cardinal (2019-20 Finish: 7th | 20-12, 9-9)
It may come as a surprise, but Jerod Haase-coached Stanford teams have finished at or above their preseason projections in every season of his tenure. The loss of Tyrell Terry may be a huge hit to the team’s ceiling, but the return of Pac-12 Player of the Year contender Oscar Da Silva and arrival of top ten recruit Ziaire Williams should have the Stanford in prime position to flirt with the Top 25 throughout the season.
The biggest question entering the season is whether or not Daejon Davis can finally take control and remain the teams primary point guard throughout the season. If Davis can be the playmaker Stanford fans have been waiting for him to become, the Cardinal will have a legitimate shot at winning the Pac-12 Championship.
3) Oregon Ducks (2019-20 Finish: 1st | 24-7, 13-5)
There shouldn’t be any doubt that the Oregon Ducks have become the top program in the Pac-12 over the last decade. Head Coach Dana Altman may not be popular, but he is one of the best coaches nationally and should have his team in prime position to contend for another Pac-12 Championship in 2021.
Despite losing Pac-12 Player of the Year Payton Pritchard to graduation, the Ducks should be reloaded with the addition of transfer guard Amauri Hardy taking the reins. Chris Duarte and Will Richardson form one of the best wing duos, and a fully conditioned N’Faly Dante could be the best center in the conference if he performs to his potential and can stay on the floor. This may not be Altman’s most talented roster, but he is not a coach that should be doubted anymore.
2) UCLA Bruins ( 2019-20 Finish: 2nd | 19-12, 12-6)
After being the most surprising team during the Pac-12 season last year, the UCLA Bruins return most of their roster, and bring in one of the country’s most sought after transfers. This puts Head Coach Mick Cronin in a good position to solidify himself as the right man for the job, which he took over last offseason. While not one of Cronin’s prototypical, defense-focused roster, the Bruins certainly play slower than they did under previous head coach Steve Alford, and that has worked for them so far.
There is still some justified skepticism after the way the team started the season last year, but Chris Smith’s decision to return helps to alleviate any thought that the roster will take a step back. Like USC’s Ethan Anderson, Tyger Campbell should continue to grow into his role as the team’s primary point guard, making plays for his teammates who have the potential to be the best offense in the conference. While the Bruins bring in Johnny Juzang from Kentucky, overall they have not taken a huge step forward on the roster front and will rely heavily on continued development to improve.
1) Arizona State Sun Devils (2019-20 Finish: T-3rd | 20-11, 11-7)
It is time for Bobby Hurley to deliver on the promise his teams have shown over the last three years, and this may be his best roster ever. Point Guard Remy Martin returns as the Pac-12 Player of the Year favorite, five-star wing Josh Christopher joins the roster, and Alonzo Verge should be expected to build on his meteoric rise to stardom.
Despite all these key pieces, the X-factor that pushed Arizona State to the top spot is the eligibility of transfer guard Holland Woods. While I am not usually one to expect mid-major transfers to perform exceptionally well in the high-major ranks, Woods should be a solid back up point guard, giving the Sun Devils an elite playmaker off the bench. With a ton of experience and talent running 10 players deep, the Sun Devils could be considered not only the best roster in the conference, but the deepest as well.
Preseason All-Pac-12 Predictions
Alonzo Verge, SR, Guard, Arizona State
Remy Martin, SR, Guard, Arizona State
Matt Bradley, JR, Guard, Cal
McKinley Wright, SR, Guard, Colorado
Chris Duarte, SR, Guard, Oregon
Oscar Da Silva, SR, Forward, Stanford
Ziaire Williams, FR, Forward, Stanford
Chris Smith, SR, Guard, UCLA
Evan Mobley, FR, Center, USC
Timmy Allen, JR, Forward, Utah
James Akinjo, JR, Guard, Arizona
Josh Christopher, FR, Guard, Arizona St
N’Faly Dante, SO, Center, Oregon
Jaime Jacquez, SO, Guard/Forward, UCLA
Naz Carter, SR, Guard, Washington
Preseason Pac-12 Awards Predictions
Player of the Year: Remy Martin, Arizona State
Honestly, the factor working against Remy Martin is also the thing that could make him the most important player in the conference, and that is the talent around him. With high level scoring options throughout the Sun Devils’ rotation, I could see Martin having a Payton Pritchard-esque season, leading the conference in steals and points. Martin will be competing with teammates Alonzo Verge and Josh Christopher for shots, but the offense runs through him which means he should definitely get his.
Freshman of the Year: Evan Mobley, USC
Of the top three freshman in the Pac-12 – Evan Mobley, Ziaire Williams, and Josh Christopher – Mobley is not only the highest rated entering the season, he is also the only one without another bona fide star on his team. If this Trojans season goes as I expect it to, Mobley should have an even bigger year than 2019-20 freshman Onyeka Okongwu. Mobley’s talent along with his opportunity puts him in the driver’s seat to win the freshman award.
Defensive Player of the Year: Jalen Hill, UCLA
Mick Cronin is one of the best defensive coaches in the country, and Jalen Hill is the best defensive player on his team. While Chris Duarte, McKinley Wright, Bryce Wills and Jordan Brown will all contend for this award, I fully expect Hill to anchor a defense that will be incredibly tough to score against in the paint. His combination of rebounding and shot blocking put him in prime position to be one of the best defensive players out west.
Most Improved: Maddox Daniels
As mentioned earlier, I believe Maddox Daniels will be one of Colorado’s top scoring options, on the back of his elite three-point shooting ability. With Tad Boyle coaching toughness, Daniels’ defense should also improve, making him a likely choice to start on the wing for the Buffs. He could be a double-digit scorer if he can continue to hit three-point shots at the rate he did during last season’s conference slate.
Sixth Man of the Year: Jaiden Delaire, Stanford
With Ziaire Williams arriving, Jaiden Delaire appears to once again be the odd-man out of the Stanford starting five. His athleticism and size, however, should make him essentially a sixth starter for the Cardinal, and he could be the third scoring option behind Da Silva and Williams if his jump shot improves. With that said, Delaire’s ability to attack the rim with efficiency and play solid defense without fouling should make him the best bench player in the conference.
Coach of the Year: Bobby Hurley, Arizona State
Is this really a question? With the top of the Pac-12 appearing to be a tight race, the team that wins it will likely have their coach win the award. This should finally be the year that Bobby Hurley delivers fully on his team’s talent and takes home the Pac-12’s Coach of the Year award.
Connor Hope is a college basketball writer for HeatCheckCBB. He is also co-host of Hope & Rauf presented by HeatCheckCBB, a college basketball podcast. His content has been featured by Bleacher Report and FanSided, among other publications. Hope is a current Rockin’ 25 voter.