With college basketball gracing our lives again, here’s a look at one writer’s thoughts on how the Pac-12 will play out.
Last season, the Bruins finished 10th in the Pac-12 and failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament — making it a down year for one of the most historically dominant men’s basketball programs. Thanks to one of the strongest recruiting classes in the nation (featuring three five-star recruits), UCLA is expected to make a return to relevance this year, entering the season as No. 16 in the AP Top 25. Lonzo Ball, who’s developed a reputation for launching 30-foot bombs the way Stephen Curry does, was the No. 4 recruit in the nation and will join returning senior guards Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton to form a dangerous backcourt.
March ended in heartbreak for Oregon when the Ducks lost to Oklahoma, led by sharpshooter Buddy Hield, in the Elite Eight. Despite the bitter conclusion, Oregon — ranked No. 5 in the Preseason Top-25 — remains a strong contender for the national title, with four of last season’s starters returning this year.
After losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats’ string of bad fortune continued into the summer, when No. 14 recruit Terrance Ferguson, who committed to Arizona, announced his intention to forego college and instead play professionally in Australia. Still, the Wildcats boast an extremely loaded recruiting class, including two five-star recruits: guards Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons. Arizona also has Allonzo Trier — a 2015 Rivals 5-star recruit — returning for his sophomore year. Trier averaged nearly 15 points per game as a freshman, and he is projected to be one of the top returning college basketball players in the country.
Colorado’s roster is intriguing this season because it features four fifth-year seniors, a sharp contrast to powerhouses like Kentucky and Duke that rely on star freshmen. The Buffaloes will miss the production of Josh Scott, their leading scorer and rebounder last year, but retained their second and third leading scorers, George King and Josh Fortune. After losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year, Colorado looks to make a deeper postseason run with more experience on its roster.
Of all the teams in the Pac-12, Utah is projected to fall the most from last season to this season. The Utes were voted 8th in the conference in the Preseason Media Poll after finishing last year ranked 2nd in the conference and 13th in the nation. Utah lost leading scorer and rebounder Jakob Poeltl, last year’s Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Player of the Year, and starting forward Jordan Loveridge. With only two returning starters and an unremarkable recruiting class, the Utes will be far removed from the level of success they attained last season.
After finishing tied for sixth in the Pac-12 last season, USC made its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011. The Trojans will continue to run the high-tempo offense that helped lead them to the tournament last year, with three returning starters. Point guard Jordan McLaughlin, USC’s leading scorer last season, will return for his junior year and continue to lead the team on offense. Arguably the Trojans’ biggest acquisition was sophomore transfer Derryck Thornton, a former top-15 recruit who played his freshman year at Duke. Thornton, however, won’t be eligible to play until next season.
Oregon State has been steadily rising the ranks of the Pac-12 over the past few seasons, culminating in a sixth-place finish and NCAA tournament berth last season. But with the loss of Gary Payton II — an extremely versatile player who led the team in points, rebounds and assists — the Beavers are likely worse off than they were last year. Oregon State’s basketball identity over the last two seasons was defined by its defense, anchored by Payton II, the back-to-back Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. The Beavers will need their seven returning players to maintain the team’s defensive integrity.
During last season, Arizona State landed its highest ranked recruit since James Harden in 2009 after securing a commitment from 6-foot-6 shooting guard Sam Cunliffe. Cunliffe will likely start alongside junior point guard Tra Holder, the Sun Devils’ leading scorer last year with 14.2 points per game. Arizona State was a very inefficient team offensively, so adding a highly touted scorer in Cunliffe should make them more competitive.
Washington State won just one conference game last year and failed to lure any top-150 recruits. There’s little reason to believe that the Cougars will be dramatically better, but they will have the benefit of continuity. Three of Washington State’s four leading scorers, including the top-two scorers, are returning this season, and they’re all seniors.
Last year, Stanford finished 9th in the Pac-12 and in this year’s Pac-12 Preseason Media Poll they were picked to finish 10th this season. The Cardinals lost leading scorer Rosco Allen, but have their second and third leading scorers — Reid Travis and Dorian Pickens — returning. Travis only played eight games last season because of a leg injury, but showed promise offensively, averaging 12.8 points on nearly 56 percent shooting from the field.
After finishing 9-9 in the Pac-12, Washington failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament last year. The Huskies lost starting point guard Andrew Andrews, who led the team with per-game averages of 20.9 points and 4.9 assists, and starting forward Marquese Chriss, who now plays for the Phoenix Suns. Washington will look to their prized freshman, 6-foot-4 guard Markelle Fultz, to replace Andrews’ production. Fultz was the No. 5 recruit in the nation and is an elite playmaker and scorer.
With two top-ten recruits in 2015, Cal unexpectedly emerged as an elite Pac-12 team after years of mediocrity. The Bears went undefeated at home and ended last season ranked 23rd in the nation. Jaylen Brown, last year’s Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, showed flashes of greatness but his abundance of touches stifled the development of fellow star recruit forward Ivan Rabb. Despite an impressive freshman year, Rabb surprised the nation by announcing his decision to stay in college for another season.
This year will be Rabb’s opportunity to prove himself to anyone still doubting. Last season, Rabb shot 61.5 percent from the field — an insanely efficient mark, but also a reflection of the fact that he wasn’t the team’s primary option on offense and didn’t shoot at a high volume. With the loss of Brown, Tyrone Wallace, and sharpshooter Jordan Mathews, Rabb should be the focal point of the team’s offense. Guards Jabari Bird and Sam Singer will play important roles in spacing the floor, without which Rabb won’t be able to thrive.
Kapil Kashyap covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]