Pac-12 men’s basketball preview: is the conference on the rise?

Josh Kahen/Staff

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Pac-12 basketball returns this week. After a much maligned 2018-19 season, the conference and the 12 teams that occupy it will seek to bounce back.

Pac-12 North:

Cal

The season could not have started better for first-year head coach Mark Fox. The Bears, who were picked to finish last in the Pac-12, fought their way through some gritty wins to a 4-0 start for the first time since 2015. Sophomore guard Matt Bradley was on fire, scoring 20 points per game and shooting higher than 50% from three on 21 attempts. Then, as they headed to Madison Square Garden to play in the 2K Empire Classic, everything fell apart. Losses to then-No. 1 Duke and No. 22 Texas were disappointing but not exactly unexpected. For a moment, it seemed like Cal was going to recover after defeating UC Davis at home, but what followed was a series of emphatic losses to San Francisco, Santa Clara and St. Mary’s. The Bears enter the Pac-12 season winning only two of their last nine games and are the only Pac-12 team to enter conference play with a losing record. Cal will need nothing short of a miracle to salvage its season as the team heads to Stanford for its conference opener.

Oregon

Almost none of the players in the Pac-12 were alive to see the last time a team in their conference won the NCAA title (Arizona, 1997), but that could all change with the 2020 Ducks. No. 4 Oregon enters Pac-12 play with one of the most efficient offenses in the NCAA, shooting 41% from deep and nearly 50% overall to give the Ducks an average of 80.3 points per game. Senior guard Payton Pritchard, who was voted the Most Outstanding Player in the 2019 Pac-12 Tournament, has paced the Oregon offense, averaging 18.5 points and 6.2 assists per game — both career highs. Last year Pritchard played the most minutes of any player in college basketball, and once again the Ducks have called on the workhorse to do the heavy lifting. Pritchard was one of only two starters to return to Oregon this year, but breakout players such as Chris Duarte and Will Richardson, alongside veteran forward Francis Okoro, have lightened the load and will likely continue to develop and exceed expectations as the season progresses.

Oregon State 

While not as flashy or effective compared to their in-state rivals, Oregon State is a quiet dark horse to take the Pac-12. The Beavers are led by father-son duo Wayne and Tres Tinkle, with the former coaching the Northwest squad and the latter being one of the best players in college basketball. The fifth-year senior forward is averaging 20.4 points per game on a 53% clip, a career best shooting percentage. Complimenting Tinkle’s offensive prowess is the Pac-12’s best big man Kylor Kelley, who is second in the NCAA and first among Power 5 conference players in blocks, averaging 4.3 per game. The 7’0” community college transfer has utilized his size and strength to close off the paint, forcing opponents into contested midrange jumpers and inefficient outside shooting. After a disappointing loss against Colorado that ended Oregon State’s run in the Pac-12 tournament, expect the Beavers to be one of the conference’s best as they search for a conference title and their first entry into the NCAA tournament since 2016.

Stanford

Arguably the biggest shock of Pac-12 schools so far, the Cardinal have emerged as a potential threat to take home the conference title. Ranked 13th in the nation in points allowed per game, Stanford’s defense has been an impenetrable wall. On top of limiting teams to only 39.1% shooting, the Cardinal are one of the Pac-12’s best in forcing turnovers, with four players averaging more than a steal a game. On the other side of the ball, Stanford is led by junior Oscar da Silva and freshman Tyrell Terry, the team’s leading scorers. The duo averages a combined 32.7 points, 11.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. Each provides a different way for the Cardinal to score, with Da Silva dominating the low post and Terry facilitating the ball as well as providing outside the paint offense. Stanford has come out of the gates swinging, and this year could very well be the year the Cardinal return to the upper echelon of college basketball.

Washington

The Huskies have had a good start to the season, minus a few bumps in their nonconference schedule. They were initially picked to finish third in the Pac-12 preseason media poll and quickly jumped into the No. 20 spot in the AP poll after the first poll of the season. Despite initially being unranked, Washington defeated No. 6 Baylor in the Armed Forces Classic to leap into the national spotlight. The Huskies have spent the rest of the season bouncing between the bottom five spots of the rankings — never reaching as high as No. 20 again and dropping out twice after losses to Tennessee and Houston. Despite a few ugly defeats, Washington has been fairly consistent in beating unranked opponents and will enter Pac-12 play with a 10-3 record. The biggest boon for the Huskies is their freshman forward Isaiah Stewart, a consensus five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American in high school, Stewart has not disappointed in his first year. He leads the team in both points and rebounds with 19.2 and 8.8 per game on average. As Stewart continues to grow during the Pac-12 season, expect Washington to become a serious title contender as it shoots for redemption after last year’s loss to Oregon in the final.

Washington State

Toward the bottom of the Pac-12 are the Cougars, who began this season exactly where they left off — in disappointment. Washington State was arguably the worst Pac-12 team last season, sans Cal, and has only continued to disappoint fans with their nonconference record. 9-4 may not look bad prima facie, but with four losses against mediocre programs and wins against schools such as Florida A&M, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Incarnate Word, it’s not a record to be proud of. While the days may seem dark now, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, as the Cougars are one of the youngest squads in the Pac-12 and can use this season to develop their sophomore breakout CJ Elleby. The 6’6” forward leads Washington State in almost every statistical category, including points, rebounds, blocks and steals. Outside of Elleby the situation looks grim, and while the Cougars do have a new coach in Kyle Smith, expect more of the same for a team that ranks 155th and 83rd in points scored and points allowed per game.

Pac-12 South:

Arizona

The perennial Pac-12 contenders are at it again. The Wildcats started 9-0 this season, reaching as high as No. 12 in the AP poll, but have now lost three of their last four. Arizona’s losses were not bad, a 5-point loss to No. 6 Baylor and a 4-point loss to No. 1 Gonzaga, until it fell to unranked St. John’s in its last nonconference game. The defeat knocked the Wildcats down to No. 25 in the most recent rankings. This loss could be attributed to the inexperienced young core that Arizona depends on. Zeke Nnaji, Nico Mannion and Josh Green are all freshman starters and are the top three scorers for the Wildcats. The three also lead the team in minutes played. As these young players develop, Arizona will become a team with serious potential to take the Pac-12 title and make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

Arizona State

After two first-round exits in the NCAA tournament the last two years, the Sun Devils are eager to return to the big dance, but will need to have a stellar Pac-12 season to get there. Arizona State is currently 9-4 and already has a nonconference loss to Colorado. Other than a defeat to No. 19 Virginia, it has been an embarrassing start for a team that finished second in the Pac-12 last year with a 12-6 record. The Sun Devils’ most recent loss was at home to unranked Creighton, but their worst game came when St. Mary’s obliterated them by 40 points in a 96-56 route. Standout junior guard Remy Martin returns this year and is currently averaging nearly 18 points and 4 assists per game, but overall Arizona State is heavily reliant on upperclassmen. If they can have a repeat of last year’s conference season, the Sun Devils will be in a good position for the postseason. In the 2019 Pac-12 Tournament, Arizona State took the eventual champion Oregon to overtime in the semifinals. With an experienced team, the sky’s the limit — as long as they can avoid more 40-point blowouts. 

Colorado

While Oregon and Arizona have received the most attention because of their top-25 rankings, Colorado deserves just as much recognition, if not more. Led by coach Tad Boyle, the Buffaloes are off to an electric start, wrapping up nonconference play with an impressive 11-2 record that includes a win against then-No.13 Dayton and a 99-point outing against Iona. The key to Colorado’s early success has been their prolific defense, which has stifled opponents, allowing only 60.5 points a game and 39% field goal shooting. Despite being only 6’7”, junior guard Tyler Bey has anchored the Buffaloes’ defense and rebounding, averaging 1.4 blocks, 1.9 steals and 9.5 boards, making him top-four in the conference in each of those stats. Pac-12 offenses beware, as dry spells can easily turn into prolonged scoring droughts when facing this Rocky Mountain opponent.

UCLA

The Bruins have found their home as a mediocre Pac-12 basketball school. Last season they finished 9-9 in conference and 17-16 overall, and are halfway to repeating such a result. They are 7-6 in their nonconference schedule and winless in their last three games — including a loss to Cal State Fullerton at home. UCLA’s losing streak is likely to extend further when it travels to Seattle for its Pac-12 opener against Washington. The good news for Bruins fans is that after its first decade without a final four appearance since the 1950s, UCLA fired head coach Steve Alford and hired former Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Mick Cronin. Cronin led the Bearcats to nine straight tournament appearances as a member of the American Athletic Conference. Despite the recruiting struggles of a first year head coach, the Bruins have sophomores Cody Riley and Jalen Hill averaging roughly 10 points a game. This will likely be a rebuilding year for UCLA, but there is no reason not to have hope in Cronin bringing the Bruins out of mediocrity.

USC

Southern California may have finally returned to the fray of elite college basketball programs with this year’s roster. Freshman (and possible NBA lottery pick) Onyeka Okongwu has feasted on Trojan opponents, averaging 17.7 points and 9 rebounds a game. While missing an outside shot, Okongwu more than makes up for his lack of jump shooting with his play in the low post, with a 62.4 field goal percentage, a 12.1 block percentage and a team high 13.7 plus/minus. Senior Nick Rakocevic and freshman Isaiah Mobley round out USC’s front court, pulling down 8.6 and 6.5 rebounds respectively to make USC the top rebounding team in the Pac-12. The Trojans may not have much to write home about in terms of their offensive output and ability to stop opposing 3-point shooters, but their work on the boards should strike fear into the heart of a conference that lacks effective rebounding and is typically undersized.

Utah

Eager to prove everyone wrong after they were picked to finish ninth in the Pac-12 preseason media poll, the Utes have clawed their way to a 9-3 record. Their nonconference schedule includes a win over then-No. 6 Kentucky and impressive victories against BYU, Minnesota and Nevada. Some of their losses, including a 22-point loss to Coastal Carolina, raise questions and are likely keeping Utah out of any national rankings. Sophomore forward Timmy Allen is having a breakout season so far and leads his team in both points and rebounds. His 21 points per game is the highest of any Pac-12 player this season. If Allen and the Utes can keep up their strong start to the season, they will have a shot at taking the conference title or making the NCAA tournament in March. Because of conference scheduling, Utah has the added benefit of only playing Arizona, Arizona State and Washington once this year.

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