By Manny Nunez and Ken Cross
Look away from the NCAA tournament last season, and with the four teams that earned an NCAA bid (Arizona, UCLA, Oregon, Utah) were beating each other up which made earning those bids tough if you weren’t a Wildcat. We even remember the shock we went through when the Bruins were one of the last teams called, and yet they ended up being a Sweet 16 team. Of those four teams, from a rather unimpressive 2015 season, three ended up making into the Sweet 16, and UCLA had to win an extra game just to get there. Arizona proved to be the best of them all, but a sluggish performance against Wisconsin gave head coach Sean Miller something to ponder in the off-season with the losses of four starters in T.J. McConnell, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brandon Ashley, and Stanley Johnson. Twelve teams represent the Pac-12, and arguably this could be one of the better seasons in receiving bids in quite a while. Besides these four teams that will most likely make a case, others that have retained their rosters could very well make a big impact before conference play begins.
1. Arizona – One of Sean Miller’s best attributes is filling the holes that are left more and more frequently by departures. So with those four players out of Tucson; this means in comes Allonzo Trier, freshmen in Ray Smith and Ryan Anderson, and returnees in Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Gabe York, and Kaleb Tarczewski will assume those roles and keep the Wildcats atop the Pac-12. The group and the chemistry that Miller builds will assure that the Wildcats are back in the discussion of becoming national title contenders if they can pass through the Elite Eight.
2. Utah – Last year the Utes were the Pac-12 sleeper. With Delon Wright the lone loss, coach Larry Krystkowiak returns the core of a Sweet 16 team that features four returning starters, led by Austrian Jakob Poeltl in the middle. Wright was a major reason why Utah was a clutch three-point shooting team, that averaged just over 40 percent from beyond the arc. Utah’s defensive efficiency was among the best in the nation and will carry the Utes back into the title picture. Small forward Jordan Loveridge was also a key three-point marksman, shooting 43.5 percent from behind the arc.
3. Oregon – Even with leading scorer Joseph Young out of the picture, the Ducks still have a lots of talent and experience on their roster. Elgin Cook will be a major threat in the front court after shooting 52 percent and averging 13 points and 5.2 rebounds last season. Jordan Bell and Dillon Brooks will also add Altman’s front court and cause opponents major matchup issues inside. Replacing Young also means technically finding three players to fill the void, and the Ducks may have done just that with Villanova transfer Dylan Ennis and a pair of four-star recruits in Tyler Dorsey and Kendall Small. The Ducks are always a tough out under Altman, in his sixth year, and should lock down another NCAA bid.
4. Cal – One of the deepest teams in the Pac-12 will be the Cal Bears as Tyrone Wallace returns as the leader of the team after averaging 17.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game last season. , Coach Cuonzo Martin added two five-star recruits in Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, a native of the East Bay, who was a major signing for Martin. The Bears also return a pair of double-digit scorers in Jordan Matthews and Jabari Bird. Martin says a huge key will be development of role players as the season begins.
5. UCLA – The Bruins are a tough sell at number five, but they have an excellent inside-outside tandem in Bryce Alford and Tony Parker while 7-footer Thomas Welsh should step into a starting role after Kevon Looney and Norman Powell left Westwood. Steve Alford did a masterful job getting the Bruins into the NCAA Tournament a year ago and no one was second-guessing him or the Bruins after they appeared in the Sweet 16, Alford’s first in his coaching career.
6. Oregon State – The starting five returns for coach Wayne Tinkle, including Gary Payton, II, and Malcolm Duviver who were keys on offense last season. Payton was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year while Duviver became a double figures scorer with increased minutes. OSU’s zone defensive schemes made them a tough out, especially at home, last season and within Tinkle’s system, that is likely to not change. Stephen Thompson and Drew Eubanks, two key recruits, could see action off the bench immediately. Oregon State is definitely a team on the rise in the Pac-12 and could even be a bubble team in the league.
7. Stanford – Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown, and Stefan Nasic are gone as they were key components for coach Johnny Dawkins. This means Rosco Allen, Reid Davis, and Michael Humphrey will be go-to guys and must grow up quickly inside of the Dawkins’ system. Robert Cartwright will also see some action for the first time as the team’s point guard. With an NIT Championship last year, it does give Stanford something to build on as the Cardinal lost so many components.
8. Arizona State – Bobby Hurley is a great hire to a program that should be considered one of the sleeping giants in college basketball. Tra Holder will certainly love the coaching style of Hurley and will benefit, making this team much more competitive as his point guard skills do mirror that of Hurley at Duke in the early 1990s. JUCO transfers Andre Spright and Maurice O’Field will also have to help spot the perimeter shooting, joining Gary Blake, who proved to be a big-time shooter for the Sun Devils last season.
9. USC – Andy Enfield has talented players in returning starters in Jordan McLaughlin and Nikola Jovanovic as the Trojans return their top nine players in their rotation. Julian Jacobs came on at the end of last season and will be a key player as Enfield works to move this program forward. Freshmen Benny Boatwright and Chimezie Metu potentially make the Trojans one of the deeper squads in the league.
10. Colorado – The Buffaloes will rebuild with a major loss in Xavier Johnson, who suffered an Achilles tendon injury. However, a healthy Josh Scott and Wesley Gordon inside could allow the Buffs to challenge in what is a deep conference. Guards in Dominique Collier, Xavier Talton, and Eli Staltzer have to grow up and form chemistry in Tad Boyle’s back court.
11. Washington – To supplement so many losses on his roster, coach Lorenzo Romar went out and signed nine new players as he tries to rebuild the fortunes in Seattle. Romar had to recruit extra players because of the dismissal of Robert Upshaw and the transfer of Nigel Williams-Goss to Gonzaga. The veteran back court of Andrew Andrews and Donaven Dorsey needs to mesh quickly with the youngster; otherwise, it could be another long season. It’s a season that will require lots of patients with so many new players and a tough schedule.
12. Washington State – Head coach Ernie Kent’s best option should be his star big-man Josh Hawkinson, who averaged a double-double a year ago. Hawkinson will be joined in the post by a seven-footer in Conor Clifford. The Cougars could drop back though without Devonte Lacy as Kent restructures things in year two of his regime.