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Pac-12 Offseason Reset: Arizona favored or bracing for wrath of NCAA?

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The grad transfer market is still in full swing, but for the most part, we know what the meaningful parts for the majority of the teams around the country will be.

That means that it is time to start talking about what is coming instead of what was.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at key personnel changes, the impact of the coaching carousel and the most important storylines heading into the 2019-20 season for each of college basketball’s top seven conferences.

Today, we are talking Pac-12.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

WHO IS GETTING HIT WITH NCAA SANCTIONS?: As much as Arizona and USC will have been hoping that this season would be all about basketball with the FBI’s investigation into college basketball now done and dusted, the truth is that it is just beginning for the schools themselves.

That’s because the NCAA is only just now getting involved.

According to a report last month from Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports, at least six basketball programs are going to receive a notice of allegations from the NCAA regarding Level I violations before the summer is over, and that there are at least two “high-profile” programs that could receive them by early July.

As of today, it is early July.

Which means that Arizona, and, to a point, USC, have as much to worry about as anyone in college basketball.

By now, you should know all about the involvement of those two programs. A pair of former assistants — Arizona’s Book Richardson and USC’s Tony Bland — plead guilty during the trials. Sean Miller’s name has been brought as much as anyone that wasn’t actually charged with a crime. Why does this matter? Because the NCAA is allowed to use any and all information that was dug up by the FBI and made public by these trials to punish the programs that were involved.

Andy Enfield (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

And the NCAA will have plenty of incentive to punish these programs, because unlike the scandals that came out of North Carolina and Penn State, a wannabe agent making under-the-table payments to assistant coaches is exactly the kind of cheating that sits in NCAA enforcement’s wheelhouse.

Richardson and Bland plead guilty to crimes that double as NCAA violations.

Head coaches are responsible for any violations that are committed by the people that work for them. Just yesterday, Kevin Ollie was given a three-year show-cause penalty for violations that were committed while he was the head coach at UConn. Part of that show-cause was the result of lying to the NCAA investigators, but he was charged with violating head coach responsibility rules. There is reason for Sean Miller and Andy Enfield to be worried.

The question, if we’re being frank, has more to do with how harsh will the punishments be, not whether or not the NCAA is going to be able to find something to punish.

WILL ANYONE PULL A SYRACUSE OR A LOUISVILLE?: In February of 2015, with an investigation staring them straight in the face, Syracuse self-imposed a postseason ban for that season. Louisville did the same the following year. It’s an easy way to try and get into the NCAA’s good graces and avoid a harsher, longer-term punishment — why create the recruiting disincentive by putting off a postseason ban that can be put into effect with the players already on the roster?

Will either USC or Arizona opt to go down that path this season?

HOW WILL MICK CRONIN’S COACHING STYLE FIT IN SOCAL?: Mick Cronin was not the first pick for UCLA this spring. In fact, the Bruins rolled through five, if not more, candidates before they landed on the former Cincinnati head coach, but don’t, for a second, think that that has anything to do with Cronin’s coaching acumen.

Cronin built the Bearcats back into a program that was, for the last nine years, an annual lock to get an NCAA tournament bid. They were always a threat to win whatever league they were in, and in the years where they did not enter the season in the top 25, they were, at the very least, under consideration. That’s not an easy thing to do at a school like that. Cronin knows how to win.

But what makes UCLA’s decision to hire him to replace Steve Alford such an interesting storyline is that he is the polar opposite of the kind of coach that you would think the flagship program in Southern California would need to hire. Cronin is tough, he’s no-nonsense, he’s intense and he preaches a brand of basketball that resembles rugby more than it does the pace-and-space era. He’s Ben Howland, only shorter and angrier, and Howland was run out of Westwood despite reaching three Final Four in ten years and winning the Pac-12 the year that he was fired.

It won’t be easy for Cronin to make the transition to the west coast, but it wasn’t easy to be the guy to try and rebuild Cincinnati after Bob Huggins.

(Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

JUST HOW GOOD WILL JADEN MCDANIELS BE THIS YEAR?: Washington is the x-factor in the Pac-12 race this season. Mike Hopkins lost a number of key pieces off of last season’s roster, but there is a ton of length and athleticism at his disposal, not to mention the two top ten prospects that are entering the program.

That would be Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels. Stewart, at this point, is more of a known commodity. At 6-foot-9 and 245 pounds, he should more than make up for the loss of Noah Dickerson to graduation, and there are some that believe he will be the most productive freshman in all of college basketball, more than James Wiseman or Cole Anthony.

McDaniels is a bit more of a question mark. His potential is through the roof. He’s 6-foot-11 with high level perimeter skills. He can handle, he can shoot and his ceiling is legitimately as high as anyone in the class of 2019. But he is a long way from being a finished product. He isn’t quite 200 pounds. He’s a guy that can make shots more than a shooter at this point in his development. He has the potential to be a big time shot-creator, but he’s still somewhat inconsistent and can be bothered by smaller players that climb up under him.

The reason that Washington is being picked as one of the teams that can win the Pac-12 this season is because they have two potential top five picks on a roster that is littered with solid role players. Whether or not they actually win the league, however, will likely come down to just how close McDaniels’ production as a one-and-done is to his potential.

WHAT HAPPENS IF MCKINLEY WRIGHT CAN MAKE IT THROUGH THE SEASON HEALTHY?: The best player in the Pac-12 that you have never heard of is Colorado point guard McKinley Wright. He’s spent the last two seasons putting up all-league numbers without getting the kind of attention or acclaim that players at bigger or more relevant programs have gotten. The Buffaloes bring back the just about every notable piece off of last year’s roster, and that includes Wright, who played much of last season with a shoulder injury that had to be surgically repaired this offseason. If he’s healthy, are the Buffs the biggest sleeper in the conference?

WHAT TRICKS DOES DANA ALTMAN HAVE UP HIS SLEEVE?: Altman is one of the few coaches who I trust to be able to find a way to make his team relevant regardless of what is actually on his roster, but he is going to have to make some magic happen this season if the Ducks are going to make it back to the NCAA tournament this season. He lost Louis King, Kenny Wooten and Bol Bol off of last year’s roster. He does return potential Pac-12 Player of the Year Payton Pritchard, as well as Will Richardson, who has a chance to be the league’s breakout star. There are also a number of key additions for this group — Anthony Mathis, C.J. Walker, Chandler Lawson, Chris Duarte — but overall, this does not exactly look like a team that is going to push Arizona and Washington for a league title.

McKinley Wright IV (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

WHO’S GONE

  • LOUIS KING and KENNY WOOTEN, Oregon: The Ducks may be bringing back a potential Pac-12 Player of the Year in Payton Pritchard, but it is hard to ignore what they are losing in King and Wooten. Wooten might be the bigger loss, because his combination of athleticism and rim protection anchored Oregon’s defense down the stretch of last season and mimics what Jordan Bell provided during their 2019 Final Four run. King’s loss will be felt as he was the perfect floor-spacing small-ball four for Altman’s offense. Combined, these two left five years of eligibility on the table. Both went undrafted.
  • LU DORT, Arizona State: Speaking on undrafted players, Dort spent the majority of the season drawing comparisons to Marcus Smart before he failed to hear his named called on June 20th. The Sun Devils not only lose Dort, but they will also saw Zylan Cheatam graduate. There are still plenty of talented pieces at Bobby Hurley’s disposal, but his life certainly would have been easier with Dort in the fold.
  • JAYLEN HANDS, KRIS WILKES and MOSES BROWN, UCLA: Everything about UCLA is going to look different next season. New head coach. New style of play. A new top three scorers. There will be a changing of the guard in Westwood, and based on the culture that enveloped that program in recent years, that may not be a bad thing.
  • KZ OKPALA, Stanford: Okpala was one of last year’s biggest risers, from a draft prospect perspective, but it didn’t turn into wins for the Cardinal. What that means is that for the second straight season, Jerod Haase will lose his best player despite that player still having eligibility remaining.

WHO’S BACK

  • MCKINLEY WRIGHT, Colorado: The best player out west that you don’t know about. He’s a darkhorse Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate, and the biggest reason that the Buffaloes are going to find themselves in the mix for an NCAA tournament bid.
  • PAYTON PRITCHARD, Oregon: If the Ducks are going to have any chance to make it back to the NCAA tournament next season, it is going to be because Pritchard is one of the best point guards in the sport. He’ll keep them relevant after the departure of Kenny Wooten and Louis King.
  • TRES TINKLE, Oregon State: He doesn’t get the recognition because he plays for Oregon State, but Tinkle is one of the best scorers in college hoops. He put up 20.8 points to go along with 8.1 boards and 3.8 assists as a junior, and he’ll return to a team that does have some interesting pieces next season.
  • LOTS OF TALENT, UCLA: Here’s the thing about this UCLA program — there are still some really good players in the mix. Tyger Campbell and Shareef O’Neeal will be healthy. Cody Riley and Jalen Hill are back. Chris Smith will have a chance to spread his wings, as will Jules Bernard and David Singleton. Even redshirt senior Prince Ali (fabulous he, Ali Ababwa) was a top 30 recruit coming out of high school. Whether or not those guys fit Cronin’s style of play or will be willing to buy in with a new coach in town is up for debate, but the cupboard isn’t bare.

WHO’S COMING

  • NICO MANNION and JOSH GREEN, Arizona: Remember when you thought that Arizona wouldn’t be able to recruit because of everything happening with the FBI investigation? All Sean Miller did was go out and land two five-star prospects that could end up giving the Wildcats one of the best backcourts in the country. Mannion and Green are the reason Arizona looks like the favorite to win the league this season.
  • ISAIAH STEWART and JADEN MCDANIELS, Washington: We discussed McDaniels earlier, so let’s talk about Stewart here. He’s an absolute man-child on the block, a low-post scorer that seems a pretty good bet to lead the conference in rebounding. I would not be surprised to look up in February and see Stewart averaging 15 points, 10 boards and 2.5 blocks for a top 20 team.
  • ONYEKA OKONGWU and ISAIAH MOBLEY, USC: The Trojans are going to look an awful lot like Dunk City West again this season. Okongwu and Mobley are both top 25 recruits that will share time in the frontcourt with Nick Rakocevic. There are a lot of really, really good big men on this roster.
Tres Tinkle (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-PAC-12 TEAM

TRES TINKLE, Oregon State (Preseason Player of the Year)
PAYTON PRITCHARD, Oregon
MCKINLEY WRIGHT, Colorado
NICO MANNION, Arizona
NICK RAKOCEVIC, USC

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

1. ARIZONA: There’s a reason that the Arizona administration is going to stand by Sean Miller for as long as they can, and that’s because the man knows how to build a basketball team. Arizona completely restocked a depleted roster that finished eighth in last year’s Pac-12, headlined by the addition of Nico Mannion and Josh Green. With UC Irvine grad transfer Max Hazzard, the return of Chase Jeter and Brandon Williams and a pair of sneaky-good freshmen bigs in Zeke Nnaji and Christian Koloko, the Wildcats have a nice combination of talent and depth.

2. WASHINGTON: The Huskies are losing five of their top six scorers from last season, but there is a chance that they could end up being better next season than they were this past season. Mike Hopkins will have a nice combination of young star power — Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels — and good, veteran role players that can do a job in their system — Hameir Wright, Nahziah Carter and Quade Green. If they’re going to win the league, the Huskies will need a few of their youngsters to grow into supporting roles, but they have a chance.

3. COLORADO: McKinley Wright is the name that you need to know, but the Buffs are more than just a one man team. They bring back basically everyone of consequence, including another all-conference player in Tyler Bey, giving them a balanced, experienced and talented roster in a conference where that isn’t all that common.

4. USC: I’m actually buying the talent on this USC roster. Their frontline of Nick Rakocevic, Isaiah Mobley and Onyeka Okongwu will be as long and athletic as anyone. They added a bunch of shooting with a trio of grad transfers as well. The big question is going to be point guard play, but given what is going on in the rest of this league, I think they have enough to make a run at finishing top four.

5. OREGON: Losing Wooten is a major blow, as it will cost them defensively, but I do think that there will be enough scoring on this roster to keep them relevant with Dana Altman calling the shots. We know wht Payton Pritchard will be. The big question for me is going to be Will Richardson’s development, C.J. Walker’s impact and just how effective Anthony Mathis is as a shooter moving up a level.

6. UCLA: We’ve written plenty about UCLA in this preview, so I’ll leave it at this: I think the Bruins have NCAA tournament upside, but I would not bet on it happening this year.

7. ARIZONA STATE: Bobby Hurley has gotten a ton of hype over the last two seasons thanks to some impressive wins that his Sun Devils have been able to cobble together in non-conference play. But they’re a combined 43-23 in those two seasons, with a 20-16 record in league play and two NCAA tournament trips that produced last year’s play-in game win over St. John’s. There is some talent on this roster, but I’m going to have to see it to buy into it.

8. OREGON STATE: Tres Tinkle might actually have some help this season. Ethan Thompson returned to school, as did Kylor Kelley, while Payton Dastrup will be getting eligible. It would be a shame if a player as good as Tinkle had another All-American caliber season wasted.

9. UTAH: I am very much a believer in Larry Krystkowiak’s coaching ability, but this version of the Utes is going to be really, really young. Losing Donnie Tillman didn’t help matters. As it stands, the only upperclassmen on the roster is going to be a JuCo transfer.

10. STANFORD: Every year I manage to talk myself into the talent on Stanford’s roster and every year I find myself regretting it. There are some intriguing pieces in Palo Alto this season even with K.Z. Okpala in the NBA, but I’m not going to predict them to do much of anything until, you know, they actually do it.

11. WASHINGTON STATE: Everyone is going to talk about how difficult Mark Fox’s rebuilding job at Cal is going to be, but at least he’s not Kyle Smith at Washington State.

12. CAL: The Golden Bears went 16-47 overall and just 5-31 in the Pac-12 the last two seasons, and they now have a new head coach and lost most of their best players this offseason. Good luck, Mark Fox.

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

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As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

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He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.