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Pac-12 Season Preview: Power Rankings, Preseason Awards and the return of the Quack?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2019-20 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Pac-12 Conference.



The Pac-12 is going to be one of the mot interesting conference races this year.

There are four teams that can win the league, and unlike past seasons, there looks to be at least five or six teams that are going to be good enough to earn an at-large bid.

There are also a number of teams with real question marks surrounding their talent.

How will it all play out?

Here is the Pac-12 preview:

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Oregon reloaded, and they’re the favorites to win the league

The Ducks started out the 2018-19 season in sloppy fashion. In late February, they were sitting at 15-12 overall with a 6-8 record in the Pac-12. But after winning four straight to close out the regular season, Oregon not only won the Pac-12 tournament but they took down Wisconsin and UC Irvine in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament to advance to the Sweet 16, where they came within a couple possessions of knocking off Virginia. Put another way, Oregon was playing like a top 10 team by the time that March rolled around.

And it looked like the Ducks had something to build off of moving forward, but this offseason, Altman lost Bol Bol, Louis King and Kenny Wooten to early entry. Throw in the guys that transferred and the players that graduated, and Dana Altman suddenly had a rebuilding job on his hands with just three rotation players coming back.

Well, he rebuilt. In addition to landing a pair of talented grad transfers – sharpshooting guard Anthony Mathis from New Mexico and talented four-man Shakur Juiston from UNLV – he brings in a talented recruiting class that is headlined by C.J. Walker and N’Faly Dante and includes a handful of impact players, including JuCo transfer Chris Duarte. All told, there are eight new bodies coming into the program, and when combined with the return of Payton Pritchard, it gives Altman a roster that looks to be the favorite to win the league.

They have the perfect combination of experience and young talent. They have the best point guard in the league and pair him with arguably the best head coach in the league. That’s how you win conference titles.

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2. Arizona is back to normal

The thing that craters a college basketball program, what torpedoes recruiting more than actual violations and sanctions, is the uncertainty that surrounds an NCAA investigation. That’s what happened to Arizona two years ago, when they lost what felt like an entire recruiting class because of the FBI investigation into corruption in college hoops.

This year, however, there is stability and certainly. It’s pretty clear that Arizona is not going to fire Sean Miller, which is why the Wildcats were able to land a pair of five-star prospects in Nico Mannion and Josh Green. It’s why transfers like Jemarl Baker and Jordan Brown enrolled at the school. It’s how they solidified their backcourt with the addition of UC Irvine grad transfers Maz Hazzard.

There are some question marks, however, namely the fact that none of Arizona’s big men are all that impressive. I don’t think anyone will feel all that comfortable with the likes of Chase Jeter, Stone Gettings and Ira Lee. That said, there are a couple of promising freshmen in the mix, and they may just be good enough for Arizona to win the Pac-12.

3. Colorado brings back everyone that matters

Colorado quietly finished last season with a 23-13 record, a 10-8 mark in the Pac-12 and on a run where they won 12 of the 16 games that they played in February and March. Perhaps the most important part of that run is that the Buffaloes bring back everyone. McKinley Wright IV, a potential Pac-12 Player of the Year, returns for his junior season as one of the nation’s most underrated point guards. Tyler Bey, who is coming off of an all-conference season, is back as well. Evan Battey will be a sophomore. D’Shawn Schwartz, Shane Gatling and Lucas Siewert will be upperclassmen.

This team is talented, they are experienced and they have earned the right to be considered a favorite to win the conference this season.

(Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

4. Mick Cronin is taking over at UCLA

UCLA might be the most fascinating team in the Pac-12 this season.

On the one hand, they are losing their three most talented players off of last year’s team – Kris Wilkes, Jaylen Hands and Moses Brown. That’s not good. On the other hand, the Bruins finally cut ties with Steve Alford, they went out and hired Mick Cronin and they managed to keep the rest of their roster more or less intact. What that means is that the man that got Cincinnati to nine straight NCAA tournaments will take over a UCLA team that has more than enough talent on the roster to get to the Big Dance.

The question is going to be how that roster adjusts to the new regime. Mick Cronin wants to play a certain way. He wants to defend. He wants to rebound. He wants to control tempo. His Bearcat program more or less ran itself over the course of the last decade, but his style of play would not exactly remind you of the Showtime Lakers.

UCLA has talent. Prince Ali, Tyger Campbell, Shareef O’Neal, Jalen Hill, Cody Riley, David Singleton, Jules Bernand, Chris Smith, Jaime Jaquez, Alex Olesinski. These are players that had plenty of offers coming out of high school. These are guys that were four- and five-star recruits during their high school days. They have the horses to make some noise this season.

5. Keep an eye on the freshmen at USC and Washington

Arizona isn’t the only program that brought in a pair of five-star guys this offseason.

Washington’s duo is more notable. Isaiah Stewart is a top five prospect in the class and a guy who could every well end up being the most productive player in the league. He will more than replace what Washington loses in Noah Dickerson. The more interesting freshman is Jaden McDaniels, a 6-foot-11 perimeter weapon that has immense skill for someone his size. How well will they acclimate to the college ranks?

Then there are the guys at USC. The biggest name is Onyeka Okongwu, a five-star center and a former teammate of the Ball family. He’s joined on the Trojan roster by Isaiah Mobley, the son of a USC assistant and the older brother of Evan Mobley, arguably the top player in the 2020 class.

PRESEASON PAC -12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: PAYTON PRITCHARD, Oregon

Pritchard is just such a good basketball player. He’s not flashy and he’s not going to draw NBA scouts into the arena, but he just knows how to play. He’s coming off of a season where he averaged 12.9 points, 4.6 assists and 3.9 boards while leading Oregon to the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed, and that came after he averaged 14.5 points and 4.4 assists while leading the Ducks to the Final Four as a No. 3 seed.

His experience is going to be so much more important this season as well. Oregon is going to be very new. They will have just three returning players in the mix and a large class of freshmen, JuCo transfers and grad transfers. Pritchard’s reliability will be more important than ever this year.

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THE REST OF THE ALL-PAC-12 FIRST TEAM

  • MCKINLEY WRIGHT, Colorado: One of the most under-appreciated players in the country. Wright is right there with Pritchard as the favorite to win Player fo the Year in the Pac-12. He’s also the main reason that the Buffaloes are, on paper, an NCAA tournament team.
  • NICO MANNION, Arizona: The crown jewel of Arizona’s recruiting class, Mannion is a future lottery pick that will be the engine for this Arizona team.
  • TRES TINKLE, Oregon State: Playing for your father has to be a thrill for most college athletes, but it is a shame that Tinkle hasn’t been at a bigger program. He’s a terrific player that deserves more exposure.
  • ISAIAH STEWART, Washington: Stewart could end up being the most productive big man in the conference – and maybe the most productive freshman in college basketball – even if fellow five-star freshman Jaden McDaniels has the higher ceiling long term.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • REMY MARTIN, Arizona State
  • JOSH GREEN, Arizona
  • TYLER BEY, Colorado
  • JADEN MCDANIELS, Washington
  • ONYEKA OKONGWU, USC

BREAKOUT STAR: McKinley Wright, Colorado

Wright doesn’t technically qualify as a breakout star because he was so good last season, but I’m listing him here because I think that he is the guy that makes the leap from popular amongst Pac-12 nerds to being a bonafide star in the collegiate ranks. With an experienced roster coming back, the Buffaloes are a very real threat to win the league, and the biggest reason for that is Wright.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Jerod Haase, Stanford

This may be a year early on Haase, but this is his fourth season in Palo Alto, and the Caridnal have not really improved despite the fact that he has had improved talent coming through the ranks. He has finished under-.500 in two of his first three season, has a 25-29 record in a weak era for Pac-12 basketball and has yet to finish a season with fewer than 16 losses.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

It’s been a while since we saw six Pac-12 teams in the NCAA tournament, but they got it done this year.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

Seeing veteran laden teams like Colorado and Oregon push around one-and-done factories Washington and Arizona.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • 11/12, Memphis at Oregon
  • 11/16, Tennessee vs. Washington (Toronto)
  • 12/7, Arizona at Baylor
  • 12/8, Gonzaga at Washington
  • 12/14, Gonzaga at Arizona
(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. OREGON: The more I think about it, the more I believe that the Ducks are the clear favorite to win the Pac-12. They have the best player in Payton Pritchard. They have arguably the most talent in the league. They have added high-level freshmen talent (C.J. Walker, Chandler Lawson, N’Faly Dante) and impact veteran transfers (Anthony Mathis, Shakur Juiston, Chris Duarte). Perhaps most importantly, they have a head coach that has proven he has the ability to get a roster of new faces to buy in and play together.

2. ARIZONA: I love the backcourt talent on Arizona’s roster. I don’t think anyone is questioning how good Nico Mannion and Josh Green can be. The issue is whether or not the big guys are going to step up and be good enough, and if guys like Max Hazzard can provide enough experience to carry the freshmen through the tough moments.

3. COLORADO: The Buffaloes are far and away the most experienced team in the Pac-12. They essentially bring back everyone from last season’s rotation, two of whom – McKinley Wright and Tyler Bey – were all-conference players last year. This looks like it will be Tad Boyle’s best team in Boulder, and they have the horses to make a run at the league title.

4. WASHINGTON: I can see the Huskies finishing anywhere from first to fourth in the conference and I would not be surprised. Just how good is Jaden McDaniels going to be in his one season on campus? Will Quade Green get eligible immediately? Can the likes of Naz Carter and Hameir Wright fill the void left by Matisse Thybulle? There is talent on this roster. There are question marks as well.

5. USC: In theory I really like this USC team. Their frontcourt is absolutely loaded, they have a couple of very good freshmen in the mix and they added experience and shooting in the grad transfer market. What I’m not convinced of is whether or not this group actually has the point guard play they are going to need to crack the top four in the Pac-12.

6. ARIZONA STATE: There are things to like about this Arizona State program. Their starting backcourt of Rob Edwards and Remy Martin is talented and old, which is the perfect combination in the college ranks, Romello White is back up front and Bobby Hurley has brought in enough new pieces to help fill in the gaps on the roster. The key to the Sun Devils approaching their ceiling will center around Taeshon Cherry and Kimani Lawrence. If they play up to their ability, this should be a tournament team.

7. UCLA: I tend to err on the side of success when it comes to Mick Cronin, and the truth is that there is talent on his roster with the Bruins. The key is going to be the buy-in, and while everyone said all the right things when I wrote this piece, it’s hard to know exactly what is going on in that locker room or how the players will react when Mick goes full Mick.

8. OREGON STATE: It’s not crazy to say that Tres Tinkle is the best player in the Pac-12 right now. He’s a big-time scorer that can space the floor, play in the paint and create offense for his teammates. The problem is that outside of Tinkle, Ethan Thompson and maye Kylor Kelley or Payton Dastrup, there just isn’t all that much talent on the roster.

9. STANFORD: My general apathy towards the Stanford program is more or less explained in the Coach Under Pressure section, but at the very least we can say the Cardinal have a roster that looks stronger than the bottom of the Pac-12. Daejon Davis, Bryce Wills, Kodye Pugh, Oscar Da Silva, Jaiden Delaire. There are some good pieces here, but struggling with good pieces more or less sums up Stanford basketball this decade.

10. UTAH: Larry Krystkowiak is a good coach that can get the most out of the players on his roster, but the Utes have just one player on their team that is an upperclassmen and that’s junior JuCo transfer Alfonso Plummer.

11. CAL: Mark Fox takes over for Wyking Jones at Cal after Jones went 8-23 last season and won just three Pac-12 games. It’s not pretty in Berkeley, but there are two things that give me confidence about the Golden Bears. On the one hand, Matt Bradley will be back for his sophomore season and I think he’s a guy with all-conference potential. I also tend to trust Mark Fox, who has had some success at the high-major level, to find a way to be more competitive than Cal was last season. That’s about all the nice things I have to say.

12. WASHINGTON STATE: Kyle Smith takes over a Washington State program that is not exactly in a great spot right now. In five years in Pullman, Ernie Kent has never won more than 13 games, and he leaves Smith with a roster that went 4-14 in the conference last year and lost its best player, Robert Franks. That’s less than ideal.

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.