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.

(Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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.

(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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.