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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.
To help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason recaps to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.
Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?
Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?
What have we learned about the conference hierarchy?
What is still left for us to figure out?
We break it all down here.
Today, we’ll be taking a look at the Pac-12.
MIDSEASON PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tres Tinkle, Oregon State
The Pac-12 doesn’t have a ton of great teams and star power this season. But the 6-foot-8 Tinkle has been the league’s best and most consistent player to this point.
Averaging 19.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.4 steals per game, Tinkle rates in the top seven among Pac-12 players in all of those categories. While Tinkle is a noted scorer and double-double threat, his passing has improved over the course of his college career as he’s smart enough to find the open man when opposing defenses collapse.
Consistency has also been a huge part of Tinkle’s year. Only once has Tinkle played less than 33 minutes in a game this season while 12 points is his season low.
THE ALL PAC 12 FIRST TEAM
Tres Tinkle, Oregon State
Luguentz Dort, ArizonaState: Surprising many with his play as a true freshman, Dort narrowly missed mid season Player of the Year honors. Dort is putting up 18.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, but he’s struggled over the past few weeks to find his offense.
Robert Franks, Washington State: The Pac-12’s leading scorer is putting together a solid senior season. Franks is averaging 22.1 points, 7.9 rebounds per game while shooting 52 percent from the floor. Clearly Washington State’s best player, the Cougars recently lost multiple games while Franks dealt with a hip issue.
Bol Bol, Oregon: Much like Dort, this freshman big man would in the thick of the league’s POY race if he was healthy. Bol is averaging 21.0 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game, but he’s been sidelined with a foot injury since mid-December.
Jaylen Nowell, Washington: The sophomore has blossomed into one of the league’s best all-around guards. Nowell is putting up solid numbers as he’s at 17.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game for the season while shooting 52 percent from the floor and 38 percent from three.
NCAA: Arizona State, Oregon
NIT: Arizona, Washington, Colorado, Oregon State
OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: UCLA, USC, Stanford, Washington State, Utah, Cal
THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED
1. The Pac-12 is dreadful
It’s a new year, so I’ll try to be as nice as possible while describing the atrocity that is Pac-12 basketball. But this league is horrendous, so that is going to be tough.
There are numerous other metrics that point to the Pac-12’s overall awfulness. The eye test is probably all you need. Every Pac-12 team has at least three losses, with a sizable chunk of those losses coming in buy games. They are, as a league, 4-31 in Quadrant 1 games. They are 7-10 against the WCC. Nine teams have beaten two Pac-12 teams already this season. Among them: San Francisco (Stanford, Cal), Santa Clara (USC, Washington State), San Diego (Colorado, Washington State), Seattle (Washington State, Cal) and Hawaii (Colorado, Utah).
No team in the Pac-12 currently has more than a two-game winning streak. While I don’t believe the Pac-12 will end up a one-bid league this season (more on that below), it’s definitely a conversation we might still be having in March.
2. Arizona State has a chance to be pretty good thanks to freshman Luguentz Dort’s breakout start
Arizona State freshman guard Luguentz Dort has been perhaps the Pac-12’s most positive surprise through the first part of the season. Although Dort was regarded as a consensus four-star prospect and top-50 type of talent, not many envisioned that Dort would immediately be this good.
Over the last several weeks, however, Dort has seen his blistering start slow down. The past four games, Dort is only shooting 9-for-45 from the field as his high point total is 13 over that span. Arizona State is still talented enough to knock off Kansas while Dort was in the midst of his funk. The Sun Devils were also bad enough to drop a home game to Princeton during Dort’s worst outing of the season.
So what happened to Dort these last few weeks and how will it impact Arizona State going forward? Was it merely a hot start? Are opposing defenses catching on to Dort’s tendencies and slowing him down? If Dort plays at the level he displayed to start the season, then the Sun Devils should have no issues making the NCAA tournament. But it remains to be seen how Dort will handle conference play and how he breaks out of this slump.
3. Younger players will determine the outcome of this league
College basketball has increasingly become an underclass game at the high-major level as the years have rolled along.
But this year’s Pac-12 is particularly young. Many of the league’s best players thus far have been freshmen and sophomores. And most of the teams hoping to make the NCAA tournament will have to rely on those same players to come through and take them to March.
Given the shaky start of the league this season, that’s not guaranteed to happen. Some talented young teams like UCLA have already fizzled out. Others like Oregon need to get healthy. Many of these teams are going to depend on freshmen for the rest of the season and it’s going to come with mixed results.
THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW
1. Can the Pac-12 rebound and get multiple teams in the NCAA tournament?
So, we already know the Pac-12 is really bad. Can the league still rebound and salvage the season?
It will likely take a few of the top teams like Arizona State, Oregon, Arizona and Washington pooling together and beating up on the other teams in the conference to create a lead pack. As things currently stand, those are the only four programs rated in the top 75 on KenPom with any sort of chance at making an at-large bid.
As long as those four teams don’t suffer horrible losses to teams like Cal, while winning some games against each other, the Pac-12 will have plenty of chances to improve its at-large status before March.
2. Can Arizona get over the hump and make it back to the tournament?
This season was always going to be a difficult one for Sean Miller and Arizona. The FBI’s college basketball corruption scandal hit the Wildcats hard.
It led to many of Arizona’s top recruiting targets going elsewhere. Yet Arizona still finds itself at 9-4 and in good position to make at least some kind of postseason. Whether that’s the NCAA tournament or not remains to be seen.
Arizona finally had its seven-year non-conference home winning streak snapped this season. They haven’t defeated anyone of note besides for Iowa State and UConn. But there’s just something about this team that’s intriguing for some reason. The Wildcats usually defend at a high level. Miller is still one of the best coaches in the country. The three-point shooting has been dreadful at times, but Arizona has still managed. If the Wildcats can figure out some things on offense, then they could be a dangerous team in a down conference.
3. The health of Oregon
Oregon has a chance to figure things out and be pretty good. It all starts with getting healthy.
Freshman Bol Bol has been sidelined with a left foot injury since mid-December as he’s missed the past four games for the Ducks. Head coach Dana Altman has been pretty vague about Bol’s injury, so there’s some uncertainty as to when he might return to the team.
Big man Kenny Wooten will also be sidelined four-to-six months after suffering a broken jaw. And another highly-touted freshman, Louis King, is still working himself back into proper game shape after missing the first several weeks of the season.
If Oregon is able to get fully healthy, they have the weapons to be the best team in the Pac-12. But for right now, that’s a major question mark
1. The Pac-12 goes winless in the NCAA tournament after getting two teams in
The Pac-12 went 0-3 in the 2018 NCAA tournament. And two of those teams were featured in First Four games.
While I don’t think the Pac-12 is so bad that it’s only a one-bid league this season, things are certainly trending in a negative direction once again. Even if the Pac-12 gets multiple teams into the Field of 68, none of its teams are going to have a desirable enough profile to merit a great seed. The entire process is going to be an uphill battle.
And while Arizona State knocked off Kansas, there haven’t been a lot of marquee wins against quality competition for the Pac-12 this season. Even if the Pac-12 is fortunate enough to get multiple teams into the tournament, I don’t have confidence that they’ll win any games once they get there.
2. Arizona State wins the Pac-12
To this point in the season, Arizona State has defeated two top-25 teams. The rest of the Pac-12 combined has one top-25 win.
And while Arizona State has shown plenty of flaws in some recent losses — particularly some woeful stretches of poor shooting — they have the talent to compete with any team in the country. Dort has looked like a go-to player at times this season and he’s flanked by three more double-figure scorers in Remy Martin, Kimani Lawrence and Zylan Cheatham. The Sun Devils currently have a top-50 defense.
In a league that doesn’t have any truly goodteams it says something when Arizona State knocks off a national title contender like the Jayhawks. Unless Oregon gets healthy and figures it all out, the Sun Devils look like the favorite in the league at this point.
3. The UCLA coaching search becomes more interesting than the on-court action
Let’s be honest, with the Pac-12 being as bad as it is on the court this year, the off-court movement of the UCLA coaching search is going to be more fun to watch (or hear about).
The Bruins likely won’t be able to start conducting serious interviews until the end of the season — since most of their presumed targets are currently coaching. But if UCLA decides to make some early moves on an out-of-work coach like Fred Hoiberg or Earl Watson then things could get really interesting.
To be clear, UCLA is not making a change for this current season. But the framework will be put in place for the coaching search, as we’ll start to hear names trickle out of the Westwood over the next several months. The UCLA job isn’t what it used to be. It’s still an elite program with an unmatched history conducting a coaching search with big names being thrown around in the middle of the season. That sort of thing rarely, if ever, happens in college hoops.
College basketball’s biggest storylines heading into 2019
We saw what might have been the best team in college basketball history win a title as Villanova landed their second ring in the last three years. We saw the sport get turned on its head as an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball led to trials, convictions and some of the secrets as to how the sausage is made in recruiting. That investigation also led to the NCAA changing a number of rules that don’t really make all that much sense.
With 2019 now just around the corner, here are the biggest storylines to follow for the rest of the season and the upcoming year.
This is the biggest, most exciting story in college basketball this season. Zion Williamson is an absolute sensation, and rightfully so. We have never seen anything like him before in college hoops — there’s a reason that we are looking at him as the clear-cut favorite to be the No. 1 pick in June — and he is far from alone on this Duke roster. R.J. Barrett could be the No. 2 pick. Cam Reddish could be the No. 3 pick. Tre Jones could be a lottery pick. We’ve never seen anything like that.
But there is certainly some question as to whether or not this is a team that can win a national title. For starters, the other six teams that are currently sitting at the top of the college hoops hierarchy are loaded with veterans; there’s a reason that only two teams built around freshmen have won the title in the one-and-done era. It’s hard to do, and that’s before you consider some of the issues that Duke has had. For example: Reddish has struggled to figure out what, exactly, his role is and how, exactly, he fits as a guy wired to play on the ball while being asked to play off it. Another example: Can Barrett figure out how to be a playmaker while defenses get tailored to his tendency to barrel into defenders in the paint?
This is the most entertaining team in the country and loaded with talent. Seeing whether or not they can finish it off with a ring is the biggest story in the sport.
IS THE PAC-12 A ONE-BID LEAGUE?
If the season ended today, it probably would be. Outside of Arizona State, no one in the conference has done anything that would earn them consideration as an at-large bid. UCLA is such a dumpster fire that Steve Alford has already lost his job — more on that in a second. USC isn’t much better, as the Trojans have a matching 7-6 record while their star player, Kevin Porter Jr., may have disappeared. Oregon is losing buy games to Texas Southern. Washington is 8-4 on the season. No one in the league has less than three losses. As a league, they are just 7-9 against the WCC, and if you look at the conference ratings on KenPom, the conference belongs in the same tier as the American and the WCC, not the Big East or the SEC or the rest of the big boys.
This reminds me of the 2011-12 season, the year that Washington went 7-6 in league play, won the Pac-12 regular season title and missed the NCAA tournament as Colorado — a No. 11 seed — and Cal — a No. 12 seed — were the only two programs from the conference to get into the tournament.
That leads me into the next question …
HOW MUCH COACHING TURNOVER WILL THERE BE IF IT IS?
We already have an answer on one program in the Pac-12 — UCLA will be hiring in March, and who fills that job could be the kind of thing that launches the coaching carousel. For example, what if it is Notre Dame’s Mike Brey that gets the job? Or TCU’s Jamie Dixon? Or N.C. State’s Kevin Keatts?
(Also, what if it is Rick Pitino, although that is an entirely different — and much more interesting — can of worms.)
And that could end up being far from the only job that opens up in the league. Cal’s hire of Wyking Jones has been an abject disaster. Ernie Kent is in his fifth season at Washington State and has yet to win more than 13 games in a season. Andy Enfield has USC at 7-6 on the season after his program spent the last year in the FBI’s crosshairs. Wayne Tinkle is in year five at Oregon State and has as many NCAA tournaments to his name as he has five-win seasons. Even Washington is something to keep an eye on, as Mike Hopkins will be the obvious name to keep an eye on if this is finally the year that Jim Boeheim retires.
As one Pac-12 coach put it, the Pac-12 has only “two established, highly successful coaches.”
NEVADA’S UNDEFEATED RUN
I don’t know if the Wolf Pack is actually good enough to go undefeated heading into the NCAA tournament, but I do know they have the best chance of anyone in college basketball to get it done this season. The Mountain West is actually deeper than anyone initially thought — both Utah State and Fresno State should give Nevada a fight when they play, and both have a shot at getting an at-large bid should they upset Eric Musselman’s program — but Nevada is going to be the heavy favorite every night they take the court the rest of the season.
Personally, I want them to make a run at an undefeated record in the regular season. It would be great for the sport the same way that Wichita State, Kentucky and Gonzaga going on prolonged undefeated runs in the last five seasons was.
CAN VIRGINIA GET TO THE FINAL FOUR?
They are coming off what may be the most embarrassing loss in college basketball history, becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament. This season, they may actually be better than they were last year, as Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter both look like first round picks while the rest of that program is as solid as you would expect a Virginia team to be. Three years ago, we all thought Villanova were choke artists. You can’t win the big one until you win the big one.
TEXAS TECH TO MAKE ANOTHER RUN AT KANSAS?
The Red Raiders would have won the Big 12 last season if Keenan Evans hadn’t broken his toe. This year, with Jarrett Culver running the offense, can Chris Beard’s team make another run at knocking off Kansas? I’ll say this: Tech is the best team in the Big 12 that is not named Kansas, and while the Jayhawks have struggled through the start of the season, I do think their upside is immense. Udoka Azubuike is back and Quentin Grimes illl, eventually, get right. (Right?) Either way, I’m hoping that Texas Tech at least makes it interesting.
There are still two more trials scheduled to happen stemming from the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball, although at least one of those defendants — former USC assistant coach Tony Bland — is on the verge of taking a plea. Will either of those trials take place? If they do, what kind of dirt is going to arise from the evidence that the FBI has collected? Will any of this impact coaches that are currently employed at powerhouse programs (looking at you, Bill Self)? When will the NCAA investigations begin in full, and what is the timetable for those investigations to be completed?
The FBI investigation changed the way that a lot of things happen in college basketball. For starters, if high school kids are allowed to take $125,000 to go play in the G League, is this something that the elite of the elite are truly going to consider? If they don’t, will the extra scrutiny on recruiting as a result of this investigation change where some of these kids end up? No rule change the NCAA has implemented has been ripped more consistently than their changes to the recruiting calendar, which goes into effect in the coming months. Will the NCAA backtrack on those changes?
Oh, and what about the NET rankings? They looked like an abject failure a month ago, but not so much today. How will they turn out come March, and will it change the way that teams are determined for the NCAA tournament?
NBC Sports Top 25: Duke back to No. 1, Tennessee hops Gonzaga
Here’s the conundrum that is going to face voters in the top 25 this week: What do you do with Kansas?
When it comes to resume, Kansas probably has the strongest one of any team in the top seven. They’ve beaten Michigan State on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Tennessee on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Marquette on a neutral court. Every win they have in Phog Allen Fieldhouse this year comes against teams ranked in the top 135 on KenPom.
And then there is this: Kansas has beaten Tennessee. Tennessee has beaten Gonzaga. Gonzaga has beaten Duke. Duke, according to some, can beat the Cavs, which officially means that Kansas is a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
Or something like that.
The point is that it makes total sense to rank Kansas No. 1 based on what they’ve accomplished this season, but I think that even the most irrational Kansas fans will cop to the fact that these Jayhawks haven’t come close to hitting their stride yet this season, and that’s before you factor in the loss of Udoka Azuibuike to an ankle injury.
The difference between the top seven teams this season is marginal, particularly if you are not as high on Duke as I am, and while that means there really isn’t all that much difference between Nevada at No. 7 and whoever it is that you are going to rank No. 1, it does mean that a team like Kansas — who is in a bad run of form — drops to sixth in this ranking.
And to be frank, as long as your top seven is, in some order, the same as my top seven, your ranking is probably going to be just fine. I’d quibble with ranking Nevada in the top four, and I think it’s probably silly to have Duke, Tennessee or Gonzaga outside the top four, but there are arguments to justify it all. I’m sure Kansas fans will call me a Duke homer and say that Bill Self must ignore my calls, but the truth of it is that there are a lot of really good teams at the top this year. Parsing through a jumbled mess like that is never easy.
I dropped Kentucky all the way out of the top 25, as I did Kansas State, but I’ll go more in depth on that in the Monday Overreactions column.
Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Today, we are previewing the Pac-12 Conference.
After a 2015-16 season in which seven teams made the NCAA tournament, the Pac-12 has seen its count drop in each of the last two years.
After earning four bids in 2017 that number dropped to three last season, and two of those bids went to teams (Arizona State and UCLA) that played in the First Four.
All three league representatives were done by the end of the first round, a brutal conclusion to a season that began with controversy thanks to the FBI.
While there may not be a clear-cut favorite in the Pac-12 as the start of the 2018-19 season approaches, the hope is that there are enough quality teams and players to turn things around when it comes to the conference’s national reputation.
FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
1. Stability is paying dividends at Arizona and USC
Arizona and USC were the two Pac-12 programs that were impacted the most by the FBI’s investigation, as each had a now-former assistant coach be indicted. But after some uncertainty — and predictions of doom — both programs have seemed to get back on solid ground. USC managed to hold onto Kevin Porter Jr., who committed before the FBI case began, and both Elijah Weaver and J’Raan Brooks (who originally committed to USC in the spring before reopening his recruitment in the fall) were brought on board afterwards.
As for Arizona, its recruiting wins with regards to the 2018 class would come in the spring as Devonaire Doutrive and Brandon Williams made their pledges (Omar Thielemans did as well, only to transfer in the fall). Add in two grad transfers in Ryan Luther (Pittsburgh) and Justin Coleman (Samford), and the Wildcats managed to fill many of the holes within their rotation. Also, both Arizona and USC have experienced early success in the 2019 recruiting window, with both currently boasting Top 5 classes.
2. UCLA has already been hit hard by the injury bug
UCLA had what many considered to be one of the top recruiting classes in the Pac-12 heading into this season, with Oregon’s talented crop being the only one held in higher regard. But health issues have ruled out two of Steve Alford’s prized recruits for the 2018-19 season, with power forward Shareef O’Neal being sidelined by a heart condition and point guard Tyger Campbell suffering a torn ACL.
While these are both tough losses for the Bruins, one could argue that the loss of Campbell is the bigger of the two due to UCLA’s lack of depth at the point. Sophomore Jaylen Hands will get the keys to the offense, which was the case before Campbell’s injury, but should he run into any issues (foul trouble, injuries, etc.) where can UCLA turn? 6-foot-4 freshman David Singleton III and redshirt junior Prince Ali are certainly comparable to Hands from a size standpoint, but both are more scorers than distributors. UCLA’s young inside but at least there’s an ample amount of depth and talent at those spots to help account for the loss of O’Neal. But while there’s little margin for error at the point, the expectations remain high in Westwood.
3. Oregon welcomes the conference’s best recruiting class
Oregon lost three of its four double-digit scorers from last season, as Elijah Brown and MiKyle McIntosh were both out of eligibility and Troy Brown Jr. entered the NBA Draft after one year on campus. But leading scorer and starting point guard Payton Pritchard is back, as are forward Paul White and one of the conference’s best defenders in Kenny Wooten Jr., and head coach Dana Altman has added one of the nation’s best recruiting classes to the mix. All five of Oregon’s freshmen were Top 100 recruits, led by 7-foot-2 big man Bol Bol and 6-foot-8 wing Louis King. And one must not overlook grad transfer Ehab Amin, who as a junior at Texas A&M Corpus Christi led the nation in steals.
As a result of the influx of talent, and Altman’s ability to put his players in spots where they can be most successful, the Ducks are one of the early favorites in the Pac-12. What may be most interesting about this team is how Bol and Wooten could potentially work together, with some flashing back to the Chris Boucher/Jordan Bell combo that figured so prominently in Oregon’s run to the 2017 Final Four.
4. Washington has the look of a contender in Mike Hopkins’ second season
With a win over Kansas to its credit, Washington appeared poised to reach the NCAA tournament last season in Mike Hopkins’ first season at the helm. But the Huskies faltered down the stretch, landing in the Postseason NIT, meaning that the program had to wait another season to end its NCAA tournament drought. There’s a very good chance that Washington will do that this season, with its top seven scorers from 2017-18 back on campus led by sophomore guard Jaylen Nowell and senior center Noah Dickerson. Also in the rotation are senior guards David Crisp and Mathysse Thybulle, the latter being the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, and a four-member recruiting class headlined by 6-foot-10 freshman Bryan Penn-Johnson.
With the number of players that Hopkins can call upon, including many who contributed to last season’s 21-win campaign, it’s well within reason to expect Washington to be a conference title contender. To make good on that promise the Huskies need to be better on the defensive glass (338th in defensive rebounding percentage) and shooting the basketball, as they ranked in the 200’s nationally in two-point (229th), three-point (246th) and effective field goal percentage (249th).
5. The race for Pac-12 Player of the Year appears to be wide-open
When the offseason began it appeared as if Stanford’s Reid Travis would be the early favorite to win Pac-12 Player of the Year. But after withdrawing from the NBA draft Travis decided to make the move to Kentucky as a graduate transfer, and with that the race for Pac-12 Player of the Year got a lot more interesting. The Pac-12 welcomes back two players who earned first team all-conference honors last season in Washington’s Noah Dickerson and Oregon State’s Tres Tinkle, and Oregon’s Payton Pritchard is the only second team all-conference selection back on campus.
Dickerson and Pritchard seem like good places to start when looking for a Pac-12 Player of the Year favorite given what’s expected of their respective teams, but players such as Tinkle, UCLA’s Kris Wilkes and Colorado’s McKinley Wright IV shouldn’t be overlooked either. That will make for an interesting winter in a conference that should not lack for intrigue from a team standpoint, either.
PRESEASON PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Kris Wilkes, UCLA
Others will likely lean in the direction of a Pritchard or Dickerson, but the choice here is Wilkes as he should be UCLA’s top scoring option in the aftermath of Aaron Holiday’s departure to the NBA. As a freshman Wilkes, a member of the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team, averaged 13.7 points and 4.9 rebounds in 29.8 minutes per game. UCLA did add some solid perimeter options to the rotation in David Singleton and Jules Bernard, improving their depth alongside (and behind) Wilkes.
But with two of last year’s top three scorers having departed (Thomas Welsh being the other) and Jaylen Hands also having the responsibility of being the team’s starting point guard, that should open things up for the 6-foot-7 sophomore wing from a scoring standpoint. Wilkes will need to improve his shooting percentages, as he was just a 35.2 percent shooter from beyond the arc (4.8 three-point attempts per game) and 65.5 percent from the foul line, but he has the talent to lead the way for the Bruins.
THE REST OF THE PAC-12 FIRST TEAM
Payton Pritchard, Oregon: A second team all-conference selection as a sophomore, Pritchard led the Ducks in both scoring (14.5 ppg) and assists (4.8 apg)
McKinley Wright IV, Colorado: Wright was a revelation as a freshman, leading the Buffaloes in scoring and assists (14.2 ppg, 5.5 apg) while also averaging 4.7 rebounds per game
Tres Tinkle, Oregon State: Tinkle, a first team all-conference selection last season, is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer (17.6 ppg)
Noah Dickerson, Washington: The conference’s leading returning rebounder (8.4 rpg), Dickerson also averaged 15.5 points per game on 56.9 percent shooting
FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW
Mathysse Thybulle, Washington
Daejon Davis, Stanford
Sedrick Barefield, Utah
Bol Bol, Oregon
Moses Brown, UCLA
Washington’s Jaylen Nowell was one of the Pac-12’s best freshmen in 2017-18, averaging 16.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. While those were certainly good numbers for the 6-foot-4 guard, who earned a spot on the conference’s all-freshman team, there’s still room for growth. A 45.1 percent shooter from the field and 80.0 percent from the foul line, Nowell shot just over 35 percent from three on 3.3 attempts per game.
He’s got the physical tools needed to be effective within Washington’s offensive system, and an improved perimeter shot can make him an even tougher matchup for opponents. If Nowell, who finished last season with an offensive rating of 104.2 and posted an effective field goal percentage of 49.4, can improve those numbers look out.
COACH UNDER PRESSURE
In Ernie Kent’s first four seasons at Washington State, the Cougars really haven’t made much progress with regards to either their overall record or their standing within the Pac-12. Washington State won no more than 13 games in any of those seasons, and they’ve finished no higher than tenth in the conference standings since his arrival. That makes Kent’s fifth season on the Palouse an important one, but the good news is that three starters are back including the Pac-12’s Most Improved Player in Robert Franks.
Carter Skaggs and Viont’e Daniels also return, and Washington State’s added seven newcomers with five being junior college transfers. Among those newcomers who will be expected to make an immediate impact are Eastern Florida State College transfer Ahmed Ali and Barton CC transfer Marvin Cannon, with the former being a second team NJCAA All-American last season.
ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …
The Pac-12’s got some talent, but can any of these teams play into the second weekend?
I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …
The seemingly unpredictable nature of the middle of the Pac-12. There’s a group of about six teams that appear capable of landing just about anywhere in the standings.
FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR
November 9, Washington at Auburn
November 15-16, Oregon in the 2K Empire Classic (vs. Iowa 11/15; Syracuse or UConn 11/16)
November 19-21, Arizona in the Maui Invitational (vs. Iowa State 11/19)
November 22-23, UCLA in the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational (vs. Michigan State 11/22; North Carolina or Texas 11/23)
December 5, Washington at Gonzaga
1. WASHINGTON: The Huskies may not have been ranked in our Top 25, but they’ve got a legitimate chance of winning the Pac-12 this season. The top seven scorers from last season return, led by Jaylen Nowell and Noah Dickerson, and Mike Hopkins’ squad has a good combination of both talent and experience. The key: getting more consistent production from their younger options, including the likes of Nowell and Nazhiah Carter, and becoming a more efficient team on the offensive end of the floor.
2. OREGON: The newcomers will receive a lot of praise and attention, and rightfully so. Dana Altman’s brought in a very talented recruiting class. That being said the returnees aren’t to be overlooked, with Payton Pritchard, Kenny Wooten Jr. and Paul White due to be key factors with regards to both production and leadership. If all of the pieces fit together, Oregon is more than capable of winning the Pac-12.
3. UCLA: The Bruins have already lost two members of their Top 10 recruiting class due to injury, but the cupboard isn’t bare. Jaylen Hands, Kris Wilkes and Prince Ali are among the returnees, and newcomers such as Jules Bernard, David Singleton III and Moses Brown should all have an impact. UCLA’s a bit young inside, with Alex Olesinski being their most experienced player, but there isn’t a depth issue with Brown and Kenny Nwuba joining the ranks along with Cody Riley and Jalen Hill (who were both suspended for the entire 2017-18 season). The concern is the lack of depth at the point, as Tyger Campbell went down with a torn ACL.
4. ARIZONA: The Wildcats are one of two teams to have lost their entire starting lineup from a season ago, with the other being Duke. For many programs that would lead to expectations of doom. Not so much for Arizona, as this program has not finished lower than fourth in the Pac-12 since the 2008-09 season. There are a lot of holes to fill with DeAndre Ayton, Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins all in the NBA and Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic having graduated, but a late rally on the recruiting trail helped matters.
Brandon Williams and Devonair Doutrive join the ranks as freshmen, with Ryan Luther and Justin Coleman doing so as graduate transfers. Add in Duke transfer Chase Jeter, who sat out last season, and Arizona will have five players who have yet to appear in a game as Wildcats in the rotation. The sophomore class, which includes Brandon Randolph and Ira Lee, will need to take a step forward as will redshirt junior guard Dylan Smith. Arizona may have a lot of unknowns, but it wouldn’t be wise to expect a major fall this season.
5. USC: USC bid farewell to three extremely important contributors at the end of last season, as Jordan McLaughlin, Chimezie Metu and Elijah Stewart all graduated (Metu had a season of eligibility remaining). The good news for Andy Enfield is that Bennie Boatwright, who missed 13 games last season due to injury, is back for his senior season. When healthy “Bennie Buckets” can score from anywhere on the floor, making him a tough matchup at the four.
Also back from a team that won 24 games and finished second in the Pac-12 are players such as guards Derryck Thornton Jr., Jonah Mathews and Shaqquan Aaron and forward Nick Rakocevic. What should also help matters is the arrival of a talented recruiting class that includes Elijah Weaver, Kevin Porter Jr. and J’Raan Brooks, with Porter a household name of sorts thanks to the work he put in at the Drew League this summer. If Boatwright can remain healthy, USC can make a run at an NCAA tournament bid after missing out last season.
6. UTAH: Picking Utah to finish worse than fourth is a risky thing to do, as Larry Krystkowiak’s program has finished fourth or better in each of the last four seasons. That being said the Runnin’ Utes did lose three of their top four scorers in Justin Bibbins, David Collette and Tyler Rawson. Sedrick Barefield, who averaged 12.0 points and 2.5 assists per game last season, returns as does a sophomore wing in Donnie Tillman who may be one of the conference’s best athletes. Jayce Johnson and Parker Van Dyke, who were both part of last year’s rotation, also return.
Utah welcomes eight newcomers to the program, including four-star freshmen Timmy Allen and Riley Battin and junior college transfers Charles Jones Jr. and Brandon Morley, and grad transfer Novak Topalovic (Idaho State). Keep an eye on Jones, an NJCAA All-American at the College of Southern Idaho. If he and Barefield mesh well together Utah stands to be a handful. And given what Krystkowiak has managed to do with this program since his arrival in Salt Lake City, Utah may once again defy expectations.
7. ARIZONA STATE: “Guard U” was all the rage during non-conference play as Bobby Hurley’s Sun Devils won their first 12 games of the season. That run included wins over Xavier and Kansas, teams that would go on to receive 1-seeds in the NCAA tournament. And those quality wins ultimately saved Arizona State, as its lackluster showing in conference play put the team in danger of missing out on the Big Dance. ASU made the field, but with guards Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice all having moved on there are some significant holes to fill. Remy Martin, who was an absolute pest and shared Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year honors with Colorado’s Dominique Collier, is back for his sophomore season and he’ll be asked to run the show.
Four-star freshmen Luguentz Dort and Elias Valtonen and Cleveland State transfer Rob Edwards, who averaged 14.4 points per game in two seasons at CSU, are among the player who will join Martin in the perimeter rotation. But after its guards received so much attention last season, Arizona State is considerably bigger in 2018-19. Dort is 6-foot-4, three inches shorter than Valtonen, and the Sun Devils are deep in the front court as well. De’Quon Lake, Romello White, Mickey Mitchell, Vitaly Shibel and Kimani Lawrence all return, and San Diego State transfer Zylan Cheatham is eligible after sitting out last season. And 6-foot-9 four-star forward Taeshon Cherry will also be competing for minutes. Size won’t be an issue for Arizona State this season, and if that leads to improvements on the defensive end of the floor Hurley’s guys could make a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
8. COLORADO: Four starters are back from a team that won 17 games and finished Pac-12 play with an 8-10 record, with the most noteworthy returnee being sophomore point guard McKinley Wright IV. Wright, who led Colorado in points, assists and steals, was an All-Freshman Team selection as well as an honorable mention all-conference and all-defensive team honoree. He and senior Namon Wright will lead the way in the backcourt, with forward Tyler Bey and center Dallas Walton looking to make progress in their development as sophomores.
Juniors De’Leon Brown and Lucas Siewert also return, with the former having missed eight games due to a hand injury and the latter looking to build on a solid finish to the 2017-18 season. Add in sophomore wing D’Shawn Schwartz and Tad Boyle has a good rotation to work with as he accounts for the losses of George King and Dominique Collier. Colorado also welcomes eight newcomers into the program, one being a redshirt freshman in Evan Battey who missed all of last season as he recovered from a stroke. Another key addition is NJCAA All-American guard Shane Gatling, who averaged 16.6 points and 2.9 assists per game at Indian Hills CC last season.
9. STANFORD: The loss of Reid Travis is obviously a big deal for the Cardinal, given the fact that he led the Cardinal in both scoring and rebounding last season and was also their most experienced player. Add in the graduation of Dorian Pickens and Michael Humphrey, and Jerod Haase has to account for the loss of three of his top four scorers from a season ago. The good news is that sophomore point guard Daejon Davis is back, as are classmates KZ Okpala, Oscar Da Silva, Isaac White and Kodye Pugh (redshirt sophomore).
Davis was one of the conference’s top freshmen last season, and both Okpala and Da Silva showed flashes of what they could potentially be for the Cardinal. Add in senior Josh Sharma and redshirt junior Marcus Sheffield, and while Stanford lost a lot of production at the end of last season they’ve got some guys who have experience. But if the Cardinal are to outperform this expectation they’re going to need a very good freshman class, which includes guards Cormac Ryan and Bryce Willis and forward Jaiden Delaire, to be ready to produce from the start.
10. OREGON STATE: While there didn’t seem to be much concern following the abrupt departure of JaQuori McLaughlin before the start of the 2017-18 season, the lack of a “true” point guard hurt Oregon State last season. That’s one of two key areas for Wayne Tinkle’s team to address heading into the 2018-19 season, with the other being to figure out who in the front court can step forward and help fill the hole left by the departure of Drew Eubanks. Stephen Thompson Jr., Ethan Thompson and Tres Tinkle were Oregon State’s best assist men while also being three of the team’s top four scorers, but will that approach be sustainable?
Freshmen Antoine Vernon and Jordan Campbell will compete for the point guard job, and finding a viable option there will be key. As for the post, Oregon State doesn’t have a lot of production back as Gligorije Rakocevic wasn’t a major contributor last season. Junior college transfer Kylor Kelley gives Oregon State some size at 7-feet, and he’ll need to hit the ground running. The Thompson brothers and Tinkle won’t be an easy matchup for most opponents, but they’re going to need help if Oregon State is to take a step forward.
11. WASHINGTON STATE: With Malachi Flynn having decided to transfer to San Diego State, the Cougars will return just one of its two double-digits scorers from a season ago. Robert Franks, who was the Pac-12’s Most Improved Player last season, decided to withdraw his name from the NBA draft and return for his senior year and that was an important development for Wazzu. Viont’e Daniels and Carter Skaggs are also back, giving Ernie Kent three returning starters to work with.
But there was a lot of turnover on this roster, with Washington State adding eight newcomers to the program including junior college All-American Ahmed Ali. The Cougars have enough talent, led by Franks, to give some teams a hard time in Pullman. But to make a move in a conference that has gotten stronger in its “middle,” simply being a pesky foe may not be enough for Washington State to make an upward move.
12. CALIFORNIA: Wyking Jones’ first season at the helm was a difficult one, as the young Golden Bears took their lumps and won just two conference games. While Cal will have to account for the loss of two of its top three scorers in Don Coleman and Marcus Lee, promising sophomore forward Justice Sueing is back as are sophomore guards Darius McNeill and Juhwan Harris-Dyson. What may help this trio, as much as the work they put in during the offseason, is the presence of point guard Paris Austin.
Austin, who began his collegiate career at Boise State, is eligible after sitting out last season and he’ll be needed to kick start an offense that ranked 296th nationally in adjusted efficiency. In addition to Austin the Golden Bears have four scholarship freshmen to incorporate, including four-star prospects Matt Bradley and Jacobi Gordon. Cal has some young talent, but that youth may be what keeps them in the back of the pack for another season.