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Four programs had assistant coaches arrested as part of the FBI bombshell that was dropped on college basketball during the last week of September. Two of those four are the top two teams (on paper) in the Pac-12 conference this season. In other words, there will be off-court drama and storylines hovering around this conference all season. Assuming that Arizona and USC can find ways to keep all of this from affecting the play on the court, both schools should battle for the conference title, and both could have teams good enough to make it to the Final Four in San Antonio.
Beyond the top two, expect last year’s Final Four participant, Oregon, to be strong again despite suffering a ton of offseason losses. UCLA should have enough pieces to make it easily back to the Big Dance as well. Beyond the Bruins, Stanford, Arizona State and Oregon State appear to be the most likely to contend for dance tickets, while Utah will need to solve its backcourt issues quickly to contend for a bid. The bottom of the league once again will feature the two teams from Washington, though this year likely joined by the Cal Bears who must rebuild their roster from the bottom up now that head coach Cuonzo Martin has left for Missouri. At the end of the day, the Pac-12 has some very good teams at the top, but may also prove to have some very bad ones at the bottom.
Predicted Order of Finish
- Arizona – Last season, we debated who the best active coach to never reach the Final Four was — Sean Miller or Mark Few. The debate has now been decided, with Mark Few’s name off the list. This season, Sean Miller has a real chance to remove his as well, with one of the strongest looking rosters in the nation. Allonzo Trier anchors a solid backcourt that includes Rawle Alkins (once he returns from a late September foot injury) Parker Jackson-Cartwright and UNC-Asheville transfer Dylan Smith. Down low, freshman DeAndre Ayton and senior Dusan Ristic may give the Wildcats the best frontcourt duo in the nation. Of course, the Wildcats need a way to get around the offcourt issues, which included assistant coach Emanuel Richardson’s arrest as part of the FBI investigation.
- USC – What happens when you take a 26 win team, return 98% of the prior season’s scoring, including backcourt standouts Elijah Stewart and Jordan McLaughlin and frontcourt standouts Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu, then go ahead and add in Duke transfer Derryck Thornton and prized recruit Charles O’Bannon, Jr.? The answer is that you suddenly have a team the could be good enough to be playing in San Antonio at the end of the season. The Trojans have the talent, experience and depth to beat any team in the nation on any given night, and should battle for the Pac-12 crown all season. As with Arizona, their biggest issue may be offcourt, as assistant Tony Bland was among the four coaches arrested in late September following the FBI investigation and indictments.
- Oregon – The Ducks lost a ton from last season’s Final Four team, as point guard Payton Pritchard is the only returning starter. That being said, they also brought in an amazing amount of new talent, including graduate transfers Elijah Brown (New Mexico) and MiKyle McIntosh (Illinois State), both of whom were consistent double digit scorers. The freshmen recruits include Troy Brown, a potential one-and-done at forward and Kenny Wooten, a power forward expected to get immediate playing time.
- UCLA – The bad news is that the Bruins need to find a way to replace over 60 points per game of offense with the losses of Lonzo Ball, TJ Leaf, Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford. The good news is that the team brings back a pair of solid veterans in Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh, and adds to them one of the best recruiting classes in the nation, highlighted by Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes, a pair of five-star McDonald’s All-Americans.
- Stanford – The Cardinal feature one of the conference’s top returning players in forward Reid Travis (17.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game last season). With a ton of other returning players and a solid group of newcomers, a marked improvement from last season’s 14-17 record should be expected.
- Arizona State – The Sun Devils should be vastly improved this season. They return one of the conference’s best backcourts, highlighted by Tra Holder and Shannon Evans. They should also be improved up front, their major weakness last year, with the additions of redshirt freshmen Romello White and Vitaliy Shibel, plus Juco transfer De’Quon Lake. The future is bright for the Sun Devils, especially with several major transfers sitting out this season, including former Kansas forward Carlton Bragg.
- Oregon State – Can a team that went 5-27 last year actually contend for an NCAA berth this year? While that answer would normally be a resounding “No,” the Beavers may just be able to do that this season, with virtually everyone back from last year and star Tres Tinkle now healthy again. The experience gained by players like Stephen Thompson, Jr., Drew Eubanks and Kendal Manuel, plus newcomers that include UMass graduate transfer Seth Berger, could make things as exciting this year in Corvallis as they were two seasons ago.
- Utah – The Utes return David Collette, their big man that averaged more than 13 points per game last season and will be the focus of their offense this year, especially with Kyle Kuzma’s decision to turn pro. Unfortunately, there may not be enough pieces around Collette, especially with huge question marks in the backcourt, for the Utes to get their name into NCAA Tournament talk.
- Colorado – The Buffs look like they will have a long season ahead of them, with two of the top three scorers from last season’s team gone. Perhaps the best news for this team is that there will be tons of chances for young players, such as freshman McKinley Wright IV, to get experience this year, while there is still some veteran leadership from the likes of George King and Tory Miller-Stewart.
- Washington – Mike Hopkins certainly has his work cut out for him taking over for Lorenzo Romar, especially after the coaching change led to top prospect Michael Porter, Jr.’s decision to head to Missouri instead. This team only won 9 games last season despite having the #1 overall pick in the NBA Draft (Markelle Fultz). Hopkins will need to rely on what players he does have left, notably forward Noah Dickerson, for any success, but don’t expect much this season.
- California – The Bears lost almost everything from last season’s NIT team, including head coach Cuonzo Martin, who is now at Missouri. Wyking Jones takes over the program reins, but the only notable piece he may have this year is Kentucky transfer Marcus Lee. If it wasn’t for pair of struggling programs in the state of Washington, the Bears would be the clear pick for the Pac-12 cellar. They still might end up there anyhow.
- Washington State – The Cougars missed out in landing a very good recruit in Roberto Gittens, when he chose in August to attend junior college instead. This is going to be a very long season for head coach Ernie Kent.