Return of the Rock: Pac-12 Preview

by JUSTIN FITZGERALD

Since Sean Miller took the Arizona head coaching job in 2009, the narrative of the Pac-12 season has been the same. Miller and the Wildcats have dominated the conference the past two seasons, and have had top 4 conference finishes four of the past five years. His teams have been a high point in what has been a disappointing stretch for the conference. Last season the Pac-12 sent just four teams to the NCAA Tournament, and its reputation as a premiere basketball conference continued to fall. The conference lacks depth, with its cellar dwellers being some of the worst in a Power Five Conference. This year teams are still looking to chase Arizona, but the Wildcats aren’t the obvious choice to three-peat. Here are my predictions for how the conference shakes out, with last year’s records in parentheses.

When you’re done, be sure to check out my ACC, Big East, and Big 12 previews.

  1. Arizona Wildcats (34-4, 16-2)

    Kaleb Tarczewski. Courtesy of USA Today.
    Kaleb Tarczewski. Courtesy of USA Today.

Postseason: NCAA Tournament Elite Eight

The Wildcats lost their top four scorers from last season, but they have returning talent and incoming recruits to remain at the top of the conference. Arizona returns key contributors Kaleb Tarczewski and Gabe York from last season, and both will take on a bigger role this year. The Wildcats brought in four  Top-35 recruits, including guard Alonzo Trier and forward Ray Smith who will be entered in the starting lineup immediately. Miller also brought in guard Justin Simon and center Chance Comanche, who will give Arizona much needed depth off the bench. Besides a great recruiting class, they brought in a huge transfer in Ryan Anderson, who was third-team ACC and a solid post scorer at Boston College. Miller has assembled a roster chocked full of talent, but the jury on whether it will lead to a deep NCAA Tournament run.

  1. California Golden Bears (18-15, 7-11)

    Tyrone Wallace. Courtesy of sfgate.com
    Tyrone Wallace. Courtesy of sfgate.com.

Postseason: None

It was a rocky first season for Cuonzo Martin in Berkeley, but his team shows a lot of promise in year two. All Pac-12 guard Tyrone Wallace returns and is poised for another outstanding year alongside fellow starting guards Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird, but what makes Cal substantially improved is their stellar recruiting class. Martin only recruited two players, but forwards Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb are two of the best recruits in the country and are potential lottery picks in the 2016 NBA Draft. This has the makings of a special season for the Golden Bears, who are looking to capture their first conference title since 2010 and get past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997.

  1. Utah Utes (26-9, 13-5)

    Brandon Taylor. Courtesy of USA Today
    Brandon Taylor. Courtesy of USA Today.

Postseason: NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen

Head coach Larry Krystowiak has done an outstanding job turning around the Utah program, going from 6-25 in 2011-12 to 26-9 last season. The Utes reached the Sweet Sixteen last for the first time since 2005, and could get back again this season. To get there the Utes will have to overcome the loss of All Pac-12 player Delon Wright, who led the team in points, assists, and steals per game last season. Utah, however, does bring back three key starters from last year in guards Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge as well as rising star forward Jakob Poetl. Also back are key bench players Dakari Tucker and Brekott Chapman. This team will be a contender for a conference title, and has the pieces in place to get to consecutive Sweet Sixteens for the first time since they made five straight from 1995-1999.

  1. UCLA Bruins (22-14, 11-7)

    Bryce Alford. Courtesy of isportsweb.com
    Bryce Alford. Courtesy of isportsweb.com.

Postseason: NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen

The Bruins snuck into the NCAA Tournament with one of the final at-large bids and pulled off a surprise run to the Sweet Sixteen. Coach Steve Alford lost do-it-all guard Norman Powell and forward Kevon Looney, but welcomes back guards Bryce Alford and Isaiah Hamilton, and forward Tony Parker. Powell and Looney played a huge role last year, and Alford will need to continue to produce while Hamilton and Parker need to have an increased role in the offense. Parker will continue to improve down low, but this team will need to have strong guard play from Alford, Hamilton, and recruits Prince Ali and Aaron Holiday if they want to take a step forward.

  1. Oregon Ducks (26-10, 13-5)

    Elgin Cook. Courtesy of 247sports.com
    Elgin Cook. Courtesy of 247sports.com.

Postseason: NCAA Tournament Third Round

Despite losing Pac-12 Player of the Year Joe Young, the Ducks remain in position to get back to March Madness for the fourth consecutive season. Dana Altman gets back his number two and three scorers in Elgin Cook and Dylan Brooks, and brings in guard Dylan Ennis from Villanova. Ennis will be joined in the backcourt by Tyler Dorsey, who turned down offers from power house programs Kansas and Louisville to play in Eugene. Rivals ranked Dorsey as the seventh best guard in the class of 2015, and should make an immediate impact. This team will have to play a lot on the perimeter, as there tallest starter Jordan Bell is only 6-foot-9.

  1. Oregon State Beavers (17-14, 8-10)

    Gary Payton II. Courtesy of tucson.com
    Gary Payton II. Courtesy of tucson.com.

Postseason: None

Guard Gary Payton II clearly learned from his father. He is the defending Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, and could add a Pac-12 Player of the Year Award this season. Payton II averaged 13.5 points in a game and despite being just 6-foot-3 was able to pull in 7.5 rebounds a game. He was even better on the defensive end, where he averaged 3.1 steals a game; second best in all of the NCAA last season. For Payton II to end his senior season in the Big Dance, the Beavers will need a supporting cast to step up. Oregon State averaged just 60.9 points per game last year, good for 318th in the country. If second leading scorer Malcolm Duvivier and company, can provide a scoring boost, this team could get to March Madness for the first time since 1990.

  1. Stanford Cardinal (24-13, 9-9)

    Rosco Allen. Courtesy of SFgate.com
    Rosco Allen. Courtesy of SFgate.com.

Postseason: NIT Champions

Head coach Johnny Dawkins has a lot of questions heading into this year after losing Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown, and Stefon Nurstic, who were the Cardinal’s top three scorers last season. The trio accounted for 66 percent of the Stanford’s points along with 45 percent of their rebounds.The team is now in the hands of in guard Marcus Allen, and forwards Rosco Allen and Reid Travis. They will be joined in the starting lineup by guard Michael Cartwright and forward Michael Humphrey, neither of whom played over more than 11 minutes a game. Dawkins certainly has his hands full this season, but the Cardinal still have enough talent to be a factor in conference play.

  1. Arizona State Sun Devils (18-16, 9-9)

    Tra Holder. Courtesy of rushthecourt.net.
    Tra Holder. Courtesy of rushthecourt.net.

Postseason: NIT Second Round

After an inconsistent nine seasons, the Sun Devils parted way with Herb Sendek and brought in college basketball legend Bobby Hurley. Hurley turned around a Buffalo that only 14 games the season before he arrived in upstate New York, winning 42 games in two seasons and leading the program to its first ever NCAA Tournament appearance. If doesn’t seem like Hurley has enough coaching experience, it should be noted that coaching is in his blood. Hurley’s dad Bob Sr. is a coaching legend at St. Anthony’s High School in New Jersey, where his teams have won 27 state championships since 1972; and his brother Dan is the head coach at Rhode Island. Hurley is definitely qualified for the job, but he may have to wait a year to see his team come to fruition. The team struggled last year in conference play, but does bring back four of its top five scorers from last year, including All Pac-12 freshman guard Tra Holder. If Hurley instills his fiery competitiveness like he did at Buffalo, ASU could arrive a year early.

  1. Colorado Buffaloes (16-18, 7-11)

    Josh Scott. Courtesy of rushthecourt.com
    Josh Scott. Courtesy of rushthecourt.net.

Postseason: CBI Second Round

Coach Tad Boyle has plenty of talent returning this year, but they lost leading scorer and second team All Pac-12 guard Askia Booker. There was plenty of turmoil in the locker room last season, as the Bufs got invited to the CBI but Booker refused to play. Back are forwards Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson, who are expected to bear the load this season. Scott and Johnson are the only players who had serious scoring roles last season, and this team has questions about who will assert themselves into the starting lineup.

  1. Washington State Cougars (13-18, 7-11)

    Josh Hawkinson. Courtesy of rushthecourt.net.
    Josh Hawkinson. Courtesy of rushthecourt.net.

Postseason: None

It was another rough season for the Cougars, who went below .500 for the third straight season, and have only had a 20-win season once since Tony Bennett departed for Virginia in 2009. This season looks to be more of the same, although the Cougars do have one of the best big men in the conference in forward Josh Hawkinson. Hawkinson averaged 14.7 points and 10.8 rebounds per game last season, and could have an even better year after the loss of last year’s leading scorer DaVonte Lacy. 7-0 center and Juco transfer Conor Clifford will be another option in the post and will alleviate some pressure off Hawkinson, and head coach Ernie Kent also welcomes back point guard Ike Iroegbu. In order for this team to need to take a step forward they need to improve defensively. The Cougars allowed 80 or more points 12 times last season.

  1. USC Trojans (12-20, 3-15)

    Nikola Jovanovic. Courtesy of usctrojans.com.
    Nikola Jovanovic. Courtesy of usctrojans.com.

Postseason: None

It’s been a long two years for Andy Enfield since he led Florida Gulf Coast to the Sweet Sixteen. The Trojans have gone just 23-41 in Enfield’s first two seasons, including a pitiful 5-31 record in conference play. Enfield could start to turn it around this year, as he returns all five starters from last year and brings in highly touted forward Chimezie Metu. The 6-11 Metu will give USC one of the bigger frontcourts in the country, as he matches up alongside 6-11 forward Nikola Jovanovic. This team has the potential to take the next step, but needs to shoot better than last season, when it shot just 42 percent from the field.

  1. Washington Huskies (16-15, 5-13)

    Andrew Andrews. Courtesy of the Seattle Times.
    Andrew Andrews. Courtesy of the Seattle Times.

Postseason: None

Lorenzo Romar has had a few great players come through Seattle, including Nate Robinson, Brandon Roy, and current NBA super sixth man Isaiah Thomas. Yet those days are gone, as Romar enters this year on the hot seat; as the Huskies haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2011. It will be tough for Romar to snap the drought this season, as he only returns one player who played more than 20 minutes a game in guard Andrew Andrews. This team is inexperienced, but Romar did bring in three recruits who Rivals ranked as top-100 players in the class of 2015. If Romar can make it through this year, the future is bright with guard Markelle Fultz (#13 in Rivals class of 2016) arriving next season.

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