Pac-12 College Basketball 2020/21 Preview

After a disastrous 2018/19 season that saw the conference land just three teams in the NCAA Tournament, the Pac-12 rebounded in a big way for the 2019/20 season and were on the verge of sending six teams to the dance with the outside opportunity for a seventh team had someone gone on a run in the conference tournament.

Instead, COVID-19 happened, and the Pac-12 redemption tour was put on ice for another year.

The 2020/21 season figures to be the wonkiest college basketball season to date, but the Pac-12 find themselves once again in the position of being one of the deeper conferences in the country.  The conference hasn’t fielded a National Champion since 1997, the longest drought of any of the power conferences.  Will that change this season?  Let’s dive into the Pac-12.

The Contenders

#18 Arizona State (+230 to Win Pac-12)

“Hurley ball” enters season number six in Tempe, and this could be the most exciting team yet.

Paced by the senior guard tandem of Remy Martin (19.1 ppg) and Alonzo Verge Jr. (14.6), Arizona State finds itself ranked in the Preseason Top 20, marking the first time since the 2008/09 season that the Sun Devils started the new season as a ranked team.

While each season in Tempe has seen gradual improvement from Hurley’s crew, this season could be the year it all finally comes together for the former Duke star.  In addition to his explosive senior-laden backcourt, Hurley was able to recruit two of the best players to ever commit to Arizona State with the addition of five-star dynamo Josh Christopher and Marcus Bagley (the younger brother of former Duke one-and-done star Marvin Bagley III).

Mix in 6-1 Portland State transfer Holland Woods (17.7 ppg, 5.2 apg), and the Sun Devils could have one of the best stables of guards in the entire country.

If there’s anything that would concern Hurley this season, it would be the depth in the Sun Devils frontcourt and the lack of a dangerous three-point shooting assassin on the roster.  Arizona State watched as former Top 100 recruit Romello White (10.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg last season) elected to transfer to Ole Miss in the offseason, leaving the Sun Devils dangerously thin down low.

Sophomore Jalen Graham figures to now be the best forward on the team and will be tasked to try to fill the big void left by White’s departure.

If Arizona State can find a capable rim protector and can improve on their three-point shooting, this is your likely favorite to win the conference.  However, if the Sun Devils still are inconsistent from deep and are unable to find a reliable big man, it may be another trademark rollercoaster season in the desert.

#22 UCLA (+300 to Win Pac-12)

We’ve talked about the various teams that were impacted by the cancellation of the 2020 season the most at length already, but UCLA is another school you can throw into the “screwed by the ‘Rona” pile.

After starting the season with a dismal 8-9 record, Mick Cronin’s Bruins ended the season on a torrid 11-3 finish to finish the season at 19-12 overall and 12-6 in the conference.  That would have had UCLA set up as the 2-seed in the conference tournament, instead, we just got to rewatch old NCAA Tourney games on YouTube for a March fix.

Well, UCLA is back again and this time they’re hoping to start the season a little stronger to ensure they don’t need a frantic hot streak in February to get back into the NCAA Tournament.

Cronin returns the top five UCLA scorers from a season ago and adds Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang, along with four-star recruit Jaylen Clark to round out the Bruins’ roster.

The most important player returning to Westwood may be that of guard Chris Smith (13.1 ppg).  Smith flirted with the idea of going pro but ultimately decided to come back to school for one more season.

It took the first few months of the season to wash away the Steve Alford stink, but UCLA appears to have done just that.  Mick Cronin will get this team to defend and be relentless on the glass.  If the offense can provide just enough, UCLA should be in the mix for yet another conference title.

#20 Oregon (+450 to Win Pac-12)

The Oregon Ducks face the challenge of replacing four-year starter, and the general lifeblood of the team, Payton Pritchard after the decorated point guard graduated from the school and found himself drafted by the Boston Celtics.

However, if there’s anything Dana Altman has shown during his tenure in Eugene, it’s that he knows how to work the transfer portal to quickly reload his roster.

That’s exactly what the Ducks intend to do entering this season, as Altman welcomes in five new transfers, three of which will be eligible on day one. 

Headlining the class of transfers is that of former UNLV guard Amauri Hardy (14.5 ppg).  The senior guard comes to Eugene with fellow transfers Eric Williams Jr. (Duquesne), Eugene Omoruyi (Rutgers), LJ Figueroa (St. John’s), and Aaron Estrada (St. Peter’s).

Figueroa and Estrada are still awaiting word from the NCAA regarding their transfer waivers and whether or not they will be eligible to play this season.  If Figueroa (14.5 ppg) is indeed cleared to play the Ducks would be adding St. John’s leading scorer from a season ago, giving them even more depth than they already had.

As Oregon’s new transfers get more acclimated to their new surroundings, Altman likely will rely on his returning guard tandem of Will Richardson (11.0 ppg) and senior Chris Duarte (12.9 ppg) for added production and leadership. 

The Ducks are a very dangerous team going forward this season, even with the loss of Payton Pritchard.  They should be considered one of the favorites to win the Pac-12 and given their history in March, don’t discount this team from a possible run in the NCAA Tournament.   

The Dangerous Dark Horses

Stanford (+550 to Win Pac-12)

It’s a likely make or break season for Stanford head coach Jerod Haase as he enters his fifth season in Palo Alto.  Of all the coaches in the conference that have been with their programs longer than a year, it’s only Haase that has yet to take his team to the NCAA Tournament.

That means if the giant trees aren’t able to dance this March, Haase is likely going to be departing the ‘Conference of Champions’ for other job opportunities.

Fortunately for a coach on the proverbial ‘hot seat’, Stanford happened to land one of the best recruits in the land with five-star recruit Ziaire Williams.  Williams was the 7th overall ranked recruit in the 2020 class per ESPN, making him the highest-ranked Stanford signee since 2007.

The 6-9 wing (and former HS teammate of Bronny James) is already a projected lottery pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, but Haase hopes his budding superstar can carry Stanford to the state of Indiana come March.

Outside of Williams, there’s not a great deal to write home about in regards to the Cardinal, however. Seniors Daejon Davis (8.8 ppg) and Oscar Da Silva (15.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg) return to the team this season, but Da Silva is the only returning player that averaged double-digits in scoring a season ago.

Defensively the Cardinal are sound, as they ranked as the 7th best defensive team by KenPom a season ago.  If they’re able to get any other steady offensive production from someone other than Williams or Da Silva, Jerod Haase should be able to rest a little easier.  However, it’s NCAA Tournament or bust at this point for the Cardinal.

Colorado (+1100 to Win Pac-12)

After starting the 2019/20 season with a 10-4 record in conference play, it looked as though Tad Boyle’s Colorado Buffaloes might capture their first-ever Pac-12 regular-season championship.

Instead, the bottom completely fell out, and the Buffs would end the season with a five-game losing streak including terrible losses to Cal, Utah, and a first-round exit in the Pac-12 tournament at the hands of Washington State.

Colorado now enters the new season going through a mini-rebuild of sorts, as defensive demon Tyler Bey is now in the NBA and the team returns only one double-digit scorer in senior McKinley Wright IV (14.4 ppg).

While the Buffs starting five is a very experienced group with three seniors and two juniors, the Colorado bench is very green.  Five freshmen in all round out the Buffaloes bench, with senior Maddox Daniels being the “best” bench option averaging 3.2 ppg. 

In other words, outside of the starting five, the Buffs could be in some trouble.

Colorado’s odds to win the Pac-12 simply don’t reflect the current make-up of this roster, as they’re more likely to finish outside of the Top Six in the conference than they are at winning the thing, but if McKinley Wright IV can ascend into an elite college basketball player, the Buffs may be able to bully their way into an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Washington (+3500 to Win Pac-12)

If anyone wasn’t saddened to see the college basketball season suddenly go away, it might have been the Washington Huskies. 

The Huskies entered the 2019/20 season as one of the favorites to win the Pac-12 and for good reason.  They were coming off a fantastic 13-5 season in Mike Hopkins’ first year and had just signed two future one-and-done players in Jaden McDaniels and Isaiah Stewart.

Instead, the bottom dropped out.  The stingy 2-3 zone defense just didn’t work last season with the new cast of Huskies.  The offense was woeful.  Washington would reverse their 2018/19 record with a 5-13 showing last year. 

The cause of Washington’s angst could probably be traced back to the NCAA ruling Kentucky transfer Quade Green academically ineligible just two games into the Pac-12 season, but really the team was a shattered mess from the get-go.

This season could return the Dawgs back to their previous form, however. 

Green is now eligible to play and will take over at the point guard position, a huge upgrade over Jaden McDaniels who never seemed like the right fit on Hopkins’ roster. 

The one-and-done experiment also drew to a close, as Washington is one of the few teams in the country that doesn’t have a single freshman on the roster.  That should also go a long way towards restoring the Huskies to not be in the cellar of the conference.

If there’s an under-the-radar sleeper to be found in this conference, it could very well be Mike Hopkins’ Huskies.  Removing the two one-and-done kids from the team will dramatically improve Washington’s defense and getting Quade Green back is an enormous addition.  Considering the season figures to be utter chaos, Washington could very well slide back to the top of the conference standings.  

The Middle of the Pack

USC (+1100 to Win Pac-12)

For the fourth time in the last five seasons, USC ended the year with more than 20 wins and was on track to earn an at-large berth in the 2020 NCAA Tournament.

In large part, however, the Andy Enfield era (now in its eighth season) has been nothing more than mediocre.

The Trojans hope to change that this season and they’ll depend on a pair of brothers to get USC over the hump.  Five-star sensation Evan Mobley (#3 overall recruit) comes to Los Angeles to team up with his brother Isaiah to form the best frontcourt in the conference. 

While the Mobley brothers will certainly grab most of the attention in LA, the fate of the Trojans’ season likely comes down to whether or not sophomore Ethan Anderson can emerge as a capable starting point guard, and if transfers Noah Baumann (San Jose State) and Isaiah White (Utah Valley) can hit consistent outside shots to allow for their two big men to freely roam the floor.

I’m skeptical such a thing can happen, and while Evan Mobley will be must-see TV, this iteration of USC basketball looks very similar to Trojan teams of years past.  Enfield will get USC back near the 20-win mark, but the Trojans will live on the bubble most of the way.

Arizona (+1400 to Win Pac-12)

You have to wonder how long Sean Miller’s rope in Tucson is starting to become.

After getting into boiling hot water with a scandal that required an FBI investigation, Miller has somehow managed to stay alive, but the Arizona Wildcats have not been the imposing college basketball program they once were, and they haven’t been for quite some time.

If there’s a season where Arizona can finally play to their expectations, however, it could be this one.  Once again, Miller was able to ink a talented recruiting class and brought in several transfers that should make an immediate impact, namely Seattle grad-transfer Terrell Brown (20.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Georgetown transfer James Akinjo (13.4 ppg), and former four-star Nevada recruit Jordan Brown.

The three transfers will be heavily depended on, as Miller’s bench has seven freshmen and a single sophomore.  The freshmen are of course talented, particularly that of top-50 recruit Dalen Terry, but they’re still freshmen and will need time to grow during a very unorthodox college basketball season. 

The growing pains for Arizona will be real, it’s just a manner of seeing how long those growing pains last.  There’s certainly a lot of talent in Tucson, it just remains to be seen if Sean Miller can do anything with it.

If he cannot, there may be a new job opening in the desert come Spring 2021.

Utah (+2000 to Win Pac-12)

The 2019/20 college basketball season was expected to be a transitional season for Larry Krystkowiak’s Utah Utes, and it proved to be precisely that as Utah would have the usual ups and downs of a young team on their way to a 16-15 season that ended with a two-point loss to Oregon State in the Pac-12 Tournament before ‘Rona eliminated every team from March Madness just a day later.

However, the Utes could be in line for somewhat of a bounce-back season in 2020/21.

Utah returns five of their six leading scorers from a season ago, the lone exception being that of Both Gach who transferred to Minnesota.   That usually bodes well for a roster that has just one senior on it coming into the new year.

The catalyst for the Utes attack will be that of junior combo guard Timmy Allen (17.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg).  Allen was Utah’s Mr. Everything a season ago, but he could never find the help needed to get Utah back on track.

Utah hopes that changes this season with sophomore Rylan Jones having one-year of playing experience under his belt.  Jones epitomizes everything we love about college basketball as the kid is not a future NBA lottery pick in the making, but he plays with a helluva lot of heart, grit, hustle, and any other superlative you want to use.

The Utes being listed at 20/1 to win the conference strikes me as a little too bullish, though they will be a very tough opponent to face in Salt Lake.  Look out for this team next season and beyond however when the freshmen and sophomores continue to gel.  

The Long Shots

Cal (+10000 to Win Pac-12)
Oregon State (+10000 to Win Pac-12)
Washington State (+10000 to Win Pac-12)

Needless to say, these are the “have nots” of the conference.

Cal was a pleasant surprise under new head coach Mark Fox in his first year with the team, going 7-11 in conference play.  The Golden Bears’ leading scorer Matt Bradley (17.4 ppg) returns this season, but there’s not much else here to write home about.  Fox’s rebuilding process will continue this season as Cal hopes to play the role of spoiler in conference play.

Oregon State finally saw Tres Tinkle graduate from the program after 25-years with the team (kidding, sort of), but now the Beavs have some big shoes to fill.  Guard Ethan Thompson returns for his senior season and will be the focal point of an Oregon State team that would consider a .500 record to be a major win this season.

Washington State lost all Pac-12 forward CJ Elleby to the NBA Draft and will lose a lot of games during the 2020/21 season.  Their biggest goal for the new year is finishing above the Pac-12 basement.  That will be a chore in itself.

Pac-12 Projected Order of Finish

  1. Oregon
  2. Arizona State
  3. UCLA
  4. Arizona
  5. Washington
  6. Stanford
  7. USC
  8. Utah
  9. Colorado
  10. Cal
  11. Oregon State
  12. Washington State