For the bulk of the 2018-19 season, the main topic of discussion surrounding Pac-12 basketball was whether or not the league would become the first power conference to send just one representative to the NCAA tournament since the Big Dance expanded to 64 teams.
Ultimately, three Pac-12 squads heard their names called on Selection Sunday. None were seeded better than ninth.
The league will look significantly different in 2019-20. Arizona is widely expected to bounce back from the program’s worst season since 1983-84. After a similarly tumultuous campaign, fellow league flag-bearer UCLA parted ways with head coach Steve Alford and lured Mick Cronin away from Cincinnati. New faces have also popped up at Cal (Mark Fox) and Washington State (Kyle Smith).
The bigger question is whether or not the league will look significantly better in 2019-20. Sean Miller’s squad will be improved, but does “improved” mean going from an 8-10 conference record to a return to top-15 national status in just one year? Washington suddenly appears to be the Pac-12 program with the most stable footing, but dominating the league last year only got them a nine-seed and a 22-point shellacking in the NCAA tournament. In 13 seasons at Cincy, Cronin took the Bearcats to just one Sweet 16 and never made it to a regional final. Alford’s postseason track record was eerily similar when he accepted one of college basketball’s highest-profile coaching gigs back in 2013. What proof is there that this go-round will be any different in Westwood?
The answers — or at least the beginnings of the answers — to all these questions will unfurl this winter on the West Coast.
Let’s take a stab at projecting the 2019-20 Pac-12.
12. CALIFORNIA GOLDEN BEARS
2018-19 Record: (8-23, 3-15)
2018-19 Pac-12 Finish: 12th
The most interesting thing about Cal last season was the debate over whether or not the Bears were the worst power conference team in the history of college basketball. The team likely avoided that dubious distinction by winning three of their last four regular season games (including a stunning upset of conference champion Washington), but that run ultimately wasn’t enough to save Wyking Jones’ job.
Former Georgia coach Mark Fox is the new front man Berkeley. An already tall task for Fox was immediately made taller when leading scorers Justice Sueing and Darius McNeill opted to transfer out of the program. A pair of experienced guards — senior PG Paris Austin and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi grad transfer Kareem South — will be relied on heavily as Cal looks to begin the process of distancing itself from the last two disastrous seasons.
11. WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS
2018-19 Record: (11-21, 4-14)
2018-19 Pac-12 Finish: 11th
Another Pac-12 newcomer is Washington State’s Kyle Smith, who brings his “nerdball” to Pullman after successful stints at Columbia and San Francisco. Smith will lean heavily on small forward CJ Elleby (14.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg) whose very solid freshman season was blanketed by Wazzou’s dismal final year under Ernie Kent. The Cougars have experience and some promising transfers, but it will likely take at least a year for the fruits of Smith’s analytics-heavy labor to become visible.
10. STANFORD CARDINAL
2018-19 Record: (15-16, 8-10)
2018-19 Pac-12 Finish: T-8th
There might not be a Pac-12 coach under more pressure to exceed expectations this season than Jerod Haase. Haase is 48-49 over his first three seasons at Stanford, and the Cardinal haven’t even sniffed a trip to the NCAA tournament under his watch. Youth and the defection of star Reid Travis to Kentucky provided something of an excuse for an underwhelming 2018-19 campaign, but a similar winter in year four is unlikely to be met with similar acceptance. Haase’s job was made even tougher when leading scorer KZ Okpala (drafted 32nd overall by the Miami Heat) opted to forego his final two years of collegiate eligibility in favor of beginning his professional career.
9. UTAH UTES
2018-19 Record: (17-14, 11-7)
2018-19 Pac-12 Finish: 3rd
On paper, it makes sense to have Utah this low. The Utes lost four of their top six scorers from a good, not great 2018-19 squad, and have no proven talent in the backcourt or post. At the same time, Larry Krystkowiak seems to do his best work when expectations are at their lowest. Because of that phenomenon and only that phenomenon, it wouldn’t be a shock to see this team finish in the top half of the final league standings.
8. OREGON STATE BEAVERS
2018-19 Record: (18-13, 10-8)
2018-19 Pac-12 Finish: T-4th
Tres Tinkle (20.8 ppg, 8.1 rpg) opted to spurn the NBA in favor of playing one more season for his father, and as a result seems the most likely candidate to be named the Pac-12’s preseason Player of the Year. Tinkle’s return plus the return of junior guard Ethan Thompson (13.7 ppg, 3.9 apg) gives the Beavers at least a shot getting back to the NCAA tournament, an event where they haven’t won a game since 1982.
7. UCLA BRUINS
2018-19 Record: (17-16, 9-9)
2018-19 Pac-12 Finish: 7th
So begins the trend of teams in the middle of this conference that feel nearly impossible to predict.
The Bruins have experienced talent as well as a pair of well-regarded newcomers (point guard Tyger Campbell and big man Shareef O’Neal) who both had to sit out what was supposed to be their freshman season a year ago because of injuries. The question is how quickly can this roster and new head coach Mick Cronin gel. Cronin’s Cincinnati teams were notorious for winning low-scoring games thanks to their tough-nosed defense. That hasn’t exactly been UCLA’s reputations in the years since Ben Howland’s firing in 2013.
Does Cronin alter his approach to play to his new gig? Do the players he has inherited fully buy-in? The pieces are certainly there for Cronin to have as special a first season as any new head coach in the country, but the questions are too abundant and too weighted to predict that’s what’s going to happen.
6. USC TROJANS
2018-19 Record: (16-17, 8-10)
2018-19 Pac-12 Finish: T-8th
USC figures to be as talented as just about any team in the Pac-12 this season, but that statement also felt true a year ago. Injuries, chemistry issues and off-court distractions resulted in that team finishing with a sub-.500 overall record and conference record.
Center Nik Rakocevic should be a first team All-Pac-12 selection, and he’s going to be surrounded by guys who should be able to light it up from the outside. Five-star freshman Isaiah Mobley and grad transfers Quinton Adlesh and Daniel Utomi provide an injection of skill and much-needed new blood that should help USC turn the page from back-to-back disappointing seasons.
Andy Enfield already has a commitment from Evan Mobley, Isaiah’s brother and the No. 1 overall player in the class of 2020. Trojan fans are hopeful that they won’t have to be continually reminding themselves of this fact throughout January and February.
5. ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS
2018-19 Record: (23-11, 12-6)
2018-19 Pac-12 Finish: 2nd
Though his teams themselves have been a bit erratic, Bobby Hurley has established a bit of consistency in Tempe, making the NCAA tournament in each of the last two seasons. In order to extend that streak to three, he’ll need the backcourt duo of junior Remy Martin and senior Rob Edwards to shoulder more of the offensive load than they did when they were aided by departed all-conference honorees Zylan Cheatham and Luguentz Dort.
Even with Cheatham and Dort gone, Hurley figures to field an experienced starting lineup comprised of three juniors, one senior and one sophomore. Talented freshmen Jaelen House and Elias Valtonen could also push for spots in that starting five.
4. OREGON DUCKS
2018-19 Record: (25-13, 10-8)
2018-19 Pac-12 Finish: T-4th
Oregon was one of the biggest losers of the draft declaration period of the offseason, with both Louis King and Kenny Wooten making somewhat surprising decisions to join Bol Bol in bolting for the professional ranks. Those defections took the Ducks from being a top 15 squad in just about everyone’s “way too early rankings,” to one receiving virtually no preseason top 25 love.
Still, Dana Altman and company have appeared in and won at least one game in six of the last seven NCAA tournaments, and there are reason to believe that trend will continue in 2020. Payton Pritchard is back to run the show after a terrific junior season where he saved his best basketball for the sport’s most important month. He should receive significant help from the additions of five-star freshman C.J. Walker and UNLV grad transfer Shakur Juiston (10.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg).
3. ARIZONA WILDCATS
2018-19 Record: (17-15, 8-10)
2018-19 Pac-12 Finish: T-8th
Arizona fans are hopeful that they never have to go through a season like 2018-19 again, both in terms of win/loss record and off-court drama. When the final horn sounded in Tucson last March, the Wildcats had finished with their worst overall record in more than three decades and many believed their head coach was on his way out. Five months later, optimism is high that 2018-19 was a one-year sentence to college basketball purgatory, and that the Wildcats will be back in their familiar role of chasing a trip to the Final Four in 2019-20.
That optimism took a hit earlier this week when it was announced that sophomore guard Brandon Williams will miss the entire season because of a knee injury. Williams was one of the few bright spots for Arizona last season, starting 21 games and averaging 11.4 points and 3.4 assists per contest as a freshman.
Williams’ injury puts even more pressure on the much-heralded freshman point guard Nico Mannion. It also elevates the importance of UC Irvine grad transfer Max Hazzard, who was the star of the Anteaters’ upset of fourth-seeded Kansas State in last year’s NCAA tournament. Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji — the other major members of Sean Miller’s top five recruiting class — will join up with senior Chase Jeter to form what should be one of the top frontcourts in the Pac-12.
2. COLORADO BUFFALOES
2018-19 Record: (23-13, 10-8)
2018-19 Pac-12 Finish: T-4th
Let the record note that Colorado came very, very close to holding down the top spot in these rankings. The Buffaloes haven’t won more than a single game in the NCAA tournament since all the way back in 1955. Tad Boyle has assembled a roster that has at least a shot at altering that dubious bit of history.
After a rough January, Colorado finished last year’s regular season by winning 10 of its final 13 games. They then parlayed that hot streak into a pair of NIT wins before falling to eventual tournament champion Texas in the quarterfinals.
Every major contributor from that team is back, which should result in Boyle fielding a starting lineup comprised of all juniors and seniors. Point guard McKinley Wright (13.0 ppg, 4.8 apg) and big man Tyler Bey (13.6 ppg, 9.9 rpg) might be the best inside/outside duo in the conference.
1. WASHINGTON HUSKIES
2018-19 Record: (27-9, 15-3)
2018-19 Pac-12 Finish: 1st
Washington ran away with the Pac-12’s regular season title last season, winning its first 10 conference games and finishing a full three games clear of second-place Arizona State in the final league standings. The top four scorers from that team are gone, but there are still plenty of reasons to believe that Mike Hopkins can keep the Huskies at the top of the Pac-12 standings in 2019-20.
For starters, Washington brings in two of the top eight players in the 2019 recruiting class with five-star frontcourt talents Jaden McDaniels and Isaiah Stewart. They’ll add another former five-star talent in December when Kentucky transfer guard Quade Green becomes eligible. Junior guard Nahziah Carter got lost in the shuffle at times last season, but has the ability to thrive in an expanded role this year.