The season is off to a tumultuous start for the Wildcats, who lost talented freshman Ray Smith to his third ACL tear in an exhibition game against College of Idaho. Also notably absent were Chance Comanche (suspended indefinitely for academic reasons) and Allonzo Trier, who has had rumors swirling surrounding his eligibility this season as well. Trier would be a monumental loss for Arizona, he would have been a 1st round NBA selection had he chosen to leave school, and was expected to be an All-American candidate upon his return.
The roster once again is experiencing major turnover from the year prior. Gone are leading scorers Ryan Anderson and Gabe York, along with one of the conferences best big men in Kaleb Tarczewski, and key reserve Mark Tollefsen. Fortunately, they welcome one of the best recruiting classes in the country to town. Five stars Rawle Atkins and Lauri Markkanen join #32 ranked four star Kobi Simmons to represent Scout.com’s 7th ranked college basketball recruiting class for 2016. All three prospects will be asked to contribute right away as Arizona has severe depth issues with the uncertainty surrounding Comanche and Trier.
Returning contributors include G Kadeem Allen (8.4ppg and 3.6apg), G Parker Jackson-Cartwright (5.2ppg and 3.4apg) and talented big man Dusan Ristic (7.1ppg and 3.8rpg). Ristic will be especially important for the Wildcats, and is expected to make a big leap forward in production this season. Defensively, he will need to show dramatic improvement if the Wildcats expect to have a presence on the interior. Jackson-Cartwright has failed to meet expectations thus far in Tucson, struggling to impact games throughout long stretches last season. He will be asked to be the floor leader for this ball club as one of the few veteran leaders; he needs to be more impactful.
Arizona State Sun Devils
The Sun Devils will be hard-pressed to replace a very valuable jack-of-all-trades type weapon in Gerry Blakes this season. Veteran forwards Savon Goodman, Willie Atwood, and Eric Jacobsen have all graduated as well, leaving a huge experience gap in the Sun Devil frontcourt. ASU quietly secured the 23rd best recruiting class in 2016 according to Scout.com team rankings, and a majority of those pieces will be asked to fill that frontcourt void. The jewels of the class are SF Sam Cunliffe and PF Romello White, but Congolese C Jethro Tshisumpa has a chance to be an impactful rim protector in time as well.
Bobby Hurley is still trying to mold this program into an art piece he can be proud of. G Shannon Evans, a transfer from Buffalo who sat out last season, might be the first major piece to help him do that. Evans is an electric talent that should provide an immediate impact at the Pac-12 level. Fellow newcomer Torian Graham has been making waves in Tempe as well, most notably in regards to his shooting prowess. G Tra Holder led the Sun Devils in both scoring and assists last year, and he’ll be back to general the offense yet again. Holder needs to focus on being more efficient; he shot just 38.7% from the field last year, and turned the ball over nearly three times per game. Sharpshooter Kodi Justice and enforcer Obinna Oleka both return as well and should be vital pieces for a program looking to fight its way into postseason play.
California Golden Bears
You can’t talk about the California basketball program without first mentioning F Ivan Rabb. Rabb surprised pundits and NBA scouts by returning to Cal this season after being projected as an NBA lottery pick in last year’s draft. You can pen him onto the 1st Team All-Conference team now, and he’ll be a potential All-American candidate as well. Unfortunately, quite a bit of talent did leave campus this summer. Tyrone Wallace and Jaylen Brown left for the NBA, and swingman Jordan Mathews chose to transfer out to Gonzaga. Those three names represented the top three scorers for the Golden Bears last season, and replacing that level of production is problematic.
Columbia transfer Grant Mullins will certainly help fill the gap at point guard, he was considered one of the best transfer guards available and he will be asked to run this Cal team from the jump. Incoming freshman Charlie Moore should add depth into the backcourt, as he was ranked among the best prep PGs in the nation last year.
The Golden Bears return twin towers Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh, which will create matchup problems for smaller teams throughout the Pac-12 and should provide a formidable rim-protecting defense. Former five-star prospect Jabari Bird has failed to maintain consistency at California, but there’s something about senior year that tends to turn the light on for guys.
The majority of the roster from last year’s squad that earned a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament returns this season, and thus, the Ducks are expected to win the conference yet again this season. Don’t get me wrong, Elgin Cook and Dwayne Benjamin are both talented players, but Oregon succeeded in bringing in enough talent to mitigate those departures. The one thing the Ducks will miss from those two graduating is physical toughness.
From a talent perspective though, the Ducks bring in four big time players in the 11th ranked class in the Scout.com rankings for 2016, and also get Dylan Ennis back from his season-ending injuries last season. G Payton Pritchard, SF Keith Smith, and C MJ Cage all rank among the top 100 prospects in the nation last season but can be brought along slowly because the depth of this Ducks roster is unmatched in the Pac-12. Kavell Bigby-Williams is an elite JUCO transfer that will impact this league from Day 1.
The Dillon Brooks injury has the potential for major concern if it lingers too far into the season, but assuming he can return healthy, Brooks will be a front-runner for Pac-12 Player of the Year. Few players nationally have his level of patient tenacity attacking the rim. G Tyler Dorsey returns after breaking out as one of the nation’s best freshmen last season. Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell both return, and will form one of the best shot blocking duos around the country this upcoming season. Add in Boucher’s offensive versatility and you can expect him to push for All-Conference consideration in his senior season in Eugene. PG Casey Benson is the perfect complement to this roster, running the offense behind the seasons, making the right reads to find open teammates and contributing offensively as needed. There is no doubt this is one of the most elite rosters in the country.
Oregon State Beavers
Wayne Tinkle has done a nice job since his arrival in Corvallis, but this season might be his toughest test of all. Yes, he has more talent than when he got here, but expectations have changed, and Gary Payton II is no longer at his disposal. Payton was the best player in the conference last year and one of the most impactful defensive players I’ve ever watched in this league, replacing him is not possible. Contributors Malcolm Duvivier, Olaf Schaftenaar, and Langston Morris-Walker have all moved on as well. Late blooming Derrick Bruce also chose to transfer in the offseason.
A trio of freshmen helped lead the charge for the Beavers to make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1990. Tres Tinkle, Stephen Thompson, and Drew Eubanks will remain the foundation of this program for the foreseeable future. Tinkle was terrific as a freshman before breaking his foot towards the end of last season, but he was recently cleared for basketball activities and will likely be the go-to guy for the Beavers this season. Thompson is a high-flying wing and Eubanks is a versatile four that can impact the game in many ways. Incoming freshman JaQuori McLaughlin will be asked to take the PG reigns from the previously mentioned guard duo of Gary Payton II and Malcolm Duvivier. Guard play is an integral part of college basketball success, so he’ll need to be an immediate contributor or the Beavers will be hard-pressed to return to the NCAA Tournament.
Rosco Allen’s decision to leave early for the NBA was one of the more head-scratching decisions of the summer. Allen was one of the more versatile players in the league last season, using his abnormal length and size to shoot over smaller defenders and attacking the rim when opposed by a big. Coach Jerod Haase certainly could have used him as he looks to rebuild the Stanford program in his first season.
Fortunately, most of the rest of the Cardinal return, including all four other members of their starting five. F Reid Travis, F Michael Humphrey, and G Dorian Pickens all averaged double digits last season and are talented enough to compete in the Pac-12 conference. Reid Travis is expected to perform like an All-Conference candidate now that he’s an upperclassman and Humphrey showed flashes last season that would suggest he can take the next step into a big time conference player as well. Incoming freshmen Trevor Stanbeck and Kodye Pugh were both top 100 recruits in 2016 according to Scout.com, they’re potential can impact the outcome of this season for Stanford.
The concerns for the Cardinal will be whether they can find a reliable point guard to run the offense and whether or not they can get enough production from their big men to make a real impact in the conference.
The good news for UCLA is that much of their production returns to Westwood this season. The bad news is that group produced one of the most disappointing seasons in the entire country last year, as the Bruins finished 6-12 in league play after being pegged as a top 25 team in the preseason. The frontcourt will look a bit different this season with the departures of Tony Parker and Jonah Bolden.
Incoming five-star freshmen Ike Anigbogu and TJ Leaf, ranked 17th and 22nd in the 2016 Scout 100 respectively, will be asked to fill the void. Those aren’t the biggest new arrivals on campus though. Enter Lonzo Ball. The 7th ranked prospect in the country, Ball just might be the natural PG UCLA has been desperately missing the past few seasons. He is one of the most gifted passers you’ll ever see, especially for someone with his physical frame.
His presence should allow Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton to settle into roles more suitable to their skill sets, freeing them up to flourish as scorers while Ball engineers the offense. Alford got much of the national praise (and hatred) last season, but it was Hamilton who led UCLA in scoring, while being far more efficient as well. Alford is as dangerous as anyone in the country, especially down the stretch of games, but he can also shoot UCLA out of games and is prone to substantial stretches of poor play. Thomas Welsh averaged a near double double in limited minutes last year, and with more minutes available, he’ll have opportunities to prove he can be an All-Conference type player in the Pac-12. Aaron Holiday is one of the better players in the Pac-12 you’ve never heard of. He’s productive in all facets of the game, but with Lonzo Ball on campus, it will be interesting to see how the Bruins find him minutes.
Selfishly, by far the most crushing departure in the league this offseason was G Julian Jacobs. Jacobs was easily my favorite player in the Pac-12 outside of Boulder last season, showing unmatched versatility in all facets, along with being a lethal and punishing finisher when attacking the paint. Big man Nikola Jovanovic and streaky wing Katin Reinhardt also left the Trojans in the dust, meaning the Trojans have a ton of talent to replace on the court this winter.
Jonah Mathews, ranked No. 62 in the 2016 Scout 100, will likely get immediate playing time for the Trojans who have a bit of a depth issue in a rebuilding year. The Trojans have just two upperclassmen on the roster, making them one of the youngest teams in the country. Incoming transfer Shaqquan Aaron will look to improve on a disappointing stint in Louisville, which would go a long way towards improving the Trojans depth this season.
USC does return some young talent as well, led by G Jordan McLaughlin, who is one of the best guards in the conference. He is a crafty scorer, productive from the three-point stripe, creates well for others, and is among the league leaders in steals defensively. C Chimeze Metu will be in the conversation for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, if he can hone his skills offensively to become more of a consistent threat on both ends of the floor, he has a chance to be really special. Elijah Stewart will be a reliable weapon for the Trojans as well, acting as a steadying hand for a roster full of talent but starving for consistency. The most important player for USC, though, might just be Bennie Boatwight. Boatwright has the skill set to become an NBA player without question. He’s a matchup nightmare on the wing, an aggressive rebounder, and should be one of the most improved players in the conference this year.
Few teams lost as much in terms of sheer numbers than Utah, they have an absurd number of new faces in Salt Lake City this season. Larry Krystkowiak will be without the services of elite C Jakob Poeltl this season, and that itself means Utah has some work to do. Veteran leaders Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge, maligned as they may be, will also be missed in Salt Lake City. Role players Dakarai Tucker, Brekkot Chapman, and Kenneth Ogbe are also departed.
Utah State transfer David Collette is probably the most important newcomer for the Utes. He averaged 13 and 5 for the Aggies, and there was certainly some controversy surrounding his decision to leave that program and head to Utah. Jayce Johnson, the #59 player in the 2016 Scout.com rankings, will be forced into immediate playing time on a roster that lacks ideal size. Tyler Rawson, formerly of Southern Utah and the JUCO ranks, will also try to break into the frontcourt rotation.
The Utes are likely to be led by G Lorenzo Bonam and F Kyle Kuzma this season. The duo represents the lone stability amongst a roster full of turnover and JUCO stopgaps. Bonam was one of the best newcomers in the conference last season, scoring in a variety of ways and using his tenacity to frustrate opposing players on defense. Kuzma has received some NBA pub, but he’ll have to improve his outside shooting, defensive approach, and decision making in order to make that dream a reality. There’s no doubt that his offensive game is a rare blend of size and skill, though, especially at the college level. The main question for Utah though, is who will play point guard? Incoming JUCO guards Jojo Zamora and Tim Coleman will likely battle for the role, but for the Utes to return to the NCAA Tournament, they’ll need to thrive in their roles, not just be forced into a starting spot.
The bad news?
No one lost more talent than Washington, and they didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament last season. Dejounte Murray, Andrew Andrews, and Marquese Chriss were three of the best players in the Pac-12 last year, none return.
The good news?
Markelle Fultz is in town, and he’s your early front-runner to be the #1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. Fultz is a ridiculously explosive athlete and will be an absolute treat to watch develop as he tries to drag the Huskies into postseason play. Washington probably owned the best group of freshmen in the entire country last season, and fortunately a few of those pieces do return. F Noah Dickerson is the Huskies returning leading scorer (at just 7.5ppg), and showed flashes as a productive rebounder in his freshmen season at Washington. G David Crisp has a chance to be a productive player at this level, but he needs to improve on a largely inefficient freshmen campaign. C Malik Dime will be one of the league’s best interior defenders and rebounders, and G Matisse Thybulle should provide quality depth as well.
In the end, a few of these returning pieces will need to step up as reliable scoring options beyond Fultz if the Huskies plan to make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.
Washington State Cougars
At some point, you have to figure Washington State will climb their way out of the Pac-12 cellar. This isn’t likely to be the season. A majority of the roster returns from a squad that went just 1-17 in conference this season, and while that record figures to improve this year; I’d be surprised if they weren’t at the bottom of the standings yet again in 2017. Que Johnson, the team’s third leading scorer, transferred out of the program, and he represents the only major loss from last year’s group.
Incoming G Milan Acquaah will be the program staple asked to be the focal point of this team going forward. The rest of the incoming freshmen class is less heralded, and Ernie Kent will have his hands full developing these guys over three to four years into quality Pac-12 performers.
F Josh Hawkinson is legitimately one of the better players in the Pac-12. He has fantastic touch offensively, and is arguably the league’s best returning rebounder. G Ike Iroegbu is a fantastic athlete that has improved every year on campus for the Cougars, he is returning from an injury and will be an important piece for WSU if they want to pull themselves off the Pac-12 doormat. Role players C Conor Clifford and G Charles Callison will be relied on heavily as veteran leaders for a young group.