We know Arizona is the heavy favorite, despite losing lottery pick Aaron Gordon to the NBA, but how does the rest of the league round out? Is this league better than people want to give it credit for? Or will it be another down year for the Pac-12 from top-to-bottom?
12. Oregon State Beavers
Last Year’s Record: 16-16 (8-10)
This Year’s Projected Pac-12 Record: 1-17
Head Coach: Wayne Tinkle
Key Players: Malcolm Duvivier, Langston Morris-Walker, Daniel Gomis
Being the brother-in-law of President Obama can only get you so far in life.
That’s what Craig Robinson found out last year when the First Lady’s brother was finally fired as head coach of Oregon State after a disastrous six-year run. Robinson only managed one winning season, and even though there was progress last year, it wasn’t enough for him to return.
Now, Wayne Tinkle takes over a Beavers program desperate for some sort of continued success. However, that simply will not happen this season.
With Roberto Nelson and Hallice Cooke gone from the program, OSU will now need several unproven young players to up their game immediately if Oregon State is going to be competitive. Sophomore Malcolm Duvivier averaged 3.1 ppg coming off the bench this year, and now he will be asked to be the primary play-maker in the Beavers’ backcourt. Duvivier is coming off injuries that hampered his previous campaign and he will look to make a bigger impact now that he is healthy.
Victor Robbins played a limited amount at the swingman spot, but will likely start during his junior year, and Langston Morris-Walker is the team’s leading returning scorer at 4.0 ppg and 2.1 rpg. Morris-Walker now has the potential to be the team’s best player with almost all of the talent gone from a season ago. He is an excellent shooter who could get hot at any moment. Son of former OSU star Gary Payton, Gary Payton II comes in and should get a chance to get some minutes right away.
Down low, Oregon State returns three players who at least got some minutes a season ago, and their big man depth is one where Tinkle can feel a little secure.
Jarmal Reid is a 6-7 bruising forward who doesn’t score much, but brings some stability defensively. Daniel Gomis and Olaf Schaftenaar, both listed at 6-10, are two international players who are still looking to find their rhythm at college level, but could make major jumps.
Oregon State is a team that would probably struggle to be a .500 team in most of the mid-major conferences in America. Throw them in the Pac-12? Good luck. A conference win, any conference win, would be a success for Tinkle in his first year at the helm.
11. USC Trojans
Last Year’s Record: 11-21 (2-16)
This Year’s Projected Pac-12 Record: 4-14
Head Coach: Andy Enfield
Key Players: Nikola Jovanovic, Katin Reinhardt, Jordan McLaughlin
The bad news: USC has lost its top four scorers from a season ago, including 18 points per-game lead man, Byron Wesley, who transferred to Gonzaga.
The good news? That team was just 2-16 in the Pac-12, and now head coach Andy Enfield has his first real recruiting class ready to come in and begin learning the ropes right away.
Enfield knew it would be a process when he got to SoCal, but he likely didn’t expect last year’s team to be quite as bad as they were. However, Enfield was still able to pull in an excellent recruiting class that should help turn this program around.
First let’s look at the returners, led by 6’10” big man Nikola Jovanovic, who is the team’s returning scorer at 8.0 ppg. He will need to up his rebounding and scoring numbers, but should get several more opportunities this season, and has the talent to be an impact player.
The only other returning frontcourt player is Strahinja Gavrilovic, who got in the rotation a season ago and should do the same this year, even if he doesn’t start.
At the guard spots, Julian Jacobs returns after averaging nearly seven ppg a season ago in a starting role, and should get more freedom with Wesley gone. Kahlil Dukes and Chass Bryan make up an underwhelming backcourt bench duo that could get unseated unless they improve.
Other than Jovanovic and maybe Jacobs, there isn’t much returning talent to get excited about. However, the reason USC may sneak up on some people in the Pac-12 this season is their newcomers.
The best, or at least the most-proven, is UNLV transfer Katin Reinhardt, who was a double-digit scorer alongside Anthony Bennett and co. in the 2012-13 Runnin’ Rebels squad. He should step in right away as a starter and is a reliable scoring option.
Jordan McLaughlin was a highly touted recruit that turned down UCLA, Indiana, and Kansas to come play with the Trojans. He should be an important piece in the rebuilding process and will likely be the team’s starting point guard right away.
He is joined by two other freshmen, Elijah Stewart and Malik Marquetti, that will need to develop, but will get chances right away to throw themselves into the fire. These two four-star recruits provide depth that was missing from last year’s team.
In the frontcourt, there is freshman Malik Price-Martin who should get his chance right away to play in the big man rotation.
USC is too young to really do all that much damage in the Pac-12 this season, but they should at least be more competitive and fun to watch with their young players coming in and helping to get them off the ground.
10. Washington State Cougars
Last Year’s Record: 10-21 (3-15)
This Year’s Projected Pac-12 Record: 4-14
Head Coach: Ernie Kent
Key Players: DaVonte Lacy, Que Johnson, Dexter Kernich-Drew
With proven Pac-12 coach Ernie Kent now taking over at Washington State, the program is hoping to find the success they haven’t seen since Tony Bennett left for Virginia.
While this year’s team has some exciting pieces, they likely are still a few years away from a tournament birth.
If this squad is going to surprise people, they will need to do it behind their leader DaVonte Lacy. Lacy would have almost assuredly made it to the Pac-12’s all-league team had he remained healthy for the full season last year. Before going down with an injury, Lacy was averaging 19.4 ppg and 4.2 rpg. He was shooting nearly 40 percent from three-point range, and was putting up big numbers almost every night, albeit usually in defeat.
He will be back and will look to finish off his college career with a bang. He will need Que Jackson to help him do so, as Jackson will look for more consistency as the Cougars number-two option. In his freshman season, Jackson was up and down, but did show some flashes of brilliance and ended up averaging nearly 10 points a contest. If he can up that number to around 14-15, it will put a huge relief on Lacy and the offense.
Washington State will also need a major contribution from returning wing Dexter Kernich-Drew, who started 21 games a season ago and has the ability to stretch the floor and help defensively. Ike Iroegbu should be able to help as well, filling out the four returning guards, while Kent will need to do the majority of the damage on offense. There also should be some freshman able to contribute, especially Jackie Davis and Ny Redding.
For Washington State to be successful, however, Kent will have to work his magic in the frontcourt. The Cougars do bring back their starting center Jordan Railey, but he was basically a non-factor offensively a season ago. Josh Hawkinson is back and the big man will help protect the rim. From there, Kent has even more question marks. Players such as Junior Longrus and Aaron Cheatum could become staples in the rotation, but it is totally unknown if they are ready for it.
Washington State will likely once again be one of the best defensive teams in the Pac-12, but if they want to break out into the league’s top half, they will have to score more points than their abysmal 62.4 ppg clip from a season ago.
9. Washington Huskies
Last Year’s Record: 17-15 (9-9)
This Year’s Projected Pac-12 Record: 6-12
Head Coach: Lorenzo Romar
Key Players: Nigel Williams-Goss, Andrew Andrews, Darin Johnson
After the more obvious bottom three, the Pac-12 is tough to project, especially in the middle.
Washington could maybe jump into the top five if everything clicks, but there isn’t enough reason for me to get excited enough to put them that high. Instead, expect another long season for the Huskies, who likely will miss the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight year.
If Washington does end up moving up, however, it will be largely because of the play of their guard duo, Nigel Williams-Goss and Andrew Andrews. Williams-Goss almost went pro, but the point guard wisely decided to return to college. He is a dynamic play-maker, but now with C.J. Wilcox gone, his scoring will have to jump. He shouldn’t have an issue with that, as he led all Pac-12 freshman in that category a season ago.
Andrews wasn’t quite as explosive, often developing a reputation for disappearing in big moments. However, all of the talent is there for him to be one of the best two guards in the league. Andrews and swingman Darin Johnson will have another offseason worth of experience and should continue making the Huskies an exciting team on the perimeter.
The depth will have to come from 6’6″ JUCO transfer Quevyn Winters, who started his college career at Duquense before Romar brought him in to Washington. While with the Dukes, Winters was a near double-digit scorer. It will be interesting to see if that scoring prowess transfers to a stronger conference.
Mike Anderson had an up and down season last year, but at the very least is an extra body with some experience that Romar can rely on.
In the post, it’s likely Washington will struggle. Romar will need center Robert Upshaw, a transfer from Fresno State, to immediately make an impact after sitting out a season ago. Upshaw has the size to be a factor but needs to hone his skills. Jernard Jarreau will help too, as the junior is coming off a lost season after going down with a knee injury in the first game last year. Backups Shawn Kemp Jr. (the 90s NBA star’s offspring theme continues) and Gilles Dierckx didn’t make as big of an impact last year as they needed to for the Huskies, and Romar has to find a way to get more out of them in 2014-15.
Losing C.J. Wilcox and Perris Blackwell will be difficult for Washington to overcome, and it’s unlikely that there will be enough that goes right to break Washington’s NCAA tournament drought this season.
8. Oregon Ducks
Last Year’s Record: 24-10 (10-8)
This Year’s Projected Pac-12 Record: 6-12
Head Coach: Dana Altman
Key Players: Joseph Young, Michael Chandler, Elgin Cook
Analysis: It has been an ugly offseason for Dana Altman and the Oregon Ducks.
Altman already knew he would be losing a lot from a season ago, but he did not expect to have to release an additional three players; Damyean Dotson, Dominic Artis, and Brandon Austin, for a rape investigation that has put a damper on an Oregon program that was steadily on the rise.
This isn’t the place to debate whether or not the dismissals were justified with the charges now dropped, but the fact of the matter is those three players won’t be on Oregon this year, and when you combine that with the loss of Mike Moser, Jason Calliste, and Jonathan Lloyd, it would appear initially that the Ducks would be in for a long season.
It only got worse from there as JaQuan Lyle and Ray Kasongo, two newcomers expected to come in right away (Lyle likely would have started), are currently not enrolled in the school and it looks at this moment like neither will be a part of the Ducks roster once the season begins.
Oregon’s season now rests solely the return of Joseph Young, a potential Pac-12 Player of the Year this season. Young averaged a gaudy 18.9 points per-game a season ago and his numbers will likely go up even further since Oregon is lacking any other proven options.
Elgin Cook is the next-best returning guard. The swingman was effective in a reserve role a season ago and now he will get his opportunity to start.
Arizona Prep Player of the Year Casey Benson comes in as the new starting point guard and should be able to settle in to his new role right away. His back-up will be Ahmaad Rorie who was a late seal from Cal for Altman in the recruiting game.
6-10 Michael Chandler, a JUCO transfer will get his chance at one big man spot. His offensive game needs work but he is a big body who can block shots and rebound effectively. He was a highly recruited player out of high school that at one time was committed to Louisville.
Dwayne Benjamin is another Junior-College transfer that comes in and should play right away. Benjamin is a former UTEP product that can shoot and provide depth.
If Oregon had returned the three players who were dismissed, they were a likely Sweet 16 team. If they had lost those three but added Kasongo and Lyle, they probably could have still finished in the top half of the Pac-12. But with all of those players gone? It’s going to be extremely difficult for Altman to find too many wins in league this season.
7. California Golden Bears
Last Year’s Record: 21-14 (10-8)
This Year’s Projected Pac -12 Record: 8-10
Head Coach: Cuonzo Martin
Key Players: Jabari Bird, Tyrone Wallace, David Kravish
Cuonzo Martin has moved from the south to the West Coast, leaving an up and coming Tennessee program to take over California from the retiring Mike Montgomery.
Martin is a highly skilled recruiter, but this season he will have to make due with what he has in Berkley. Cal will return three starters who will make or break their season, but leading scorer Justin Cobbs will be hard to replace.
Jabari Bird could potentially make the jump to being the team’s top player this season after an up and down freshman campaign. Bird was a huge recruit for Montgomery a season ago, but mostly failed to live up to the hype. Still, he did show flashes of that potential that put him on many Freshman of the Year watch-lists a season ago. If he can unlock his potential, he could fill in for Cobbs as the team’s go-to scorer.
If not, it may fall on the hands of returning Tyrone (not smoochie) Wallace. The 6’5″ junior is known for his slashing ability and his top notch defense. Last season he added an improved jump-shot to his arsenal and that should carry over and elevate his already impressive numbers. The back-up to Bird and Wallace will be sophomore Jordan Matthews who had a 32 point outing against Oregon a season ago and should be more consistent this season.
At the lead guard spot, it will be an open competition to see who will take over. Sophomore Sam Singer is likely the favorite, but he rarely got opportunities last season despite being a highly touted recruit. His competition will be freshman Brandon Chauca who will try to use his good court awareness to make up for his height (5’9″).
In the post, the Golden Bears will need senior David Kravish to be their anchor. Kravish had a massive 73 blocks last year, a school record. He also improved his offensive game upping his average to 11.4 ppg, and 7.7 rpg.
Kravish was expected to be joined by Kameron Rooks, but unfortunately for Cal, Rooks went down in the offseason with a torn ACL. Englishmen Kinglsey Okoroh will now need to play an increase role. The seven-footer comes in with natural athleticism and a defensive knack, but without much of an offensive game to speak of.
Roger Moute a Bidias, Christian Behrens, and Cornell transfer Dwight Tarwater will all get their crack at the rotation with many minutes to be had in a relatively weak frontcourt.
Cal’s depth may be their downfall this season as Martin may not be able to go more than seven deep. If they want to make a push for the NCAA Tournament, Martin will need Wallace, Bird, and Kravish to elevate their game and play major minutes.
6. Arizona State Sun Devils
This Year’s Record: 21-12 (10-8)
This Year’s Projected Pac-12: 9-9
Head Coach: Herb Sendek
Key Players: Shaquielle McKissic, Jonathan Gilling, Roosevelt Scott
Arizona State is without a doubt the biggest wild-card in the Pac-12 heading into the season. On one hand, they have lost a ton of talent from a season ago, including three double-digit scorers, one of which being Jahii Carson.
On the other hand, ASU brings in a wealth of talented players, many of which come in from the Junior-College ranks, that could help Herb Sendek reload and remain in the top half of the league.
Arizona State will want to play fast this season with their superior depth. Sendek will be looking to utilize his athletes and get up and down the court. The “3-12-24″ plan is reportedly still in play in Tempe (three seconds to get the ball over half-court, 12 to get a shot, operating on a 24 second shot clock instead of 35) and this team is borrowing from its home states pro team the Suns, who have long been known as a team that likes to run and gun.
In the backcourt, there are a number of names you should be aware of that could make a big impact. Shaquille McKissic is the team’s top returning player and should start at small forward. McKissic was a great play-maker a season ago posting 83 assists compared to just 28 turnovers. This proves that he is capable of having the ball in his hands to do more than just score.
Joining McKissic will be the returning Bo Barnes, a senior leader who provides energy off the bench. Several newcomers will play including Roosevelt Scott, who’s length and speed could turn him into the team’s best defender sooner rather than later. Fellow JUCO transfer Gerry Blakes was a third team Junior-College All-American last year and he could be the team’s starting point guard.
Freshman Tra Holder is a four-star prospect that will compete for minutes as well. He was rated as the nation’s number 18 point guard prospect and should make an impact right away especially on defense.
In the frontcourt, the Sun Devils best returner is Jonathan Gilling, a 6’7″ power forward that can step out and shoot and plays within the team, but needs to find more consistency in his final season.
Eric Jacobsen is the only other returner amongst the bigs and he has the length to make an impact but couldn’t figure out how to contribute offensively a season ago. Freshman Connor MacDougall will threaten his minutes if he doesn’t develop this year.
Arizona State has a ton of fresh faces that could make a big impact, but with so many new players chemistry may be an issue, and there will likely be a learning curve that the players will need time to adjust to.
When you put it all together and shake it up, Arizona State ends up somewhere in the middle, but there is a potential for a bigger finish or a total free fall.
5. Stanford Cardinal
Last Year’s Record: 23-13 (10-8)
This Year’s Projected Pac-12 Record: 11-7
Head Coach: Johnny Dawkins
Key Players: Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown, Stefan Nastic
Everything looked like it was heading in the direction of a Johnny Dawkins firing from Stanford, as late as early March last season.
That was of course before the Cardinal won five games in a row at the end of the season, including back-to-back wins over New Mexico and Kansas in the NCAA Tournament to make it to the Sweet Sixteen, and in turn saving Dawkins for at least another year.
Stanford loses Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell but returns several other players that should make them a tournament team once again.
Chasson Randle, the team’s leading scorer at 18.8 ppg a season ago is back, and is in the mix for Pac-12 POTY in the pre-season. The senior leader will once again be the go-to scorer but will be keyed in on even more with Huestis and Powell gone. Still, Randle should be able to continue to dominate due to his ability to find ways to put the ball in the basket.
Anthony Brown’s return will help take the pressure off. Brown was a double digit scorer as well who started 35 games a season ago. He won the Pac-12’s Most Improved Player award last year, and now has settled in as one of the league’s best swingmen.
Stanford’s big issue will be the limited options they have behind Randle and Brown at the guard spot. They will need Marcus and Malcolm Allen, two brothers who played sparingly as freshman to step up, and newcomers Dorian Pickens and Robert Cartwright were two excellent recruits that will get their chance right away, but are still unproven.
Losing the 25.2 points and 15.1 rebounds that Powell and Huesits combined for will undoubtedly hurt their frontcourt, but the good news for Dawkins is that big man Stefan Nastic is back for one more season and should improve his game. Nastic is a good defender who is capable of bumping his scoring up into the 10-12 range as well, and he will need to this season for the Cardinal to be successful.
The big get in the offseason for Dawkins was freshman Reid Travis, the 6’8″ forward who was a top-50 recruit that turned down Coach K and Duke to play in Palo Alto. He is the likely starter at power forward and should be able to use his size and athleticism to do damage in the Pac-12.
Fellow top-100 recruit Michael Humphrey comes in as well and should be the first big man off the bench if he progresses. Rosco Allen is coming off an injury and will look to contribute, while Grant Verhoven and Schuyler Rimmer, two little used bigs will battle each other for the back-up center job.
Stanford might not be as good as last year’s team played in the NCAA Tournament, but they should hang around in the Pac-12 and safely make the field in the NCAA’s.
4. UCLA Bruins
Last Year’s Record: 28-9 (12-6)
This Year’s Projected Pac-12 Record: 11-7
Head Coach: Steve Alford
Key Players: Norman Powell, Kevon Looney, Bryce Alford
Most programs would be expected to struggle the year after losing a trio of players as talented as Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Zach LaVine. Most programs aren’t UCLA.
Fans were pleased with Steve Alford’s first go-round as the Bruins head coach, bringing the team back to the Sweet Sixteen, but they won’t settle for regression this season even after all of those players have moved on.
The good news is that they likely won’t have to, as UCLA once again has a team capable of making a run in the tournament.
Norman Powell is the team’s best returning player. A double-digit scorer from a season ago, he know will see more shots with Anderson and Adams gone to the pros. The senior is also the teams best defender and a solid rebounder. Overall, he has the potential to be the Bruin’s best player.
Son of Steve, Bryce Alford might be the team’s starting point guard. Alford is an excellent three-point shooter who helps space the floor and should get open looks off of the other guards dribble penetration. Issac Hamilton, will come in as well and should get minutes in the backcourt.
UCLA was expecting Colorado State transfer Jon Octeus to come in and potentially start right away. Octeus was a double-digit scorer for CSU last season, but he was denied entrance to UCLA and won’t be able to play. This is a huge blow to Alford’s backcourt depth. He will now need players such as Noah Allen or his other son, Kory to step up to provide depth.
The frontcourt is led by a couple of prized recruits that made Alford’s freshman class rank among the nations best this season. Kevon Looney is the first piece of that class and the five-star recruit is expected to be one of the team’s best players this season. Looney is a great athlete who can score in a half-court set or in transition. He is a great rebounder and has the ability to make an impact on defense as well.
Other post prospects include five-star recruit Thomas Welsh, a 7’0″ center who should be able to provide a big post presence, and returner Tony Parker who provides stability and size to Alford’s front-line. UCLA was dealt another blow when five-star recruit Jonah Bolden was declared ineligible. Instead the third big might be Wanaah Bail or Gyorgy Goloman.
UCLA probably has too many newcomers and has lost too much that they were expected to bring in to make it into the top three of the conference. That said, UCLA still has the pieces to put together a solid team that should be able to make the NCAA Tournament behind the strength of Powell and Looney.
3. Utah Utes
Last Year’s Record: 21-12 (9-9)
This Year’s Projected Pac-12 Record: 12-6
Head Coach: Larry Krystkowiak
Key Players: Delon Wright, Jordan Loveridge, Brandon Taylor
After a four year drought, Utah is once again primed to make it back to the NCAA Tournament.
The underrated Larry Krystkowiak has his team positioned extremely well after a 21-win campaign a season ago that ended with an NIT birth, a big step forward for the Utah program.
Now,after going a surprising 9-9 in Pac-12 play a year ago, the Utes have all the tools they need to take the next step forward.
All Pac-12 guard Delon Wright (brother of NBA player Dorrell) has jumped up the ranks of the Pac-12’s best players heading into his senior season. Wright averaged over 15 points per-game last season, and nearly seven boards. At 6’5″ Wright can play either the two or three positions, guard multiple positions on defense, and score in a variety of ways. He’s on the short-list heading in to 2014-15 for POTY in the conference.
He is joined by another excellent player in Jordan Loveridge, who played an astonishing 36 minutes per-game last season (Wright, even more shockingly played 38). Loveridge, will man either the three or four spots and was a big rebounding force to go along with his 14.7 ppg. If he can improve his jump shooting, he is a serious threat for All Pac-12 as well.
The third of four returning starters is Brandon Taylor, a junior who was third behind Wright and Loveridge in scoring last season. Taylor slotted into the point guard spot, was fourth in the Pac-12 in three-pointers made a season ago averaging over two-and-a-half per-game. Dakarai Tucker is the final returning starter, and the shooting guard is a deadly three-point shooter who is also an athletic defender.
Back-up big man from a season ago, Dallin Bachynski returners and will likely now get a chance to start at center. Bachysnki is a great rim protector who fills up space in the lane. He was an excellent shot-blocker and decent rebounder a season ago. Jeremy Olsen is another returning big man who averaged 5.2 points last year and should see an increase in minutes.
All those returners are reason enough to be optimistic in Salt Lake City, but the Utes don’t stop there. Krystkowiak managed to pull in a highly regarded recruiting class which was among the best in the Pac-12. Brekkott Champan is the defending Utah High School Player of the Year and decided to stay home to play college ball. The power forward should play big minutes; as should seven-footer Jakob Poelti who turned down Cal and Arizona to play in Utah.
JUCO transfer Chris Reyes and another highly touted recruit Kyle Kuzma, make round out the incoming forwards who should all push each other for minutes right away.
Utah will likely remain under-the-radar, but Krystkowiak has done an excellent job of building this team into a contender and they should be able to break their tournament drought this year.
2. Colorado Buffaloes
Last Year’s Record: 23-12 (10-8)
This Year’s Projected Pac-12 Record: 13-5
Head Coach: Tad Boyle
Key Players: Josh Scott, Askia Booker, Dominique Collier
Despite being blown out in the NCAA Tournament’s second round by Pittsburgh, last season had to be viewed as a successful one for Colorado.
Although the Buffaloes finished right around (or even a bit lower) than they were expected to, they managed to find a way to put together a competitive team without their best player, Spencer Dinwiddie who went down with an injury in January.
Now, Colorado should be more used to playing without Dinwiddie, and with most other key players back, Colorado should be in line for a very high finish in the Pac-12 this season.
Junior Josh Scott is getting serious NBA attention and the 6’10” big man should continue to lead Tad Boyle’s squad. Scott has gained strength since coming to Boulder, and now he has the ability to bruise in the post. Add that to his natural athleticism and ability to score around the rim, and you have one of the top big men in the conference.
Joining him is guard Askia Booker, the teams best perimeter threat who scored 13.7 points per-game a season ago. He is remembered for his game-winning heave against then no. 6 Kansas that brought him national attention, but Booker’s game goes well beyond just that one shot and he can straight-up go.
Two additional starters back include athletic swingman Xavier Johnson who plays good defense and runs the floor well, and Wesley Gordon, a returning sophomore who should have an increased role in the offense as the co-starting big with Scott in the frontcourt.
From there, the Buffaloes add some serious depth in freshman Dominique Collier, who if he is as good as advertised, will give Colorado a huge boost. The two-time Mr. Basketball in the state of Colorado should be a more than adequate replacement for Dinwiddie.
Among other key players includes Xavier Talton, who should get the back-up point guard duties, or could start if Collier struggles initially. Dustin Thomas and Jaron Hopkins both played a good amount a season ago and should fill out the rotation well.
Boyle has a team that’s a serious contender this season. With the returners of Booker and Scott, and the addition of Collier, no team is in a better position to challenge Arizona for Pac-12 supremacy than Colorado.
1. Arizona Wildcats
Last Year’s Record: 33-5 (15-3)
This Year’s Projected Pac-12 Record: 15-3
Head Coach: Sean Miller
Key Players: Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brandon Ashley
Despite the loss of Gordon and Nick Johnson, the team’s two best players from a year ago, Arizona is once again prime to make a deep run this upcoming season. With Gordon and Johnson leading the way, ‘Zona finished with a 33-5 record and an Elite Eight appearance to show for it in 2013-14. If they hadn’t lost key swingman Brandon Ashley, it’s entirely plausible that Arizona could have won three more games, or at least made a serious push for a championship. Even without Ashley, the Wildcats were just one play away from ousting Wisconsin and having their shot at Kentucky in the National Semifinals.
Now that Gordon and Johnson are gone, logic would suggest that Arizona will take a step back and not forward. However, logic doesn’t take into account Head Coach Sean Miller’s ability to bring in new talent and improve returning talent.
As it stands, losing Johnson and Gordon will hurt, but not nearly as much as you might think. Ashley is back, and might be the team’s go-to scorer this year. Also back is junior big man Kaleb Tarczewksi (who should take a major step forward) along with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and T.J. McConnell who roundout out key contributors who will be returning to a Wildcat uniform in 2014.
On top of that, there are four big names coming into the fray that should make immediate impacts. Kadeem Allen, the reigning JUCO Player of the Year, chose Arizona over Kansas in a tight recruiting battle. Incoming freshmen and highly prized recruits Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Craig Victor will have a chance to find their rythym while battling for minutes with veterans. Stanley Johnson, also an incoming freshman, is expected to be one of the best players in the country in what is likely to be his only season as a college player.
If only Nick Johnson and/or Gordon had returned, Arizona would be off-the-charts good (and deep) coming into this season. Nevertheless, even without them, ‘Zona has plenty of talent capable of taking the extra step this season and making it to the Final Four.”
The Wildcats simply have way too much talent for any Pac-12 team to overcome, and they should win this league running away. That said, they certainly are vulnerable enough to lose a few games to up and coming teams like Colorado, and Utah.
Ross Bentley (@ImRossBentley) is a contributor for The High Screen. He is a Graduate Sports Journalism student at Quinnipiac University and a graduate of SUNY Oswego.