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Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Preview: Part 2

We finish up our preview of the conference with the top half of the Pac-12

NCAA Basketball: PAC-12 Conference Championship Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

If you missed part one of yesterday’s preview you can check it out here. I recommend reading at least the first few paragraphs which have a primer explaining the various rankings system used to determine the order. We’ve got more than 3,500 words ahead of us so no more time to waste (sorry, not sorry)!

6. Colorado Buffaloes

Consensus Analytics National Rank: 64th

UWDP Analytics Pac-12 Rank: 8th

Projected Starters with Pac-12 Rank: C Tristan da Silva (27th), PG KJ Simpson (33rd), PF Nique Clifford (38th), SG Ethan Wright (40th), SF Jalen Gabbidon (49th)

Tad Boyle has spent 12 seasons as the head basketball coach of Colorado. In that time he has never finished worse than 7-11 in conference and has only had a losing conference record 3 total times. By the same token he has only finished in the top-30 at KenPom or been better than an 8-seed in the NCAA tournament once during his tenure (the same year in 2020-21). If you’re betting on Colorado to be solid but not spectactular then you’re probably going to end up cashing.

If Colorado fails to even live up to that “solid” moniker it’s going to be because of losses suffered in the frontcourt. Mainstay brick house center Evan Battey finally graduated after averaging at least 8 points and 4 rebounds per game every season of his college career. The biggest loss though was Jabari Walker who had the breakout sophomore season everyone knew was coming (14.6 pts, 9.4 reb). He was a beast for the Buffs but opted to leave for the draft and was taken 57th overall by Portland.

This year’s nominee for breakout sophomore everyone saw coming is KJ Simpson. In a win in the Pac-12 tournament over Oregon he had 13 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists and scored in double figures in 5 of Colorado’s last 8 games. The 3-point shooting is a concern (24.2%) but if he’s able to get that number closer to 30% then Colorado has a dynamic floor general.

Reinforcements to the wing spots came from the Ivy League of all places with Princeton transfer Ethan Wright and Yale transfer Jalen Gabbidon. Wright averaged nearly 15 points and 7 rebounds per game on 40% 3-pt shooting while Gabbidon was the Ivy League DPOY. Mid-major transfers are often hit or miss but if both hit then it’s a huge boon to Colorado.

Depth on the interior after losing Battey and Walker is a major concern. I have Tristan da Silva (brother of Stanford star Oscar) listed as a center but he was essentially a 6’10 small forward last year. We’ll see if due to necessity he can develop as a rim protector without Walker/Battey around but his most prominent skill was his 37% 3-pt shooting. 7’1 Lawson Lovering didn’t play a ton last year but will be needed to step up in a hurry as a former 4-star recruit and the closest thing to a true center on the roster.

There’s enough here that Tad Boyle should be able to assemble an NIT level squad but without the upside to reasonably crack the top-4 of the conference standings. If Colorado can’t get quality minutes out of Lovering though then this team has the potential to get run over at the rim on defense. Then again, Tad Boyle loves nothing more than to play a bunch of 6’6/6’7 forwards who are scrappy but can’t shoot and bully ball to victory. So maybe this is his perfect roster.

5. Stanford Cardinal

Consensus Analytics National Rank: 46th

UWDP Analytics Pac-12 Rank: 5th

Projected Starters with Pac-12 Rank: PF Harrison Ingram (4th), SF Spencer Jones (16th), PG Michael O’Connell (31st), C James Keefe (42nd), SG Michael Jones (43rd)

At almost any other power conference school in the country we’d be talking about how Stanford has a new head coach. But not at Stanford. Jerod Haase has failed to make the NCAA tournament in all 6 of his seasons with the Cardinal and has never finished with more than 20 wins. It looked good for Stanford in 2021-22 until they collapsed with a 5-game losing streak to end the regular season. If there’s a year for him to snap that streak then this would certainly seem to be the roster (and is likely why he is indeed still employed).

Stanford has gotten bitten by NBA departures in recent years but Harrison Ingram deciding to come back for a sophomore year in college was a very pleasant surprise. Last year Ingram came in as a top-20 national recruit and finished 1st or 2nd per game for Stanford in: points, rebounds, assists, and steals. Suffice to say he was an important part of the team. He also struggled with his efficiency (39/31/66% shooting splits) which is a big reason why he wasn’t a guaranteed 1st round pick. That will need to pick up if he wants to be a contender for Pac-12 Player of the Year and bring this team to the tourney.

Stanford does return their leading scorer with Spencer Jones who is a career 39.6% shooter from deep at 6’7 and should continue to be one of the Pac-12’s leaders in 3-point makes. They also bring back their leader in assists, PG Michael O’Connell. He usurped the lead guard spot from Daejon Davis two years ago but struggled mightily as a sophomore once the gig was all his. He’ll need to do better than 38/29/58% shooting splits to keep that job and to help Stanford finally break through.

In total the Cardinal bring back 6 of their top-7 scorers from a season ago with only Jaiden Delaire opting to transfer. That kind of continuity for a team that finished 106th at KenPom last year suggests the chance for a major leap. At the same time it’s hard to look at what Jerod Haase has done as a head coach in his career and have a ton of faith. I’m expecting an NIT berth but no NCAA tournament. And that shouldn’t be enough for Haase to keep his job but who knows what Stanford would actually do in that circumstance.

4. USC Trojans

Consensus Analytics National Rank: 37th

UWDP Analytics Pac-12 Rank: 9th

Projected Starters with Pac-12 Rank: PG Boogie Ellis (9th), SF Drew Peterson (11th), PF Kijani Wright (44th), SG Reese Dixon-Waters (46th), C Joshua Morgan (49th)

By far the biggest surprise in the Pac-12 that my model spit out was having the Trojans just 9th in the conference standings. This is a team that has finished 55th or better at KenPom each of the past 3 seasons and 6 of the past 7 overall. Then again this is also a team that has only finished better than 47th once in that span and finds itself without a Mobley brother on the roster for the first time in 3 years.

Let’s start with the guarantees. It should be a certainty that the Trojans will have 2 players on the all-conference teams at the end of the season with Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson (assuming health). Ellis came over as a transfer from Memphis and averaged 12.5 points on 38% 3-pt shooting. He should be one of the better guards in the Pac-12. Drew Peterson has been a revelation since transferring from Rice and finished 2rd in points, 2nd in rebounds, and 1st in assists for USC last year at 6’8. He’s a unique talent that smooths out any offense.

I also feel fairly confident in Reese Dixon-Waters becoming a major piece on the wing as a sophomore. His talent was evident and similar to KJ Simpson looks to be in line for a major breakout season. This is where the positive vibes end.

5-star center Vince Iwuchukwu was expected to take over as the starting center but experienced cardiac arrest during a practice this summer and is out indefinitely. It’s possible he comes back midseason but if he doesn’t it leaves USC very thin on the frontline following the departures of Isaiah Mobley and Chevez Goodwin. Josh Morgan transferred in from Long Beach State before last year and was fine as a backup center (3.2 pts, 2.9 reb) but it’s unclear if he’s ready for a bigger role.

USC’s best option may be to go a little small as top-50 overall recruit PF Kijani Wright will need to step up at 6’9 and potentially play some center. The Trojans also have 6’9 Harrison Hornery and brought in an unknown 7’0 Russian center Iaroslav Niagu after the Iwuchukwu health scare to fill the depth.

Having a pair of elite talents is obviously a good thing. It’s tough to argue though that USC has a Pac-12 champion caliber roster around those pieces. If either Ellis or Peterson were to miss an extended period of time while Iwuchukwu never gets healthy then suddenly this squad begins to look very ordinary. I think it’s still more likely that USC finishes in the top-5 in the conference than not but if I had to pick a team capable of backsliding, it makes sense that the Trojans would be the pick.

3. Oregon Ducks

Consensus Analytics National Rank: 33rd

UWDP Analytics Pac-12 Rank: 2nd

Projected Starters with Pac-12 Rank: PG Will Richardson (5th), C N’Faly Dante (6th), PF Quincy Guerrier (13th), SG Keeshawn Barthelemy (21st), SF Jermaine Cousinard (35th)

Last season was a dream Oregon year for Husky fans. Dana Altman had become a master of assembling rosters on the fly but it finally came back to bite him in 2021-22. The Ducks started out slow with losses to BYU, ASU, and Stanford then seemingly rounded into form as always in January winning 10 of 11 at one point. Then the wheels fell off again and an NCAA berth disappeared as they lost 6 of 8 to conclude the regular season including at Washington where they trailed by 20+ points for much of the 2nd half.

This year’s roster though appears fully loaded to get back to the tournament. Back are several key pieces including senior PG Will Richardson. He scored just 2 total points in a pair of losses to UW and WSU late in the year then sat out the final 5 games. If fully healthy though he’s a career 40%+ 3-pt shooter and has the veteran experience of a 5th year starter.

The Ducks should also boast the best frontcourt in the Pac-12 if not the entire country. N’Faly Dante has had problems staying on the court but last season he was dominant when he did play. His shot blocking is only so-so for a 6’11 center but he is both an elite rebounder and finisher around the rim. Quincy Guerrier at the PF spot provides a great complimentary piece as most of his attempts were from behind the 3-pt arc after he shot a career high 34% from deep.

There’s also the not so little matter of Kel’el Ware joining the fray as the #10 rated incoming freshman in the country. He’s expected to be a one and done lottery pick and it remains to be seen if Oregon staggers him and Dante or if they go with a twin towers approach. Dante’s presence is the only thing keeping him from being my clear freshman of the year pick in the conference.

Oregon also brought in a pair of transfer guards to round out the starting lineup. Keeshawn Barthelemey averaged 11.1 points per game as the 3rd scorer for Colorado last year while Jermaine Cousinard led South Carolina in scoring at 12 points per game. We’ll see if both are comfortable not being close to featured options on offense.

It’s not out of the question that Oregon has a little too much depth on this roster and the fight for minutes dooms the team chemistry again. Richardson is a sharp shooter but no one else on the roster shot even 35% from deep last year. There is going to be precious little spacing on the floor especially if Altman chooses to start both Dante and Ware at the same time. Still, the top-6 guys on the roster are superb and it would be a surprise to see them finish worse than 3rd in the Pac-12 or miss the NCAA tournament again.

t-1st. UCLA Bruins

Consensus Analytics National Rank:12th

UWDP Analytics Pac-12 Rank: 3rd

Projected Starters with Pac-12 Rank: PF Jaime Jaquez (3rd), PG Tyger Campbell (7th), SG Amari Bailey (17th), SF Jaylen Clark (19th), C Adem Bona (30th)

The consensus rankings have this as a dead heat between UCLA and Arizona so I’m breaking the tie by virtue of my model putting the Bruins a surprising 3rd. Mick Cronin built up the Bruins roster the old school way by having a number of guys ranked in the 75-100 range who gained experience and flourished as upperclassmen. An upset loss to eventual runner-up North Carolina in the tournament last year prevented potential back-to-back Final Fours.

There were certainly major losses from last year’s team (Johnny Juzang, Jules Bernard, Cody Riley, Myles Johnson, Peyton Watson) but you could argue the 2 best all-around players on the roster are back. Jaime Jaquez returns as the favorite for Pac-12 Player of the Year and an All-American at most outlets. The guy is just a gamer and does a little bit of everything. His 3-pt shooting dipped last year but if he gets it back up to his career 33% mark then look out. He led the Bruins in rebounds per game at 6’7 despite playing through an ankle injury much of the season.

Also back is PG Tyger Campbell who may be just 5’11 but took his game to another level as a junior. The big weakness to his game had been outside shooting but he went from a career 26% shooter to 41% from deep last year on almost 4 attempts per game. Meanwhile he kept up his stellar assist to turnover ratio and finished among the conference leaders in total assists. If the improvement in his shooting was real then he’s clearly the best point guard in the conference.

The rest of the wing rotation has a chance to be quite solid with David Singleton and Jaylen Clark returning. UCLA fans cried for Clark to play more all of last season and a breakout year would surprise no one. Singleton meanwhile is one of the premier snipers in the Pac-12 having made at least 47% of his 3’s during conference play in 3 out of 4 career seasons.

Reinforcements are also incoming with two premier recruits. Combo guard Amari Bailey was the #9 overall recruit in the country in the class of 2022 and should take over as a premier scoring option on the wing from Johnny Juzang even if they aren’t the exact same body type. Center Adem Bona (#16 ranked) also should step right into a starting role after UCLA lost both their primary bigs from last year.

Put it all together and that on paper looks like a really good top-6 (much like Oregon). The problem, if there is one, is going to come from the depth. PG Dylan Andrews, C Mac Etienne, and SG Will McClendon are all former top-60 recruits but none of them has played meaningful minutes in college before. Kenny Nwuba averaged 6 minutes per game as a backup big and represents the only other experience at all. At least one member of that group will have to step up and become a major contributor or this team will wear down by the time we get to March. But better to bet on inexperienced and talented than inexperienced and not talented.

t-1st. Arizona Wildcats

Consensus Analytics National Rank: 12th

UWDP Analytics Pac-12 Rank: 1st

Projected Starters with Pac-12 Rank: PF Azuolas Tubelis (2nd), C Oumar Ballo (10th), PG Courtney Ramey (14th), SG Kerr Kriisa (15th), SF Pelle Larsson (18th)

Last season was pretty close to the dream debut for Tommy Lloyd with the Wildcats as he instantly turned around Arizona into a national title contender. A loss in the Sweet 16 to Houston was earlier than Zona fans would’ve liked but they earned a #1 seed as the Pac-12 regular season and tournament title winners. Pac-12 POY Benn Mathurin became a lottery pick while Dalen Terry and Christian Koloko were also each selected in the top-33 after the year. That doesn’t mean the cupboards are empty in Tucson.

Returning for his junior year is Azuolas Tubelis who averaged 14 points and 6 rebounds per game despite battling through injuries last winter. His status in my model as the #2 player in the conference is a little dubious though given the way he faltered down the stretch. Against TCU and Houston in the NCAA tournament Tubelis scored just 7 points on 2/15 shooting across 39 minutes. Given his past performance he deserves the benefit of the doubt and if fully healthy has a chance to average something closer to 17 and 8 this season.

His frontcourt partner will be Oumar Ballo who transferred from Gonzaga before last year to follow head coach Tommy Lloyd. Ballo is much more...well built than Koloko but should be able to step right in as a replacement. Koloko put up a 13/7/3 stat line and Ballo’s stats if he had played the same number of minutes were 11/7/2. Factor in an extra year of development and he has a good shot at becoming one of the elite centers in the conference.

Arizona hopes that they’ll be surrounding Tubelis and Ballo with 3 high quality guards that can shoot the ball. Kriisa returns as the nominal point guard but he’s an all-time streaky gunner. He had games from 3-pt range of: 7 of 10, 5 of 10, 0 for 9, 1 of 7, and 1 of 10 with those last two coming in Arizona’s last 2 games of the year (to be fair he was returning from a badly sprained ankle). Former Utah transfer Pelle Larsson is the more stable option as a career 40% shooter who’s also a very capable cutter. The last starting spot is likely going to Texas transfer Courtney Ramey. His counting stats went down last year on a crowded roster of transfers in Austin but he’s still a career 36.5% 3-pt shooter.

Just like with Oregon and UCLA there are questions about the depth here. Arizona’s only other major transfer add was 6’6 wing Cedric Henderson Jr. from Campbell who led the Fighting Camels with 14 points per game on 38% 3-pt shooting. That’s it for experience on the bench. Point guard Kylan Boswell was a 5-star recruit in the class of 2023 but reclassified to join the roster immediately. It’s always tricky to know what to expect from re-classifiers. Likewise there is buzz around Estonian freshman forward Henri Veesaar who ended up 36th in the 247-only rankings but was unranked in the composite since other scouting services didn’t get the chance to see him. If he comes in and plays at that level he will certainly see healthy minutes.

The rest of the bench is made of players who haven’t contributed and with less sterling pedigrees. Tubelis’ brother Tautvilas is on the team but not expected to play. Freshmen Dylan Anderson and Filip Borovicanin were both considered 4-star recruits by the 247-only rankings but neither was in the top-100 in that ranking set. Filip, similar to Henri, was unranked in the composite as an International prospect.

No coach overachieved in my model last year more so than Tommy Lloyd. Just in case that was an aberration I limit the amount I apply to a coach’s score in my model based on just their first year. If we see Arizona once again contend for a #1 seed in the NCAAA tournament then it’s a sign that Lloyd has the Wildcats positioned to be Gonzaga SW. If instead Arizona is merely very good but winds up in the #3 to 4 seed range then Lloyd is still an upgrade over Sean Miller but falls short of the Messiah. That’s still not a bad place to be.


Max’s Predicted Pac-12 Award Winners

Player of the Year: Jaime Jaquez, UCLA

Coach of the Year: Tommy Lloyd, Arizona

Defensive Player of the Year: Franck Kepnang, Washington

Freshman of the Year: Amari Bailey, UCLA

Most Improved Player of the Year: KJ Simpson, Colorado

6th Player of the Year: Cedric Henderson Jr., Arizona


1st Team All-Conference

(Pac-12 does a 10 person 1st team but that’s stupid)

Tyger Campbell, UCLA

Jaime Jaquez, UCLA

Drew Peterson, USC

Azuolas Tubelis, Arizona

N’Faly Dante, Oregon

2nd Team All-Conference

Will Richardson, Oregon

Boogie Ellis, USC

Harrison Ingram, Stanford

Keion Brooks Jr., Washington

Mouhamed Gueye, Washington State

3rd Team All-Conference

Kerr Kriisa, Arizona

KJ Simpson, Colorado

Spencer Jones, Stanford

Kel’el Ware, Oregon

Branden Carlson, Utah