Tomorrow brings the start of the 2023-24 college basketball season. Which means for anyone looking to get out any projections, now is the final chance. So that’s what I’m doing.
Every year I run my own projection system that was originally designed to determine which coaches do the best job at getting the most of the talent on their roster. It has gone through a lot of small tweaks over the years and this is the final chance to get those results on the record. I do want to get out the small caveat that there are still some waivers that have not yet been announced as approved or rejected by the NCAA yet. If there’s a big-time transfer who becomes ineligible but I was projecting as a starter then obviously that would massively change my thoughts on the school.
The ordering of schools below is based on my projections with the number in the parentheses coming from the preseason Pac-12 media poll results. I also included an average of the results from 3 of the major analytics sites that publish full preseason rankings: KenPom, BartTorvik, and Evanmiya. I’ll use those totals to talk about whether my system’s projections seem reasonable or if they’re especially high or low on a team.
1. Arizona Wildcats (1st in preseason media poll)
My Projection System: 1st in Pac-12, 1st of 81 among Power Conference Teams
Major Computer Projections: 1st in Pac-12, 11th of 81 among Power Conference Teams
It is generally a consensus that Arizona ranks first in the conference given that there 1’s across the board above when it comes to Pac-12 standings. Where my projection system seems to go a little crazy is having Arizona as the #1 team in the country. That makes a little more sense when you note that among the major computer systems that have Arizona 11th, they are #6 at KenPom. My system uses KenPom’s adjusted efficiency factor as the primary outcome metric so that’s what I’m trying to model against.
Still, KenPom only has them at 6th and not 1st. The Wildcats lost a lot of major talent last year with Azuolas Tubelis opting to go pro despite not getting drafted and starting PG Kerr Kriisa transferring to West Virginia (where he just got a 9-game suspension for impermissible benefits received while at Arizona...). There’s a legitimate argument though that Kriisa was a net negative with his liberal shooting approach and defensive liabilities.
But the Wildcats replaced him with another gunner in North Carolina’s Caleb Love. We’ll see if his efficiency can go up in Tommy Lloyd’s system. Regardless, they have Oumar Ballo who is one of the favorites for preseason player of the year and averaged 14 points and 8.6 rebounds last year.
The real reason that Arizona is so highly rated is that Tommy Lloyd has greatly overachieved for consecutive seasons in my model since getting the job in Tucson. He has the 8th highest coaching score among current coaches and has the highest roster talent of anyone in the top-20 (obviously the better your roster, the harder it is to overachieve). If he manages to do it yet again then he’ll have the Wildcats as a surprise 1-seed contender. Having them #1 overall is a major stretch which is why no human has them there but I think Arizona’s tournament failings are bleeding over into the opinions for many analysts about their regular season results.
2. USC Trojans (2nd)
My Projection System: 2nd in Pac-12, 27th of 81 among Power Conference Teams
Major Computer Projections: 2nd in Pac-12, 16th of 81 among Power Conference Teams
While Arizona might be the favorite for a Pac-12 title, USC definitely had the flashiest offseason. Andy Enfield brought in the #1 overall player in the class of 2023 as well as the most famous recruit in the class with Bronny James. Unfortunately, Bronny suffered a cardiac incident during the offseason and it’s unclear how much he will play this year if at all.
It’s a quality roster for USC though even without Bronny and having lost do it all point forward Drew Peterson. The Trojans have a great chance to have the best backcourt in college basketball with Boogie Ellis returning (17.7 ppg) plus #1 rated PG recruit Isaiah Collier. The rest of the roster has some question marks. Kobe Johnson returns as their top perimeter defender and center Joshua Morgan was one of the best shot blockers in the conference. Add in Washington State transfer DJ Rodman and those are 3 above average defenders to support the scoring of Boogie and Collier.
My projection system has USC 2nd in the Pac-12 but just barely and clearly they’re a tier below where the other computers have them when you compare to the rest of the country. That’s likely because Andy Enfield still has a negative coaching grade in my model thanks to several years of underachievement at the beginning of his USC tenure. I’ve debated changing the weighting to emphasize more recent results and if USC ends up a fringe top-ten team it might encourage me to go ahead and make the change.
3. Oregon Ducks (4th)
My Projection System: 3rd in Pac-12, 28th of 81 among Power Conference Teams
Major Computer Projections: 5th in Pac-12, 30th of 81 among Power Conference Teams
The above issue with Enfield is true with Dana Altman in reverse. He was one of the best coaches at overachieving roster talent for a half-decade but has had several down years in a row. He’ll try to avoid the slide continuing with a roster relying on all-conference center N’Faly Dante. The big man is the only Duck who ranks in the top-35 players in the conference in my model right now.
I don’t expect that to end up being the case. There are a pair of lower end 5-stars coming in who should make an instant impact. Another high 4-star recruit, Mookie Cook, has an ankle injury and won’t be back until at least conference play. Injuries have been a major issue for the Ducks in recent years and we’ll see if it continues to plague them again. Returners Nate Bittle and Keyshawn Barthelemey (former Colorado transfer) should also be above average options for the Ducks.
4. Utah Utes (7th)
My Projection System: 4th in Pac-12, 29th of 81 among Power Conference Teams
Major Computer Projections: 7th in Pac-12, 49th of 81 among Power Conference Teams
This is probably the biggest outlier in the Pac-12 for my projection system in terms of expecting more from a team. Craig Smith’s last couple of Utah teams had one of the worst roster talent scores in the country but he managed to make them respectable including a near NIT berth last season.
Now, the Utes bring back center Brandon Carlson who should be viewed as a legitimate Pac-12 player of the year contender (16.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.0 bpg) with the way he has improved every season. Second leading scorer Gabe Madsen, starting point guard Rollie Worster (4th in Pac-12 in assists), and starting PF Ben Carlson all are coming back. Out is versatile forward Marco Anthony but he’s replaced by Washington starter Cole Bajema who adds a more credible shooting threat to open up space down low.
If Utah ends up truly finishing as the 29th best power conference team then it probably means they snuck into the NCAA tournament. I’m skeptical that will actually happen but I’m not ruling out which makes my model higher on Utah than just about anyone outside of Salt Lake City.
5. Arizona State Sun Devils (6th)
My Projection System: 5th in Pac-12, 39th of 81 among Power Conference Teams
Major Computer Projections: 9th in Pac-12, 63rd of 81 among Power Conference Teams
It’s also clear that my system likes Arizona State better than the major computer projection systems. The Pac-12 media poll was on board having them flipped with the team coming up next but the other computers don’t have much hope for Bobby Hurley’s squad this season.
They once again had to go to the portal to replace a lot of holes after losing their 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th leading scorers from last season. I get the doubters. Their top player in my projection system is Illinois/LSU transfer Adam Miller who as of a few weeks ago was still waiting on a waiver from the NCAA to play. Bobby Hurley has said he’s confident that Miller will be cleared but taking him out of this lineup drops them several spots.
The key returning pieces are PG Frankie Collins who was 6th in the Pac-12 in assists per game last year plus versatile forward Jamiya Neal. They’re joined by maybe Miller (11.5 pts), Tulsa transfer Bryant Selabangue (12 pts, 9.2 reb), and San Francisco transfer Zane Meeks (10.9 pts, 5.1 reb). I think it’s even more likely that ASU fails to live up to this billing than that Utah misses 4th place but we’ll see.
6. Colorado Buffaloes (5th)
My Projection System: 6th in Pac-12, 40th of 81 among Power Conference Teams
Major Computer Projections: 4th in Pac-12, 27th of 81 among Power Conference Teams
On the flip side, Colorado seems one of the teams most well set up to overachieve this placement. They bring back F Tristan da Silva and G KJ Simpson who each averaged 15.9 points last year. Joining him is the highest rated recruit in Colorado history, Cody Williams. The 6’8 5-star forward is the younger brother of breakout NBA star Jalen Williams and should perfectly complement the existing stars on the Buffs roster.
The reason for the pessimism in my system’s accounting is the depth behind that trio. TCU transfer Eddie Lampkin should start at center and provide some rebounding help after consecutive years in the 6 points and 6 rebounds per game range. Luke O’Brien got better down the stretch last year for Colorado and also averaged almost exactly 6 and 6 a season ago. The deep bench though is filled with sub-100 recruits without a lot of major college experience. This is a team that will likely exceed expectations if they stay healthy but could slide if one or two of their major pieces miss any length of time.
7. Washington Huskies (9th)
My Projection System: 7th in Pac-12, 43rd of 81 among Power Conference Teams
Major Computer Projections: 9th in Pac-12, 61st of 81 among Power Conference Teams
I can’t believe I’ve got to be the one defending a Mike Hopkins-led Washington team. Hop has the lowest coaching score of any current P6 coach to have been employed for more than 2 seasons. That suggests that most coaches that underachieve by that much get fired pretty quickly. This of course will be Year 7 for Hopkins.
Even with all of that though this is a roster built to compete for an NCAA berth. Keion Brooks Jr. should be one of the best players in the conference after averaging 17.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game last year. Braxton Meah returns as the leading rebounder and shot blocker coming off an all-defensive team placement. Washington lost a ton to the portal and graduation but bring in multiple players that have averaged 5+ assists per game for a power conference team as well as a 6’8 forward shooting better than 40% from 3 for his career. Plus they get back center Franck Kepnang from injury.
If you handed this roster to Tommy Lloyd then I would fully expect Washington to be a Pac-12 title contender. Since Mike Hopkins is the coach it means that I have them 7th and even that would be overachieving in the eyes of most.
8. UCLA Bruins (3rd)
My Projection System: 8th in Pac-12, 51st of 81 among Power Conference Teams
Major Computer Projections: 3rd in Pac-12, 24th of 81 among Power Conference Teams
And now we come to it. The biggest discrepancy in perhaps all of college basketball. Listen. I don’t think there’s any way that UCLA actually finishes in 8th in the Pac-12 standings. But let me lay out the case of how we got here and how you can kind of talk yourself into it happening.
The Bruins lost their top-5 players in terms of both scoring and minutes played from last year. That seems bad. But this is the transfer portal era. Surely the Bruins located in Los Angeles just ponied up with NIL money and brought in multiple all-conference players from the portal right? What if instead I told you they imported Utah’s 3rd leading scorer as their only portal addition.
Well then clearly they brought in a bunch of super high profile 5-star recruits? Nope actually that was USC across town. UCLA is banking almost entirely on going the international route for the first time in their history. There’s a chance that the high profile foreign players brought in are underrated by the recruiting services who didn’t watch them nearly as much. But my system isn’t going to just assume that happens.
On the positive side, Mick Cronin has never finished worse than 13th at KenPom at UCLA after his first season. He had 9 straight top-43 seasons at KenPom to end his stint at Cincinnati. It would be a major stretch for UCLA to suddenly miss the tournament. And yet they need a bunch of international freshman or unproven former 4-stars on the bench to become above average Pac-12 players instantly or that streak is in jeopardy.
9. Stanford Cardinal (8th)
My Projection System: 9th in Pac-12, 56th of 81 among Power Conference Teams
Major Computer Projections: 6th in Pac-12, 36th of 81 among Power Conference Teams
This feels like one where those of us who are a little bit closer to the action in the Pac-12 maybe have a better feel for things. Stanford has never made an NCAA tournament appearance under Jerod Haase in 7 seasons and has never finished better than 43rd at KenPom. The major computer projection systems essentially think this is going to be Stanford’s best ever team under Haase.
There are arguments for how it could happen. They add 5-star freshman Andrej Stojackovic (son of former NBA star Peja). They also bring back 4 of their top-5 scorers as well as 7 of their top-9 overall. The lone major piece brought in via the transfer portal is Providence point guard Jared Bynum who should slot into the starting lineup (10 pts, 4.3 ast). On paper a team that has continuity and adds both a 5-star recruit plus a power conference starting point guard seems a good bet to be at least a fringe tournament team.
You have to remember though that Stanford was bad last year and that Jarod Haase is not a good coach. So we’ll see.
10. Washington State Cougars (10th)
My Projection System: 10th in Pac-12, 68th of 81 among Power Conference Teams
Major Computer Projections: 10th in Pac-12, 66th of 81 among Power Conference Teams
There’s almost no disagreement at the bottom of the conference. The media, my projections, and the major computer systems all see the Cougs as the 10th place team in the conference and one of the bottom end teams across the P6.
Kyle Smith lost the top-4 scorers off last year’s team and did his best to try to replace them. They added one of the top D2 players in the country in Jaylen Wells (22.4 pts, 8.7 reb) as well as a good big man transfer from Idaho (19.4 pts, 7.8 reb). It’s just really hard to imagine those stats from Sonoma State and Idaho will translate and they will need to put up 14+ points each to make this team competitive in the Pac-12.
11. California Golden Bears (11th)
My Projection System: 11th in Pac-12, 71st of 81 among Power Conference Teams
Major Computer Projections: 11th in Pac-12, 77th of 81 among Power Conference Teams
New head coach Mark Madsen did a heck of a job putting together a team at Cal after the Bears have been one of the worst power conference teams in the country for the better part of a half decade. Unfortunately, Texas Tech transfer Jaylon Tyson was expected to be one of their best players and he had his waiver denied and will not be eligible this year. That moved Cal down from 9th to 11th in my projections. They do bring in fellow Texas Tech transfer Fardaws Aimaq who was once almost a Husky and should lead them in rebounding. Fellow transfers Jalen Cone (Northern Arizona) and Keonte Kennedy (Memphis) should also slot into the starting lineup but without Tyson this team is a body short and doesn’t have much depth.
12. Oregon State Beavers (12th)
My Projection System: 12th in Pac-12, 80th of 81 among Power Conference Teams
Major Computer Projections: 12th in Pac-12, 81st of 81 among Power Conference Teams
What is there to say about Oregon State? The Beavers somehow added no one in the portal and brought in no rated high school prospects. They bring back almost the entire team from last season which is good except...they lost arguably their best player via the portal and as just noted, didn’t replace him. Doesn’t seem good for a team that finished 11-21 last season. Everyone expects this to be one of if not the very worst power conference teams in the country. Anything other than that will be almost a miracle.
My Model’s All-Pac-12 Teams
I’m putting at least 2 guards, 1 forward, and 1 center on each team with one G/F wild card in order to match more modern basketball lineups and make the teams playable. If it’s a center who can credibly shoot 3’s then I allowed them to count as a power forward just to make things a little easier in a conference that has a lot of good centers. Their rank in the conference according to the scoring for my model is in parentheses.
First Team All-Conference
G Boogie Ellis, USC (2)
G Caleb Love, Arizona (3)
G Isaiah Collier, USC (4)
F Keion Brooks Jr., Washington (1)
C N’Faly Dante, Oregon (5)
Second Team All-Conference
G Adam Miller, Arizona St (10)
G Frankie Collins, Arizona St (11)
F Tristan da Silva, Colorado (9)
F Branden Carlson, Utah (7)
C Oumar Ballo, Arizona (6)
Third Team All-Conference
G KJ Simpson, Colorado (12)
G Jaden Bradley, Arizona (13)
G Pelle Larsson, Arizona (14)
F Spencer Jones, Stanford (17)
C Adem Bona, UCLA (8)
Honorable Mention All-Conference
G Gabe Madsen, Utah (15)
G Jalen Cone, California (16)
G Kobe Johnson, USC (19)
F Moses Wood, Washington (18)
C Braxton Meah, Washington (24)