Before we go team by team, let’s take it bucket by bucket:
Broadly speaking, should the Pac-12 expect an uptick in performance in men’s basketball?
Will the number of teams showing year-over-year improvement in 2019-20 exceed the number of teams showing year-over-year decline?
Will the conference send more than three teams to the NCAAs? And will it produce a team seeded higher than, ahem, ninth?
Our buckets of better and worse for the regular season:
* Indisputably better: Colorado and Arizona
* Uptick likely: USC
* More of the same: California, Stanford, Washington State, UCLA
* Regression likely: Arizona State, Utah, Oregon State, Washington.
* Decidedly worse: Oregon.
The scale, it seems, tilts in the wrong direction.
Here we go (with the Hotline’s mid-April projections in parentheses) …
1. Colorado (previous: 2): The Buffaloes were one of the hottest teams in the Pac-12 at the close of 2018-19 and have more experience — and fewer unknowns — than any team entering 2019-20. All the rotation players are back, including the best lead guard in the conference (McKinley Wright), one of the best frontcourt players (Tyler Bey) and a proven cast of contributors. And don’t forget, 7-footer Dallas Walton returns from injury. Colorado might not ooze four- and five-star recruits or be the last Pac-12 team standing in the NCAAs, but the Buffs are best equipped to survive the regular-season grind.
2. Washington (1): The Huskies lose the vast majority of their production, but no team has a better wave of incoming talent: In addition to touted freshmen Isaiah Stewart and Federal Way’s Jaden McDaniels — both are top-10 national prospects — Washington will hand the offense over to Kentucky transfer Quade Green, a former five-star himself. Add veteran wing Nahziah Carter, and the Huskies have a formidable foursome. Green becomes eligible at the end of the fall semester, so UW likely won’t hit its stride until January.
3. Arizona (5): The Wildcats survived the FBI trial without evidence surfacing that would make the 2019-20 season untenable. Top scorer Brandon Randolph is off to the NBA draft, but Arizona returns a solid core with guard Brandon Williams and big man Chase Jeter and adds two high-impact recruits: point guard Nico Mannion and wing Josh Green. The overall talent level at coach Sean Miller’s disposal is vastly superior to last season. Expect the Wildcats to compete for the conference title and return to the NCAAs.
4. USC (4): The Trojans possess the deepest roster in the conference, with a combination of proven returnees, impact transfers and incoming freshmen. The list of newcomers includes five-star big man Isaiah Mobley, while the list of returnees features big man Nick Rakocevic and guard Jonah Mathews (27 ppg combined). But the Trojans struggled last season on numerous fronts not related to talent (i.e., consistency and chemistry). Without improvement in those areas, the whole will remain less than the parts.
5. Arizona State (6): We don’t expected a significant drop in the Sun Devils’ performance. The departures of Luguentz Dort and Zylan Cheatham will be somewhat offset by the return of guards Rob Edwards and Remy Martin and the development of underclassmen, with wing Taeshon Cherry atop that list. (The frontcourt depth is an issue, for sure: Romello White needs help.) Instead, the projected drop in ASU’s placement is the result of marked upgrades in Boulder and Tucson.
6. Utah (8): The Hotline slotted Utah for eighth place in a first draft of these projections, then applied the Larry Krystkowiak bump and elevated the Utes above the level of their individual talent. The backcourt requires an overhaul due to the departures of top scorer Sedrick Barefield and shooter Parker Van Dyke, but the frontline should be one of the most productive in the conference with Timmy Allen and Donnie Tillman. One of several teams that should be vastly better in the second half of conference play.
7. UCLA (7): Loads of uncertainty in Westwood based on the combination of coaching change, roster attrition and the returns of injured/ailing players (Tyger Campbell and Shareef O’Neal). But we know the Bruins will play better defense under new coach Mick Cronin than they have in many years. That alone should keep the program from free-falling until Cronin rebuilds the talent base to championship level. Don’t discount an upside surprise with guards Jules Bernard and David Singleton leading the way.
8. Oregon State (9): The twin returns of Tres Tinkle and Ethan Thompson, while largely expected, nonetheless mark a continuation of momentum for the Beavers, who were the biggest (upside) surprise of 2019. Tinkle and Thompson aren’t rejoining a fully depleted roster, either: Defensive dynamo Kylor Kelley is back to fortify the frontline. OSU’s fate, it seems, depends on a second perimeter scorer to emerge in the void created by Stephen Thompson Jr.’s departure. Who that is, we won’t begin to guess.
9. Oregon (3): The Ducks were hit hard by NBA attrition, and by senior attrition: Paul White and Ehab Amin are on the long list of departed rotation players. Who’s left? Payton Pritchard, Will Richardson, Francis Okoro — and that’s all, folks. The recruiting class is stout, and Dana Altman will assuredly add a transfer or two (or four). But even if we allow for the fact few coaches are better than Altman at assimilating disparate pieces, the Ducks seem destined for a significant regression.
10. Stanford (9): The Jerod Haase era has produced three years of mediocre results, and Year Four begins without the program’s best player, forward KZ Okpala, who bolted for the NBA draft. There are several intriguing pieces (Daejon Davis from Garfield High in Seattle, Oscar da Silva, Bryce Wills) that, if properly molded, could finally produce an upside surprise for the stagnant program. But the Cardinal must fix the wobbly offense and find a way to keep its best players in the lineup and out of street clothes.
11. Washington State (11): The future is far brighter than the recent past for the Cougars, who return CJ Elleby after his dalliance with the draft. But the present under new coach Kyle Smith is grim. Elleby will inherit Robert Franks’ role as the No. 1 option, along with the attention (from opponents) that comes with it. But will the ’20 Elleby have an equivalent of the ’19 Elleby to provide complementary scoring? We’re skeptical. To be fair, let’s give Smith and his staff until the spring of 2022 before rendering judgment.
12. California (12): The Bears took a beating for two seasons — and for two offseasons: No team in the conference has lost a higher percentage of impact players because they simply wanted out. The end result is a greatly depleted roster for first-year coach Mark Fox. Expect an immediate jump in areas of preparation, defense and grit. But the loss of production — top scorer Justice Sueing and promising big man Connor Vanover both departed — might be too great to overcome.