Before our attempt to find clarity, some context:
In 2014, five teams tied for third place in the final Pac-12 men’s basketball standings, each with 10-8 records.
In 2015, two teams tied for fifth and three tied for eighth.
In 2016, three teams tied for sixth.
In 2018, three tied for third.
Last season, three tied for fourth, three more tied for eighth, and seven finished within two games of each other.
The only year in the past six in which the order of finish featured actual order was 2017.
We expect clutter once again.
And yet, we take our swing for the 2019-20 season …
1. Oregon: No coach does a better job assimilating newcomers than Dana Altman, who turned over more than half his roster. Fortunately for the Ducks, they have the most important piece of all returning: senior point guard Payton Pritchard, whose steady hand will expedite the process. The top newcomer is Shakur Juiston, a transfer who averaged 14.6 points and 10 rebounds for UNLV the last time he was fully healthy.
2. UCLA: There’s always one upside surprise, and why not the Bruins: Expectations are low, and star players are nonexistent, so Mick Cronin should have complete buy-in from his roster. And that roster isn’t devoid of talent, size or depth. Infuse toughness and a commitment to defense, and the Bruins might produce a Year One that surpasses all expectations.
3. Washington: The Huskies received good news last week when the NCAA approved an immediate-eligibility waiver for point guard Quade Green, a transfer from Kentucky who had been targeted for a January return. He’ll join big man Isaiah Stewart and forward Jaden McDaniels, both freshmen, to form the best incoming core in the conference. By the time Pac-12 play begins, coach Mike Hopkins should have a cohesive rotation.
4. Colorado: The Buffaloes have arguably the best inside-outside tandem in the conference with point guard McKinley Wright and big man Tyler Bey. It’s the rest of the roster that gives us pause, especially the trio of erratic three-point shooters: Shane Gatling, D’Shawn Schwartz and Lucas Siewert. Not sure they’re title-level players. Also on our mind: Whether Wright can hold up physically through the grind.
5. Arizona: Just as there’s an upside surprise every year, so, too, is there a team that doesn’t reach expectations. Washington could fill that role, but the Wildcats appear slightly more vulnerable because of their reliance on freshman guards (Nico Mannion and Josh Green) and a vast array of disparate parts that must coalesce. Oregon faces similar challenges with incoming personnel, but the Ducks have Pritchard.
6. Arizona State: The Sun Devils once again possess a handful of nice pieces, with point guard Remy Martin atop that list. But the losses of Lu Dort and Zylan Cheatham, combined with improvements elsewhere in the conference — Westwood and Tucson, to name two — could limit ASU’s upside. The wild card is sophomore wing Taeshon Cherry. If he emerges as a high-level playmaker, the Devils could challenge for the title.
7. USC: Were these projections based on the height of each team’s ceiling, the Trojans would be slotted in the top four. In addition to returnees Elijah Weaver, Nick Rakocevic and Jonah Mathews (and others), coach Andy Enfield has two elite freshman big men (Isaiah Mobley and Onyeka Okongwu). But consistency of effort and late-game execution will set USC’s course.
8. Utah: Coach Larry Krystkowiak’s team is typically underrated in preseason projections. And if that proves the case here, well, we’re fine with it. The Utes lost three of their top-four scorers, with only forward Timmy Allen (12.2 points per game) returning. The freshman class is well regarded and must produce early for the Utes to position themselves for a run at the NCAAs.
9. Oregon State: Significant potential for upside in Corvallis with ninth-year senior Tres Tinkle, guard Ethan Thompson and blockmaster Kylor Kelley as the foundation. But after finishing closer to the top of the standings than the bottom last season, OSU won’t reap the benefits of being overlooked. Opponents will be ready, and expectations are higher than this group is used to.
10. Stanford: Coach Jerod Haase enters his fourth season with no momentum and without his best player, KZ Okpala, who left for the NBA. The remaining roster does a little of everything but nothing well. We’re waiting for an identity to emerge under Haase, particularly on offense. Until then, we expect more of the same from a program that’s 71-73 in conference play the past eight years.
11. Washington State: We flipped a coin for 11th place, and it came up Coug. The truth: There is little to differentiate our projected 2019 bottom-feeders. We opted for WSU in this spot because of the presence of CJ Elleby, who could win a few games by himself for rookie coach Kyle Smith. And that’s more than Cal can say.
12. Cal: Mark Fox takes over the most depleted roster in the conference — gutted is a better description — and faces a long rebuild. The Bears once again will lose plenty of games, but they should look more competent doing it than they have in several years.