2020-21 Pac-12 Men’s Hoops Status Report, Part 2

California, Stanford, UCLA, and USC are profiled in this second installment

Posted on May 15, 2020

  By Dane Miller, SuperWest Sports

In this three-part series, we provide a status report on each Pac-12 program with an eye toward the 2020-21 campaign. Part Two examines the prospects of the California Region schools in these Way-Too-Early Men’s Basketball updates.

California Bears

Even with Matt Bradley staying in school, Cal’s Mark Fox will likely need to rely on a freshmen starter. | Cal Athletics

Key Departures: Paris Austin, Kareem South

Strengths: Coaching 

Weakness: Returning Talent

After a better-than-expected first year, Mark Fox set the groundwork for a rebuild in Berkeley. Fortunately, Matt Bradley’s choice to pass on declaring for the NBA was a significant development for the Bears, who rely heavily on the guard’s talents. On top of that, Bradley’s statements about his intentions to stay all four years allows Fox to build his roster around the talented scorer.

The second-year coach has begun to do just that, adding two three-star wings in Monty Bowser and Jalen Celestine. With Bradley as the primary scorer, the two freshman are the beginning of the customization of Cal’s roster to fit Fox’s slow-down, defense-focused style. Ideally, Bowser and Celestine will be featured heavily on both sides of the court and become integral parts of the program over the next few seasons.  

In all likelihood, one of the freshmen ends up starting, if only to prove to future prospects the willingness to plug in new recruits right away. 

However, the lack of returning talent is an issue that dampers any expected improvement over last year. Realistically, other than Bradley, the only returning threats to score are Grant Anticevich and Andre Kelly. Anticevich showed flashes of brilliance last season, but wasn’t consistent enough throughout the year, and Kelly finished well around the rim but was mostly one-dimensional. With Paris Austin graduating, the lack of talent surrounding Bradley is apparent, though the addition of Penn graduate transfer Ryan Betley was a solid pickup. 

No doubt, Fox is well aware of the weaknesses in his team and understands how to compensate. The defensive system was implemented for that very purpose and will continue into next season. Still, the projected starting lineup of Bradley, Betley, Anticivech, Kelly, and Bowser/Celestine is an intriguing unit that has the ability to surprise a few teams. 

 Be that as it may, there are still missing pieces to the puzzle. Optimistically, Fox has one scholarship left and likely adds another freshman or grad transfer before the season begins.

Stanford Cardinal

An outstanding recruiting class and returning starters has Stanford coach Jerod Hasse smiling. | Pac-12 Conference

Key Potential Departures: Tyrell Terry

Strength: Recruiting Class, Returning Starters

Weakness: Post-Season Experience

The addition of projected lottery pick and nationally renowned recruit Ziaire Williams was a statement to the rest of the nation that Stanford basketball is on the rise. As it stands, the Cardinal are set to be one of the favorites to win the Pac-12 in 2020-21.

Not only does Williams bolster those chances, but the return of Oscar da Silva, Daejon Davis, Spencer Jones, and Bryce Willis combine to make the Tree a clear Top 25 team to open the year. The focus then turns to Tyrell Terry, who is in the process of making his decision to stay in the Draft or return to Palo Alto

If the talented guard were to decide to come back for another season, Jerod Haase and the Cardinal may end up ranked in the Top 10 to open the year. To say things are looking strong for the Tree is an understatement: The upcoming season could be one of the best in Stanford’s history, and certainly one of the strongest since the Conference expanded in 2011.

The only apparent knock on Haase’s squad is its lack of experience in the Big Dance. Not a single player on the roster has made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament. It goes without saying, but things change once the tournament rolls around. It takes a special leader to ground his players and keep them focused on what’s immediately ahead of them. The failure to do so could result in an early-round upset and a tarnished brand. 

Optimistically, Haase has experience leading his team to a tournament victory. In 2015, he coached UAB to an upset in the first round as a 14-seed. But this is a different animal. His team would be the favorite this time around and unable to sneak up on anyone. And with the eyes of the nation on the Tree, the pressure would be unlike any the program has dealt with in nearly two decades.

Fortunately, Stanford’s recruiting class is bolstered by four-star power forward Max Murrell, three-star shooting guard Noah Taitz, and three-star power forward Brandon Angel. It’s the nation’s 15th-best recruiting class, and second-strongest in the Pac-12. That’s some serious firepower for Haase to work with, and in combination with the senior leadership of Silva and Davis, it should bring the Cardinal national attention all season. 

As of now, the emphasis and focus is on Terry. It’s a decision that could ramp up Stanford’s tournament projection as high as a potential one-seed in the West, and make the Cardinal the unanimous choice to win the Pac-12. 

Regardless of Terry’s choice, there hasn’t been this level of expectation around Stanford basketball in almost two decades. 

Buckle up, this season is going to be memorable. 

UCLA Bruins

Having lost his top recruit, UCLA’s Mick Cronin must cobble together a new starting lineup. | UCLA Athletics

Key Potential Departure: Chris Smith

Strengths: Roster Continuity, Identity, Coaching

Weakness: Scoring, Recruiting Class

Mick Cronin is in full scramble mode after Daishen Nix de-committed from the program and signed a G-League contract. The five-star guard was one of the highest-rated recruits in the nation, and his decision dealt a serious blow to the Bruins’ optimism. 

That left UCLA saddled with the 11th-best class in the Pac-12 and only one recruit. Be that as it may, Jaylen Clark is a four-star shooting guard that should do wonders for Cronin’s hobbled offensive production. On top of that, Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang has a strong chance of getting a waiver from the NCAA to play this upcoming season. If granted, the small forward would help a Bruin offense in desperate need of firepower. 

Fortunately, all is not lost in the 2020 class. Cronin has turned his full attention to five-star center Makur Maker. The big man is in the process of choosing between the NBA and college, and the Bruins are right there with Kentucky

Realistically, at this point it’s Maker or bust. 

If he were to pick the NBA or UK, one of the few remaining options would be to convince a 2021 prospect to reclassify and start college early. But that’s the backup plan to the backup plan, and something that seemed unfathomable just a month ago. 

Objectively, the practical effect of UCLA’s recruiting uncertainty makes Chris Smith’s NBA decision loom large. His choice suddenly has an over-weighted effect on the perception of the program for 2020-21. If he were to remain in the draft, the Bruins would be in a similar boat as last year: a bubble team.

However, if Smith were to return, there would be much more reason for optimism. The rest of the roster remains mostly intact and is built for road victories. Realistically, the defensive cohesiveness of the unit shined from the middle of the season onward, and now Cronin’s players know exactly what’s expected. 

Perhaps most importantly, the mentality of winning has set in—a psychological shift that only the most successful programs can claim. Regardless of Smith’s decision, the Bruins have a chance to secure an at-large bid. 

But life would feel a whole lot better in L.A. if Smith returned for one more year and Cronin were to land Maker. 

USC Trojans

USC’s Andy Enfield has the luxury of rebuilding around one of the nation’s top recruits. | USC Athletics

Key Departures: Nick Rakocevic, Jonah Matthews, Onyeka Okongwu

Strengths: Front Court

Weakness: Guard Depth

The departures of Nick Rakocevic, Jonah Matthews, and Onyeka Okongwu is a trifecta of blows that Andy Enfield is forced to deal with this off-season. The trio were the heart and soul of the Trojans, and their absence is a significant challenge to overcome. 

Fortunately, Enfield has a potential No. 1 draft pick in incoming freshman Evan Mobley. The center is widely considered to be one of the best prospects in the nation, and some early draft boards have Mobley being taken as high as the second pick overall. Realistically, his performance is vital to USC’s success in 2020, especially after the Trojans lost both starting bigs.

Mobley is joined by three-star Boubacar Coulibaly, a center ranked just outside the Top 200. The two freshmen add ideal depth to the front court, and both should mesh well with rising sophomore Isaiah Mobley.

When it’s all said and done, the front-court won’t be Enfield’s problem.

The backcourt, however, is a different story. Damagingly, Elijah Weaver announced his intention to transfer along with Charles O’Bannon Jr., leaving Ethan Anderson to fend for himself. It’s one thing to lose a senior guard and proven leader in Matthews, but it’s quite another when the projected replacements depart the program just as they are expected to shine. Objectively, Anderson can hold his own, but there’s no getting around the depth issue. 

Clearly, Enfield is a good recruiter, and he knows what he is doing. 

The recruiting guru managed to land five transfers, though only two of them will be eligible to play this season, absent a waiver from the NCAA. Shooting guard Taj Eaddy, a grad transfer from Santa Clara, has a strong chance of starting, while Wofford’s Chevez Goodwin adds some depth to the wing. 

Putting that aside, the most impactful development this summer rests on the eligibility of a traditional transfer. Long Beach State’s Josh Morgan is a talented big who would arguably give the Trojans the best front court in the Pac-12, if not the nation, were the NCAA to grant him a waiver. It doesn’t help that the governing body is questionably arbitrary with its waivers, stunting any realistic expectation that Morgan will play. On top of that, the NCAA is in no rush to grant USC any favors. 

When it comes down to it, Enfield can hope for a waiver, but it appears to be a long shot at this point.  

And while the front-court will be strong regardless, losing the senior leader who piloted the program while it emerged as a recruiting juggernaut may be too much to overcome. Things would certainly change if Morgan becomes eligible, but as it stands, USC’s lack of backcourt depth presents too glaring a problem to project a Big Dance invitation with any certainty. 

—More from Dane Miller—