Posted on November 7, 2019
By Dane Miller, SuperWest Sports
Posted on November 7, 2019
Upshot from Last Season
The Conference of Champions is coming off a 2018-2019 campaign that saw it place three teams into the NCAA Tournament: Oregon, Washington, and Arizona State.
The Ducks began the Tournament as arguably the hottest team in the country, primed for another Final Four run under the leadership of Dana Altman. The feisty Ducks lost by four in the Sweet 16 to the Virginia Cavaliers, who went on to win the National Championship, leaving Duck fans wondering what might have happened if Bol Bol hadn’t suffered an early season-ending injury.
The resurgent Washington Huskies had a stellar season as well. At least, until March, when they were blown out by Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship game, stumbling their way to a Nine-Seed in the Big Dance. The Huskies beat Utah State in the First Round, but were pummeled by North Carolina in the Round of 32. Still, it was a great season for UW: Coach Mike Hopkins earned Coach of the Year honors for a second-straight season, and the Dawgs won the Pac-12 Regular Season Championship, making the Tournament for the first time since 2011.
Arizona State made the First Four play-in game for the second year in a row, beating Saint John’s but then losing handily to Buffalo in the First Round. Bobby Hurley continued the recent upswing of the program, finishing runner up in the regular season conference standings, and beating Arizona for the first time in the Hurley Era.
The Conference still has an image problem in the national media that can only be overcome by key non-conference victories, and the avoidance of embarrassing defeats. Fortunately, strong recruiting classes by Oregon, Washington, USC, and Arizona should help change the national perception of the league, at least for the teams at the top.
Oregon’s class is highlighted by five-star center N’Faly Dante and five-star power forward C.J. Walker, though Dante will have to sit out until at least December with eligibility issues. Luckily, the Ducks return senior point guard Payton Pritchard who is thirsty to get back to another Final Four. With the combination of senior leadership and outstanding freshmen, Oregon has arguably the most firepower of any team on the West Coast. Another deep Tournament run may be in the cards, and a One-Seed in the West bracket is a realistic possibility.
The top-rated recruits in Washington’s class are five-star power forwards Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, both McDonald’s All-Americans who were highly sought after. Though a young team, the Dawgs are a threat to repeat as Conference champions behind the stifling zone defense that Hopkins runs so effectively. Their success depends on the freshmen buying in to Hopkins’ system, and their ability to develop chemistry on offense. With such a highly ranked recruiting class and a talented coach, another Round of 32 appearance is a legitimate expectation.
USC’s class features five-star power forward Isaiah Mobley and five-star center Onyeka Okongwu, both California products who decided to stay home. The Trojans are led by senior forward Nick Rakocevic and senior point guard Jonah Mathews, possibly giving USC the best combination of returners and newcomers of any team in the conference. The onus on Andy Enfield to deliver a Tournament run this season, with arguably the strongest roster of his tenure, is immense. Expect USC to breakout and be dancing come March.
The headliners of Arizona’s class are five-star combo guard Nico Mannion and five-star shooting guard Josh Green, two McDonald’s All-Americans with a lot of hype surrounding them. Led by senior Chase Jeter and emotional leader Dillon Smith, the Wildcats seem poised to reclaim their spot among the nation’s premier programs, provided Sean Miller can reimplement his highly successful pack-line defensive system. A Sweet 16 appearance is likely the ceiling for Arizona, though the development of Mannion could expedite or hinder that outcome.
Though their recruiting classes mostly pale in comparison, Arizona State, Colorado, and UCLA all have legitimate chances of making the NCAA Tournament. California and Washington State, meanwhile, are in rebuilding mode.
- Hurley has managed to build the Sun Devils into a substantial threat, especially in the non-conference season. His challenge is to replicate that success in Pac-12 play.
- Colorado returns several key players, and are the media favorites to win the conference. The Buffaloes’ success in the non-conference season will go a long way toward restoring the Pac-12’s image.
- UCLA has a new head coach in Mike Cronin, and he inherits some solid pieces to build around. The Bruins’ ability to return to their winning-ways and re-establish their storied tradition, could potentially revitalize the down-trodden image of the entire Conference.
- Cal parted ways with Wyking Jones and hired former Georgia Head Coach Mark Fox. The Bears are a sleeping giant when it comes to recruiting, and Fox’s ability to revive the Cal program starts with retaining Bay Area talent. A respectable first season will go a long way toward persuading high-level recruits to stay home.
- Washington State moved on from Ernie Kent and hired former University of San Francisco Head Coach Kyle Smith. The Cougars have arguably one of the best returning players in CJ Elleby, a sophomore with NBA potential. Keep an eye on Wazzu; they may surprise some teams this season.
Key Games in the Next Seven Days
The first week of the season provides ample opportunities for several teams to make statements that could generate waves around the college basketball world.
Utah will learn a lot about itself at Nevada, an early-season true road game, which will give the Conference a good understanding of where it stands. The Wolf Pack are coming off a disappointing First Round loss in the Tournament and are led by former UCLA coach Steve Alford. Nevada only lost five games last year and won every game in Reno, if the Utes come away with a victory it would do wonders for their Tournament chances.
Washington plays No. 16 Baylor in Anchorage, Alaska, as part of the Armed Forces Classic. The Dawgs have the first major opportunity to knock off a Top 25 team in Baylor, a program coming off a Round of 32 loss in the Tournament last season. The rest of the conference will be watching to see how UW’s highly touted freshman perform in Hopkin’s system.
Arizona State and Colorado face off in the annual China game, with both teams fighting to prove they are worthy of a Tournament invitation. The Sun Devils are famous for starting seasons off strong, and the Buffaloes face high media expectations to perform well this year. This game, which does not count in the Conference standings, has all the makings of a classic that could come down to the last shot.
Oregon State has two major opportunities to put the rest of the Conference on notice. The first, a home game against Iowa State, which made the Tournament last season. The Cyclones won the Big 12 Tournament and lost in the First Round of the Big Dance, providing a major opportunity for the Beavers to prove to the rest of the nation that Pac-12 basketball is no push-over. The second is a game in Portland, as part of the Phil Knight Invitational, against Oklahoma, which lost in the Round of 32 last year. A win over either of those Big 12 schools could be season-changing. Realistically, Oregon State can get it done with Tres Tinkle and Ethan Thompson leading the way.
Arizona plays Illinois in Tucson, a must-win for the Wildcats if they hope to live up to their expectations for this season. The Illini compiled just 12 wins last season, but should be highly motivated against a widely underestimated Arizona team. The Cats should be able to handle them without much difficulty, though this is the first major test for Mannion, and a loss could severely damage the image of the Conference.
Oregon will get tested early against No. 14 Memphis in Portland at the Phil Knight Invitational. With the No. 1 overall recruiting class, the Tigers are loaded with talent at every position. Oregon will rely heavily on Pritchard and Altman to guide them to an early season win that would make a tsunami-like splash with the national pundits. The significance of this game for the reputation of the Conference can’t be overstated.
California has an interesting match-up with UNLV. Though the Running Rebels are not the team they once were, even just a few years ago, the Bears will have their work cut out for them. The Pac-12 vs. Mountain West battle makes this game a must-watch. A victory would be noteworthy for the Conference, though it would register little more than a blip on the national scene.
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