Posted on November 27, 2020
In this combined 2020-21 season outlook and Week 1 preview, I take a quick glance back at last year, provide a brief outlook for each team in light of key player changes, and look at some noteworthy upcoming games in the next seven days.
Upshot from Last Year
For the first time in the 81-year history of the NCAA Tournament, the much-beloved event was cancelled. March Madness had been played every year since 1939, but the Coronavirus prematurely ended the season and careers of countless athletes and fans.
The virus didn’t care. What we loved was taken from us.
Sports have a powerful way of negating the tenuous, day-to-day struggle that is modern life in America. Each game provides something to look forward to: A time and place to let your mind relax and take part in wild, irrational, and unbridled emotions.
The NCAA Tournament, in that sense, is the epitome of American Sports. The entire country comes together over a three-week period where anything is possible. It allows a small school from Chicago to make a run to the Final Four, or an up-and-coming coach from the gulf coast of Florida to make a name for himself.
In 2020, we weren’t afforded those moments, and it hurt in more ways than we could have expected. But enough with the doom and gloom. An effective vaccine is just around the corner, and a New Year is nearly upon us.
General Outlook: 2020-21 Season
The only practical effect the virus has on the 2020-21 outlook is that it removes the floor that an upcoming season is generally based upon. We will never know how far Oregon would’ve advanced in the Big Dance, if the three Arizona freshmen would have shined, or if UCLA had managed to land an invitation.
The result is an outlook that’s an even greater shot in the dark than normal. But the teams that return the most production get the benefit of the doubt. And as things currently stand, three Pac-12 programs are ranked in the preseason AP Poll: No. 18 Arizona State, No. 20 Oregon, and No. 22 UCLA.
The Bruins have been picked to win the Pac-12 on the back of Chris Smith’s production and Mik Cronin’s defensive system. Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang and four-star freshman Jaylen Clark have been added to a group that returns its Top 5 leading scorers from last year. It’s unclear if Cronin can repeat his late-season success, but don’t bet against the Bruins.
Arizona State returns Remy Martin and Alonzo Verge Jr., two senior guards that project to lead the program to the NCAA Tournament. Throw in expected lottery-pick Josh Christopher, and four-stars Marcus Bagley and Pavlo Dziuba, and Bobby Hurley has the roster to win ASU’s first-ever Pac-12 regular season and Tournament Championships.
Despite losing Payton Pritchard to the NBA and CJ Walker to the transfer portal, the Oregon Ducks are set for another strong year. Point guard Will Richardson is more than ready to take over the helm, and shooting guard Chris Duarte has the firepower to keep the Ducks atop the Conference. Dana Altman has also added UNLV transfer Amauri Hardy (immediately eligible) and St. John’s transfer LJ Figueroa (awaiting NCAA decision) to the mix. Not to mention the return of big-man N’Faly Dante.
Over in Palo Alto, Jerod Haase has a roster that arguably equals or exceeds that of UCLA, ASU, and UO. Led by two seniors in Daejon Davis and Oscar da Silva, the addition of projected lottery-pick Ziaire Williams makes the Tree a force to be reckoned with. And returners Bryce Willis and Spencer Jones combine with the three to give Haase what could be the best starting five in the Pac-12.
Sean Miller is replacing three NBA Draft picks and took the international route to get it done. With the Conference’s top-ranked recruiting class, laden with five four-star prospects and six international players, the Cats’ biggest hurdle early in the year will be chemistry. Georgetown transfer James Akinjo has been brought in to run the point, while Seattle University transfer Terrell Brown could be the first man off the bench. Throw in former McDonald’s All-American and Nevada transfer Jordan Brown, and Arizona is as capable of getting it done as anyone, if the newcomers gel.
After testing the waters of the NBA Draft, McKinley Wright IV returns to Boulder for his senior season. The guard is supported by Evan Battey and D’Shawn Schwartz, two experienced players capable of putting Tad Boyle’s Colorado squad back into the NCAA Tournament. Boosted by an incoming freshmen class headlined by Jabari Walker and Dominique Clifford, the Buffs project to finish in the top half of the Conference.
Onyeka Okongwu is no easy player to replace, but five-star Evan Mobley has the potential to fill his shoes. The freshman will likely rely on Ethan Anderson to effectively run the offense, but the loss of Jonah Matthews and Nick Rakocevic could make the season more difficult than anticipated. Throw in the departure of Elijah Weaver to the transfer portal, and Andy Enfield may have his hands full.
Over in Pullman, Kyle Smith has shocked the Conference. The second-year coach pulled down the fourth-best recruiting class in the Pac-12, and has senior guard Isaac Bonton to lead the way. International four-star Andrej Jakimovski headlines the newcomers, but fellow four-star Carlos Rosario could play just as important of a role.
In Seattle, Mike Hopkins has added Wichita State transfer Erik Stevenson and Michigan transfer Cole Bajema to the roster. The Dawgs’ zone defense will be tested without Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, but Quade Green has regained his eligibility for his senior year.
The bottom quartile of the Pac-12 features three teams vying to emerge from the cellar:
• Utah has the 6th best recruiting class in the Conference, but half the class is ineligible or inactive. Timmy Allen is an All-Conference talent, but Utah hasn’t won a conference road game in nearly two seasons.
• Similarly, Matt Bradley leads the Cal Bears in Mark Fox’s second season. But Cal lost key contributors and scoring threats Paris Austin and Kareem South. However, the additions of Penn graduate transfer Ryan Betley and four-star freshman Monty Bowser could combine nicely with returning big-man Grant Anticevich to elevate California by season’s end.
• Oregon State lost the program’s all-time leading scorer and shot blocker in Tres Tinkle and Kylor Kelley. Fortunately, Ethan Thompson returns for his senior season and has four immediately eligible transfers to work with.
At this point, it’s far too early to predict how many teams the Pac-12 will send to the Big Dance. But that picture will begin to take shape over the next six weeks as we creep towards conference play.
Noteworthy Upcoming Games (November 25th – December 1st)
With cancellations due to positive COVID tests and the attenuating quarantine and contract tracing, it’s anyone’s guess if the below games end up happening. For now, here’s a look at what’s on the table.
Colorado at Kansas State
Friday, November 27th
5:30pm PT, ESPNU
On Kansas State’s home court, Colorado has a golden opportunity. There aren’t many games this year for mid-level Pac-12’s schools to make a statement to the Selection Committee, but this test provides a quiet chance to do so. A victory would not be forgotten on Selection Sunday, and it would help the entire Conference as the season wears on. Tad Boyle will have his team prepared and McKinley Wright IV should lead the Buffs to the win.
Washington v. No. 2 Baylor
Sunday, November 29
Time & TV, TBD
After the Husky Classic at Alaska Airlines Arena was cancelled due to positive COVID tests among several teams, Washington found itself without a matchup in Week One. But some quick negotiating and flexibility yielded a matchup with the No. 2 Baylor Bears in Las Vegas. The game features a rematch of last season’s battle in Alaska, where the Dawgs upset the Bears in a 3-point victory. This time around, Baylor is ranked even higher and Washington has just a single McDonald’s All-American on the roster in Quade Green. Pulling off the upset figures to be a much greater challenge this year, but it’s anyone’s guess how either team plays. At the least, it gives UW a nice stage to debut its reconfigured starting five.
Stanford vs. Alabama
Sunday, November 30th
6:30pm PT, ESPN2
The Tree face SEC foe Alabama on Sunday night. Both conferences tied for the most players selected in the First Round of the 2020 NBA Draft, and the talent on the floor in this game will give a good indication why. The Crimson Tide have the 11th best recruiting class in the country, but it measures up just 6th best in the SEC. For Jerod Haase, Ziaire Williams should end up as a lottery pick and both Daejon Davis and Oscar da Silva have professional careers ahead of them. The majority of East Coast observers are likely expecting an Alabama win, and a Stanford victory would certainly boost the Pac-12’s reputation.
USC vs. BYU
Tuesday, December 1st
11:30am PT, ESPN
The term “must win” game probably shouldn’t be tossed around in Week One, but for USC this game is as close as it gets at this point in the year. BYU has a strong reputation as a tournament-caliber team out of the WCC, and a Trojan loss would only feed that conference’s reputation. Putting a “W” in the column is as important for USC as it is for Pac-12. Big-man Evan Mobley will draw the focus, but the Men of Troy’s success all season arguably could come down to the play of Ethan Anderson.
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