Posted on May 5, 2020
In this third mailbag column, I answer questions ranging from Oregon’s sparse 2020 basketball recruiting class to Utah football’s ability to replace the talent it lost to the NFL. As always, we appreciate hearing from you.
Oregon’s basketball recruiting class for 2020 isn’t as impressive this year as it has been in past years. Is that because of all the players coach Altman has coming back, or should I be concerned?
—Steven in Lake Oswego, Oregon
♫ “Don’t worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing is going to be alright.” ♫
When it comes to Oregon’s recruiting, the words of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” aptly describe how Duck fans should feel about the upcoming season.
There is no reason to be concerned.
The 2020 class wasn’t expected to be large, and with CJ Walker and N’Faly Dante’s decisions to return for their sophomore year, it got even smaller. In all likelihood, Dana Altman talked to each of them in the middle of the season about their plans to return to Eugene, and it became apparent they were going to come back for another year.
Realistically, information like that tends to leak out of programs and trickle down to the elite recruits and their handlers. Like it or not, most of the top ranked prospects are looking for the most playing time and exposure. And when it became clear that the Duck roster was mostly full, recruits removed UO from their lists and Altman focused on landing graduate transfers. That’s just the way it goes in recruiting sometimes.
Even so, Altman secured a commitment from Jalen Terry out of Michigan, a 4-star point guard and the 64th best player in the nation, according to 247Sports. Objectively, Terry’s conduciveness to Altman’s press defense combined with his ability to run the offense is a storyline to watch, but the Ducks’ strength in 2020-21 is their returning players and eligible transfers. Those transfers include UNLV’s Amauri Hardy, Duquesne’s Eric Williams Jr., and Rutger’s Eugene Omoruyi.
Looking ahead at the roster, the guard combination of Will Richardson, Chris Duarte, and Hardy should create a deadly backcourt, while Walker and Dante anchor the front court. That’s a solid starting five which should make UO one of the pre-season favorites to win the Pac-12. On top of that, depth won’t be an issue with Terry, Chandler Lawson, Omoruyi, Lok Wur, Williams Jr., and Addison Patterson coming off the bench. From top to bottom, Altman will once again have one of the most talented rosters in the league.
In the end, the limited recruiting class is arguably more of a sign of the strength and depth in Eugene than of lack.
What in the world happened with Mike Hopkins last season? He wins coach of the year two years in a row and gets a great recruiting class, and then Washington flops…What’s up with that?
—David in Kent, Washington
It’s as simple as Quade Green.
Prior to Green being ruled ineligible due to academics, the Huskies were one of the better teams in the Pac-12. Pointedly, a large part of that success was due to Green’s command of the offense. He was able to properly distribute the ball to both Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, which made it much easier for both freshmen to score. In his absence, opponents became hyper-focused on stopping Stewart, and McDaniels wasn’t able to get as many open looks.
It was as if Washington’s pilot had left the cockpit, leaving a less-experienced co-pilot to fly the plane though heavy turbulence.
The question then becomes why wasn’t there a viable backup? It’s unusual to criticize the makeup of a roster with three McDonald’s All-Americans, but other than Green, Stewart, and McDaniels there wasn’t much for Hopkins to work with. Devastatingly, the two-time Coach of the Year didn’t work on building that depth in the early part of the season when he could have given more playing time to his role players. That choice came back to bite him and crushed UW’s season.
Not to mention the elephant in the room: McDaniels’ attitude problems. The freshman was one of the highest-rated players in the country coming out of high school and could have gone wherever he wanted. Instead, he chose to stay home to represent his city, which was rewarded by his embarrassing behavior throughout the conference season. For a teenager used to dominating, that’s a substantial issue to deal with, and one that he handled poorly. Consequently, he lost his starting role and his shooting confidence.
All of those issues created a perfect storm which debilitated a once-promising season, dashing its high expectations.
Putting that aside, it may be too harsh to say the Dawgs flopped. It’s not as if they were getting blown out game-in and game-out. In fact, they lost nearly all of their games by a handful of points after leading in the second half. In reality, Hopkins was a play or two away from turning the season around, but could never regain the mojo that Green provided.
Watching all those Utah players get drafted, its hard to believe they won’t fall off next season. The year before, the Huskies had like eight guys go to the NFL, and they said UW would be fine. Turns out they weren’t. Are the Utes headed in the same kind of decline?
—Lewis in Phoenix, Arizona
The short and sweet answer is No.
Utah’s recruiting classes have remained consistent and Kyle Whittingham is known for developing his players. That combination alone is enough to avoid a substantial fall off. And while a reasonable drop is expected, to characterize it as a decline wouldn’t be accurate.
While most coaching staffs around the nation focus on landing the best players, the Utes recruit to their system and culture with a focus on developing undervalued talent. That development allows them to remain consistent each season, even without securing elite classes like Oregon, Washington, and USC. For every one of Utah’s star defensive backs last year, there was a more-than-capable backup chomping at the bit for more playing time. It shouldn’t be much different this season; only the names and numbers will have changed.
In analyzing the South in 2020, the Utes appear to be destined for a third-place finish and another bowl game. They could contend for a division championship, but Kedon Slovis and the Trojans are the clear favorite to carry the South. Fortunately, Utah has depth at quarterback, with transfers Jake Bently and Cameron Rising primed to battle it out for the starting role. That should push the offense in the right direction, especially with a somewhat unproven defense.
But, to some extent, you’re right: There is no getting around the weapons lost on defense. The departure of talent to the NFL puts a significant emphasis on the Utes’ offense ability to compensate. Nonetheless, it’s almost guaranteed that Whittingham has a few aces in his pocket that are destined to breakout on the defensive side of the ball in 2020.
Only time will tell.
Realistically, how long will it take for the Beavs to catch up to the rest of the conference in football? Or can they?
—Shawn in Grants Pass, Oregon
It’s a matter of when, not if.
There are examples around the conference of similar revitalizations—Washington State and California come to mind first—but there were brief flashes from Arizona and Colorado as well. The Beavers can emulate the success of those programs if year-over-year improvement continues.
Recruiting is the primary tool to achieve that success, but a deeper factor is the culture of a program. When Arizona and Colorado won their South Division championships, they did it with average recruiting, not vaunted Top 25 classes filled with four and five-star prospects. The Wildcats and Buffaloes weren’t winning games on talent alone; they got it done through effort and belief. It’s that type of culture needed for less-talented teams to take the proverbial next step.
The paradigm shift in Corvallis has begun, but the transformation isn’t complete. The 2020 season is therefore pivotal to the continuation of the success in the Jonathan Smith Era. A six-win season isn’t the expectation, but a five-win year would make a statement that the guard has changed at Oregon State. Realistically, the success of whoever becomes the starting quarterback will make or break Smith’s tenure.
As a result, each game this season carries much more weight than in years past. The program is on the precipice of rejuvenation, but a string of losses early in the year could devastate the momentum. Taking a step back, there aren’t many moments like this in the arc of a program’s history: the future is on the line with every snap.
The time is now.
The season begins on a Thursday night in Stillwater, Oklahoma and it would be difficult to imagine a better legacy-defining victory. But until the idea of an upset over Oklahoma State doesn’t make you scoff, the Beavers haven’t yet completed the process. As to the question of when, it could be as early as the 2022-23 season.
How many basketball teams do you see the Pac-12 sending to the NCAA tournament next year, and which ones?
—Ronnie, Santa Rosa, CA
Ask me again in December and I can give you a much more realistic answer.
For now, though, five teams appear to be more or less locks: Arizona State, Stanford, UCLA, Oregon, and Arizona. Of course, anything can happen between now and Selection Sunday, but the roster makeup of each is built for the Big Dance.
The Sun Devils have one of the best recruiting classes in the country, headlined by five-star point guard Josh Christopher. The California native is a projected lottery pick and was one of the most sought-after prospects in the nation. He chose to play for Bobby Hurley over Michigan and Kentucky, a recruiting coup the likes of which the Pac-12 hasn’t seen in a few years.
And while the status of Remy Martin and Alonzo Verge Jr’s return to Tempe is up in the air, it’s more likely than not that at least one of them comes back for their senior season. To say expectations for ASU’s season are high would be an understatement, and it remains to be seen how the program handles the deserved attention. Regardless, the Sun Devils are an expected lock for an at-large invitation.
Up on the Farm, Jerod Haase is smiling. After landing one of the best players in the nation in Ziaire Williams, the Tree are set for a fantastic season. Williams is a small forward ranked the fifth-best player in the country according to 247Sports composite ranking, and he’s a shoe-in to become a lottery pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.
On top of that, Haase is bringing in three additional recruits in Max Murrell, Noah Taitz, and Brandon Angel. Murrel, a four-star power forward, is the highest rated of the three and adds depth to the Cardinal front court.
As the cherry on top, Oscar da Silva returns for his senior year in what should be the best of his career. Not to be overly optimistic, but if Tyrell Terry decides to remove his name from the NBA Draft, Stanford could easily find itself ranked in the Top 15 in the first preseason poll, and emerge as the unanimous choice to win the Pac-12.
Over in Los Angeles, Mick Cronin is cooking. Unfortunately, the outlook of the Bruins’ season has become somewhat dependent on Chris Smith’s NBA decision, especially after five-star point guard Daishen Nix de-committed and signed a G-League contract. Even so, Tyger Campbell, Jalen Hill, Cody Riley, and Jaime Jaquez Jr. are a solid group, and Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang may be granted a waiver so that he is eligible to play immediately.
More importantly, the core returners know how to properly operate Cronin’s defensive system. Realistically, their defensive development in conference play last season was the primary reason for their magical run. With a year under their belt, 2020-21 is only expected to be better. While Smith’s decision will shift the expectations one way or the other, it’s a safe bet to call the Bruins a lock to return to the NCAA Tournament.
For the Ducks, it’s as straightforward as Dana Altman’s coaching prowess. The future Hall of Fame coach is a magician when it comes to implementing his press defense, and he has a solid core of returners. Don’t be surprised if Will Richardson runs the offense just as effectively as Payton Pritchard, and Chris Duarte should average close to 20 points per game. Fortunately, CJ Walker and N’Faly Dante have returned for their sophomore seasons, creating what may be the second-best starting line-up behind Stanford. It goes without saying, but Oregon is an expected tournament team.
Still dealing with the expected impending NCAA sanctions, Sean Miller has shifted his recruiting focus to international prospects. The efforts have been fruitful, with commitments from Estonia’s Kerr Kriisa, France’s Daniel Batcho, Turkey’s Tibet Gorener, and Canada’s Ben Mathurin to go along with four-star American Dalen Terry, Arizona’s recruiting class is still one of the top in the conference.
Additionally, the Cats feature Nevada transfer and former five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American Jordan Brown, as well as Georgetown transfer James Akinjo, and Seattle University’s Terrell Brown. The eight newcomers’ ability to mesh and meet Miller’s expectations will determine the Wildcats’ success, but it’s safe to assume things turn out well enough to land an at-large bid.
All that being said, we’re so far away from Selection Sunday it’s nearly impossible to say with any certainty how many and which teams from the Conference of Champions wind up dancing. For now, the above five are the way-too-early favorites.
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