1. Oregon Ducks
2015-16 Season: 31-7 overall, 14-4 in Pac-12 (first place)
Key Players Lost: Elgin Cook, Dwayne Benjamin
Key Players Added: Dylan Ennis, Payton Pritchard, Kavell Bigby-Williams, MJ Cage, Keith Smith
Oregon has three 4-star freshmen joining the best team in the conference from a year ago, but not one of them may be in the primary seven-man rotation. That is flat out scary.
Both Arizona and UCLA are relying heavily on young talent, but Oregon head coach Dana Altman’s highly rated freshmen will be little more than serviceable role players, at least initially. The Ducks didn’t often go more than two deep on their bench last year. Kendall Small ranked eighth in minutes played and averaged less than eight minutes per game. Depth, however, will not be an issue this year as they could easily go ten-deep.
Then again with a starting five of Tyler Dorsey, Ennis, Dillon Brooks, Chris Boucher, and Jordan Bell, do they really need to? Dillon Brooks is one of the more popular preseason candidates for the Wooden Award, while Dorsey and Boucher both have unique skillsets.
What makes this team dangerous for any opponent is its frontcourt. Brooks and Boucher may be the best small-forward and power-forward duo in college basketball, while Jordan Bell is an outstanding defensive center and reliable finisher around the basket.
Coming right off the bench is JUCO transfer Kavell Bigby-Williams, who averaged 16.8 points, 13.6 rebounds and 5.9 blocks per game last season. Bigby-Williams also shot 31.3 percent from beyond the arc while averaging close to one three-point attempt per game.
If he makes anything close to the immediate splash that Boucher made last year, Oregon not only has a great chance to win the Pac-12 title, but maybe even compete for a national championship as well.
The Pac-12 is going to be an excellent college basketball conference this season, but the top teams in this league have a chance to go deep into the NCAA tournament.
The projection may seem lofty considering the Bruins had a losing record last year, but all the talent is there. That’s partially because, like Washington, UCLA is getting a freshman that might be the best point guard in the entire country.
Unlike the Huskies, though, the Bruins have a ton of returning and incoming talent with which to surround Lonzo Ball and give him the best opportunity to thrive. Ball has the best vision that scouts have seen from an incoming freshman guard in years, and he will immediately establish himself as one of the best floor generals in the country.
Aaron Holiday will likely come off the bench for UCLA, but he would probably be Washington’s second-best player. Hence the great divide in expectations between the two teams almost certain to put a freshman on the Pac-12’s preseason All-Conference first team.
In Ball, Holiday, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton, UCLA has the most offensively gifted backcourt in the nation. The Bruins have a ton of depth in the backcourt and will consistently be able to rely on all of these guys.
Jonah Bolden was UCLA’s best defender last season, and Tony Parker wasn’t far behind him, so they will be difficult to replace. T.J. Leaf will step in, and although he is a gifted scorer who will be a tough matchup for most, he needs to improve as a defender. Starting center Thomas Welsh also returns, which will give the Bruins a go to option down low.
UCLA will score a lot of points this season, which will already make them tough to beat. If they can improve defensively, there is no doubt they can be a Pac-12 title contender and possibly be a final four team come March.
3. Arizona Wildcats
2015-16 Season: 25-9, (12-6)
Key Departures: Ryan Anderson, Gabe York, Kaleb Tarczewski, Mark Tollefsen, Elliot Pitts
Key Additions: Rawle Alkins Lauri Markkanen, Kobi Simmons, Keanu Pinder, Talbott Denny
Arizona seems to be falling apart as the supremely talented Ray Smith retired after his third ACL tear. In addition the NCAA has still not ruled Allonzo Trier and Chance Comanche eligible, which could be devastating to the Wildcats. Without them, they may only have 7 scholarship players this year. Depth will be a major concern now for the Wildcats. However, even if Trier and Comanche are absent for a large portion of the season, Sean Miller’s squad still has plenty enough talent to compete in the Pac-12.
There will be quite a bit of roster turnover for Arizona, but they have plenty of incoming talent in 2016-17.
It’s a good thing former JUCO Player of the Year Kadeem Allen redshirted his first season after transferring to Arizona, because the now-senior guard might be the most important piece of this rotation.
At full strength, the Wildcats may have more raw talent than any team other than Duke. Their rotation figures to consist of Allen, four outstanding freshmen, a sophomore with a proven ability to score in bunches (Allonzo Trier,) and a pair of juniors (Dusan Ristic and Parker Jackson-Cartwright) who haven’t made much of an impact against upper-echelon opponents in their careers.
Without Allen, veteran leadership would be a significant concern. But when a team’s primary ball-handler is a fifth-year senior who can create for himself, the lack of collegiate experience of the rest of the rotation doesn’t seem to matter as much.
Of equal importance, though, will be Lauri Markkanen, as the Wildcats lost just about their entire frontcourt from last season. If the skilled seven-footer can’t get the job done as the primary big man, those duties would fall to some combination of Ristic and Chance Comanche, as they are the only other players on the roster taller than 6’8". However, it is uncertain how long Comanche will be off the court.
Freshmen Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons are both tremendous talents, who should make a significant impact immediately.
If Allen and Markkanen play well, the other freshmen will take care of the rest. It may take the majority of nonconference play for this young roster to come together, but Arizona could be a force by March.
4. USC Trojans
2015-16 Season: 21-13, (9-9)
Key Departures: Nikola Jovanovic, Julian Jacobs, Katin Reinhardt
Key Additions: Shaqquan Aaron, Jonah Mathews, Charles Buggs, Harrison Henderson, Nick Rakocevic
If you like potent offense, then USC could be your Pac-12 team to watch. Andy Enfield will head into 2016-17 with what might be the most talented roster of his young coaching career.
For a team that didn’t have a single senior among its top 10 scorers, USC lost quite a bit this offseason. Nikola Jovanovic and Julian Jacobs both declared for the NBA draft, but they went undrafted. Katin Reinhardt, Darion Clark, Malik Marquetti and Malik Martin all transferred out of the program.
As a result, depth isn’t a strong suit for the Trojans, which could be an issue, given the high foul rates of both Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu as freshmen. However, there’s still a lot to like about that duo.
The 6’10" Boatwright led USC in three-point attempts last season (5.1 per game) and is a matchup nightmare for opposing teams. Teams like Arizona and Oregon with versatile forwards should be able to keep him in check, but others will struggle with defending him. And Metu has plenty of breakout potential this season. He’ll need to become more assertive, but he could develop into a dominant force this year.
Adding Louisville transfer Shaqquan Aaron is a big plus for this team, too. Aaron was a four-star recruit in 2014, but he wasn’t cleared to play until six weeks into the season and never got much of a chance to make an impact before deciding to leave. If USC gets the player that scouts saw in high school, he could immediately become a star for the Trojans. Even if he underachieves with his second team, the Trojans still own a starting backcourt of Jordan McLaughlin, Elijah Stewart and freshman Jonah Mathews, younger brother of former California guard Jordan Mathews.
Depth is the primary concern. Charles Buggs is probably their seventh-best player, and he averaged only 9.7 points and 4.7 rebounds per 40 minutes last year with Minnesota. He must be more assertive, or things could go downhill for USC. However, if they can manage their depth issues well, we could be looking at a very good team this season.
The duo of Jabari Bird and Ivan Rabb may be the best in the entire Pac-12. Rabb was a five-star recruit in last year’s recruiting class and would have been a lottery pick if he had declared for the draft. However, many have forgotten that Bird was a five-star recruit himself in the 2013 class.
Bird has been overshadowed by Tyrone Wallace and Jordan Mathews for most of his career, but he’s a talented scorer who is will carry a sizeable portion of the load for the Bearcat offense. The question for Cal is where will the help come from for these two?
Columbia transfer Grant Mullins should be a nice addition to the backcourt, but there are questions about how is experience playing in the Ivy-League will translate to higher level Pac-12 competition.
Guys like Sam Singer, Kameron Rooks, and Kingsley Okoroh have been solid role players for the past few seasons. Singer had a couple of good games while Wallace was out with an injury, but he had just as many subpar performances during that eight-game span. Rooks and Okoroh are mostly on the floor to rebound.
If anyone is going to take the pressure off Bird and Raab, it might be Dontae Coleman. He averaged 19.9 points and 6.2 assists per game and shot 42.6 percent from three-point range last season at Lawson State.
Coleman is the first JUCO signee at Cal for Conzo Martin, but he signed Dwight Miller, D’Montre Edwards and Rawane Ndiaye at Tennessee, and they scored 139 points in their combined four seasons with the Volunteers.
Even if all California really has is Bird and Rabb, it’s an extremely difficult duo to prepare for. The Golden Bears may struggle early as they find their identity, but this team should be a contender by the time conference play begins.
Colorado is one of the more underrated teams in the country going into this year and could be a sleeper in the Pac-12.
Getting Xavier Johnson back from a torn Achilles should be of great benefit. He averaged 10.3 points and 5.6 rebounds per game two years ago. That will not be enough to make up for the departures of Tre’Shaun Fletcher and Josh Scott.
The Buffaloes x-factor is Derrick White, and they hope he is as good as advertised. White put up big numbers in his three seasons at University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. Last season he averaged 25.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.2 steals and 2.1 blocks per game in 2014-15.
A lot of pressure will also fall on the shoulders of senior center Wesley Gordon. The progress of junior point guard Dominique Collier, who ran a Colorado offense that had the third-worst turnover margin in the conference, will also be a major factor in determining the Buffaloes success this season.
It will be difficult to produce that same kind of output in the Pac-12 but if he at least close to as prolific as he was at Colorado Springs, the Buffaloes have a chance to be in the top four of the conference.
Even if he underwhelms, Colorado still has a strong, veteran rotation. The primary six consists of two fifth-year seniors, a senior, two juniors and a fourth-year junior. In the Pac-12, where everything beyond the top three is wide open, the Buffaloes could still make some noise in the middle of the pack.
7. Utah Utes
2015-16 Season: 27-9, (13-5) in Pac-12
Key Departures: Jakob Poeltl, Jordan Loveridge, Brandon Taylor, Dakarai Tucker, Kenneth Ogbe
Key Additions: Jayce Johnson Jojo Zamora, Jakub Jokl, Tyler Rawson, David Collette**, Sedrick Barefield**, Tim Coleman Jr.
** Not eligible until second semester
In recent seasons, the Utes have had a dependable nucleus to build around. Last season that core led them to a second-place finish in the conference and a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. However, last spring saw the transfer of four projected contributors (Isaiah Wright, Kenneth Ogbe, Chris Reyes and Brekkott Chapman) along with the early departure of NBA lottery pick Jakob Poeltl. There will be a number of new faces in Salt Lake City this season as the Utes add seven newcomers, along with two midsemester transfers, to the roster.
Roster turnover, however, doesn’t have to lead to a down year. Among the new faces are four-star freshman center Jayce Johnson and Utah State transfer David Collette. Johnson actually enrolled in school last spring, a move that should help him acclimate to both college and the program sooner. Meanwhile, Collette is a seasoned veteran who will become eligible in December. Between those two additions and effective returnees Kyle Kuzma and Lorenzo Bonam, the Utes still have a core that is talented enough to be competitive in the league.
If redshirt freshman Jayce Johnson is as good as advertised and the JUCO/international acquisitions are reliable, there’s a good chance this team makes another tournament appearance.
Stanford was plagued by injuries last year. Starting point guard Robert Cartwright missed the entire season with a compound fracture in his arm, while Reid Travis played in just eight games before a stress fracture in his leg ended his year. However, with a now healthy team, there is new hope for the Cardinal.
Rosco Allen was the only top-six scorer that the Cardinal lost, so getting Cartwright and Travis back while adding freshmen Kodye Pugh and Trevor Stanback should be enough firepower added to move them in the right direction.
In addition, Stanford brings in former UAB coach Jerod Haase to replace Johnny Dawkins, and he could be the change this team needs.
Haase was an assistant to Roy Williams for 14 years at Kansas and North Carolina before taking over at UAB in the 2012-13 season. The Blazers went 15-16 the year before his arrival and lost most of the players from that roster, but it wasn’t long before he had them contending for Conference USA titles.
Cartwright and Reid’s return to full strength will be a major boost. Combine them along side senior Marcus Allen and junior Dorian Pickens, and the Cardinal will boast an experienced group of leaders.
Do not be surprised if this team has a breakout year and contends for an NCAA tournament berth.
Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss were both first round selections last year and will be difficult to replace. Fortunately for Lorenzo Romar, Markelle Fultz projects to be a first-round pick himself, maybe even No. 1 overall, in next year’s draft. Fultz is the complete package and can score at all three levels. He will join a roster of great athletes that should make up one of the fastest-paced, highest-scoring offenses in the country.
Looking further down the roster, sophomore David Crisp showed flashes of greatness at times last year. The Huskies will see a boost if he can maintain that his play for longer stretches this season. Talent has rarely been the issue in Seattle. Washington is a program that has produced seven draft picks in the last six seasons, but they have only been to one NCAA tournament in that time span. Until the Huskies can produce better results with their consistent talent, they will remain in the lower half of the rankings.
10. Oregon State Beavers
2015-2016 Record: 19-13, (9-9)
Key Departures: Gary Payton II, Olaf Schaftenaar, Langston Morris-Walker, Derrick Bruce, Jarmal Reid
Key Additions: JaQuori McLaughlin, Keondre Dew, Kendal Manuel, Ben Kone
Derrick Bruce seemed like he was poised for a breakout sophomore season due to his play over the final four games of last season and the departures of Gary Payton II and Langston Morris-Walker. He was would have definitely started and maybe become a star for the Beavers, but he decided to transfer to Northwest Florida State instead.
His absence pushes Oregon State down in the rankings. Oregon State will now need to rely heavily on some combination of incoming freshman. JaQuori McLaughlin, redshirt freshman Kendal Manuel and JUCO transfer Keondre Dew will see much more time than expected. The Beavers must also hope that Drew Eubanks can be serviceable as one of the only true big men on the roster.
They also must learn how to cope without Payton, who was the team leader in almost every statistical category. A terrific defender who was also a outstanding scorer, rebounder and passer, Payton could fill up the stat sheet in a hurry. Stephen Thompson Jr. and Tres Tinkle are talented, but will they be adequate replacements? Oregon State might not have the experience or athleticism to earn another NCAA tournament bid.
However, coach Wayne Tinkle overachieved in his eight seasons with Montana, so it is still possible for him to keep Oregon State in the middle of the pack and in spitting distance of a 20 win season.
11. Arizona State Sun Devils
2015-2016 Record: 15-17, (5-13)
Key Departures: Gerry Blakes, Willie Atwood, Eric Jacobsen Savon Goodman, Andre Spight
Key Additions: Torian Graham, Shannon Evans, Sean Cunliffe, Romello White, Jetro Tshisumpa, Ramon Vila
Arizona State lost several players from last year’s team. Gerry Blakes, Willie Atwood and Eric Jacobsen all graduated, while Savon Goodman and Andre Spight transferred, leaving the Sun Devils with just three of the eight players who scored more than 12 points in 2015-16.
Bobby Hurley’s backcourt is where the Sun Devils could thrive with an experienced core. Tra Holder had a terrific sophomore campaign and could lead one of the deeper guard corps in the conference. However, it’s always difficult to rely on a frontcourt mostly of freshmen.
They added Buffalo transfers Shannon Evans and Torian Graham and signed three four-star recruits. They also bring in Spanish big man Ramon Vila, so there are a lot of new faces for the Sun Devils this season. Obinna Oleka will be the only senior this year, so this team has a lot of breakout potential for next season. This year will be one for them to grow and develop.
Last season Washington State improved to 9-5 when it beat UCLA. Then it dropped 17 games in a row. In looking to improve upon that dismal Pac-12 campaign, the Cougars return guards Ike Iroegbu and Charles Callison as well as double-double machine Josh Hawkinson. The Cougars also welcome in five freshman to this year’s squad.
Washington State might have been poised for a breakout season if it had retained everyone. Instead, the Cougars lost Que Johnson, Renard Suggs and Valentine Izundu as transfers. As a result, this is looking like a depleted version of a team that was already four games worse than everyone else in the conference.
Coach Ernie Kent believes his team tour in Italy this summer was of great benefit, but conference play could be disastrous this year for the Cougars.
Top 5 Draft Prospects:
1. Markelle Fultz, Freshman, Washington (PG/SG)
Fultz is not only the top prospect in the Pac-12, but he also figures to be in the running to be the top pick in the draft. Fultz has excellent size, length and frame for a lead guard – 6′ 4.75” with a 6′ 9” wingspan and 186-pound frame that should continue to fill out in time. He also has very large hands and wears a size 15 shoe; many believe that he’s still not done growing. Fultz is an exceptionally smooth athlete who changes speeds and directions effortlessly. Although he is not a freakish athlete he can absolutely play above the rim. Fultz is also a creative ball handler and has tremendous vision and feel for where his teammates are going to be. He is an unselfish player who sees passes that other guards don’t and finds a way to deliver the ball to shooters in traffic. He boasts an impressive blend of scoring and playmaking and can play on or off the ball. Although he is not a great shooter, he is very capable spotting up and gets good rotation on the ball. Where Fultz really excels is his ability to make tough shots off the dribble. He doesn’t need to be perfectly on balance and is able to create space with dribble moves. He gets good elevation and has a fairly high release making it difficult to contest his shot. Around the basket, he has some craft as a finisher, utilizing a variety of floaters, wrong-foot finishes and emphatic dunks. Fultz has the tools to become an outstanding defensive player as well. The biggest area of concern right now is that he can be a streaky shooter. He is more of a shot-maker than shooter at this stage. At times he can also be a bit loose with his ball handling, leading to turnovers. Overall, Fultz has the potential to be a superstar at the next level and is one of the top prospects in a strong draft class at the top.
2. Lonzo Ball, Freshman, UCLA (PG)
Right away Ball’s physical tools make him an exciting prospect. He is 6’6” and already is taller than most lead guards at the next level. Ball’s unique gift that sets him apart from other guards is his incredible vision. He is an exceptional passer with either hand and can deliver the ball from many different angles. Ball has excellent timing hitting cutters, shooters and rim runners in stride where they want it. Every so often he will wow you with his quick outlet passes that lead to easy baskets. In addition, his size allows him to be active on the offensive and defensive glass. Ball has terrific instincts on the defensive end and excellent anticipation. He is a bit thin but has the size, length, quickness and instincts to be a very good defender when motivated. Although he has an unorthodox release point on his jumper, he shoots it with range and confidence, and gets good rotation on the ball. Ball is a good but not great athlete and will need to rely on his size more against quicker guards. He is a capable shooter, but sooner or later he will need to correct his mechanics and develop a quicker release on his shot. Ball can also get a little too flashy with his passing at times and turn it over trying to make the homerun play. Scouts also question whether he has the killer instinct that is vital for success at the next level, as he has a tendency to take some possessions off. Overall, he is a super unique prospect and has all the tools to be a great NBA point guard.
3. Ivan Rabb, Sophomore, California (PF)
Rabb has outstanding physical tools for an NBA power forward at 6’9 ¾” with a 7’2” wingspan. Those combined with his athleticism and feel for the game make him an intriguing prospect with a high floor. Scouts will covet his competitiveness and his finishing ability at the rim with either hand. Now the focal point of the Cal offense, Rabb will have a great opportunity to capitalize on his decision to return for another year. Meanwhile, the long-term upside is still there, thanks to an unteachable mix of size, length, bounce, instincts, and energy. One of the things that really stands out about Rabb is his versatility on defense. He has an uncanny ability to defend ball screens and in the post. He’s also a tremendous rebounder with great anticipation and timing on his jump. Rabb is still a bit raw but has shown flashes of excellent post skills and footwork. He has outstanding hands and has the ability to convert fadeaways and hooks from the block. Adding a more dependable mid-range jumper to his arsenal would elevate his game to an exceptionally high level, and he must continue to fill out his somewhat slender frame. If he put it all together Rabb could easily be an all-star big man in the NBA.
4. Bennie Boatwright, Sophomore, USC (PF)
Standing 6’9 ½, Boatwright has good size for the power forward and a solid frame, but he has less than ideal length, with a wingspan that is slightly shorter than his height. He is only an average athlete in terms of quickness and explosiveness, but he does compensate for that with a good feel for the game and a polished skill-level. Boatwright has excellent scoring instincts, although he needs to become more efficient at putting the ball in the basket. The framework of Boatwright’s game, and his most interesting characteristic as a NBA prospect, is his jump shot. He is extremely reliable shooting the ball with his feet set. He has the potential to develop into a dependable stretch 4 at the next level. He has compact and consistent form, with deep range. Boatwright shows the ability to do more than just make shots with his feet set. He also shows some potential with his ability to attack defenders off closeouts or even in isolation situations in a straight line thanks to his adept footwork and above-average ball-handling skills. He can knock down shots off the dribble as well. While he demonstrates more polish as a scorer than your most young 6’9” players, his lack of athleticism leads to inefficiency at scoring inside the arc. Boatwright’s inability to create separation from defenders, due to his lackluster quickness, causes him to rely heavily on crafty-type plays. He struggles to finish over or around defenders in traffic due to his poor wingspan and explosiveness. He shows solid court vision but has a tendency to force his shot and is not a great playmaker from the block at this stage. Improving his playmaking ability will allow him to better play the role of a stretch 4 in the NBA. Defensively, he struggles to guard long, athletic post players due to his poor length and average quickness. Boatwright is smart and fundamentally sound enough to at least be decent in this area if he puts his mind to it, though, and that would make it much easier for him to stay on the floor in the NBA especially with the offensive package he brings. Boatwright is an overall good prospect for the NBA and could potentially go as high as mid-first round if he continues to develop his skills.
5. Allonzo Trier, Sophomore, Arizona (SG)
At 6-5 and 199 pounds, Trier has good size for the shooting guard position at the next level. His 6-6 wingspan isn’t particularly impressive, but it should limit him too much. Trier’s calling card as an NBA prospect lies in his scoring ability. He has a quick first step and an advanced series of crossover combinations that enable him to get into the paint consistently. He also gets to the free throw line frequently and converts at almost an 80% clip. His jumper has proven to be fairly effective at the college level, but will need further tweaking to find similar results in the NBA. He shoots with a low release from his chest. The release is fairly slow and the rotation on his shot follows a knuckleball-like inconsistent trajectory. It’s not pretty, but the results are pretty encouraging. Trier excels at shooting off the dribble with consistency, and he has good range with his shot. While the low release may inhibit his success at the next level, he shot a respectable 36% from deep in his freshman season. Trier is an excellent isolation player, but his court vision and playmaking ability will have to improve as he makes the transition to being a role-player at the next level. Defensively, Trier has the tools to be an effective perimeter defender. He’s quick laterally and has shown he can lock down some of the top players in his conference. Still, similar to his offense, Trier’s physical talent surpasses his mental makeup as a defender. He has a tendency to lose his assignment away from the ball. He also can gamble a bit too much, and he needs to do a better job of staying out of foul trouble more consistently. Trier certainly has the talent and make-up to play in the NBA. The question at this point is whether his understanding of the game will catch up with his abilities. Trier showed some immaturity as a freshman, frequently complaining to referees about calls. There is plenty of room for optimism for Trier, especially considering his unmatched work ethic. Trier projects as a late first, early second round prospect.
Will Desautelle can be reached at [email protected]