As the countdown continues to the beginning of the 2021-22 faculty basketball season on Nov. 9, ESPN.com’s panel of specialists is making its predictions for all the nation’s prime leagues. After looking at Gonzaga and the best teams from the mid-major conferences (Atlantic 10, C-USA, Ivy, MAC, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, SoCon, Sun Belt and WCC), adopted by Memphis, Houston and the AAC together with the Villanova-dominated Big East, we proceed our sequence with the Pac-12 Conference.
The UCLA Bruins have been little greater than an afterthought as March started final season. By April, they have been a phenomenon. Mick Cronin & Co. outlasted Michigan State in an epic First Four sport and carried that momentum all the way in which to the Final Four, the place they fell to then-undefeated Gonzaga in one of many nice Final Four video games of all time. With most of their core again in Westwood, the Bruins and their followers have designs on a report twelfth national championship. But will this squad be constant sufficient to get there? Will a nonetheless-proficient Oregon squad present its superiority within the Conference of Champions? And what of USC, Arizona and different intriguing Pac-12 groups which are unlikely to go quietly.
ESPN’s writing staff of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi sized up these storylines, made their predictions and weighed in on all of the Pac-12’s prime points.
Pac-12 2021-22 superlatives
Player of the Year
Medcalf: Johnny Juzang, UCLA
Borzello: Johnny Juzang, UCLA
Gasaway: Johnny Juzang, UCLA
Lunardi: Johnny Juzang, UCLA
Newcomer of the Year
Medcalf: Marreon Jackson, Arizona State
Borzello: Marreon Jackson, Arizona State
Gasaway: Marreon Jackson, Arizona State
Lunardi: Marreon Jackson, Arizona State
Pac-12 2021-22 author roundtable
UCLA shall be ranked No. 2 within the nation to start out the season, which would appear to make a university basketball report twelfth national championship a sensible purpose. How shocked would you be to see Mick Cronin & Co. lifting the trophy in New Orleans on April 4, and what’s their largest hurdle?
Medcalf: It wouldn’t shock me in any respect. The key gamers from that Final Four staff, together with Johnny Juzang and Tyger Campbell, are all again, they usually add 5-star recruit Peyton Watson. I believe UCLA will construct off the momentum they accrued within the NCAA event. The Pac-12 shall be a grind but additionally nice preparation for the postseason.
When I talked to Mick Cronin and Juzang in regards to the upcoming season at Pac-12 media day, they each stated the thrilling loss to Gonzaga — one of many nice video games in NCAA event historical past — was nonetheless only a loss to them. That end will push them this 12 months. This appears like Butler’s run in 2009 earlier than Gordon Hayward & Co. reached the title sport a 12 months later and battled Duke till the ultimate seconds. You add a man like Myles Johnson — opponents made simply 44% of their photographs contained in the arc with the previous Rutgers large man on the ground final season, per hooplens.com — to the UCLA roster and something appears potential for a bunch that has few weaknesses, it appears.
The Bruins’ best hurdle, I believe, shall be discovering a solution to compete the way in which they did down the stretch all through the whole season. Making the Final Four as an 11-seed is an unimaginable story, nevertheless it’s no solution to dwell. The Bruins battled accidents all year long and have been 17-8 getting into the Pac-12 event after shedding 5 of their last 9 video games. They acquired scorching on the proper time, however you solely win the title that method for those who’re UConn. Similar inconsistency won’t finish with the identical fortuitous run. But all indicators level to this staff going ahead after final 12 months’s run to the Final Four.
Borzello: It would not be a shock. This is a staff that was a 40-foot buzzer shot from being within the national championship sport — and it brings everybody again and provides a prime-15 prospect and projected lottery choose in Watson and the most effective defensive gamers within the Big Ten in Johnson. I do not actually purchase the argument that the game is likely to be overrating the Bruins based mostly solely on the NCAA event run; they have been within the thick of the Pac-12 title race earlier than a foul two weeks to finish the common season. Something clicked for them within the NCAA event. Mick Cronin had the staff taking part in his fashion of protection, Tyger Campbell was retaining issues transferring easily and the offense revolved closely round Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr. making performs. I do not actually see any of that altering, and Watson and Johnson will add totally different dimensions.
The largest hurdle for UCLA shall be carrying final March’s momentum into this season. The Bruins have been taking part in with home cash throughout a lot of the NCAA event, with everybody rooting for the 11-seed to upset the large boys. This season, UCLA is again to being the hunted. Juzang enters the season with expectations, Jaquez enters the season with expectations, the whole staff enters the season with expectations. It’s a completely totally different dynamic to the final three weeks of the 2020-21 season. The Bruins must deal with the goal on their again.
Gasaway: The October me, as we have a look at the query right this moment, shall be a bit shocked. With all due respect to Mr. Borzello, I do ponder whether the Bruins are being overrated ever so barely attributable to their sensational NCAA event. Beware recency impact. Embittered Alabama and Michigan followers can let you know all about the way it regarded like UCLA would by no means attain the Final Four. Heck, Michigan State took these guys to time beyond regulation within the First Four. If the Bruins misplaced that sport and subsequently ended their season with 5 straight defeats, are we actually selecting this roster to win the 2022 national title?
Again, that is October me. If it seems the sunshine actually did go on for Mick Cronin’s guys within the discipline of 68 and the traditionally (one may say supernaturally) correct 2-level soar-capturing towards Gonzaga will be changed with one thing extra sturdy, I’m all in. (I picked UCLA to win the league.) The largest hurdle to be cleared earlier than I soar on that bandwagon is protection. The Bruins clocked in on the league common for D in Pac-12 play final season. If that modifications, I’ll say I believed in these guys all alongside and this dialog by no means occurred.
Lunardi: History suggests the Bruins are a bit overrated getting into this season. This occurs yearly to a handful of groups that have higher-than-anticipated NCAA event outcomes the prior marketing campaign. A statistician may ask, “What is more reliable, three months of data or three weekends?”
Due to that end and its quantity of returnees, UCLA has earned its preseason ballot place. But that is the straightforward half. It says right here the Bruins will discover that returning to the Final Four is way tougher than the unique climb.
Oregon has arguably change into this league’s most reliable staff. What do you discover distinctive a few Ducks’ 2021-22 group with its typical complement of recent faces?
Lunardi: New faces, sure, however not the place it issues most. Dana Altman is Oregon’s fixed, the foremost purpose the Ducks have gone 132-66 within the Pac-12 in his 10 seasons (far and away the league’s finest report in that span). Big or small, quick or gradual, Altman wins. He adapts to the appreciable expertise available and virtually all the time has the Ducks at their finest in March. It would not shock me in any respect if Oregon is once more on the prime of the Pac-12 standings by then.
Borzello: Dana Altman has legit measurement on this 12 months’s roster. He has no challenge taking part in small-ball lineups, whether or not it was Eric Williams and Eugene Omoruyi up entrance final season and even Chandler Lawson and Shakur Juiston a few years again. And he can definitely try this once more this season, with Syracuse switch Quincy Guerrier able to holding his personal up entrance alongside Williams.
But Altman has loads of choices if he needs to play with a extra conventional large man. At 6-foot-11, Franck Kepnang joined for the second half of the las season and confirmed flashes throughout Pac-12 play — after which had eight factors off the bench towards USC within the NCAA event. N’Faly Dante, additionally 6-foot-11, began the primary six video games final season earlier than tearing his ACL — and averaged 8.2 factors and 5.8 rebounds throughout that stretch. Then there’s 5-star recruit Nate Bittle, a 6-foot-11 frontcourt weapon who brings extra talent and capturing to the middle spot. Oregon will all the time be versatile beneath Altman, however the Ducks may be capable to combine and match towards larger groups extra successfully this season.
Medcalf: Yeah, the brand new faces and athleticism and excessive ceiling aren’t new. But I do suppose Oregon’s historical past suggests it performs to its potential when it has a veteran chief whom each participant on the staff respects. Dylan Ennis did that for the Final Four staff in 2016-17. Payton Pritchard did that for the Ducks in his last years too. I believe Will Richardson will fulfill that position with this group. When we talked at Pac-12 media day, Richardson admitted that the expertise pool — 5 gamers on the roster averaged double figures final season — would require gamers to test their egos to allow them to share the ball. That’s all the time a tough process with a staff this deep. But Dana Altman has executed this earlier than. His job is all the time simpler when he has a sturdy veteran who can lead all that expertise on the ground. I believe Richardson is that participant for the Ducks this season: a whole lot of transferring components, however his expertise will assist this staff discover a rhythm early within the season.
Gasaway: Altman constructs his groups with expertise from all conceivable classes. He has veterans getting back from final 12 months’s Ducks (Richardson, Williams and Dante). There are extremely rated freshmen becoming a member of this system (Bittle and Isaac Johnson). UO is drawing from the ranks of the most important-convention transfers (Guerrier, De’Vion Harmon from Oklahoma and Jacob Young from Rutgers). There’s even a junior faculty switch (Rivaldo Soares). The head coach has lined all of the squares when it comes to expertise acquisition, and previously, that has labored out rather well for Oregon.
Last season in Pac-12 play, the Ducks took care of the ball and burned up the nets from the perimeter whereas forcing a ton of turnovers on protection — and Altman’s guys wanted these takeaways, as a result of this was one thing of a feast-or-famine D. We’ll see if this season’s gamers with their extensively various origin tales can do the identical or higher.
Arizona has been a center-of-the-Pac choose amongst most prognosticators. Are the Wildcats going to be on the precise or mistaken aspect of the bubble in Tommy Lloyd’s first 12 months, and why?
Gasaway: Put it this manner — come February, I totally anticipate to be writing about Lloyd and his males in Bubble Watch. I do not envision Arizona having safely locked in an NCAA bid by then, nor do I anticipate that the Wildcats shall be out of the working for a spot within the discipline of 68. It’s going to be shut. Arizona was higher than folks realized final season — nearly as good as UCLA, the truth is, on a per-possession foundation within the Pac-12 — however 4 of the highest six scorers from that staff are gone, and the transition to a brand new regime may take a while. Fans in Tucson ought to strap themselves in for an thrilling and suspenseful season on the bubble — which, it needs to be famous, is method higher than working beneath a postseason ban. The enchancment is already beneath method.
Medcalf: I believe Arizona is without doubt one of the most intriguing groups within the nation but additionally one of many harder groups to evaluate. The Wildcats have gone by a training change, they usually’re nonetheless awaiting the outcomes of the unbiased course of for his or her infractions case. You do not simply exchange James Akinjo, Jemarl Baker and Jordan Brown. But this 12 months’s roster additionally features a pair of the league’s most promising skills: Azuolas Tubelis and Bennedict Mathurin. Tubelis and Mathurin, who performed with Canada’s Under-19 squad within the FIBA championships, ought to each make vital strides this season.
But if I’ve to select now, I’ll choose Arizona to complete simply exterior the 68-staff discipline. Tommy Lloyd has been on one of many prime teaching staffs in America, at Gonzaga. But the adjustment from assistant to move coach will embody a critical studying curve for him. When Mike Hopkins arrived at Washington after leaving Jim Boeheim’s employees in 2017-18, many anticipated him to have an unimaginable run. But Hopkins has had extra struggles than successes. Lloyd may encounter an identical problem.
Borzello: They have sufficient expertise to make the NCAA event, and the expectation throughout the program is that they’ll be competing for a bid in 12 months one. There are going to be some rising pains, particularly with the change in programs from Sean Miller’s extra set-based mostly, half-court docket offense to Tommy Lloyd’s sooner, extra European-style offense. Despite the NCAA cloud over Tucson the previous few years, Miller did not precisely depart the cabinet naked for Lloyd; 4 starters return from a staff that completed 17-9 general and fifth within the Pac-12 and ended final season inside the highest 30 at KenPom. If not for a postseason ban, Arizona seemingly would have heard its identify on Selection Sunday.
Mathurin is a possible first-spherical choose, and Tubelis ought to match very properly with the brand new offense. Lloyd additionally went out and landed a quartet of transfers: Kim Aiken Jr., Pelle Larsson, Justin Kier and Oumar Ballo. The key shall be on the level guard spot. Kerr Kriisa goes to be the man with the ball in his arms for the Wildcats. If he can get the offense buzzing rapidly, the Wildcats are going to play within the NCAA event.
Lunardi: The solely factor I’m positive of is that Arizona shall be on the bubble. Knowing which aspect with out seeing them play is a idiot’s guess. My intestine, given the inevitable transition of Tommy Lloyd and employees to the Pac-12 (to not point out his personal as a head coach), is that we’re extra more likely to discover the Wildcats within the NIT.
Which Pac-12 staff usually are not almost sufficient folks speaking about getting into 2021-22?
Medcalf: I believe Colorado is the usual reply each season. Tad Boyle is getting into his twelfth season at Colorado. He has gained 20 or extra video games eight instances. He has one shedding season. Yes, McKinley Wright IV is gone. That’s a major loss for Boyle’s program. But he is also accustomed to shedding key gamers and bouncing again. His monitor report of consistency means that Colorado will nonetheless be a aggressive group. If Jabari Walker and Evan Battey — who regarded like he had slimmed down after I noticed him at Pac-12 media day — can anchor one of many league’s finest frontcourts, there’s a situation the place Colorado can put collectively one other successful season and play its method onto the bubble beneath Boyle.
Borzello: I’ll go together with Washington State. In his second 12 months on the helm, Kyle Smith led the Cougars to their first season above .500 since 2012, they usually gained seven Pac-12 video games — their most since 2015. They beat Oregon on the street, they beat UCLA at house they usually went 5-5 of their last 10 common-season contests. Four starters are again, led by Noah Williams, who went for 32 factors and 40 factors in again-to-again video games in late February.
Much of the optimism in Pullman facilities across the newcomers, nonetheless. Michael Flowers was one of many prime scorers within the switch portal final spring after leaving South Alabama, whereas UC San Diego switch Tyrell Roberts put up greater than 19 per sport two seasons in the past. Those two ought to be capable to exchange Isaac Bonton, a second-staff All-Pac-12 choice final season. Washington State was the most effective defensive groups within the league in 2020-21, however the Cougars might want to take a step ahead offensively as a way to play within the postseason.
Gasaway: Borzello stole my first alternative. I’ll go together with Plan B, then, and ship some like to USC. Who wants Evan Mobley, proper? Well, really, he would are available in fairly useful. Just the identical, even with out Mobley and Tahj Eaddy, coach Andy Enfield nonetheless has a rotation loaded with returning veterans, together with Isaiah Mobley, Ethan Anderson, Drew Peterson and Isaiah White. Throw in transfers Boogie Ellis (Memphis) and Joshua Morgan (Long Beach) and also you’re taking a look at a powerful nucleus. I picked the Trojans to complete second within the Pac-12, and we’re not listening to sufficient a few group that would push UCLA for the league title.
Lunardi: Let’s discuss extra about Washington State basketball. Kyle Smith has executed wonders in simply three seasons and has no worse than a bubble staff this 12 months. We have to recollect simply how unhealthy this program was, particularly defensively, beneath Ernie Kent. Under Smith, Wazzu is once more related and inside vary of an NCAA bid for the primary time since 2008 (14 years and three coaches in the past!).