Pac-12 basketball preview: Top players, teams

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It went mostly unnoticed by the national media — the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 get most of the attention — but the Pac-12 was a much-improved conference last season. Six teams were likely to get into the NCAA tournament field, and Oregon had the best opportunity to go deep. The Ducks won the league (the conference tournament in Las Vegas was canceled at the last minute) and finished 24-7 behind senior Payton Pritchard, one of the elite point guards in college basketball the last two years. Pritchard was picked 26th in the first round of the NBA draft after USC forward Onyeka Okongwu (No. 6), Washington forward Isaiah Stewart (No. 16) and Arizona guard Josh Green (No. 18) went in the top 20.

The league is still loaded with returning talent and added two of the nation’s top-10-ranked recruits when Stanford pulled in Ziaire Williams and USC signed Evan Mobley. The consensus top player in the league in the preseason is Arizona State senior point guard Remy Martin, who withdrew from the draft to make another run with coach Bobby Hurley. The sun is up in Tempe, but the forecast is cloudy down in Tucson. Despite FBI and NCAA investigations into his recruiting tactics, Sean Miller remains the coach at Arizona. UCLA coach Mick Cronin coaxed a strong finish out of his first Bruins team and takes momentum into his second season. Colorado coach Tad Boyle has six seniors, including guard McKinley Wright, who also withdrew from the draft. In the end, it probably will be a three-horse race for the title with the favored Ducks followed closely by the Bruins and Sun Devils. Oregon coach Dana Altman brought in former UNLV point guard Amauri Hardy and two other transfers — Eugene Omoruyi (Rutgers) and Eric Williams (Duquesne) — to help ease the loss of Pritchard, who started 105 games. When asked to rank the top 10 teams on the West Coast, one Mountain West coach recently started his answer by saying, “No. 1 Oregon, No. 2 Gonzaga, No. 3 UCLA.” The Zags are popular picks as the preseason No. 1 team in the nation, but there is plenty of respect out there for the Ducks. It might not come together immediately for Altman, who tends to get his teams to peak in the second half of the season. At the Westgate SuperBook, Oregon is getting 30-1 odds to win the NCAA title. Arizona State (40-1) and UCLA (80-1) are longer shots, and keep a close eye on the Bruins.

TOP 10 PLAYERS

Remy Martin, Senior, G, Arizona State

McKinley Wright, Senior, G, Colorado

Chris Smith, Senior, F, UCLA

Eugene Omoruyi, Senior, F, Oregon

Timmy Allen, Junior, F, Utah

Evan Mobley, Freshman, F, USC

Ziaire Williams, Freshman, F, Stanford

Oscar da Silva, Senior, C, Stanford

Quade Green, Junior, G, Washington

Terrell Brown, Senior, G, Arizona

1. Oregon: It is the end of the Payton Pritchard era, and three of Oregon’s top five scorers are out of eligibility, but Will Richardson is back. Last year he ranked 11th in D-I in 3-point shooting percentage at 46.9 en route to averaging 11 points, 2.3 assists and 1.4 steals. Chris Duarte emerged from the juco ranks to contribute 12.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.7 steals and will get help from a pair of reinforcements. In two seasons at St. John’s, LJ Figueroa averaged 14.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.9 steals while hitting 37.3% of his 3-pointers, while Amauri Hardy enters from UNLV after averaging 14.5 points and 3.3 assists. Duquesne transfer Eric Williams Jr. and Eugene Omoruyi of Rutgers are eligible after sitting out but practicing last season. If 6-11 N’Faly Dante can live up to the fanfare that preceded a messy freshman season, the Ducks have the talent and coaching for another deep run. Oregon has won at least 21 games in each of coach Dana Altman’s 10 seasons.

2. UCLA: After an 8-9 start headlined by an awful home loss to Cal State Fullerton, the Bruins went 11-3 down the stretch and allowed 72 points or fewer in 12 of those games. Coach Mick Cronin implemented a new style in his first season that resulted in the biggest dip in possessions per game for any Power Five team. The top five scorers are back, all held together by pass-first point guard Tyger Campbell, who averaged 8.3 points and five assists, and his 2.8 assist-to-turnover ratio ranked 28th in the nation. Fellow freshman Jaime Jaquez Jr. stuffed the box score with 8.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game in support of leading scorer Chris Smith, who had 13.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game while converting 84% of his free throws. Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang was a consensus top-40 prospect in the 2019 class who saw limited minutes as a freshman but shot 50% from 3-point range in the final 11 games. Jalen Hill was the team’s best rebounder at 6.9 and blocked 1.1 shots per game.

3. Arizona State: In recent years, Arizona State has gotten off to blistering starts under coach Bobby Hurley, only to fall apart down the stretch. Improved depth should alleviate that. Holland Woods, who led Portland State with 17.2 points, 5.2 assists and 2.1 steals per game, should assist Remy Martin, who toyed with going pro after leading the Sun Devils with 19.1 points, 4.1 assists and 1.5 steals. Alonzo Verge should be even more dangerous off the ball with this tandem after making 36.3% of his 3-point shots while chipping in 14.6 points, 2.3 assists and 1.4 steals. Ohio State transfer Luther Muhammad adds outside shooting after making 36.1% from 3-point range over two seasons and averaging 7.3 points. Consensus five-star recruit Josh Christopher and his 6-5, 215-pound frame should help in a variety of ways.

4. Colorado: Though Colorado loses quite a bit, point guard McKinley Wright IV returns after earning All-Pac-12 honors with 14.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists. D’Shawn Schwartz averaged 9.8 points and 3.6 rebounds while making 36.7% of his 3-point shots and should get more looks with Jeriah Horne entering from Tulsa after registering 11.2 points and 5.1 rebounds while knocking down 86% of his free throws. Coach Tad Boyle will look to 7-footer Dallas Walton to take off in his second year after a torn ACL. Replacing all-around performer Tyler Bey is difficult, but Evan Battey will try. He averaged 8.9 points and 5.9 rebounds and made 35.3% of his 3-pointers, rising to 55.6% in the final 17 games.

5. Stanford: It will be up to leading scorer Oscar da Silva to relieve pressure from star freshman Ziaire Williams. The 6-9 stretch forward averaged 15.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.1 steals. Spencer Jones and Daejon Davis had identical stats of 8.8 points and 3.2 rebounds, and Davis added 3.7 assists and 1.7 steals. Freshman Michael O’Connell’s quality passing and outside shooting should help, as will the return of Bryce Wills and his 7.8 points and four rebounds. The Cardinal had a negative rebound margin last year and will need Lukas Kisunas or James Keefe to step up.

6. Arizona: With seven of the top eight scorers gone, Arizona has turned outside for help. Azuolas Tubelis, a 3-point-shooting stretch forward from Lithuania, should complement slashing guard Kerr Kriisa of Estonia. Kriisa likely will play off the ball with Seattle transfer Terrell Brown and Georgetown transfer James Akinjo in the fold. Brown averaged 20.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists. Akinjo made 39.1% of his 3-point shots and averaged 13.4 points and 5.2 assists. Jemarl Baker Jr. is the top returning scorer after contributing 5.7 points and 2.3 assists, while Ira Lee returns 3.3 points and 3.1 rebounds for a team with loads of talent and unknowns.

7. Utah: Almost all of Utah’s main rotation is back. Alfonso Plummer exploded in the final six games with 18.8 points per game while making 55.8% of his 8.7 3-point shots per game. He made a school-record 11 3-pointers against Oregon State in the Pac-12 tournament. Rylan Jones will be back at the controls of the offense after making 38% of his 3-point shots and 86.3% of his free throws while chipping in 9.6 points and 4.4 assists. Timmy Allen led the Utes with 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds. Braden Carlson had a team-high 1.4 blocks per game. Utah failed to reach 70 points in 13 of its final 18 games, but with so much experience returning, the Utes should be better equipped to light it up.

8. USC: The Trojans lost their top two rebounders and top five scorers. USC brings in consensus top-five recruit Evan Mobley to team with his brother Isaiah, who had 6.2 points and 5.3 rebounds. The stretch forward duo will be brought together by pass-first point guard Ethan Anderson, who as a freshman averaged 4.2 assists and made 37.8% of his 3-point shots. Transfer Noah Baumann should help on the perimeter after shooting 45.7% from 3-point range in two seasons at San Jose State. Utah Valley transfer Isaiah White averaged 14.5 points and 8.4 rebounds. Wofford transfer Chevez Goodwin should be a solid rim protector and at 6-foot-9 averaged 11.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.1 blocks and had the 15th-best shooting percentage in D-I at 64.2.

9. Washington: The indefinite suspension of top returning scorer Naz Carter puts the Huskies in a tricky spot. Last season went straight down the tubes after Quade Green became academically ineligible as Washington missed his 44.7% 3-point shooting, 11.6 points and 5.3 assists. The Huskies were 11-4 with him and 4-13 without him. Jamal Bey and Hameir Wright likely will be looked to for big minutes after both had at least 16 starts and combined for 11.3 points per game. Bey chipped in 1.5 steals per game and Wright 4.2 rebounds, but the lack of production makes Wichita State transfer Erik Stevenson all the more important. He gave the Shockers 11.1 points and 4.7 rebounds.

10. California: It will be the Matt Bradley show for Cal after he carried the team as a sophomore with 17.5 points and 4.9 rebounds while converting 86.8% of his free throws and 38.4% of his 3-pointers. Transfers Jarred Hyder of Fresno State and Makale Foreman of Stony Brook will look to take the pressure off Bradley. Hyder had 9.1 points and 3.1 assists per game as a freshman, while Foreman averaged 15.6 points and made 36% of his 3-point shots. Forward Grant Anticevich brings versatility with averages of 8.3 points and 5.6 rebounds. Andre Kelly will be a big part of the Golden Bears’ success in the post after averaging 7.5 points and 5.7 rebounds mostly as a sixth man.

11. Washington State: Second-year coach Kyle Smith is looking for some international flair with point forward Andrej Jakimovski coming over from North Macedonia after tearing up the 2019 FIBA U18 European Championship. Isaac Bonton will have the keys to the offense after registering 15.3 points, four assists and 1.2 steals per game. He will get help from developing big men DJ Rodman, Dennis’ son, and Volodymyr Markovetskyy, who shot 65.6% in limited minutes as a freshman.

12. Oregon State: It will be up to Ethan Thompson to do it all after he gave the Beavers 14.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists last season. Jarod Lucas emerged late in the season to average 6.8 points over the final 11 games. Juco transfer Tariq Silver should offer some 3-point shooting after hitting 45.5% last year. Nicholls transfer Warith Alatishe averaged 10.9 points and 8.3 rebounds.

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