The Fall sports, from college football to the NFL, have been bizarre. Covid outbreaks, schedule adjustments and the need for endless flexibility. There's little doubt, bubbles will be burst far before Greg Gumbel has the chance to announce the bracket - if there is such a selection show this year.
Preseason predictions are less relevant than ever before. The sports landscape is secondary to those of national health and safety. We may see dramatic interruptions, and depending on how or when those interrupt, different teams will rise or fall as a result.
Nonetheless, we push forward. Our conference previews will look at only the six power conferences throughout the NCAA: ACC, Big East, SEC, Big Ten, Big Twelve and Pac-12. We start these previews with the weakest conference of the lot, the Pac-12. No disrespect to the West Coast, but last season was underwhelming from a team standpoint, with only Oregon finishing the season ranked in the top 25.
There was an immense amount of one-and-done talent departing, from the Arizona guys to Tyrell Terry at Stanford and Onyeka Okongwu at USC, Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels at Washington, though there's some intriguing newcomers to replace them. Likewise, the mid-tier teams lost important upperclassmen cogs that will be difficult to replace. Colorado lost Tyler Bey, Oregon State saw Tres Tinkle depart, and Wazzou is without CJ Elleby. The Pac-12 is in a really odd spot.
There could be the possibility the Pac-12 is a five or six-bid league back in the NCAA Tournament, which they haven't been in the past couple. That said, the bottom and middle of the league are regressing, which hurts the league in-general.
12. Oregon State Beavers - 7-11 last season. Projection: 2-16 in Pac-12
The loss of Tres Tinkle is a huge one for the Beavers. Head coach Wayne Tinkle's son leaves as the school's all-time leading scorer on a team without much offensive talent. The Oregon State squad is fairly senior-laden, so there's potential for experience to pick up the slack. Three JuCo incomers, including expected Tinkle replacement Rodrigue Andela, will have to make an impact if the Beavers will avoid the conference's cellar.
11. Washington State Cougars - 6-12 last season. Projection: 5-13 in Pac-12
Consider me a big fan of head coach Kyle Smith, but he'll need another year of recruiting before the Cougars are a mid-tier candidate. The loss of Elleby is the biggest immediate setback to positive momentum; he was their best player by a wide margin. Without him, the strong freshman class will have time to play, but might not produce victories off the bat. 6'7" Carlos Rosario and Andrej Jakimovski (promise me you won't giggle reading that) provide some versatility along with 6'5" sophomore swingman Noah Williams.
The Cougars could give teams fits with their unique forwards, but Isaac Bonton is the team's returning leading scorer and is not cut out for the alpha role. The Cougars could really struggle to score, and that's why they find themselves so low on the pre-season rankings. Another year of seasoning, or a surprise immediate leap from freshman post Dishon Jackson, will be needed before the Cougars make their ascent in the league.
10. Washington Huskies - 5-13 last season. Projection: 6-12 in Pac-12
Last year was a colossal disappointment in Seattle. The Huskies had two NBA-talent one-and-dones and still finished last in the league. Mike Hopkins' zone did not look as magical as it did when it lead Washington to the tops of the league in 2018-19. Their season also fell off the wheels without a point guard; Quade Green was ruled academically ineligible after a solid 11-4 start. Hopkins is gearing up around Green with his return. They've steered away from the one-and-done model, are gearing up for a more fast-paced offense and will play through their point guard.
Still, something is amiss with the Huskies. Nahziah Carter, the team's leading scorer, is suspended from basketball activities and that may extend deep into the year. At this point, only one of the team's two key transfers (Cole Bajema from Michigan, Erik Stevenson from Wichita State) will have a waiver approved; we don't know which. It seems like a large part of their success will be dependent on USC transfer J'Raan Brooks, who fills the shoes left behind by Isaiah Stewart.
The Huskies could surprise and make a strong rebound to the upper-mid tier of the league, but the overall uncertainty and lack of impact freshmen bring some concern. If Carter and Stevenson are back, they have the potential to knock on the door of the top-half. If not, they may be near the bottom once again.
9. California Golden Bears - 7-11 last season. Projection: 6-12 in Pac-12
After a better-than-expected showing last year, the Golden Bears will need another surprise if they are going to take another leap. I'm a huge fan of 6'4" shooter Matt Bradley; he averaged 17.5 points last year and is one of the league's best long-range snipers. As Mark Fox enters year two with his staff, this could be the time to find an identity, and Bradley figures to be a large piece of that, as does Stony Brook grad transfer Makale Foreman. Fox's teams typically don't take a ton of threes, but this roster may necessitate it.
Outside of those two, the Bears are solid but unspectacular in the frontcourt. Grant Anticevich and Andre Kelly are both 6'8" and may struggle with the league's elite, but have as much experience as any frontcourt duo. Beyond those four and Penn transfer Ryan Betley, the Bears are without much depth, particularly in the backcourt. They'll compete on defense and play the lunch pale style Fox favors, but need great shooting outputs to compete with the big boys in the league. They also need a strong class of 2021s to make up for a roster quickly getting older.
8. Colorado Buffaloes - 10-8 last season. Projection: 7-11 in Pac-12
Yes, Tyler Bey's absence will hurt. But the shot in the arm comes from McKinley Wright opting to return. The 6'0" point guard averaged 14.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.0 dimes last year; he's not necessarily an explosive scorer, but without him, the Buffaloes would be too thin and lack leadership. Colorado has been, since Tad Boyle took over, built on their defensive identity. They only need one major scorer to handle the load, and Wright can certainly be that. They need a great defensive playmaker who can neutralize a league whose top teams all feature individual scorers at different positions.
6'7" Tulsa transfer Jeriah Horne is the replacement for Bey's do-it-all frontcourt role, but he lacks the size or explosion Bey brought to the table. This is a senior-laden squad, but staying in the top-half of the league would require impact from a freshman or two. It's a well-rounded class that fits Boyle's identity (meaning its devoid of elite offensive talent) and may struggle to crack meaningful minutes ahead of many seniors. I'm big on Jabari Walker, a late-bloomer who has the toolbox to be the gritty, multi-positional defender the Buffaloes need. He and Horne are an intriguing combo, so if the Buffs can claw their way to mediocrity on offense, a .500 record is in their grasp.
7. Utah Utes - 7-11 last season. Projection: 8-10 in Pac-12
Don't ever bet against Larry Krystowiak. The Utes have been amongst the conference's winningest teams over the last few years, and last year was a major step back with such a young, inexperienced group. Anticipating a major step forward overlooks the depth and sheer talent of the top-six, so a seventh-placed finish should not be a major disappointment. There's some offensive firepower on the wings here: Timmy Allen averaged 17.3 last year, and senior Alfonso Plummer can be instant offense when he's on (11/16 from the field in the Pac-12 tournament against Oregon State).
I'd anticipate a consistent effort for sophomore Rylan Jones (9.6 points, 4.4 assists, 1.5 steals), who is the Pac-12 version of Aaron Craft. He's undersized, looks like he's 16 and often gets overlooked, but he's a better shooter than you think, the unquestioned emotional leader of this team and does all the little things that impact winning. He's good for drawing at least one important foul a night. Jones' shortcomings are late-clock creation, a reason why in late games I'm hesitant to bet on the Utes. The one thing they have going is a great deal of frontcourt depth. No one player stands out, but foul trouble won't hamper them, and they could bring two seven-footers (Branden Carlson and Lahat Thioune) off the bench, which you don't see every day.
6. Arizona Wildcats - 10-8 last season. Projection: 10-8 in Pac-12
You ever feel like you're watching a collapse before it happens? For some reason, that's the sense I get with Sean Miller in Arizona. There have been so many obstacles and shady encounters that the days of the Wildcats landing the most elite recruits may be behind us. Instead, Miller hit the transfer route pretty hard to replace three fab freshmen and four other contributors. Highlighting the portal additions are Jordan Brown (Nevada) and James Akinjo (Georgetown). Both are ready to play heavy minutes in the conference. If Terrell Brown (transfer from Seattle) can score like he did last year (20.8 per game) in a Power Conference, the Wildcats will be alright.
The incoming class is really what this all hinges on. The decommitment by Brandon Williams crushed their offense, but there are a few guys who are being slept on. Ready to ease the burden on Terrell Brown is Kerr Kriisa, a Lithuanian freshman who is vastly underrated and will be an NBA prospect sooner than later. Dalen Terry and Benedict Mathurin are the other two crowned jewels as freshmen, though nothing compared to the group from last year.
Where do the wins come from? This Arizona team will be FUN on offense, with a strange collection of awesome ball-dominant scorers who can all shoot and plenty of handlers. The floor will be open, which benefits Jordan Brown, my sleeper for a double-double. With a lot of international guys who can play in unique ways, I'd be shocked if the Wildcats aren't the league's top offense outside of Eugene.
5. USC Trojans - 11-7 last season. Projection: 12-6 in Pac-12
Damn, Evan Mobley is good. In the most eye-popping ways possible, the tantalizing nature of his athleticism at size is hard to miss. The seven-footer should start wire-to-wire and will be the betting favorite for top newcomer in-league. That said, anticipating a step forward based on his arrival would be to vastly overlook how important Onyeka Okongwu was to the team's success, particularly on defense. Mobley forces them to play a different way, for better or for worse, and could take some on-ball reps away from point guard Ethan Anderson.
The Trojans brought in six transfers (two of which still need waivers to play) and will need them to contribute heavy loads immediately. Most important are 6'7" Isaiah White (Utah State) and 6'5" Noah Baumann (who sat out last year). Other than those two, the Trojans have no chance of impact from guys between 6'2" and 6'7". I'd expect Andy Enfield to return to his 2-3 zone that he loves; the Trojans utilized it far less last season, but the prospect of playing big with both Mobleys and little wing depth signals zone is a good idea. They'll go as far as fab freshman Evan Mobley take them. One thing is becoming clear with Enfield-coached Trojan squads: they're pretty reliable to win ten games every year.
4. Arizona State Sun Devils - 11-7 last season. Projection: 12-6 in Pac-12
Part of me really wanted to put the Sun Devils closer to the top. Bobby Hurley has such a loaded backcourt that ASU could theoretically outscore everyone in the league without much effort. Remy Martin (19.1 points, 4.1 assists) is the frontrunner for Player of the Year. He's joined by superb freshman addition Josh Christopher, and the two are as potent a 1-2 scoring punch as any team in the country can boast. Playing for a point guard maestro, the duo should be able to carry the Sun Devils to the NCAA Tournament. 6'3" shooter Alonzo Verge Jr. can't be overlooked, either.
6'7" freshman Marcus Bagley is the one I have my eye on here. If he's starting or making a strong impact early, that bodes well for the Sun Devils. They tend to play a little smaller and might be best-served embracing that style. The traditional frontcourt is inexperienced, which gives pause for elevating the Sun Devils to where their natural talent could take them. If Bagley played the 4 and Jaylen Graham mans the 5, the Sun Devils are as talented with their 5-man group as any lineup in the country.
This is a program as inconsistent as any in the nation. They get hot and elevate to a top-ten team, then lose six of seven and fall on the cusp of the NCAA bubble. I think the Sun Devils are a really safe NCAA tournament team and should win 12 games in-league without much hassle. It may be a roller-coaster to get there, though.
3. UCLA Bruins - 12-6 last season. Projection: 13-5 in Pac-12
Mick Cronin returns five starters from a team that finished the season with seven February wins. If you believe in continuity, the power of upperclassmen and what Cronin has built, it's hard to keep UCLA outside the top-three. The optimism around the Bruins does rely heavily on the impact Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang, who fits a strong position of need. I have moderate expectations for Juzang, but if he turns into a stud, the Bruins could be the top team in-league. Chris Smith's return from testing the NBA draft waters is a massive coup for their offense.
But I'm not as high on UCLA as many are, at least from an individual talent standpoint. I'm not sold on point guard Tyger Campbell (8.3 points, 5.0 assists) taking the next step, bigs Cody Riley and Jalen Hill don't impress me next to the top of the league, and Jamie Jacquez may lose minutes in favor of surrounding Campbell with the shooting prowess of Juzang and freshman Jaylen Clark. There's talent here, and a lot of depth of talent. They'll need to fully embrace the Mick Cronin, rugged defensive attitude to break into the top-25 and be a really strong contender for the conference crown. Their depth and consistency, plus a belief in Cronin as a great coach, should carry the Bruins this far.
2. Stanford Cardinal - 9-9 last season. Projection: 13-5 in Pac-12
I'm a believer, man. Tyrell Terry's loss takes them out of being a legitimate national title contender, but there's enough firepower here to be an incredible team. What Terry moving to the pros does is tighten their team defense and move 6'4" Daejon Davis to the point full time. The Cardinal will be HUGE, and with their size they could be a switchable, really intriguing group out West.
We need to gush over Ziaire Williams, their top recruit and a potential top-ten pick in next year's NBA draft. He's by far the most accomplished commitment Stanford has gotten; a 6'8" athletic pogo stick with lead guard skills. If Jerod Haase continues to utilize an equal-opportunity ball screen motion, Williams will play with the ball in his hands enough to be a major weapon without the pressure of creating - the perfect union for both parties.
Stanford can put Ziaire at the 3 and Daejon at the 1 because they're so strong up front. Spencer Jones (8.8 points) is an NBA prospect, while the stretch shooting of Oscar da Silva (15.7 points) opens up the entire floor. Don't sleep on 6'9" freshman Max Murrell also making an impact. I love this team for the fact they can win games played in any manner. They're well-rounded, experienced, talented, defensively hungry, have an identity and extremely well-coached. It's time to take the leap.
1. Oregon Ducks - 13-5 last season. Projection: 14-4 in Pac-12
Despite losing Payton Pritchard and Anthony Mathis, two of the best backcourt guys in the country last year, the Ducks will have ample scoring. Will Richardson (11.0 per game) and Chris Duarte (12.9 per game) are an awesome tandem and dramatically alter the way the Ducks play. Both are big guards, while Pritchard and Mathis were smaller. I'd anticipate the Ducks switching everything 1 thru 4 and being potent on defense. If Dana Altman can maintain their spread offense and scoring prowess while becoming bigger at the 1 and 2, the Ducks will be best-poised to counter the top threats in the league.
It's unlikely the Ducks get many contributions from freshmen. Instead, Altman has loaded up on transfers as a stopgap to keep Oregon atop the league. Eugene Omoruyi and Eric Williams Jr. both sat out last season, now ready to take the mantle and ready for immediate impact. Both scored in double-digits as 6'6" wings before coming to Eugene. Omoruyi will be the de facto 4-man here, and if he's tough enough to win head-to-head matchups with some bigger guys, the Ducks will once again inflict their style on opponents.
How high these Ducks fly might depend on N'Faly Dante, the sophomore center. If he's a rim protector and defensive centerpiece, they could be a top-ten team. They'll always score enough to play in the 80s, but the switchy 1 thru 4 lineup with a real rim protector is difficult to solve. Stanford and USC, with heavy ballscreen-attacks, are immediately at a disadvantage. Altman is one of the country's most underrated in-game coaches and isn't afraid to get creative. They're the odds-on favorite to repeat atop the league.