Predicting the 2015-16 Pac-12 College Basketball Standings

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJuly 29, 2015

Predicting the 2015-16 Pac-12 College Basketball Standings

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    Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

    Arizona's men's basketball team has won three of the past five regular-season Pac-12 championships, and the Wildcats are in the driver's seat to make it four out of six in 2015-16, despite losing all four of their leading scorers from last season.

    The competition will be fierce, though.

    California should be one of the best teams in the country. Oregon won't be far behind the Wildcats and Golden Bears. And watch out for Oregon State as a sleeper to win a ton of games this season.

    All told, this could easily be the Pac-12's best season since 2007-08the last time it was represented in the Final Four.

    We scoured the rosters, offseason "transactions" and unbalanced conference schedules to make an educated guess at each team's primary eight-man rotation and where it will stack up against every other team in the Pac-12.

    This conference should send as many as six teams to the 2016 NCAA tournament. Read on to find out which ones are fighting for a No. 1 seed and which ones might be jostling for position on the bubble.

The Cellar-Dwellers

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    12. Washington Huskies (Last Season: 5-13)

    Remember when the Huskies were 11-0 and well on their way to a strong tournament seed on the back of outstanding transfer Robert Upshaw? Things sure went downhill in a hurry, as Lorenzo Romar's club lost 15 of its next 20 games and now looks like the worst Pac-12 team heading into the 2015-16 season.

    Including Upshaw as a midseason dismissal and Nigel Williams-Goss as a transfer to Gonzaga, the Huskies lost six of their seven leading scorers. Romar has a pretty strong and deep recruiting class, but Andrew Andrews, JUCO transfer Malik Dime and a boatload of freshmen could be a bit of a disaster.

    11. Washington State Cougars (Last Season: 7-11)

    The Cougars retain a few quality guys in backcourt duo Ny Redding and Ike Iroegbu and a great frontcourt player in Josh Hawkinson, but they don't have anything close to a good enough recruiting class to replace a senior class of DaVonte Lacy, Dexter Kernich-Drew and Jordan Railey. This was also one of the worst defensive teams in the country last year.

    10. Stanford Cardinal (Last Season: 9-9)

    Stanford won the 2015 NIT, but that hasn't been a great harbinger for the following season. Eight of the past 12 NIT champions failed to reach the NCAA tournament the following season, including the Cardinal, who missed the dance in 2013 after winning the 2012 NIT.

    Of course, that has nothing to do with this projection in comparison to the fact that Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown and Stefan Nastic all graduated. The trio averaged 47.8 points per game, leaving all sorts of holes to be filled.

9. Colorado Buffaloes

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    Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 Season: 16-18 overall, 7-11 in Pac-12 (tied for eighth place)

    Key Players Lost: Askia Booker (17.2 PPG; graduated), Jaron Hopkins (5.8 PPG; transferred), Dustin Thomas (4.4 PPG; transferred)

    Key Players Added: Josh Fortune (Providence transfer), Kenan Guzonjic (JUCO transfer)

    Projected Starters: Dominique Collier, Xavier Talton, Fortune, Wesley Gordon, Josh Scott

    Top Three Reserves: Xavier Johnson*, Guzonjic, Tre'Shaun Fletcher

    By and large, no news is good news during the college basketball offseason, and Colorado got some bad news in late June when Xavier Johnson had surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon. There's no timetable for his return, but he did say on Twitter that he's hoping to be back in time for conference play.

    We wish him nothing but the best in his recovery, but we also can't assume he'll be 100 percent by early January.

    As a result, the Buffs are effectively moving on without two of their top three scorers from last season. Askia Booker stepped up in a big way in the one-and-a-half seasons played without Spencer Dinwiddie, but who steers the ship without Booker and Johnson?

    Josh Scott is a nightly double-double threat, but he can't do it alone. Wesley Gordon is a great rebounder, but neither he nor Xavier Talton has shown much interest in shooting the ball thus far in his collegiate career. JUCO transfer Kenan Guzonjic hasn't exactly been a scoring machine, either, averaging just 8.4 points per game last season with Midland.

    It might be Josh Fortune or bust.

    The shooting guard averaged 8.4 points per game two years ago with the Friars, but he was lucky to even see the ball while sharing the court with Bryce Cotton, LaDontae Henton, Kadeem Batts and Tyler Harris. Perhaps as one of the primary weapons, he'll be able to do some damage. But it'll take more than that to get this team into contention for postseason play.

8. Arizona State Sun Devils

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 Season: 18-16 overall, 9-9 in Pac-12 (tied for fifth place)

    Key Players Lost: Shaquielle McKissic (12.4 PPG; graduated), Bo Barnes (6.9 PPG; graduated), Jonathan Gilling (5.6 PPG; graduated), Roosevelt Scott (3.9 PPG; transferred), Chance Murray (2.4 PPG; transferred)

    Key Players Added: Andre Spight (JUCO transfer), Maurice O'Field (JUCO transfer)

    Projected Starters: Tra Holder, Gerry Blakes, Spight, Savon Goodman, Eric Jacobsen

    Top Three Reserves: O'Field, Kodi Justice, Austin Witherill

    Love the Bobby Hurley hire in the long term, but it probably isn't enough to get Arizona State to the NCAA tournament this year. Perhaps next season, though, once Buffalo transfers Shannon Evans and Torian Graham become eligible.

    In the meantime, the Sun Devils will certainly be competitive. They lost a ton of players this offseason to graduation or transfer, but they do get back four of their five leading scorers from last year.

    Tra Holder is arguably the most critical holdover, and he's in the area where Hurley's expertise should really come in handy. Holder did a pretty good job of finding open teammates last season, logging 3.6 assists per game as a freshman. However, he rarely created steals, frequently committed turnovers and shot 31.7 percent from the field.

    Hurley probably can't fix all those problems in one offseason, but Holder desperately needs to become a more efficient weapon if Arizona State expects to amount to anything this season.

    The Sun Devils also need to locate some perimeter shooters. Shaq McKissic, Bo Barnes and Jonathan Gilling led the team in made three-pointers before graduating, leaving behind Gerry Blakes as the only returning player who averaged more than one triple per two games played. And Blakes is hardly a downtown assassin, having connected on just 30.2 percent of his attempts last season.

    Maybe the JUCO transfers will be of service? Andre Spight and Maurice O'Field are both shooting guards who could be massive acquisitions if they can replace some of that lost production.

    Long story short, though, there are a lot of question marks here, particularly in the backcourt. That's why Evans (a 38.2 percent three-point shooter last season) and Graham could be the 2016-17 saviors of a team that finishes below .500 in conference play in 2015-16.

7. USC Trojans

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    Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 Season: 12-20 overall, 3-15 in Pac-12 (12th place)

    Key Players Lost: None

    Key Players Added: Chimezie Metu (4-star freshman), Bennie Boatwright (4-star freshman)

    Projected Starters: Jordan McLaughlin, Julian Jacobs, Katin Reinhardt, Darion Clark, Nikola Jovanovic

    Top Three Reserves: Elijah Stewart, Malik Martin, Malik Marquetti

    I fully expect this to be the point in the show when I get accused of drug abuse.

    USC has been bad for four years and was downright terrible for three of them. Andy Enfield has an overall record of 23-41 since the Trojans hired him as head coach, and he has a beyond-abysmal Pac-12 record of 5-31.

    However, this team was better than its record last season.

    Sure, there were a handful of blowoutsthey went 0-6 against Arizona, UCLA and Utah and lost those games by an average margin of 22.7 pointsbut 11 of USC's 20 losses came by a margin of eight points or fewer. It nearly won both its games against Oregon and had Stanford on the ropes both times but couldn't quite get over the hump to beat either of them.

    This Trojans roster was absolutely loaded with freshmen and sophomores. As a result, they get every important piece back for at least one more year while adding a pair of 4-star freshmen to the equation.

    Will they actually improve with an added year of experience?

    As was also the case for Oregon State, USC played well enough on defense to stay in most games but simply didn't have the offensive firepower to win very often.

    UNLV transfer Katin Reinhardt was by far the best three-point shooter for the Trojans, but he shot just 37.4 percent inside the arc while attempting more than 6.5 two-pointers per game. Starting point guard Jordan McLaughlin was a great source of assists and steals, but he shot 35.2 percent from the field before having his freshman year cut short by a shoulder injury.

    Though they have finished dead last in consecutive seasons, the Trojans aren't that far away from being a middle-of-the-pack team. If a couple of guys can marginally improve their shooting stroke, it could be enough of a difference to propel this team to seven or eight conference wins.

6. UCLA Bruins

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    2014-15 Season: 22-14 overall, 11-7 in Pac-12 (fourth place)

    Key Players Lost: Norman Powell (16.4 PPG; graduated), Kevon Looney (11.6 PPG; went pro)

    Key Players Added: Prince Ali (4-star freshman), Aaron Holiday (4-star freshman), Ikenna Okwarabizie (4-star freshman)

    Projected Starters: Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, Ali, Tony Parker, Thomas Welsh

    Top Three Reserves: Jonah Bolden, Holiday, Okwarabizie

    Similar to the AAC in 2013-14, it's looking like there could be a gaping hole between the top and bottom halves of the 2015-16 Pac-12. Maybe USC at No. 7 is a bit of a stretch, but can you really keep a straight face while arguing that any team in our bottom six deserves to actually be ranked in the top six?

    That said, the top half of the Pac-12 is very strong and should send six teams to the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years.

    If one team from the sextet is going to let us down, though, it might be UCLA.

    The Bruins only lost two noteworthy players from last year's roster, but Norman Powell and Kevon Looney were undeniably their two most important pieces. They were the only Bruins named to either of the All-Pac-12 teams. Powell ranked sixth in the conference in scoring average. Looney trailed only Washington State's Josh Hawkinson on the list of best rebounders in the Pac-12.

    Needless to say, they won't be easily replaced by a team that controversially sneaked into the Big Dance this past March.

    As a result of those departures, this is a roster that only really has one forward. Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, Prince Ali and Aaron Holiday are talented guards 6'4" or shorter. Tony Parker, Thomas Welsh and Ikenna Okwarabizie are centers 6'9" or taller.

    This makes Jonah Bolden arguably the most important player on the roster, even though he wasn't eligible to play last season and had surgery on a torn meniscus just a few months ago.

    No one was favorably comparing him to Looney last year, but most expected Bolden to be a fairly significant piece of the puzzle. If the 6'8" power forward hits the ground running, UCLA could be the third-best team in this conference. But with Parker the only established interior weapon on the roster, there could be some snags that result in a sixth-place finish and another Selection Sunday photo finish.

5. Oregon State Beavers

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    Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 Season: 17-14 overall, 8-10 in Pac-12 (seventh place)

    Key Players Lost: None

    Key Players Added: Stephen Thompson Jr. (4-star freshman), Tres Tinkle (4-star freshman), Drew Eubanks (4-star freshman)

    Projected Starters: Gary Payton II, Malcolm Duvivier, Langston Morris-Walker, Olaf Schaftenaar, Daniel Gomis

    Top Three Reserves: Thompson, Tinkle, Jarmal Reid

    One summer ago, Utah was seemingly everyone's preseason sleeper in the Pac-12. The Utes returned most of the main pieces from a winning season in which they failed to reach the tournament, including arguably the best statsheet-stuffing JUCO transfer in the country (Delon Wright).

    This offseason, that near-unanimous sleeper teamif such a thing can existis Oregon State.

    Led by Gary Payton II, Oregon State had one of the best defenses in the country. The above photo is of the two shortest players on the roster contesting a shot at the rim, which pretty well sums up the tenacity with which this team played every possession. As a whole, the Beavers ranked 25th in block percentage and 15th in steal percentage.

    If they just could have put the ball in the hoop once in a while, perhaps they would have won 20 games. Olaf Schaftenaar was the only player on the roster to make at least one out of every three three-point attempts. Payton was the only one to attempt at least 85 two-point attempts and make more than 45 percent of them.

    Unless you really like low-scoring games, it was pretty painful to watch.

    However, we know they're better than that. Malcolm Duvivier shot 49.3 percent from the field as a freshman and 37.0 percent last year as a sophomore. Similarly, Langston Morris-Walker shot 5.5 field-goal percentage points worse in 2014-15 than he did in 2013-14. Daniel Gomis dropped by 13 points.

    Basically, every key returning player got substantially worse except for Schaftenaar.

    If any of those players can bounce back in 2015-16, it would be enough to push the Beavers into the tournament. If all of them return to 2013-14 levels of efficiency while getting solid minutes out of their 4-star freshmen, Oregon State could realistically be one of the 20 best teams in the country.

4. Utah Utes

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    Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 Season: 26-9 overall, 13-5 in Pac-12 (tied for second place)

    Key Players Lost: Delon Wright (14.5 PPG; graduated), Dallin Bachynski (4.1 PPG; graduated)

    Key Players Added: Gabe Bealer (JUCO transfer)

    Projected Starters: Brandon Taylor, Dakarai Tucker, Jordan Loveridge, Brekkott Chapman, Jakob Poeltl

    Top Three Reserves: Kyle Kuzma, Isaiah Wright, Chris Reyes

    USC and Oregon State are looking to improve while losing nothing of consequence and adding several key recruits. Utah, on the other hand, is hoping to remain a tournament team while losing one of the best players in the entire country and gaining little more than a 3-star freshman (Makol Mawien) and a low-ranking JUCO transfer.

    Still, the Utes have one heck of a solid starting five.

    Jakob Poeltl is widely regarded as the best NBA prospect among returning players, and he should be the best center in the conference, if not the country. The other four projected starters shot a combined 41.9 percent from three-point range last season for a team that ranked sixth in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency.

    How badly they miss Delon Wright, though, will depend on how much of an impact Brekkott Chapman can make as a full-time player. The 4-star freshman in the class of 2014 averaged just 15.0 minutes per game last year but figures to be a gigantic factor this coming season.

    That should be good news for the Utes. Replacing Wright is all but impossible, but they could do a whole lot worse than dispersing his minutes among Chapman, Poeltl, Jordan Loveridge and Dakarai Tucker.

    As seems to be the case with several Top 25 teams every season, though, there isn't much margin for injury. Loveridge, Tucker and Poeltl were each hampered by injuries at some point in the season, but the Utes could be in serious trouble if that injury bug strikes again this year. Stay healthy, however, and this will be a tough team to beat.

3. Oregon Ducks

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    Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 Season: 26-10 overall, 13-5 in Pac-12 (tied for second place)

    Key Players Lost: Joseph Young (20.7 PPG; graduated), Jalil Abdul-Bassit (8.2 PPG; graduated)

    Key Players Added: Dylan Ennis (Villanova transfer), Tyler Dorsey (4-star freshman), Kendall Small (4-star freshman), Trevor Manuel (4-star freshman), Chris Boucher (JUCO transfer)

    Projected Starters: Dorsey, Ennis, Dillon Brooks, Elgin Cook, Jordan Bell

    Top Three Reserves: Dwayne Benjamin, Casey Benson, Small

    I have to confess that until really digging into the state of every team in the Pac-12 for these projections, I was woefully under-evaluating the Ducks.

    Just four weeks ago, I had them slated as one of the final teams into the tournament field. But if we redid that projected bracket today, Oregon would easily be a single-digit seed.

    Part of the problem is that I had been putting too much stock in the loss of Joseph Young.

    Without a doubt, losing the highest-scoring player in the conference is a tough pill to swallow. However, Oregon is still in capable hands with the additions of Dylan Ennis, Tyler Dorsey and Kendall Small. The Ducks lose a star, but they gain a well-rounded backcourt rotation, which might be even better in the long run.

    The bigger issue is that I didn't properly appreciate just how good Oregon's freshmen were last season.

    Jordan Bell and Dillon Brooks are two of the 10 best returning players in this entire conference, and Casey Benson was certainly no slouch of a backup point guard. Expect Brooks to contend for the Pac-12 scoring title, Bell to potentially lead the nation in blocked shots and Benson to play an instrumental role until the new backcourt duo gets fully acclimated.

    And don't sleep on Elgin Cook as a potential Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate, either. He averaged 14.8 points per conference game last season. With Young now out of the picture, Cook could become the type of go-to senior forward that Le'Bryan Nash was for Oklahoma State last season.

    Throw in Dwayne "Snoop" Benjamin as a relentless sixth man who really became an indispensable asset over the latter half of last season, and you've got one heck of a strong rotation that should finish top three in the Pac-12.

    Arizona and California are two teams on the relatively short list of 2016 national championship contenders, but the Ducks should absolutely open the season ranked in the AP Top 25.

2. California Golden Bears

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 Season: 18-15 overall, 7-11 in Pac-12 (tied for eighth place)

    Key Players Lost: David Kravish (11.3 PPG; graduated), Dwight Tarwater (3.4 PPG; graduated)

    Key Players Added: Jaylen Brown (5-star freshman), Ivan Rabb (5-star freshman), Stephen Domingo (Georgetown transfer)

    Projected Starters: Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Mathews, Jabari Bird, Brown, Rabb

    Top Three Reserves: Sam Singer, Kameron Rooks, Kingsley Okoroh

    Though he's only adding two players, Cuonzo Martin has one of the best recruiting classes in the entire country.

    As graded by 247Sports, Kentucky has three of the top 12 players, and Duke has four of the top 22. In some order, those are the two best classes. But California is right there at No. 3 as the only school with two of the top nine players in this year's class.

    Better yet, the Golden Bears probably have the best returning backcourt trio in the nation. Wichita State (Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Evan Wessel) might have something to say about that, but it's pretty hard to argue with the combined 41.2 points per game that Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird averaged last season.

    Even though they're very much a title contender, four things are keeping us from proclaiming the Golden Bears as the favorites to win the Pac-12.

    First, there's the complete lack of depth. Sam Singer is a serviceable backup point guard. Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh are tall dudes. But that's about it for bench production. Perhaps a sixth man will eventually surface, but in a perfect world, the Golden Bears will replicate the 2013-14 season of Saint Joseph's in which all five starters averaged better than 32 minutes per game. In a less-than-perfect world, one injury could be a problem, and an injury bug could be an outright catastrophe.

    Second, there isn't much of a winning culture at Cal. This program hasn't been to the Sweet 16 since 1997 and has just one regular-season conference title in the past 55 yearsand that 2009-10 team went 24-11 after opening the season ranked No. 13 in the AP poll. Even the Golden Bears' best regular season of the past half-century was actually a disappointing one.

    Third, Arizona has depth for days and has won at least 12 conference games in five straight seasons. A number of things need to go right for California to win the conference. For Arizona, it would just be business as usual.

    Fourth, and perhaps most dooming, is the amount of improvement the Golden Bears need to make. If California was adding two 5-star recruits to a team that finished 12-6 last season, it would be plenty easy to argue that it's enough of a boost to win the conference. But the Golden Bears finished four games below .500 in conference play and lose a pretty important piece in David Kravish.

    Great as they may be, can two freshmen really repair that much damage while playing 32 or more minutes per game without suffering so much as a sprained ankle?

    To be sure, we have high hopes for this team and haven't even remotely hesitated to refer to the Golden Bears as a Final Four contender. But as far as the Pac-12 regular-season title is concerned, Arizona is a much safer bet.

1. Arizona Wildcats

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 Season: 34-4 overall, 16-2 in Pac-12 (first place)

    Key Players Lost: Stanley Johnson (13.8 PPG; went pro), Brandon Ashley (12.2 PPG; went pro), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (11.2 PPG; went pro), T.J. McConnell (10.4 PPG; graduated)

    Key Players Added: Allonzo Trier (5-star freshman), Ray Smith (5-star freshman), Ryan Anderson (Boston College transfer), Mark Tollefsen (San Francisco transfer), Kadeem Allen (redshirt JUCO transfer), Justin Simon (4-star freshman), Chance Comanche (4-star freshman)

    Projected Starters: Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Gabe York, Smith, Anderson, Kaleb Tarczewski

    Top Three Reserves: Tollefsen, Trier, Allen

    Since we expressed a bunch of concerns about California, it's only fair to mention a pretty big one for Arizona: Teams that lose all four of their leading scorers almost never remain dominant.

    Florida lost four starters from the 2013-14 team and went from the No. 1 overall seed to a 16-17 record. Connecticut lost four of its top five minutes-earners and went from national champs to NIT participants. Michigan and Syracuse lost just three of their top five scorers and still plummeted from high seeds to no dance.

    As far as what happens when teams lose each of their top four scorers, it happened to Delaware and Saint Louis this past season, and it wasn't pretty. The Fightin' Blue Hens went from 25-10 and a strong Cinderella candidate to a 10-20 record. Likewise, the Billikens went from 27-7, A-10 champs and a No. 5 seed to 11-21 and sole possession of last place in the conference.

    However, none of those teams was remotely as prepared for the turnover as these Wildcats. Incredibly, Sean Miller lost his four best players and is still going to have trouble finding playing time for his two 4-star recruits or his talented backup center (Dusan Ristic).

    We've come to expect this type of rapid reload from the likes of Kentucky and Duke, but it's pretty crazy that Arizona will have absolutely no problem going 12 deep after losing so much.

    Could another platoon system be in our immediate future? If so, here's my meaningless vote for the two lineups.

    Red and White: Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Allonzo Trier, Ray Smith, Mark Tollefsen, Kaleb Tarczewski

    Bear Down: Justin Simon, Gabe York, Kadeem Allen, Ryan Anderson, Ristic

    Somewhere along the way, they need to find minutes for Chance Comanche and Elliott Pitts, too. It's not even fair.

    Arizona may initially miss the leadership and production it got from the likes of Stanley Johnson and T.J. McConnell, but by the time conference season rolls around, look for the Wildcats to be the deepest and most talented team in the Pac-12.

    Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

    Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.

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