Predicting the 2016-17 Pac-12 College Basketball Standings
The ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 are typically the men's college basketball conferences most likely to send multiple teams to the Elite Eight, but the Pac-12 has three legitimate 2017 Final Four contenders in Oregon, Arizona and UCLA.
We may agree to disagree on the latter of those three teams, but even the Bruins' most pessimistic prognosticators have got to be excited about the potential that Lonzo Ball brings to a team returning most of its key players from last season.
But there's a far less optimistic side to these Pac-12 projections. It's one that sees both Washington schools missing the NCAA tournament for a sixth consecutive year and that wonders what could have been for Oregon State if Derrick Bruce hadn't decided to transfer to a JUCO school.
Smack dab in the middle of those two extremes sit Colorado and Stanford, two wild cards that might do some damage if they can just stay healthy for a change.
Though most of its representatives flamed out in a hurry, the Pac-12 sent seven teams to the Big Dance last year. Depending on the Cardinal and the Buffaloes, that just might happen again this year.
Read on for our full projection of the 2016-17 Pac-12 standings.
12. Washington State Cougars (9-22 overall; 1-17 in Pac-12)
Washington State might have been in a position for a bit of a breakout season if it had retained everyone possible. Instead, the Cougars lost Que Johnson, Renard Suggs and Valentine Izundu as transfers without getting much of anything in return. As a result, this is looking like a watered-down version of a team that was already four games worse than everyone else in the conference.
Treasure those nonconference games against Utah Valley and New Orleans, because Pac-12 play could be a nightmare.
11. Arizona State Sun Devils (15-17 overall; 5-13 in Pac-12)
Like Wazzu, Arizona State was pummeled by departures, both mandatory and voluntary. 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.
They do add Buffalo transfers Shannon Evans and Torian Graham, signed three 4-star recruits and added Spanish big man Ramon Vila, but that's a ton of turnover in one season. Obinna Oleka will be the only senior in 2016-17, though, so this team has a ton of breakout potential for 2017-18.
10. Washington Huskies (19-15 overall; 9-9 in Pac-12)
Markelle Fultz might be the best freshman in the entire country, but who is he playing with?
At least when D'Angelo Russell had his monster freshman season with Ohio State, he had guys like Sam Thompson, Marc Loving and Shannon Scott by his side—and he still merely led that team to sixth place in the Big Ten and a No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament. Washington lost Andrew Andrews, Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss, leaving Fultz with a lot of unproven, young role players.
If the Huskies do make the tournament, Fultz better be near the top of the Wooden Award conversation.
9. Oregon State Beavers
2015-16 Season: 19-13 overall, 9-9 in Pac-12 (tied for sixth place)
Key Players Lost: Gary Payton II (16.0 PPG), Olaf Schaftenaar (6.4 PPG), Langston Morris-Walker (5.1 PPG), Derrick Bruce (4.4 PPG), Jarmal Reid (4.1 PPG)
Projected Starters: Malcolm Duvivier, Stephen Thompson Jr., McLaughlin, Tres Tinkle, Drew Eubanks
Top Three Reserves: Dew, Manuel, Cheikh N'diaye
Back in April, I put together a list of unheralded freshmen who seemed poised for a breakout sophomore year. Derrick Bruce was No. 3 on that list thanks to his play over the final four games of last season and the graduations of Gary Payton II and Langston Morris-Walker. He was likely going to become a starter and may well have been on the path to stardom, but instead he transferred to Division II Northwest Florida State.
A puzzling decision, for sure, but likely an academic one. As Danny Moran noted for Oregon Live after the announcement of the transfer, the transition to college classes was difficult for Bruce.
Regardless of what led to his decision, his absence results in reduced expectations for the Beavers. 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 while also hoping that Drew Eubanks can hold his own as one of the only true big men on the roster.
All this while also trying to figure out how to move on without Payton, who was the team leader in just about every category. An outstanding on-ball defender who was also a great scorer, rebounder and passer, having Payton on the court was like playing six-on-five. Stephen Thompson Jr. and Tres Tinkle are talented players, but can they possibly replace everything Payton brought to the table?
But head coach Wayne Tinkle did more with less during his eight seasons with Montana, so we promise not to be too surprised if he's able to keep this team in the middle of the Pac-12 pack and in the vicinity of 20 wins.
8. Stanford Cardinal
2015-16 Season: 15-15 overall, 8-10 in Pac-12 (ninth place)
Key Players Lost: Rosco Allen (15.6 PPG), Christian Sanders (4.3 PPG), Grant Verhoeven (3.3 PPG)
Projected Starters: Cartwright, Dorian Pickens, Marcus Allen, Reid Travis, Michael Humphrey
Top Three Reserves: Marcus Sheffield, Pugh, Josh Sharma
Stanford was ravaged by injuries last year. Starting point guard Robert Cartwright missed the entire season with a compound fracture in his arm. Reid Travis lasted just eight games before a stress reaction in his leg ended his season.
But the Cardinal were able to tread water fairly well given those circumstances. With better health, there's hope here.
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 value added to move them in the right direction.
Might the coaching change also help matters? Johnny Dawkins never seemed to get more than average production out of his guys during his time at the helm, but former UAB coach Jerod Haase could be the infusion this team needs.
Haase was an assistant to Roy Williams for 14 years at Kansas and North Carolina before taking over at UAB before 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.
A shift to a winning (and perhaps healthy) culture could be enough to push this team into a breakout year and a NCAA tournament berth.
7. Colorado Buffaloes
2015-16 Season: 22-12 overall, 10-8 in Pac-12 (fifth place)
Key Players Lost: Josh Scott (16.3 PPG), Tre'Shaun Fletcher (7.1 PPG)
Projected Starters: Dominique Collier, George King, Josh Fortune, Johnson, Wesley Gordon
Top Three Reserves: Tory Miller, White, Thomas Akyazili
Colorado is the wild card in this year's Pac-12.
Getting Xavier Johnson back from a torn Achilles should be a nice "addition." He averaged 10.3 points and 5.6 rebounds per game two years ago. But if he duplicates those numbers, that's barely enough to make up for losing Tre'Shaun Fletcher, let alone big man Josh Scott.
What the Buffaloes really need is for Derrick White to be as good as advertised. He put up big numbers in his three seasons at University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, particularly the most recent year. According to GoMountainLions.com, White averaged 25.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.2 steals and 2.1 blocks per game in 2014-15.
No one expects him to put up numbers like that at the Division I level, but if he gets to 50 percent of the numbers in each of those categories, that's a massive win for the Buffaloes and would likely put them in the conversation for fourth-best in the conference.
Even if he doesn't amount to anything, though, Colorado still has a strong, veteran rotation. The primary six would be made up of two fifth-year seniors, a conventional senior, two juniors and a fourth-year junior. That roster probably wouldn't do much in a conference like the ACC, but in the Pac-12, where everything beyond the top three is up for grabs, the Buffaloes could still make a little noise without any help from White.
6. Utah Utes
2015-16 Season: 27-9 overall, 13-5 in Pac-12 (second place)
Key Players Lost: Jakob Poeltl (17.2 PPG), Jordan Loveridge (11.6 PPG), Brandon Taylor (9.7 PPG), Dakarai Tucker (5.4 PPG), Kenneth Ogbe (5.2 PPG), Brekkott Chapman (4.4 PPG), Chris Reyes (2.6 PPG)
Key Players Added: Jayce Johnson (redshirt freshman), Jojo Zamora (JUCO SG), Jakub Jokl (Spain), Tyler Rawson (JUCO PF), David Collette** (Utah State transfer), Sedrick Barefield** (SMU transfer), Tim Coleman Jr. (JUCO PG), Devon Daniels (3-star SG)
Projected Starters: Lorenzo Bonam, Zamora, Gabe Bealer, Kyle Kuzma, Johnson
Top Three Reserves: Jokl, Daniels, Rawson
**Not eligible until second semester
Just let us know when you're done reading that whole list of key players added and lost. It seems like Utah is going through more roster turnover than the combined annual average at Duke and Kentucky. In addition to the seven guys listed above, the Utes also lost walk-on freshman Austin Montgomery and redshirt freshman Makol Mawien as transfers.
It's no wonder head coach Larry Krystkowiak went out and signed three JUCO transfers and an international player.
But at this point, we trust his judgment on those markets. Between Delon Wright (JUCO), Lorenzo Bonam (JUCO) and Jakob Poeltl (Austria), Coach K 2.0 is batting better than most. Even Kenneth Ogbe (Germany) was pretty good when he could stay on the court, and the jury's still out on Gabe Bealer (JUCO), though we expect him to be a key contributor this year.
They haven't all been home runs—Marko Kovacevic barely touched the floor, Princeton Onwas was a bust, and Renan Lenz and Chris Reyes didn't amount to much—but three A-pluses, two B's, a pair of C-minuses, a D and an F is a darn fine report card in realms that are usually mixed bags at best.
Perhaps the bigger question mark than the JUCO transfers is where David Collette and Sedrick Barefield will fit into the equation when they become eligible. The latter only played 16 minutes before leaving SMU, so who knows there? But Collette was a solid power forward at Utah State who may well be a starter as soon as possible.
If redshirt freshman Jayce Johnson is all he's cracked up to be and even one of the four JUCO/international acquisitions pans out, there's a good chance this team is at least as good as it was three years ago (21-12 overall, 9-9 in Pac-12). A repeat of either of the past two seasons might be asking too much, but a trip to the dance might not be.
5. USC Trojans
2015-16 Season: 21-13 overall, 9-9 in Pac-12 (tied for sixth place)
Key Players Lost: Nikola Jovanovic (12.1 PPG), Julian Jacobs (11.6 PPG), Katin Reinhardt (11.4 PPG), Darion Clark (2.6 PPG), Malik Marquetti (2.0 PPG), Malik Martin (1.8 PPG)
Key Players Added: Shaqquan Aaron (Louisville transfer), Jonah Mathews (4-star SG), Charles Buggs (Minnesota transfer), Harrison Henderson (3-star PF), De'Anthony Melton (3-star SG), Nick Rakocevic (3-star PF), Kurt Karis (Chicago State transfer)
Projected Starters: Jordan McLaughlin, Elijah Stewart, Aaron, Bennie Boatwright, Chimezie Metu
Top Three Reserves: Mathews, Buggs, Henderson
For a team that didn't have a single senior among its top 10 scorers, USC lost an awful lot this offseason. Nikola Jovanovic and Julian Jacobs 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 frequently become a problem, given the high foul rates of both Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu as freshmen.
But there's still a lot to like, particularly that frontcourt 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 had "breakout star" written all over his game last season. He'll need to get more assertive, but he could be a force of nature in year No. 2.
Getting former Louisville transfer Shaqquan Aaron on the court is a big plus for this team, too. Aaron was the No. 26 overall 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 Aaron that scouts saw in high school, he could immediately become the star for the Trojans.
Even if Aaron flops with his second team, though, it wouldn't be the end of the world to roll out a starting backcourt of Jordan McLaughlin, Elijah Stewart and freshman Jonah Mathews—younger brother of former California, now Gonzaga shooting guard Jordan Mathews.
Again, depth is the concern, though. Charles Buggs is arguably their seventh-best player, and he just averaged 9.7 points and 4.7 rebounds per 40 minutes last year with Minnesota. If a guy that unassertive is playing more than a dozen minutes per game, things could go downhill in a hurry for the Trojans.
4. California Golden Bears
2015-16 Season: 23-11 overall, 12-6 in Pac-12 (tied for third place)
Key Players Lost: Tyrone Wallace (15.3 PPG), Jaylen Brown (14.6 PPG), Jordan Mathews (13.5 PPG)
Key Players Added: Grant Mullins (Columbia transfer), Charlie Moore (4-star PG), Dontae Coleman (JUCO PG), Roman Davis (redshirt freshman)
Projected Starters: Sam Singer, Mullins, Jabari Bird, Ivan Rabb, Kameron Rooks
Top Three Reserves: Moore, Kingsley Okoroh, Coleman
Outside of the top three teams, there isn't a more gifted duo in this conference than Jabari Bird and Ivan Rabb. Most will recall that Rabb was a 5-star guy in last year's recruiting class and likely would have been a lottery pick if he had gone pro. But most have probably forgotten that Bird was a 5-star guy in the class of 2013.
Bird has been overshadowed by Tyrone Wallace and Jordan Mathews for most of his career, but he's a gifted shooter who is about to become the second-most important player on the roster, ready or not.
Columbia transfer Grant Mullins should be a nice addition to the backcourt, but there's a fine line between being a good combo guard in the Ivy League and filling that role in the Pac-12. We shall see how well his game translates.
Guys like Sam Singer, Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh have been little more than 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 duds during that eight-game audition. And Rooks and Okoroh are just out there to eat up space and grab some rebounds.
If anyone is going to take the pressure off Bird, it might have to 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.
But JUCO numbers can be deceiving, and head coach Cuonzo Martin hasn't exactly hit the jackpot in that area before. Coleman is his first JUCO signee at Cal, but he inked 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, though, it's one heck of a starting point. The Golden Bears may struggle early as they find their new identity, but this team ought to be a contender by the time conference play begins.
3. UCLA Bruins
2015-16 Season: 15-17 overall, 6-12 in Pac-12 (10th place)
Key Players Lost: Tony Parker (12.6 PPG), Jonah Bolden (4.6 PPG)
Projected Starters: Ball, Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, Leaf, Thomas Welsh
Top Three Reserves: Aaron Holiday, Anigbogu, Gyorgy Goloman
Welcome to the Pac-12's elite. California, USC and Utah could make the tournament. Colorado and Stanford should pull off some upsets. But any of these top three teams in the Pac-12 might win the national championship.
Yes, that's crazy talk for a team coming off a losing season, but the talent is there. That's partially because, like Washington, UCLA is getting a freshman who 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 to give him the best opportunity to thrive. Aaron Holiday will likely come off the bench for UCLA, but he would be Washington's second-best player with room to spare. 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 quartet in the nation. What separates good teams from great teams is the ability to sap the life out of an opponent in a moment's notice with a 10-0 run. And with those guards, there's no questioning whether the Bruins have the firepower to put up 10 points in a flash.
It's the zero in that scenario where UCLA has something to prove.
By most advanced metrics, Jonah Bolden was UCLA's best defender last season, and Tony Parker wasn't far behind him. It's brutal for UCLA to not only lose those two guys, but also replace them with T.J. Leaf, who—though a gifted scorer who will be a tough matchup for most—needs to improve as a defender.
Worse yet, if Holiday is the guard who gets booted to the bench, UCLA is also voluntarily shooting itself in the foot on defense by giving fewer minutes to the one guard who actually played some defense last year.
Put it this way: UCLA should win a lot of games, but the over/under for total score in its games may consistently be the highest in the country.
2. Arizona Wildcats
2015-16 Season: 25-9 overall, 12-6 in Pac-12 (tied for third place)
Key Players Lost: Ryan Anderson (15.3 PPG), Gabe York (15.0 PPG), Kaleb Tarczewski (9.4 PPG), Mark Tollefsen (7.0 PPG), Jacob Hazzard (2.6 PPG), Elliott Pitts (2.3 PPG)
Projected Starters: Kadeem Allen, Allonzo Trier, Alkins, Smith, Markkanen
Top Three Reserves: Simmons, Dusan Ristic, Parker Jackson-Cartwright
Quite the roster overhaul for the Arizona Wildcats, but nothing new for head coach Sean Miller. In fact, they have more returning talent in 2016-17 than they did last year after losing all four of their leading scorers from 2014-15.
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.
The Wildcats arguably have more raw talent than any team other than Duke. But their primary eight-man 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 when need be, 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 Markkanen 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".
But if Allen and Markkanen play well, the other freshmen and Trier will take care of the rest. It may take the majority of nonconference play for this young roster to come together, but Arizona should be a force by March.
1. Oregon Ducks
2015-16 Season: 31-7 overall, 14-4 in Pac-12 (first place)
Key Players Lost: Elgin Cook (14.8 PPG), Dwayne Benjamin (7.8 PPG)
Projected Starters: Tyler Dorsey, Ennis, Dillon Brooks, Chris Boucher, Jordan Bell
Top Three Reserves: Casey Benson, Bigby-Williams, Pritchard
You might notice that Oregon has three incoming 4-star freshmen and that not one of them appears in the projected primary seven-man rotation.
Are there any further questions as to why the Ducks should win the Pac-12?
Both Arizona and UCLA are banking heavily on young talent, but head coach Dana Altman's highly rated freshmen are little more than luxury features on an already fine-tuned piece of machinery. 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. But they could easily go 10 deep without much of a decline in production in 2016-17.
With a starting five like this one, though, why would they want to? Dillon Brooks should be one of the more popular preseason candidates for the Wooden Award, and we may even see Chris Boucher and/or Tyler Dorsey on the official preseason top 50 list in a couple of months.
What makes this team scary for any opponent is the frontcourt. Brooks and Boucher should give Villanova's Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins a run for best small and power forward combo in the country, and Jordan Bell is an outstanding defensive center who also scores on 59 percent of his two-point attempts.
And even if you get one of those guys in foul trouble, the first big man off the bench is JUCO transfer Kavell Bigby-Williams, who merely averaged 16.8 points, 13.6 rebounds and 5.9 blocks per game last season. Cut from the same rare cloth as Boucher, 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 after transferring that Boucher made last year, the only unknown atop the Pac-12 standings is how much of a cushion Oregon can open up before taking the regular-season title.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.