Monday, April 06, 2015

2015-16 Preview: Pac-12

Pacific-12 Conference

Sean Miller has done a fabulous job at Arizona, but he just can't get his program over the hump. They hit Selection Sunday ranked 2nd in Pomeroy and 3rd in the Sagarin PREDICTOR, but for the second straight season they came up short of the Final Four in excruciating fashion against Wisconsin. Meanwhile, the Pac-12 featured maybe the most underrated top level team in America in Utah, who were an awfully strong 5 seed that came up just short against Duke in the Sweet 16 despite 4-for-16 three-point shooting and terrible foul trouble for Delon Wright. Oregon played to their seed as an 8 seed, but UCLA as an 11 seed was (rightfully) the most controversial at-large bid. And no, they shouldn't have gotten in. Their Committee's reasoning was flawed (they were "gaining steam" despite not improving in the computer ratings or beating a Pomeroy Top 100 opponent in the month prior to the Selection Sunday). And no, NCAA Tournament performance cannot justify a seeding decision, unless you also think UAB's win over Iowa State is proof UAB should have been seeded higher than Iowa State.

Let's start with that Arizona team, which is going to see significant amounts of turnover. TJ McConnell finally graduates, but the NBA Draft will be the real killer. Nobody has officially announced as of the time of this post going live, but Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson are as good as gone (Johnson should be a Top Ten pick). Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski both have decisions to make as well, and for the sake of this preview I'm going to assume Ashley leaves while Zeus stays. Parker Jackson-Cartwright will definitely return and be a capable point guard, along with sharpshooter Gabe York, wing Elliott Pitts and 7-footer Dusan Ristic. They add 6'9" Ryan Anderson, who averaged 14.3 ppg and 7.2 rpg as a junior at Boston College. In no surprise to anybody, Sean Miller has four blue chip recruits on the way: Ray Smith (Scout: 4 SF, Rivals: 12), Allonzo Trier (Scout: 2 SG, Rivals: 13), Justin Simon (Scout: 2 PG, Rivals: 22) and Chance Comanche (Scout: 13 C, Rivals: 33). So this Arizona team will look very different next season, but they'll still contend for a Pac-12 title.

Utah is heading into a transition season as well. Despite Joseph Young winning Pac-12 Player of the Year (a vote pretty much decided by him leading the league in ppg), Delon Wright was pretty clearly the best player in the Pac-12 this past season and he graduates. They also lose 7-footer Dallin Bachynski to graduation, while Jakob Poeltl could go to the NBA Draft. For the sake of this preview, I'm going to assume Poeltl leaves, since he's got a good chance to be a lottery pick. They do return point guard Brandon Taylor along with Dakarai Tucker and Jordan Loveridge on the wing. Isaiah Wright, a true freshman in 2014-15, will provide backcourt depth. Their front court will lose its starters, but they have a pair of good prospects in Brekkot Chapman and Kyle Kuzma, their top two 2014 recruits. Their top 2015 recruit is another big: 6'9" Makol Mawien (Rivals: 142).

Oregon managed to overcome a brutal offseason of rape cases, dismissals, suspensions and injuries to put together a team that was comfortably in the Field of 68 on Selection Sunday. Whether Joseph Young deserved Pac-12 Player of the Year or not (he didn't), he was still easily Oregon's best player and he graduates. Jalil Abdul-Bassit also graduates. Next year's Oregon backcourt with have talent, but not a lot of experience. Casey Benson and Ahmaad Rorie were both effective off the bench as true freshmen in 2014-15, and the Ducks also add Tyler Dorsey (Scout: 8 SG, Rivals: 20) and Kendall Small (Scout: 20 PG, Rivals: 83). The front court returns pretty much as it was, though it was one of the smallest and least effective in the Pac-12. Star 2014 recruit Dillon Brooks is listed as a forward, though he's just 6'5". Dwayne Benjamin, Elgin Cook and Jordan Bell were all effective players, but none are over 6'7". 6'9" Trevor Manuel (Scout: 18 PF, Rivals: 117) is added as a 2015 recruit.

Despite the fact that UCLA really didn't deserve that at-large bid by resume, they were certainly a Tournament-quality team. They were 41st in Pomeroy on Selection Sunday, and after their Sweet 16 run they moved up close to 30th. Norman Powell is their only graduation also, though Kevon Looney is expected to go pro. Their three returning starters will be point guard Bryce Alford, shooting guard Isaac Hamilton and big man Tony Parker. The Bruins also return plenty of size off the bench, including 7'0" Thomas Welch and 6'10" Gyorgy Goloman. They also get 6'8" Jonah Bolden, a hyped 2014 recruit who took a redshirt season. They return basically no backcourt depth, though, and will rely on significant minutes from 2015 recruits Prince Ali (Scout: 9 SG, Rivals: 30) and Aaron Holiday (Scout: 4 PG, Rivals: 59).

The team that finished third in the Pac-12 in efficiency margin was not UCLA or Oregon, but Stanford, and the Cardinal went ahead and won the NIT as well. It's their second NIT title in the last four seasons, but Johnny Dawkins still has only a single NCAA Tournament appearance in seven seasons. And they suffer heavy losses this offseason, losing Chasson Randle, Stefan Nastic and Anthony Brown from their starting lineup. The front court should still be fine, as they return Reid Travis, Rosco Allen and Michael Humphrey, and should also get back 6'9" Grant Verhoeven, who missed most of the season with an injury. They also add 7'0" Josh Sharma (Scout: 25 C, Rivals: 84), 6'7" Cameron Walker (Scout: 23 SF, Rivals: 72) and 6'5" Marcus Sheffield (Scout: 17 SF, Rivals: 103). The backcourt has more question marks, though they do return Marcus Allen and Robert Cartwright. They also will return point guard Malcolm Allen, who didn't play much as a freshman in 2013-14 but missed the 2014-15 season with an injury. But without any significant backcourt recruits yet signed, expect to see a lot of big Stanford lineups next season.

Aside from maybe Oregon, Oregon State was the biggest surprise in the Pac-12 this past season under first year head coach Wayne Tinkle (Tinkle was coming off a very successful run at Montana, so it's not a huge shocker that he's had success at a higher level). They won with an aggressive defense rated 15th in the nation by Pomeroy, and which led the Pac-12 in turnover, steal and block rates, and which was led by Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Gary Payton II. They head into next season returning everybody, led by Payton, combo guard Malcolm Duvivier and 6'10" Olaf Schaftenaar. To contend for a Pac-12 title they're going to need to score more efficiently. Victor Robbins, who was averaging 10.3 ppg, should come back after being suspended for the second half of the season. They also add a deep 2015 recruiting class, led by Stephen Thompson (Scout: 22 SG, Rivals: 76), Tres Tinkle (Scout: 14 PF, Rivals: 90), Derrick Bruce (Scout: 23 PG, Rivals: 125) and Drew Eubanks (Scout: 20 C, Rivals: 135).

Arizona State went 9-9 this past season, but it wasn't enough to save Herb Sendek's job. Without an exciting head coach likely coming in (Jeff Capel seems the favorite, if you believe media reports), next season might be a step back. They lose Jonathan Gilling, Shaq McKissic and Bo Barnes to graduation. Top returners are probably big men Eric Jacobsen and Savon Goodman. Point guard Tra Holder, a true freshman this past season, is a good prospect for the future.

Of the bottom five teams in the league, several have a chance to be better next season. If I had to pick one to be the best, I'd go with Colorado. They lose leading scorer Askia Booker, and also Dustin Thomas off the bench, but return everybody else. Their strength next season will be in the front court, where they return Wesley Gordon, Josh Scott, Xavier Johnson and Tre'Shaun Fletcher. They also get back George King, who took a redshirt season in 2014-15. The backcourt has more question marks. Xavier Talton and Dominique Collier are the top returners, though neither is a pure point guard or good shooter. A key addition is 6'5" Josh Fortune, who averaged 8.4 ppg and 2.1 apg for Providence. Their top 2015 recruit is a point guard: Dominique Collier

In the end, here's how I see the Pac-12 playing out:

1. Arizona - It's going to be a very different Arizona team next season, and a much younger one, but also still likely the most talented in the Pac-12.
2. UCLA - If Prince Ali and Aaron Holiday live up to the hype, UCLA will have the depth that they need to contend for a Pac-12 title.
3. Oregon - The Ducks have to find somebody who can be a go-to scorer, but as a whole Dana Altman is going to have a significantly more talented and deeper roster next season.
4. Colorado - The loss of Askia Booker is overrated. He scored 17.2 ppg, but it came on a 44.9 eFG%. This past season was a very frustrating one for Tad Boyle's squad, but next year they should be back in contention for an at-large bid.
5. Oregon State - The defense should be fantastic next season, but the Beavers scored just 0.90 PPP in Pac-12 this past season. They're going to have to get that way up to win consistently next season.
6. Stanford - The Cardinal are going to be one of the biggest teams in the nation, but perimeter playmaking is going to be a problem.
7. Utah - Assuming Jakob Poeltl leaves, we're going to find out next season whether Utah's success the last couple of seasons was due to Larry Krystkowiak or due to a short fluky run of great recruits, because the core of this team will be gone.
8. California - Stephen Domingo is a nice pickup for Cuonzo Martin, and he has a few more scholarships to work with. He has to add more pieces for the Bears to go Dancing.
9. Washington - Things went to hell pretty quickly after they Robert Upshaw was booted from the team, but Lorenzo Romar has nine lives and a big time recruiting class will give his team a chance to be better next season. But at some point they've got to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
10. USC - Eventually Andy Enfield has to get USC out of last place, and he should do it next season with another nice recruiting class coming in. But if they don't make a serious run at an at-large bid, his seat is going to start warming up.
11. Arizona State - Next season has the feeling of a rebuilding season. And make fun of Herb Sendek all you want, but he was probably the second most successful coach in Arizona State history. If they add another unexciting coach, Sendek might hold that status for a while longer, too.
12. Washington State - Ernie Kent is good at getting his kids to play hard and hustle, but he hasn't been able to recruit to Washington State. They simply don't have NCAA Tournament caliber talent.

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