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Pac-12 men’s basketball preview: Can league capitalize on record-setting NCAA Tournament performances?

New Runnin’ Utes coach Craig Smith enters a Pac-12 basketball race that is as deep and loaded as ever after impressive NCAA Tournament showing in 2021

UCLA players celebrate after an Elite 8 game against Michigan at Lucas Oil Stadium, March 31, 2021, in Indianapolis.
UCLA players celebrate after an Elite 8 game against Michigan at Lucas Oil Stadium, Wednesday, March 31, 2021, in Indianapolis. UCLA won 51-49. With all their key contributors returning this season, the Bruins are sure to be a tough out for the Utes and the other Pac-12 teams this season.
Darron Cummings, Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — A razor-close overtime loss to undefeated Gonzaga in a Final Four game.

Three teams in the Elite Eight.

Four teams in the Sweet 16.

Five teams in the Round of 32.

A conference-record 13 total wins in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

Add it all up, and it begs the question: What will Pac-12 men’s basketball teams do for an encore in the 2022 Big Dance after the most successful overall showing in conference history last March?

“We have great reasons for optimism in the Pac-12,” deputy commissioner and chief operating officer Jamie Zaninovich said at the league’s men’s basketball media day last week at conference headquarters in San Francisco.

The good news for the league is that many of the top players who helped turn the conference’s unexpected success into the story of March Madness last spring are back for more this year.

Although only two Pac-12 teams made The Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll released Monday — UCLA is at No. 2 and Oregon is at No. 13 — the league is seemingly gaining more respect with each passing year.

Arizona, USC and Colorado received votes, along with BYU, which will play two Pac-12 teams this year — Utah and Oregon.

“We are excited about the momentum we have from last season, and confident in the talented student-athletes and great leadership from our coaches,” said new Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff last week.

“The collective commitment to basketball throughout the conference is very important. Our shared objective is to optimize tournament bids and ultimately cut down the nets as national champions.”

That hasn’t been done since Lute Olson’s Arizona Wildcats won it all in 1997.

Into that momentum, and improvement after some lackluster Big Dance showings from 2017-2019, steps new University of Utah coach Craig Smith. The only other new coach is Arizona’s Tommy Lloyd, the former top assistant under Mark Few at Gonzaga.

“Certainly, being a part of this amazing conference — the Pac-12, the Conference of Champions, is what they say. Or at least somebody does. To be a part of that is awesome. It is something you want to be a part of, right?,” Smith said, flanked by returnees Branden Carlson and Riley Battin, when it was Utah’s turn to address the media on Oct. 13. “Bring on the competition.”

Actually, the league has been trending up since 2020, when up to six teams were expected to get NCAA Tournament bids before the Big Dance was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But few saw the 2021 success coming. In retrospect, every team was probably under-seeded, from Final Four participant UCLA — which upset BYU in a first-round game — to surprise conference tournament champion Oregon State to USC, Colorado and Oregon (which was eliminated by another Pac-12 school, USC).

“To finally see the Pac-12 in men’s basketball capture the attention of the basketball world, in March Madness, is truly remarkable and again, a testament to our student-athletes, coaches, administrators, everybody,” Zaninovich said.

Some of the league’s NCAA Tournament failures in past years, or unimpressive showings in nonconference games, have been explained away by league officials as the conference having too many one-and-done players leaving early for the NBA.

That didn’t happen this offseason, as preseason all-conference selections Johnny Juzang of UCLA, Warith Alatishe of Oregon State, Marcus Bagley of Arizona State and Isaiah Mobley of USC opted to return, “when they had pro opportunities in front of them, but chose to come back to school and invest in their collegiate experience,” Zaninovich said.

As it were, the league produced three NBA lottery picks in 2021 — more than any other conference.

Four all-freshman team players returned, and will be joined by 10 all-conference transfers, including MAC Player of the Year Marreon Jackson, the former Toledo star who is moving on to Arizona State.

Zaninovich said four McDonald’s All-Americans will join the Pac-12 this year, and 12 players from ESPN’s Top 100 recruits list.

Smith and Lloyd join a group of coaches who have more than 3,000 wins and 148 years of coaching experience.

“The coaching in this league is obviously remarkable,” Zaninovich said.

What else does the 2021-22 season hold for the Pac-12?

Officials announced that the Pac-12 championship game at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas will tip off in prime time on the East Coast and will be televised by Fox.

Also, the Pac-12 will host an NCAA Regional at the Chase Center in San Francisco — the first time in 80 years that San Francisco will host an NCAA Tournament game, the last one having been played at nearby Treasure Island.

This will be the second season in which Pac-12 schools will play 20 conference games each.

Before that, there will be some huge opportunities for Pac-12 teams to get big national wins. Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State will all get a shot at defending national champion Baylor; Washington and UCLA will play preseason AP No. 1 Gonzaga.

Also, Oregon will play in the Maui Invitational and ASU will play in the Battle 4 Atlantis with opportunities to run across top-ranked teams in later rounds.

Pac-12 teams will meet power-conference teams at least 20 times, including Utah’s Nov. 20 game against the ACC’s Boston College at the Sunshine Slam in Daytona Beach, Florida. The Runnin’ Utes will also face the SEC’s Missouri on Dec. 18 in Columbia, Missouri, the Big 12’s TCU on Dec. 8 in Fort Worth, Texas, and will host Big 12-bound BYU on Nov. 27 at the Huntsman Center in games that will either add to, or detract from, the league’s improved reputation as a national player.

Zaninovich said the league has worked hard to help schools with their nonconference scheduling to figure out what makes the most sense for them. The goal is to have Pac-12 teams win at least 75% of their nonconference games.

“We looked at tons of data of the NCAA Tournament, historically, and in most every case, if a conference wins 75% of its nonconference games, at least 50% of their teams advance to the NCAA Tournament,” Zaninovich said.

Here’s a closer look at each team’s prospects in 2021-22, in order of how they were selected to finish in the preseason media poll:

1. UCLA

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell, right, celebrates with teammate guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. (4) after an Elite 8 game against Michigan in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium, in Indianapolis on Wednesday, March 31, 2021. UCLA won 51-49. UCLA is an overwhelming favorite to win the Pac-12 after reaching the Final Four last season.
Darron Cummings, Associated Press

All five starters and every other contributor to the Bruins’ Final Four run returned for coach Mick Cronin, making UCLA an easy pick to win the league. Starters such as Juzang, Tyger Campbell, Jules Bernard, Cody Riley and Jaime Jaquez Jr. will be joined by key newcomers Peyton Watson, Will McClendon and Rutgers transfer Myles Johnson to give the Bruins arguably the best team in the country.

“Conference success in our sport is important because of NCAA Tournament bids,” Cronin said at media day. “We are all playing to go to the NCAA Tournament, and getting quality seeds. So conference power, success, all of it, is huge. … I think we proved last year that Pac-12 basketball is powerful.”

Juzang and Jaquez said there’s a heightened sense of excitement in Westwood these days, thanks to that tournament run.

“We are just as excited as them,” Juzang said.

Cronin said the Bruins have “the greatest tradition” in the history of college basketball and feel more pressure to live up to that standard than to repeat last year’s run.

2. Oregon

Oregon guard Will Richardson drives to the basket ahead of Southern California guard Drew Peterson during Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. Richardson will be back for the Ducks in 2021-22, and is considered one of the better point guards in the league.
Jeff Roberson, Associated Press

The Ducks lost quality players Chris Duarte, LJ Figueroa and Eugene Omoruyi, but did well in the transfer portal market, landing Syracuse’s Quincy Guerrier, Oklahoma’s De’Vion Harmon and Jacob Young of Rutgers.

They will join one of the Pac-12’s better returning point guards, Will Richardson, to give coach Dana Altman another league championship contender. Former American Fork star Isaac Johnson, a 7-footer, will join the program after having served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the past two years.

Altman was asked at media day how much longer he will stay in coaching.

“I don’t have anything else,” he said. “I am 63. I would like to go on as long as Oregon will have me. … I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t go to the gym every day.”

3. USC

USC forward Evan Mobley (4) and USC forward Isaiah Mobley (3) watch from the bench during game against Kansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Monday, March 22, 2021. While Evan has moved on to the NBA (the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft) Isaiah returns to the Trojans this season.
(AP Photo/Paul Sancya, Associated Press

A lot of experts say the Trojans will sorely miss Evan Mobley, the No. 3 pick in July’s NBA draft. They will. But they will also miss reliable guard Tahj Eaddy, the Santa Clara transfer who helped USC eliminate Utah 91-85 in double overtime in the Pac-12 quarterfinals last spring.

Coach Andy Enfield does get back Mobley’s brother, Isaiah, and point guard Ethan Anderson and wings Isaiah White and Drew Peterson. Forwards Max Agbonkpolo and Chavez Goodwin also return, which is why USC should make the Big Dance again.

“We have a lot of versatilely, but our guards have to be good for us if we hope to get back,” Enfield said.”… The excitement around our program is at an all-time high since I have been here the last eight seasons.”

Memphis transfer Boogie Ellis brings his 10.2 scoring average to the team.

The coach said the Pac-12’s showing in the tournament “gave our conference a tremendous boost. We were rooting for everyone else as if it were our own program.”

T4. Arizona

Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd waves while speaking during Pac-12 media day Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, in San Francisco. Lloyd and Utah’s Craig Smith are the two newcomer coaches to the league this season.
Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

Sure, the Wildcats have the winning tradition to fall back on, but this pick from media members who cover the Pac-12 seems high (the Deseret News picked Arizona ninth on its ballot). As mentioned previously, new coach Lloyd saw a lot of winning in more than 20 years at Gonzaga, but Ws don’t figure to come as easily in Tucson for awhile.

“I might have to recalibrate what a good winning percentage feels like,” Lloyd said. “I am really looking forward to that journey where every game is going to be a battle.”

Lloyd said at Gonzaga if they lost a West Coast Conference game, “it felt like you lost a seed line” for the NCAA Tournament.

Bennedict Mathurin, Azuolas Tubelis and Kerr Kriisa stuck around after Sean Miller was fired, and Utah transfer Pelle Larsson should be able to step in and contribute immediately.

“We have a great young nucleus to work with,” Lloyd said.

T4. Oregon State

Oregon State’s Warith Alatishe shoots over Utah’s Riley Battin during game in Corvallis, Ore., Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. Much to Oregon State coach Wayne Tinkle’s delight, Alatishe will be back for the Beavers.
Amanda Loman, Associated Press

Before that magical three-weekend stretch in March when they won the Pac-12 Tournament and advanced to the Elite Eight, the Beavers were an average team, perhaps even less than that. Can they recapture that momentum?

Coach Wayne Tinkle was able to keep most of his best players — most notably Alatishe, supreme shooter Jarod Lucas and backcourt mate Gianni Hunt. Replacing floor leader Ethan Thompson will be difficult.

“This conference is going to be as deep as it has ever been,” Tinkle said, hinting that even though the Beavers have improved, the rest of the league has as well, and duplicating that run will be difficult.

6. Colorado

Colorado forward Evan Battey celebrates during a timeout against Georgetown in NCAA first-round game at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. Battey will be back for the Buffs in 2021-22.
Michael Conroy, Associated Press

Point guard McKinley Wright IV was a fixture in Boulder the past four years, and will be extremely hard to replace. But coach Tad Boyle said he likes this group, especially if a highly rated incoming freshman class contributes.

The Buffs’ best returners are big man Evan Battey, forward Jabari Walker and guard Eli Parquet, who helped CU go 14-6 in league play and earn a No., 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Colorado reached the Round of 32 and was the only Pac-12 entrant that didn’t win two or more contests in March Madness.

“We are in great shape leadership-wise, but we gotta grow up quickly,” Boyle said.

7. Arizona State

Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley talks to Marcus Bagley during game against Arizona, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, in Tempe, Ariz. Convincing Bagley to return was a big win for the ASU coach.
Rick Scuteri, Associated Press

Coach Bobby Hurley scored two major wins in the offseason, getting talented forward Bagley to stick around for at least another year and luring MAC Player of the Year Marreon Jackson of Toledo to Tempe.

Jackson, who averaged 18.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.9 assists for the Rockets last year, will team with Ohio State transfer Luther Muhammad and Boston College transfer Jay Heath and returnees Bagley, Kimani Lawrence and Enoch Boakye to give Hurley plenty of talent with which to work.

After ASU went 11-14 last year, 7-10 in the Pac-12, Hurley said watching fellow conference mates succeed in the tournament was invigorating.

“I was so happy for the league, and for those colleagues, those coaches,” he said.

Bagley, a 6-foot-8 sophomore, said his decision to return was “based on knowing how much better I could be.”

8. Washington State

Washington State head coach Kyle Smith reacts after a foul was called during game against Stanford, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021, in Pullman, Wash. Slowly but surely, Smith is bringing respectability to the Cougars program.
Pete Caster, Associated Press

The Cougars are a popular pick among some to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in awhile, because coach Kyle Smith is slowly building something in Pullman.

Wazzu returns its main rotation — led by Efe Abogidi, Dishon Jackson and Noah Williams — and should be bolstered by South Alabama transfer Michael Flowers (21.0 ppg.) and UC San Diego transfer Tyrell Roberts (19.2 ppg.), who joined Abogidi and Smith at media day.

“He’s a bucket,” Smith said of the 5-11 Roberts.

Having gone 7-12 in league play last year, the Cougars will hang their hat on defense once again, Smith said.

“I think our talent is there,” he said. “Experience is still lacking, we are still quite youthful.”

9. Stanford

Stanford forward Jaiden Delaire, left, drives during game against Colorado Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in Boulder, Colo. Delaire will be among the Cardinal players trying to keep Stanford coach Jerod Haase on the sidelines this season.
David Zalubowski, Associated Press

While Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak was clearly on the hot seat last year, and ended up losing his job, the Pac-12 coach who wears that description this year is Stanford’s Jerod Haase, along with Washington’s Mike Hopkins, perhaps.

The Cardinal lost a lot, most notably Oscar da Silva, Zaire Williams and Daejon Davis, and will do well to make the tournament for the first time since 2014.

Senior Jaiden Delaire, junior Spencer Jones and five-star recruit Harrison Ingram will attempt to help Haase keep his job.

“Our goal is to simple — it is to be awesome,” Haase said.

That might be what it takes to keep the sixth-year coach in Palo Alto for another year.

10. Utah

Utah coach Craig Smith, left, speaks next to Riley Battin, middle, and Branden Carlson during Pac-12 media day.
Utah coach Craig Smith, left, speaks next to Riley Battin, middle, and Branden Carlson during Pac-12 media day Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, in San Francisco. While expectations for the Utes are not high in Smith’s first year at the helm, the players said at media day that the Utes will surprise some people in 2021-22.
Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

For the record, the Deseret News picked the Utes to finish seventh. The mass exodus since Krystkowiak was fired on March 16 has been well-documented, but Smith was able to keep Carlson and Battin in the fold (after Battin briefly entered the transfer portal) and those two said at media day that the Runnin’ Utes will surprise some people in 2021-22.

“I will say this: We have gotten a lot better in a short amount of time, and I can’t wait to see where this team goes,” Smith said at media day.

The feeling here is that UNLV grad transfer David Jenkins Jr. will give the Utes a nice scoring lift, and Utah State transfers Marco Anthony and Rollie Worster will add some defensive toughness that was lacking last year.

“There is a lot of depth in our backcourt,” Smith said. “The words that describe our backcourt are selfless and skilled. They can shoot it, they can pass it, they can dribble it, and for the most part we are pretty tough defensively with a good feel for the game.”

11. Washington

California guard Jarred Hyder (3) is defended by Washington forward Nate Roberts (1) as guards Jamal Bey (5) and Marcus Tsohonis (0) watch during game Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021, in Seattle.
Ted S. Warren, Associated Press

The Huskies went 15-3 in Pac-12 play in 2018-19, but have been a disaster since then, going 9-29 in league play since. The aforementioned Hopkins seemingly needs a big turnaround to keep his job.

Starters Jamal Bey and Nate Roberts return, but most of the other expected contributors are transfers — guys such as Terrell Brown Jr. (Arizona), Daejon Davis (Stanford) and Emmitt Mathews Jr. (West Virginia).

“We took advantage of the transfer portal,” Hopkins said.

12. California

California forward Andre Kelly shoots against Oregon during game in Berkeley, Calif., Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. Kelly is the Bears’ leading returning scorer.
Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

Coach Mark Fox’s best player last year, former Wasatch Academy star Matt Bradley, has transferred to San Diego State. He will be missed.

Andre Kelly (10.3 ppg.) and Grant Anticevich (8.9 ppg.) are back, and are joined by Charlotte transfer Jordan Shepherd.

The Bears will play at UNLV on Nov. 13 in what should be a barometer game; they will also play Florida in the Rocket Mortgage Fort Myers Tip-Off and either Ohio State or Seton Hall in the second round.

“We have a nonconference schedule that is going to help us play in the best conference in America,” Fox said.