As the countdown continues to the start of the 2019-20 college basketball season on Nov. 5, ESPN.com's panel of experts is making its predictions for all of the nation's top leagues. We continue with the Pac-12, which looks to be on the upswing after a period of national irrelevance:
The Pac-12 (three NCAA bids each of the past two seasons) has taken a beating of late in the national conversation, but there are at least six teams that look like legitimate NCAA contenders in 2019-20. Are you buying or selling a Pac-12 resurgence?
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider:Buying. I had four teams in my Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25 (Oregon, Arizona, Washington, Colorado), with USC just missing. Right there we're talking about five teams tracking toward home uniforms on the first day of the NCAA tournament, and Arizona State brings back plenty of pieces from a tourney team. Mick Cronin hasn't missed the NCAA tournament in a decade, and Oregon State is arguably the best returnee in the league.
I don't think all eight teams are going to make the NCAA tournament, but six is very realistic. And not only does the Pac-12 have the top-25 teams, but it also has some of the best talent in the country. Washington and Arizona combined have four of the top eight freshmen entering college, USC has two top-20 recruits, Oregon has another three top-50 prospects, and Colorado brings back everyone. There's a lot to pay attention to in the league this season.
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer:Selling if "resurgence" means a five- or six-bid conference with a few contenders that might end the league's national title drought (22 years). In recent years, the movie trailer for this league has been great, but the conference has produced more than four NCAA tournament berths just once in the past five seasons (2016). I think the ceiling for this conference is five or six bids, but I'm not willing to put money on that. Too many questions.
I'll bet on Oregon and Washington to match the preseason hype. But Tad Boyle's Colorado teams have routinely finished with sub-100 marks in offensive efficiency on KenPom. I think Mick Cronin will rapidly change the culture at UCLA, but I'm not sure the talent is there yet. USC's Andy Enfield has been in a similar spot before, with a rich incoming class that couldn't anchor a run to the NCAA tournament. Arizona is already suffering from injuries (Brandon Williams). Arizona State and Oregon State are both intriguing and could compete for a berth. But I have to see it.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer:Sell, sell, sell! Though to be clear, by that I mean expect more of the same, as opposed to a true resurgence. This looks like a three- or four-bid season and, particularly, three or four bids in the middle of the bracket.
As a 12-team group, the league actually has slightly less experience returning than it did going into last season. True, Washington and Arizona are bringing in extremely impressive groups of newcomers, and I expect a bid or even two will be the result. Likewise, Colorado has everyone back (watch for that Tyler Bey-McKinley Wrightcombination), and Oregon has easily the best NCAA tournament track record of any team in the league the past few seasons. But I'm just not seeing any team that's the equal of, say, the conference's "big three" back in 2017, when Arizona, Oregon and UCLA were all seeded on the top two or three lines in the field of 68.
Oregon, Arizona, Washington and USC: four teams with high hopes, all of which are going to rely heavily on newcomers if they want to achieve anything. Which team in this group will have the easiest time integrating new faces, and which will have the toughest time?
Medcalf:Arizona will have it the easiest, only because we knowJosh Green and Nico Mannion won't have to blend in as much as Sean Miller will ask the duo to lead a group that lost Brandon Williamsto a knee injury.
Mannion is a projected first-round pick who will be the catalyst for Miller's offense. Miller is already talking about Mannion as the young leader for the Wildcats. For this team to return to the NCAA tournament, this has to be Mannion's team. After the school's recent blue-red scrimmage, Miller compared Green to former Arizona star Nick Johnson. This team will rely on that young backcourt all season. Max Hazzard, a UC Irvine grad transfer who made 39% of his 3-point attempts last season, will help a team that finished with a sub-200 rank in Division I shooting from beyond the arc.
Borzello:I'm the most bullish on Oregon heading into the season, and part of the reason is that Dana Altman has done this before. The Ducks always seem to add multiple players in the spring -- or, like this season, later in the summer -- and they figure it out. They didn't put it together until late last season, but they have a senior point guard in Payton Pritchard, which should help the transition.
At the other end, I'll join Myron in taking USC. Contrasting how Oregon has shown an ability to reload and adapt, Andy Enfield's Trojans haven't necessarily lived up to preseason expectations. They've had talent before, and there always seems to be something missing. This time around, there's a mix of graduate transfers and freshmen, so that's another mix.
Here's the other thing: If USC is going to start its three best players, then the freshmen Mobley (6-foot-10) and Okongwu (6-foot-9) will be on the floor alongside returnee Rakocevic (6-foot-11). Spacing and shooting will be an issue in that circumstance. There are more questions with the Trojans than the other three teams -- even if I'm still relatively high on Enfield's team.
Gasaway:I'm going to say amen to Jeff and offer Oregon as the team that will have the easiest time blending in the new guys. There has been a pretty healthy churn rate in terms of personnel in Eugene the past few seasons, and Altman knows the drill. Pritchard has been a starter in a Final Four game, which is a pretty good résumé bullet. Basically, with three trips to the Sweet 16 in the past four years, the Ducks have earned the presumption that they'll put things together satisfactorily.
On the flip side, I'll predict not so much that the newcomers won't blend at Arizona (the newcomers are outstanding) but that the blending won't necessarily put two NCAA tournament wins on the table. We have an image of Arizona in our minds as a team that always gets to the Elite Eight, but even the Ayton-equipped Wildcats of two seasons ago were nothing special on D (though, to be sure, they were great on offense). This program has some performance ground to cover to get back to the UA of old.
Mick Cronin has been handed the keys to one of college basketball's storied programs at UCLA. What does success look like for Cronin in year one in Westwood?
Borzello:I would have to imagine Cronin is thinking NCAA tournament, given that the last time he didn't hear his team's name on Selection Sunday was in 2010. Although UCLA was a mess for most of last season, the Bruins have made the NCAA tournament in four of the past six seasons and have talent on the roster. I think success for Cronin in year one is competing for an NCAA tournament bid on the court and making noise on the recruiting trail off the court.
Off the court, he has already achieved some success, landing five-star point guardDaishen Nix and getting squarely in the mix for five-star guard Josh Christopher. UCLA will have to stay healthy to achieve the first part, as Tyger Campbell and Shareef O'Neal are both back after missing all of the previous season. Although the talent has mostly underachieved to this point, there are six former ESPN 100 prospects on the roster, which shows that Cronin has something to work with in his first season. How quickly he's able to instill his system -- or at least find a system that fits UCLA's personnel -- will dictate how good the Bruins are this season.
Gasaway:Success looks like a record at .500 or above in Pac-12 play and recurring appearances in Bubble Watch. Can Cronin get it done? It appears to be a stretch, but it isn't out of the question. Consider that the Bruins have what ordinarily would be a relatively low level of returning experience. In this season's somewhat green Pac-12, however, UCLA ranks right in the middle of the pack (No. 6) on that front. Plus, there's a decent chance that Cronin will have his players buying in early. The Bruins open the season with a five-game homestand before heading to Maui.
Medcalf:Success, on paper, looks like a top-half finish in the Pac-12 and NCAA tournament consideration. I don't think Cronin has to make the tournament to succeed, but it would help.
The real success will be assessed by the way the team plays. I was there in Chicago when UCLA quit on Steve Alford in a loss to Ohio State last season. The Bruins didn't want to be there. They didn't know how to play a 2-3 zone. It was embarrassing. Cronin's initial task is this: stripping the program of the timid makeup that turned UCLA into a doormat under Alford. He'll make them play hard and compete in every game. That could help UCLA snatch wins in tight games it couldn't finish last season.
Cronin wants a trip to the NCAA tournament, but he also wants folks around the program to talk about the way his team competes.
Which will be the final Pac-12 team playing in 2019-20, and how surprised will you be if that team shows up at the Final Four in Atlanta?
Medcalf:Dana Altman took a team to the Sweet 16 after a 10-8 finish in the Pac-12 last season. He has two Sweet 16 runs, an Elite Eight appearance and a Final Four trip since 2012. I trust Altman whenever he has the brand of talent he'll possess in Eugene this season. He has an experienced leader in Payton Pritchard and a bunch of weapons around him. That 2016 Final Four squad had bodies. It seemed like Altman had four dudes who were all 6-foot-9, bouncy and athletic. I would never disrespectDillon Brooks' squad by suggesting that the current group will match that, but I think it has the same makeup with big, versatile wings and forwards who can push the pace and, like that group, end the season as one of America's most balanced teams.
I don't think the Ducks will reach Atlanta. I think the top-10ish teams ahead of them are blessed with more talent. But a second weekend run seems plausible.
Borzello:I'm all-in on Oregon. I think I'm probably higher than anyone in the country on the Ducks, and maybe I'm buying too much into on-paper talent, but I think they're a legitimate top-10 team, and so it would be silly for me to be surprised if they made the Final Four. To me, they have all the pieces to make a deep run.
Payton Pritchard is a battle-tested point guard who came up big late last season, and I've been a fan of Will Richardson since he was in high school. He could be poised for a breakout season.Chris Duarte was arguably the best junior college transfer in the country, and New Mexico grad transfer Anthony Mathis brings shooting. Addison Patterson is versatile. Five-star forward C.J. Walker has a high ceiling and can play multiple positions, and reclassified big man N'Faly Dante was one of the best defenders and rebounders at the high school level. UNLV graduate transfer Shakur Juistonwas a double-double machine in the Mountain West.
There are a lot of moving parts for Dana Altman to figure out as the season progresses, but Oregon has everything. The Ducks might not look like world-beaters in early November, but that will change come March.
Gasaway:What Borzello said! Except for the "all-in" part! No, seriously, I pick Oregon to be playing the longest. After watching the back-from-the-dead act the Ducks pulled off in February, I will not soon count this team out. When you go from 6-8 in the much-maligned Pac-12 to scaring the wits out of fans of a No. 1 seed (Virginia boosters sounded, if anything, more afraid of Oregon in advance of the game than they were of Purdue), you've achieved something remarkable.
That said, I would be surprised if this team makes it to Atlanta. The Ducks were just average at putting the ball in the basket last season, and before I pick this group for the Final Four, I need to see someone or something change that state of affairs.
Pac-12 2019-20 predicted order of finish
Pac-12 2019-20 superlatives
Player of the Year
Medcalf:Tres Tinkle, Oregon State
Borzello:Isaiah Stewart, Washington
Gasaway:Tyler Bey, Colorado
Newcomer of the Year
Medcalf:Isaiah Stewart, Washington
Borzello:Isaiah Stewart, Washington
Gasaway:Isaiah Stewart, Washington