The 2020-21 NCAA basketball season will tip off on Nov. 25 and, after months of uncertainty, we now know the Pac-12 intends to compete.
In the offseason, many Pac-12 stars who could have declared for the draft — including ASU guard Remy Martin, Colorado guard McKinley Wright and UCLA guard Chris Smith — decided to stay, and the result is that the Pac-12 is as talented as it has been in years.
It also does not hurt that five-star recruits like Stanford forward Ziaire Williams and USC forward Evan Mobley decided to stay on the West Coast rather than attending other perennial power programs. With the 2020-21 season rapidly approaching, it is time to see how I think the Pac-12 programs will stack up, starting with the teams I believe we will see in the bottom half of conference standings.
12. Oregon State
Oregon State is the clear last-place team in the Pac-12 for the 2020-21 season. The Beavers lost senior guard Tres Tinkle, who averaged 18.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game in his final season. Tinkle’s basketball career in the Beaver State was an impressive one, with his 2,233 career points earning him the top spot in the program’s all-time scoring records.
Tinkle’s departure will be an absolutely devastating loss for an otherwise weak Oregon State team and one that is only exacerbated by the graduation of another double-figure scorer: seven-foot forward Kylor Kelley. I would be shocked to see Oregon State finish anywhere other than 12th in the Pac-12, and their last-place position is my most confident pick in this power rankings.
Washington’s end to the 2019-20 season was the polar opposite of UCLA’s upward trajectory. After a solid out-of-conference record, the Huskies went 5-13 in conference play, including a first-round exit in the Pac-12 Tournament. Believe it or not, I strongly anticipate Washington will get worse in the 2020-21 season.
Most notably, the Huskies are losing freshman phenom forward Isaiah Stewart — who, after averaging 17 ppg last season, has opted to go pro. Freshman forward Jaden McDaniels, who averaged 13 points per game in addition to a generous 5.8 rebounds, has also departed, which is yet another significant hit for a team that was already struggling.
Most teams can rebuild when they lose star players, but in Washington’s case, there is just one freshman on their roster and only a couple of transfers. Washington will not have much starpower this season, and for now, it is difficult to see how they could finish ahead of any team except for Oregon State.
Cal has been struggling for years now, but last season ended on somewhat of a high note for the Golden Bears, who took down Stanford in the first and only round of the Pac-12 Tournament before it was cut short due to the pandemic.
Things won’t be easy for Cal, especially considering the losses of two solid players following last season — graduate student Kareem South and then-senior Paris Austin, both guards.
However, Cal will definitely have some experienced players to serve leadership roles, including senior forward Grant Anticevich and grad transfer guard Ryan Betley. Most importantly, Cal will return star guard Matt Bradley, a junior, who averaged 17.5 points per game in his sophomore campaign. Bradley is one of the most skilled guards in the league, and while I don’t think the Golden Bears have postseason potential, his return makes me confident enough to place two teams behind Cal in the Pac-12 power rankings.
9. Washington State
Washington State — what an interesting team. After swiping Coach Kyle Smith from the University of San Francisco, the Cougars set out to rebuild a pretty mediocre program. To see how that rebuilding process is going heading into the upcoming season, I had a chat with Cougfan.com beat writer Jamey Vinnick.
Vinnick was quick to note that “losing CJ Elleby changes the outlook of the season.” Elleby is of course the WSU star forward who tallied an average of 18.4 points and 7.8 rebounds per game in his sophomore season, after which he has opted to test the draft waters; Vinnick considered him to be “the glue of the team.”
Vinnick went on, however, to discuss the Cougars’ “unprecedented” recruiting class — top 35 to be precise — and the effect the new players may have on the program.
Vinnick’s main concern for the Cougars this year is scoring.
“If CJ wasn’t scoring there wasn’t a ton of secondary offensive output,” Vinnick said of last season.
The key for Washington State, according to Vinnick, is going to be for one of the returning players or a talented freshman to “shoulder some of the load” left by Elleby’s departure.
“I do think this is the best chance for WSU to play post season basketball probably since Klay [Thompson],” Vinnick said, but conceded, “I don’t think they have enough to be a [NCAA] tournament team” — suggesting that an NIT appearance would be the best-case scenario for the Cougars this season.
My last question for Vinnick was where he thought Washington State would finish in Pac-12 play, and his opinion largely aligned with mine, stating that the Cougars’ ceiling is eighth, which is reasonable given the loss of Elleby and the strength of the teams at the top of the conference. In my opinion, the freshmen Cougars will have to play like they’re seniors and some of the teams in the middle of the conference will have to underperform if Washington State wants to see a top-half Pac-12 finish.
The story of the offseason for the Buffaloes was the return of senior guard McKinley Wright IV, who will almost certainly be one of the best players not only in the Pac-12, but in all of college basketball. Wright is coming off of a season where he netted an average 14.4 points, snagged 5.7 rebounds and threw up 5.0 assists per contest; he was also on the Pac-12 All Defensive Team. What he lacks in height at 6-foot compared to his opponents, Wright makes up for in strength and defensive prowess, which together make him a top three returning player in the Pac-12. He scored 29 points in Colorado’s upset win over Dayton (who, if you ask me, was on its way to an NCAA Championship when COVID-19 brought the season to a premature close).
Wright will be joined by another solid player in junior forward Evan Battey, but one thing I fear for the Buffaloes is depth, especially given the loss of guard/forward Tyler Bey, which is why I have them in the eight position. However, if Wright has an even better season than his previous three, Colorado will be up there with the top teams in the Pac-12.
I expect an improved Utes team despite junior guard Both Gach’s decision to transfer to Minnesota. Utah’s best player from last season, forward Timmy Allen (17.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 3.0 apg), will be returning for his junior season and will be joined by a stellar recruiting class.
In that class is Ian Martinez, a skilled guard out of JSerra Catholic, and Martinez will join a sizable group of freshmen and sophomores. One concern that I have about this Utah team is the possible struggle of having a relatively inexperienced team, given that 13 of the 17 players on the Utes roster are freshmen and sophomores.
However, I believe Allen will lead Utah to a strong season, possibly even a top-half Pac-12 finish, but the loss of Gach and overall inexperience of the team may prevent the Utes from taking down the best of the best in the league, so I’m putting them at number seven.
Contact Teddy Solomon at tedsol ‘at’ stanford.edu.