As the countdown continues to the start of the 2021-22 college basketball season on Nov. 9, ESPN.com’s panel of experts is making its predictions for all of the nation’s top leagues. After taking a look at Gonzaga and the best teams from the mid-major conferences (Atlantic 10, C-USA, Ivy, MAC, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, SoCon, Sun Belt and WCC), followed by Memphis, Houston and the AAC along with the Villanova-dominated Big East, we continue our series with the Pac-12 Conference.
The UCLA Bruins were little more than an afterthought as March began last season. By April, they were a phenomenon. Mick Cronin & Co. outlasted Michigan State in an epic First Four game and carried that momentum all the way to the Final Four, where they fell to then-undefeated Gonzaga in one of the great Final Four games of all time. With most of their core back in Westwood, the Bruins and their fans have designs on a record 12th national championship. But will this squad be consistent enough to get there? Will a still-talented Oregon squad show its superiority in the Conference of Champions? And what of USC, Arizona and other intriguing Pac-12 teams that are unlikely to go quietly.
ESPN’s writing team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi sized up those storylines, made their predictions and weighed in on all the Pac-12’s top issues.
Pac-12 2021-22 superlatives
Player of the Year
Medcalf: Johnny Juzang, UCLA
Borzello: Johnny Juzang, UCLA
Gasaway: Johnny Juzang, UCLA
Lunardi: Johnny Juzang, UCLA
Newcomer of the Year
Medcalf: Marreon Jackson, Arizona State
Borzello: Marreon Jackson, Arizona State
Gasaway: Marreon Jackson, Arizona State
Lunardi: Marreon Jackson, Arizona State
Pac-12 2021-22 writer roundtable
UCLA will be ranked No. 2 in the country to start the season, which would seem to make a college basketball record 12th national championship a practical goal. How surprised would you be to see Mick Cronin & Co. lifting the trophy in New Orleans on April 4, and what’s their biggest hurdle?
Medcalf: It would not surprise me at all. The key players from that Final Four team, including Johnny Juzang and Tyger Campbell, are all back, and they add five-star recruit Peyton Watson. I think UCLA will build off the momentum they accrued in the NCAA tournament. The Pac-12 will be a grind but also great preparation for the postseason.
When I talked to Mick Cronin and Juzang about the upcoming season at Pac-12 media day, they both said the thrilling loss to Gonzaga — one of the great games in NCAA tournament history — was still just a loss to them. That finish will push them this year. This feels like Butler’s run in 2009 before Gordon Hayward & Co. reached the title game a year later and battled Duke until the final seconds. You add a guy like Myles Johnson — opponents made just 44% of their shots inside the arc with the former Rutgers big man on the floor last season, per hooplens.com — to the UCLA roster and anything seems possible for a group that has few weaknesses, it seems.
The Bruins’ greatest hurdle, I think, will be finding a way to compete the way they did down the stretch throughout the entire season. Making the Final Four as an 11-seed is an incredible story, but it’s no way to live. The Bruins battled injuries throughout the year and were 17-8 entering the Pac-12 tournament after losing five of their final nine games. They got hot at the right time, but you only win the title that way if you’re UConn. Similar inconsistency might not end with the same fortuitous run. But all signs point to this team going forward after last year’s run to the Final Four.
Borzello: It wouldn’t be a shock. This is a team that was a 40-foot buzzer shot from being in the national championship game — and it brings everyone back and adds a top-15 prospect and projected lottery pick in Watson and one of the best defensive players in the Big Ten in Johnson. I don’t really buy the argument that the sport might be overrating the Bruins based solely on the NCAA tournament run; they were in the thick of the Pac-12 title race before a bad two weeks to end the regular season. Something clicked for them in the NCAA tournament. Mick Cronin had the team playing his style of defense, Tyger Campbell was keeping things moving smoothly and the offense revolved heavily around Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr. making plays. I don’t really see any of that changing, and Watson and Johnson will add different dimensions.
The biggest hurdle for UCLA will be carrying last March’s momentum into this season. The Bruins were playing with house money during most of the NCAA tournament, with everyone rooting for the 11-seed to upset the big boys. This season, UCLA is back to being the hunted. Juzang enters the season with expectations, Jaquez enters the season with expectations, the entire team enters the season with expectations. It’s an entirely different dynamic to the last three weeks of the 2020-21 season. The Bruins will have to handle the target on their back.
Gasaway: The October me, as we look at the question today, will be a bit surprised. With all due respect to Mr. Borzello, I do wonder whether the Bruins are being overrated ever so slightly due to their sensational NCAA tournament. Beware recency effect. Embittered Alabama and Michigan fans can tell you all about how it looked like UCLA would never reach the Final Four. Heck, Michigan State took these guys to overtime in the First Four. If the Bruins lost that game and therefore ended their season with five straight defeats, are we really picking this roster to win the 2022 national title?
Again, that’s October me. If it turns out the light really did go on for Mick Cronin’s guys in the field of 68 and the historically (one might say supernaturally) accurate 2-point jump-shooting against Gonzaga can be replaced with something more durable, I’m all in. (I picked UCLA to win the league.) The biggest hurdle to be cleared before I jump on that bandwagon is defense. The Bruins clocked in at the league average for D in Pac-12 play last season. If that changes, I will say I believed in these guys all along and this conversation never happened.
Lunardi: History suggests the Bruins are a bit overrated entering this season. This happens every year to a handful of teams that experience better-than-expected NCAA tournament results the prior campaign. A statistician might ask, “What is more reliable, three months of data or three weekends?”
Due to that finish and its volume of returnees, UCLA has earned its preseason poll position. But that’s the easy part. It says here the Bruins will find that returning to the Final Four is much harder than the original climb.
Oregon has arguably become this league’s most dependable team. What do you find distinctive about a Ducks’ 2021-22 group with its usual complement of new faces?
Lunardi: New faces, yes, but not where it matters most. Dana Altman is Oregon’s constant, the foremost reason the Ducks have gone 132-66 in the Pac-12 in his 10 seasons (far and away the league’s best record in that span). Big or small, fast or slow, Altman wins. He adapts to the considerable talent on hand and almost always has the Ducks at their best in March. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Oregon is again at the top of the Pac-12 standings by then.
Borzello: Dana Altman has legit size on this year’s roster. He has no issue playing small-ball lineups, whether it was Eric Williams and Eugene Omoruyi up front last season or even Chandler Lawson and Shakur Juiston a couple of years back. And he can certainly do that again this season, with Syracuse transfer Quincy Guerrier capable of holding his own up front alongside Williams.
But Altman has plenty of options if he wants to play with a more traditional big man. At 6-foot-11, Franck Kepnang joined for the second half of the las season and showed flashes during Pac-12 play — and then had eight points off the bench against USC in the NCAA tournament. N’Faly Dante, also 6-foot-11, started the first six games last season before tearing his ACL — and averaged 8.2 points and 5.8 rebounds during that stretch. Then there’s five-star recruit Nate Bittle, a 6-foot-11 frontcourt weapon who brings more skill and shooting to the center spot. Oregon will always be versatile under Altman, but the Ducks might be able to mix and match against bigger teams more effectively this season.
Medcalf: Yeah, the new faces and athleticism and high ceiling aren’t new. But I do think Oregon’s history suggests it plays to its potential when it has a veteran leader whom every player on the team respects. Dylan Ennis did that for the Final Four team in 2016-17. Payton Pritchard did that for the Ducks in his final years too. I think Will Richardson will fulfill that role with this group. When we talked at Pac-12 media day, Richardson admitted that the talent pool — five players on the roster averaged double figures last season — will require players to check their egos so they can share the ball. That’s always a difficult task with a team this deep. But Dana Altman has done this before. His job is always easier when he has a sturdy veteran who can lead all that talent on the floor. I think Richardson is that player for the Ducks this season: a lot of moving parts, but his experience will help this team find a rhythm early in the season.
Gasaway: Altman constructs his teams with talent from all conceivable categories. He has veterans coming back from last year’s Ducks (Richardson, Williams and Dante). There are highly rated freshmen joining the program (Bittle and Isaac Johnson). UO is drawing from the ranks of the major-conference transfers (Guerrier, De’Vion Harmon from Oklahoma and Jacob Young from Rutgers). There’s even a junior college transfer (Rivaldo Soares). The head coach has covered all the squares in terms of talent acquisition, and in the past, that has worked out really well for Oregon.
Last season in Pac-12 play, the Ducks took care of the ball and burned up the nets from the perimeter while forcing a ton of turnovers on defense — and Altman’s guys needed those takeaways, because this was something of a feast-or-famine D. We’ll see if this season’s players with their widely varying origin stories can do the same or better.
Arizona has been a middle-of-the-Pac pick among most prognosticators. Are the Wildcats going to be on the right or wrong side of the bubble in Tommy Lloyd’s first year, and why?
Gasaway: Put it this way — come February, I fully expect to be writing about Lloyd and his men in Bubble Watch. I don’t envision Arizona having safely locked in an NCAA bid by then, nor do I anticipate that the Wildcats will be out of the running for a spot in the field of 68. It’s going to be close. Arizona was better than people realized last season — as good as UCLA, in fact, on a per-possession basis in the Pac-12 — but four of the top six scorers from that team are gone, and the transition to a new regime could take some time. Fans in Tucson should strap themselves in for an exciting and suspenseful season on the bubble — which, it should be noted, is way better than operating under a postseason ban. The improvement is already under way.
Medcalf: I think Arizona is one of the most intriguing teams in the country but also one of the more difficult teams to assess. The Wildcats have gone through a coaching change, and they’re still awaiting the results of the independent process for their infractions case. You don’t easily replace James Akinjo, Jemarl Baker and Jordan Brown. But this year’s roster also includes a pair of the league’s most promising talents: Azuolas Tubelis and Bennedict Mathurin. Tubelis and Mathurin, who played with Canada’s Under-19 squad in the FIBA championships, should both make significant strides this season.
But if I have to pick now, I’ll pick Arizona to finish just outside the 68-team field. Tommy Lloyd has been on one of the top coaching staffs in America, at Gonzaga. But the adjustment from assistant to head coach will include a serious learning curve for him. When Mike Hopkins arrived at Washington after leaving Jim Boeheim’s staff in 2017-18, many expected him to have an incredible run. But Hopkins has had more struggles than successes. Lloyd could encounter a similar challenge.
Borzello: They have enough talent to make the NCAA tournament, and the expectation within the program is they’ll be competing for a bid in year one. There are going to be some growing pains, especially with the change in systems from Sean Miller’s more set-based, half-court offense to Tommy Lloyd’s faster, more European-style offense. Despite the NCAA cloud over Tucson the past few years, Miller didn’t exactly leave the cupboard bare for Lloyd; four starters return from a team that finished 17-9 overall and fifth in the Pac-12 and ended last season inside the top 30 at KenPom. If not for a postseason ban, Arizona likely would have heard its name on Selection Sunday.
Mathurin is a potential first-round pick, and Tubelis should fit very well with the new offense. Lloyd also went out and landed a quartet of transfers: Kim Aiken Jr., Pelle Larsson, Justin Kier and Oumar Ballo. The key will be at the point guard spot. Kerr Kriisa is going to be the guy with the ball in his hands for the Wildcats. If he can get the offense humming quickly, the Wildcats are going to play in the NCAA tournament.
Lunardi: The only thing I’m sure of is that Arizona will be on the bubble. Knowing which side without seeing them play is a fool’s guess. My gut, given the inevitable transition of Tommy Lloyd and staff to the Pac-12 (not to mention his own as a head coach), is that we’re more likely to find the Wildcats in the NIT.
Which Pac-12 team are not nearly enough people talking about entering 2021-22?
Medcalf: I think Colorado is the standard answer every season. Tad Boyle is entering his 12th season at Colorado. He has won 20 or more games eight times. He has one losing season. Yes, McKinley Wright IV is gone. That’s a significant loss for Boyle’s program. But he also is accustomed to losing key players and bouncing back. His track record of consistency suggests that Colorado will still be a competitive group. If Jabari Walker and Evan Battey — who looked like he had slimmed down when I saw him at Pac-12 media day — can anchor one of the league’s best frontcourts, there is a scenario where Colorado can put together another winning season and play its way onto the bubble under Boyle.
Borzello: I’ll go with Washington State. In his second year at the helm, Kyle Smith led the Cougars to their first season above .500 since 2012, and they won seven Pac-12 games — their most since 2015. They beat Oregon on the road, they beat UCLA at home and they went 5-5 in their final 10 regular-season contests. Four starters are back, led by Noah Williams, who went for 32 points and 40 points in back-to-back games in late February.
Much of the optimism in Pullman centers around the newcomers, however. Michael Flowers was one of the top scorers in the transfer portal last spring after leaving South Alabama, while UC San Diego transfer Tyrell Roberts put up more than 19 per game two seasons ago. Those two should be able to replace Isaac Bonton, a second-team All-Pac-12 selection last season. Washington State was one of the best defensive teams in the league in 2020-21, but the Cougars will need to take a step forward offensively in order to play in the postseason.
Gasaway: Borzello stole my first choice. I’ll go with Plan B, then, and send some love to USC. Who needs Evan Mobley, right? Well, actually, he would come in pretty handy. Just the same, even without Mobley and Tahj Eaddy, coach Andy Enfield still has a rotation loaded with returning veterans, including Isaiah Mobley, Ethan Anderson, Drew Peterson and Isaiah White. Throw in transfers Boogie Ellis (Memphis) and Joshua Morgan (Long Beach) and you’re looking at a strong nucleus. I picked the Trojans to finish second in the Pac-12, and we’re not hearing enough about a group that could push UCLA for the league title.
Lunardi: Let’s talk more about Washington State basketball. Kyle Smith has done wonders in just three seasons and has no worse than a bubble team this year. We have to remember just how bad this program was, especially defensively, under Ernie Kent. Under Smith, Wazzu is again relevant and within range of an NCAA bid for the first time since 2008 (14 years and three coaches ago!).
Pac-12 2021-22 predicted order of finish
5. Arizona State
6. Washington State
8. Oregon State
10. Utah (tie 10th)
11. Washington (tie 10th)