College basketball: Can Washington lead the reboot the Pac-12 needs? 12 storylines to follow this season
The Pac-12 had a postseason to forget. Arizona got upset by Buffalo. Arizona State and UCLA didn’t get out of the First Four in Dayton.
Unfortunately, leagues in the power grouping are defined by what happens in the postseason. And the Pac-12 needs a reboot.
It may come in 2019.
Washington, UCLA and Oregon all have enough pieces to compete for the league title and advance once they get a bid. But so much of what happens in March may be determined in November and December. The Pac-12 must — absolutely has to — win notable games early in the season if it wants to have decent seeds. Get seeds with an advantage, then maybe the March flameout will be avoidable.
Onto my storylines over the summer:
1. How does Washington handle the expectations? I don’t think I will be the only one who puts the Huskies atop the Pac-12. Washington was way ahead of schedule last season in Mike Hopkins’ first season. He said during a March Madness 365 podcast episode that he had to teach his team the basics of the zone naturally when he got the job. Now they get it. The zone will be long, athletic and active for the Huskies. They’ve got the top defensive player in the league in Matisse Thybulle. The Huskies are a team that should be hovering near the top 25 if not in it for a fair amount of the season. Hopkins’ energy and experience at coaching a team (see: Syracuse as the top assistant) that is expected to win should help him in Seattle.
2. How much of an impact will Shareef O’Neal have on the Bruins? We’re now in the era of NBA players from the ‘90s and early 2000s with sons playing college basketball. Okay, so that makes me feel a bit old. Still, it’s great to track how the offspring are managing the college game. O’Neal isn’t his father, Shaq, and should never be compared to him. Still, O’Neal adds to the Bruins’ stellar recruiting class and should help the Bruins challenge for the Pac-12 title. He’s got the athleticism, length and skill to be a player who can produce right away. And having Shaq around the program will only be a help for UCLA. His presence is always good for the game.
3. What kind of season will Bol Bol have for Oregon? This is one of the most intriguing questions heading into the Pac-12. The late, great Manute Bol’s son is 7-2 and is extremely agile. Will he be a dominant rim protector? Will he have the strength to be a finisher around the rim on a consistent basis? How much will he be a player the Ducks flow through offensively? There are so many questions, but plenty of fantastic possibilities for Oregon this season. The Ducks should be back in the NCAA tournament with Bol on board. And once again the Ducks will be one of the more intriguing teams to watch.
4. What are the chances Bennie Boatwright becomes Pac-12 player of the year? Boatwright had to endure multiple injuries last season and wasn’t able to finish the year. But USC coach Andy Enfield fully expects Boatwright to be healthy for the season. The 6-10 Boatwright has the ability to be a mismatch every time he steps on the court. Boatwright can make 3s, finish around the basket and could become a much more disruptive defender. If USC can compete for the Pac-12 title, Boatwright will be one of the main reasons. And if that happens, he will be in the conversation for player of the year.
5. When will the rest of the country catch on to McKinley Wright IV? Look, I’ve tried to get everyone on board. I had the Colorado rising sophomore point guard as one of my top 20 returning players. I don’t have stock in Colorado, no allegiance to the Buffaloes, but I’m simply assessing a player’s talent who deserves more national praise. Wright is a jet on the court, can distribute with the top playmakers in the country and continues to make big shots. Colorado came up short last season in its bid to get to the NCAA tournament. If the Buffaloes land a bid this season, then it will be because of Wright having an All-Pac-12/conference player of the year season. And that’s something he’s fully capable of doing for coach Tad Boyle.
6. What will Arizona State do for an encore? Bobby Hurley had one of the surprise teams in the country in the pre-conference portion of the 2017-18 season. But then the Sun Devils had to slog through the league and barely made the NCAA tournament. Gone are the top three players of last season. But Romello White and Remy Martin are back, and Hurley is hardly someone who stays still. Ever. I’m convinced the Sun Devils will be in the mix for an NCAA tournament berth yet again. The style of play Hurley has coveted and was able to play last season isn’t going anywhere. He will get this team to move, make shots and hopefully defend. This team will actually be more intriguing to watch than last season’s because of the unknown.
7. How far will Arizona drop? I still think the Wildcats will be in the chase for a postseason berth. Sean Miller lost early-entrants, seniors and recruits. But Miller was able to land Brandon Williams (a former recruit who recommitted) and added Devonaire Doutrive, Omar Thielemans and transfers Justin Coleman and Ryan Luther. How this crew blends is still a mystery. But Miller rarely pauses. He is constantly on the go and should be able to mold this crew into a postseason team of some sort. Picking Arizona lower in the Pac-12 seems odd but it just gives the Wildcats a higher ceiling to shatter.
8. What could Tres Tinkle end up averaging? Tinkle scored in double figures in every game. He averaged 17 points a game. And he has the green light from his dad and head coach, Wayne Tinkle. The Beavers may have finished near the bottom of the Pac-12, but they still won seven games in the league last season. There was incredible balance from 1-10 in latter parts of the Pac-12 season. Oregon State has a legit shot to move up, higher than eighth. But a lot of that will depend on Tinkle. He should be a 20-plus scorer throughout the season.
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9. How wrong will I be on Utah? Ha! The Utes were a fringe NCAA tournament team, won 11 games and ultimately lost to Penn State for the NIT title. I’ve got the Utes much lower in the Pac-12 standings, and a lot of that has to do with the departure of Justin Bibbins and David Collette. But Sedrick Barefield is back and his dozen points a game may have to increase to make up for the absence of Bibbins and Collette. Still, Larry Krystkowiak hardly has been one to fade into the background since his arrival in Salt Lake City. I can’t tell you who will be the new stars just yet, but expect the Utes to be in the thick of the chase for a postseason berth. Don’t be misled by the power ranking predictions. The top 10 in the Pac-12 will all be chasing postseason berths.
10. How will Stanford handle not having Reid Travis? Jerod Haase probably thought he was losing Travis to the NBA draft, not Kentucky. But Travis withdrew and bolted. He was an anchor for the Cardinal inside and facing the basket with 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds a game. That’s quite a bit to replace. But the Cardinal do return a forward in KZ Okpala and a guard in Daejon Davis who could rise up and be stars for the Cardinal without Travis gobbling up shots.
11. What can Darius McNeill do to turn Cal around? The Bears have a potential star in McNeill. He set a Cal freshman record with 67 3s last season. He can be the lead guard, distributor and go-to player for Wyking Jones. This could be a season where the Bears are much improved, but it may not show up in the standings. How they jump up in the Pac-12 could be determined by McNeill or the help he receives. Cal also has to get back to where winning in Berkeley is a tough chore. There were times when going through the Bay Area was one of the toughest road swings in the league. Coaching turnovers have hurt that in recent seasons, but there is a chance for the Bay Area to return to being a hard slog for all opponents.
12. How can Robert Franks save the Cougars? Washington State lost four players it wasn’t expecting to lose after the season, and it nearly lost Franks too. But he withdrew from the NBA draft and is returning to Pullman. Franks can be a savior for Ernie Kent. Franks averaged 17.4 points and 6.6 rebounds a game for the Cougars last season. He will have to duplicate that to keep the Cougars competitive in the Pac-12 and avoid the bottom. He gives the Cougars a chance.
NCAA tournament bound: Washington, UCLA, Oregon, USC
On the bubble: Colorado, Arizona State, Arizona
Pac-12 power rankings:
- Arizona State
- Oregon State
- Washington State
First Team All-Pac 12:
Kris Wilkes, UCLA
Bennie Boatwright, USC
Matisse Thybulle, Washington
McKinley Wright IV, Colorado
Tres Tinkle, Oregon State