Who in the Pac-12 can challenge Arizona for consistent supremacy? It’s a question we asked before the season and now must ponder again with the 2014-15 season in the books.
And ironically enough, the Wildcats could just as easily fall out of the top spot by default, at least for next season.
Sean Miller has brought Arizona back to being the signature program of the Pac-12. In the final years of Lute Olson’s tenure, there was a noticeable slide from the place of being a national power. That’s a thing of the past, though, as Miller is showing that he can coach, and he and his staff are getting big-time talent to Tucson for him to coach. That has its trade-offs, though, as the Wildcats have a mass exodus of talent this season, with three players entering the NBA Draft early and T.J. McConnell graduating. Even so, they bring in another terrific recruiting class and will remain the conference favorite for much of the foreseeable future.
Who will challenge them? UCLA obviously has the history, but the Bruins underachieved this past season. They reached the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament, but whether or not they should have been there in the first place was debatable. They will have talent, but lose their steadiest leader and most talented player.
Utah has been on a nice rise under Larry Krystkowiak, and for a lot of the season was right there with Arizona. The Utes weren’t relevant for a while before Krystkowiak took over, but they had a chance to be in the top spot late in the season before a late slump dropped them into a tie for second and, ultimately, the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament. Now, we’ll see if they can keep this up, as Delon Wright is done, and while he wasn’t a one-man show, he was a big part of the past two seasons.
Oregon was a pleasant surprise this season, as Dana Altman did his best coaching job. The Ducks had a bad off-season and as a result had a very new look, but they managed through non-conference and then came on strong late in the season behind Joseph Young and an improving support cast. Young graduates, however, so they take a hit there, although Villanova transfer Dylan Ennis and talented freshman Tyler Dorsey will help ease that.
They aren’t the only ones behind Arizona with questions. Stanford won the NIT, but lose all-time leading scorer Chasson Randle along with big man Stefan Nastic and wing Anthony Brown, who comprise their top three scorers. They have some returning talent, but one wonders if Johnny Dawkins’ seat isn’t heating up a bit. Arizona State was up and down and settled for an NIT bid. Oregon State showed promise in Wayne Tinkle’s first season as head coach, and with a solid recruiting class coming in, could make a jump in the standings. However, expectations with the Beavers should be tempered a bit, because they had potential during the Craig Robinson years as well. Washington started fast, but fell apart starting late in non-conference play, especially once they had to dismiss Robert Upshaw from the program.
The team that at first glance should give Arizona a run for their money next season might surprise you if you consider this season alone. California got off to a good start, but just before non-conference play ended, they hit the wall and never really got going in Pac-12 play. However, Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Matthews (the conference’s top three-point shooter) and Jabari Bird all return, and the Golden Bears welcome a recruiting class that features two top ten talents in Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown.
If the Golden Bears do indeed contend for the top spot, then we’ll see if California can be more than a one-year wonder. Cuonzo Martin is quickly making things happen in Berkeley, so there is a lot to be optimistic about if you’re a Cal fan.
You get the idea, though: there are a lot of questions about the Pac-12’s identity beyond Arizona.
When the season ended, Arizona State was the only school to make a move on the sideline. They ousted Herb Sendek after nine seasons at the helm, replacing him with Bobby Hurley, who took Buffalo to the NCAA Tournament in just his second season leading that program. Hurley was a hot name and is known for his legendary college career in leading some great Duke teams, and now he’ll try to turn the Sun Devils into a consistent winner.
In the opening round, the seeds played to a 2-2 split, though one game was a matchup of teams with identical conference records. California blew out Washington 84-59 in that one to open it up, then the shocker of the opening day came as USC beat Arizona State 67-64, punching Arizona State’s ticket to the NIT. Colorado beat Oregon State 78-71 and Stanford edged Washington State 71-69.
The quarterfinals began with two blowouts as Arizona took out California 73-51, then UCLA blew out cross-town rival USC 96-70. Oregon beat Colorado 93-85, then Utah blew out Stanford 80-56, sending the Cardinal off to the NIT.
The semifinals were all you could want. Arizona held off UCLA 70-64 in a dandy, then Oregon got a deep three-pointer by Joseph Young just before the buzzer to beat Utah 67-64 in an absolute thriller.
The championship game featured the top two seeds, but it wasn’t as close as one might expect just knowing that. Oregon jumped out to a 10-4 lead, but it was all Arizona after that as they ran away with an 80-52 win.
Player of the Year: Joseph Young, Oregon
Rookie of the Year: Stanley Johnson, Arizona
Coach of the Year: Dana Altman, Oregon
Defensive Player of the Year: Gary Payton II, Oregon State
Most Improved Player: Josh Hawkinson, Washington State
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, So. F, Arizona
Stanley Johnson, Fr. F, Arizona
DaVonte Lacy, Sr. G, Washington State
T.J. McConnell, Sr. G, Arizona
Gary Payton II, Jr. G, Oregon State
Norman Powell, Sr. G, UCLA
Chasson Randle, Sr. G, Stanford
Tyrone Wallace, Jr. G, California
Delon Wright, Sr. G, Utah
Joseph Young, Sr. G, Oregon
- Three teams made the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row.
- Stanford won the NIT for the second time in three seasons.
- Stanford guard Chasson Randle became the all-time leading scorer at the school.
- Utah’s Delon Wright won the Bob Cousy Award as the nation’s top point guard.
- Washington won the MGM Grand Showcase in Las Vegas with a win over Oklahoma.
- Gary Payton II posted the first triple-double in Oregon State history since his father over 20 years ago.
What we expected, and it happened: Arizona was the class of the conference. Not much more to say here that hasn’t already been said.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Colorado dropped off significantly after three straight trips to the NCAA Tournament. The Buffs didn’t have the talent of the past couple of years, but Askia Booker and Josh Scott made a nice inside-out combination. It didn’t translate into much, however, as they never won more than three in a row all season but had three losing streaks of at least three games.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Oregon was the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament. What the Ducks had beyond Joseph Young was unclear after a very bad off-season. Dana Altman did his best coaching job, though, and also got this team to the conference championship game.
Team(s) on the rise: California. Sure, the Golden Bears could have a great year next year, watch Rabb and Brown jump to the NBA and end up being a one-year wonder. But the guess here is that Martin and his staff are setting the stage for more than just one big year early on. Also, Oregon State, as Wayne Tinkle put together a winning season right away and has three top recruits on the way to help Gary Payton II.
Team(s) on the decline: Washington. It was bad enough that the season careened out of control after a great start. Even worse is the transfer of Nigel Williams-Goss, a local kid who is a winning player. Next season will tell us a lot about whether or not Lorenzo Romar can start fresh, or if his best days in Seattle are firmly in the rearview mirror.
2015-16 Pac-12 Outlook
While Arizona might be the pick to win, with California right there, at first glance the conference will not have a prohibitive favorite next season. Both teams will have the most talent in the conference, but both will also have some youth, Arizona a little more so.
After that, Oregon and UCLA might be the next teams to watch. Oregon loses Joseph Young, but Tyler Dorsey should make an impact right away and Dylan Ennis will also help, plus the frontcourt will be more experienced. UCLA will have a nice core, though devoid of obvious star power. Oregon State is primed for a jump into contention as well, and Utah should still be pretty good since big man Jacob Poeltl opted to return for his sophomore season.
Among others that were in the middle of the pack, Arizona State and Stanford don’t appear to be trending strongly one way or the other. Arizona State returns four starters in Bobby Hurley’s first season. Colorado could rebound since Askia Booker is the only one of the top seven scorers who have departed, while Providence transfer Josh Fortune joins them.
Can anyone from the bottom of the pack this season emerge into at least the middle? Possibly. Washington will start over, but perhaps that will be a plus for them. Washington State will get a big makeover in Ernie Kent’s second season at the helm. USC was young and took their lumps this season, though they did win a game in the conference tournament; while an NCAA Tournament appearance won’t be a necessity for a sign of progress, more wins and putting a few in a row together will be.
In all, the Pac-12 looks like it will be strong, but tough to project. In the long run, the question of who will challenge Arizona to be the signature program in the conference remains as open a question now as it was in October.