The Pac-12 had quite a season in 2015-16, during which the conference celebrated 100 years of existence. It provided tremendous basketball, even if a fair amount of the country didn’t get to see much of it because of the time difference. And it happened with what appears to be a changing landscape all the way around.
For starters, the Pac-12 was a major presence in the RPI. Only the Big 12 was better in terms of conference RPI, but the Pac-12 placed six teams in the RPI top 50 and 10 in the top 100. Since the NCAA adjusted the formula to account for game location in 2004-05, only 12 conferences have produced a better RPI than the Pac-12 did this season.
Seven teams reached the NCAA Tournament, with Oregon getting a No. 1 seed for the first time in program history. The Ducks also carried the flag for the conference as the only team to get past the first weekend, losing to Oklahoma in the West Regional final. Those results aren’t entirely shocking; the conference was tremendous and balanced, but it wasn’t full of powerhouses, either.
We’re now at a point where we can call Oregon the signature program of the conference. For years, Arizona and UCLA carried the flag for the Pac-12; they are still the programs with the most tradition of success in the conference. But Dana Altman has won consistently in Eugene with constantly changing rosters, including this year, and the Ducks were clearly the best team in the conference this year as both regular season and tournament champions. They also look like the early favorites next season.
We can also put Utah among the class of the conference right now. Last year, the team had been built for the run they made, where they had a chance to win the regular season title before finishing third. They lost Delon Wright, their best player, but still finished second in the conference in 2015-16 and reached the championship game. Larry Krystkowiak is doing great work in Salt Lake City.
From there, it gets interesting. Arizona is still very good, having recruited very well, so they’re still among the elite. They won the conference last year; they haven’t exactly fallen off the map. California finished tied for third with a cast of good veterans and two elite freshmen, but didn’t finish the season well. Whether they can keep this up remains to be seen; it helps that Ivan Rabb is returning. Oregon State is on the rise, and was perhaps a bit better than expected this season. USC was rising, but they have to regroup with two key players lost to the NBA Draft. UCLA continues to get talent, but this season the Bruins finished 10th and were a tough team to figure out, looking impressive some times and simply not good at other times. Washington had good young talent, but two freshmen already left, so the Huskies’ prospects for next year are murky. Arizona State may have finished 11th, but the Sun Devils showed some promise in Bobby Hurley’s first season in Tempe.
The conference did see a coaching change after the season ended, though speculation abounded that there would be more. Stanford parted ways with Johnny Dawkins after eight seasons at the helm, including a Sweet 16 and an NIT championship. Jerod Haase, late of UAB, was hired to replace him.
The conference will be hard-pressed to repeat this next season. The competitive aspect will remain, but the kind of non-conference success that makes this possible doesn’t happen often. The changing landscape appears to be something more likely to happen given the evidence thus far.
In a college basketball season where anyone beat anyone quite often, the Pac-12 Tournament was quite the anomaly in that it was all chalk – the higher seed won all 11 games. The tournament also started and ended with blowouts.
Washington blew out Stanford 91-68 in the opener, then Colorado did the same to Washington State 80-56 and UCLA lost to cross-town rival USC by the same margin, 95-71. The only game on the first day to be decided by single digits was Oregon State handling Arizona State 75-66.
The next two rounds were all single-digit games. In the quarterfinals, Oregon beat Washington 83-77, then Arizona edged Colorado 82-78, Utah beat USC 80-72 and California beat Oregon State 76-68. Both semifinal games went to overtime, with Oregon beating Arizona 95-89 in a dandy and Utah doing likewise to California 82-78.
The championship game was not unlike the one of a year ago: a great matchup but never a competitive game. Oregon ran away from Utah 88-57.
Player of the Year: Jakob Poeltl, Utah
Rookie of the Year: Jaylen Brown, California
Coach of the Year: Dana Altman, Oregon
Defensive Player of the Year: Gary Payton II, Oregon State
Most Improved Player: George King, Colorado
Rosco Allen, Sr. F, Stanford
Ryan Anderson, Sr. F, Arizona
Andrew Andrews, Sr. G, Washington
Dillon Brooks, So. F, Oregon
Jaylen Brown, Fr. F, California
Elgin Cook, Sr. F, Oregon
Julian Jacobs, Jr. G, USC
Gary Payton II, Sr. G, Oregon State
Jakob Poeltl, So. C, Utah
Josh Scott, Sr. F-C, Colorado
- The Pac-12 had ten of its 12 teams in the RPI top 100.
- Oregon is one of just five teams in Division I to win at least one game in each of the last four NCAA Tournaments.
- Oregon nearly reached the conference record for blocked shots in a season, coming up three short (221) of the record (224).
- Four players ranked in the top ten in the conference in both scoring and rebounding.
What we expected, and it happened: California became a contender. The Golden Bears returned quality veterans and added highly-touted freshmen Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown, so much was expected. They didn’t finish well, but they contended, finishing tied for third.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Utah appeared primed to take a step back following Delon Wright’s departure. Yes, the Utes had a lot returning, including Jakob Poeltl, but he alone wouldn’t win them games. The Utes were again right there in contention, though, finishing second, just a game back of the Ducks, and they reached the championship game in the conference tournament.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Washington was more than just competitive for a lot of the season – in fact, the Huskies led the way briefly and were still right in the mix for a lot of the conference season.
Team(s) on the rise: Oregon State. This was expected a year ago when they signed the talented class, and this past season did nothing to change that perception.
Team(s) on the decline: Stanford. This is why Johnny Dawkins was let go. Jerod Haase is a solid coach, but he probably won’t have them contending right away, especially with Rosco Allen opting not to return. Give Haase a couple of years.
2016-17 Pac-12 Outlook
Whereas a year ago, there were many teams who might have a case for being favored, this time around there is one place to look first: Oregon. The Ducks have some continuity for a change, as they lose no one early to the NBA Draft, and with the roll Dana Altman has them on, they should enter as preseason favorites.
There’s no reason to expect Oregon to have a free ride, though many of their top challengers have real question marks. Utah lost the Player of the Year and more; is this where they finally take a hit in the standings? Arizona has plenty of talent, but lost steady frontcourt players Ryan Anderson and Kaleb Tarczewski along with guard Gabe York. California gets Rabb back, but loses two key starters. Colorado loses its anchor in Josh Scott.
Is Oregon State ready to contend? They certainly showed the potential for it in 2015-16, and could make the next step in 2016-17. Could Washington have another good reboot? It will be tough with Andrew Andrews, Markese Chriss and Dejounte Murray all gone. USC has grown the last couple of years, but losing Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic is a big hit to their potential. UCLA will again have talent, but also youth, and the Bruins were a tease this past season.
Arizona State has potential, and Washington State is still early in Ernie Kent’s attempt to rebuild. As competitive as the conference is from top to bottom, this presents a paradox: on one hand, it appears tough to make a move because the conference is so good, but on the other hand, there’s not a ton of separation from top to bottom, either. It wasn’t long ago that Oregon State was in the bottom half of the conference; now the Beavers seem poised to contend.
In all, the Pac-12 will have a tough time repeating the results of this season in terms of placing so many teams in the upper echelon of the RPI. It may not be a one-hit wonder, though, as no team in the conference appears to be on a swift descent although some are trending downward. More interesting will be to see if Oregon, which has not had a lot of roster continuity from one year to the next of late, now keeps up their winning ways in a year where they will return a lot.