, The middle of the Pac-12 will be tough to predict, but the top will again feature UCLA and Arizona, John Fanta writes.,

College Basketball

19 mins ago

By John FantaFOX Sports College Basketball Writer

After the Pac-12 was the big winner in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, amassing 13 wins and sending three teams to the Elite Eight, the league failed to capitalize on that momentum, sending just three teams to the 2022 Big Dance.

Heading into the 2022-23 campaign, it’s no surprise that UCLA and Arizona headline the league’s storylines after both programs reached the second weekend of the tournament this past season.

The Bruins and Wildcats will once again be strong, with a motivated Oregon team looking to bounce back from a 20-15 campaign last year. USC should also be a factor once again, with the Trojans’ starting backcourt remaining in place. 

Beyond those four teams, it’s unclear what the league will look like. 

With that, let’s get into some of the top storylines around the Pac-12.

The Pac-12 goes through Westwood

Mick Cronin’s Bruins should be the front-runners in the league’s preseason poll. 

While Johnny Juzang and Jules Bernard are gone, wing Jaime Jaquez and point guard Tyger Campbell are both coming back for a fourth season. Jaquez, a first-team All-Pac 12 and a two-time All-Pac 12 Defense selection, could be an All-American candidate this season. The dynamic 6-foot-7 wing from nearby Camarillo, California, will lead the Bruins after he was second on the team with 13.9 points and 5.7 boards per game.

Then there’s Campbell, whose 4.3 assists last season ranked third in the conference. Having a veteran point guard for a fourth season is huge for Cronin, especially considering that UCLA will have veterans in the backcourt surrounding five-star guard Amari Bailey. 

A consensus top-10 recruit, Bailey actually decommitted from the Bruins when Steve Alford was fired halfway through the 2018-19 season. After he reopened his recruitment, Cronin and his staff really pursued the Sierra Canyon High School product. At 6-foot-5 and 190 pounds, Bailey’s athleticism and playmaking ability stick out. He is a willing passer and should fit into Cronin’s defense-first system. 

Jaime Jaquez Jr. leads UCLA

The UCLA Bruins defeated the rival USC Trojans 69-59 in a game last season. Jaime Jaquez Jr. had 19 points in the Pac-12 tournament matchup.

Bailey isn’t the only five-star Bruin on his way to Westwood. Expect UCLA to have a freshman starting center in 6-foot-9 Nigerian Adem Bona. His 225-pound frame gives him one-and-done potential, and he’s a prospect who has raved about the importance of defense as well.

In terms of potential X-factor players for the Bruins, it will be interesting to see if Jaylen Clark can take a leap as he embarks on his junior season. The 6-foot-5 guard will get more opportunities after averaging 6.7 points and 3.8 boards in 18.1 minutes per game last season.

There’s a nice blend of talented experience and top-tier incoming freshmen on this roster, and Cronin has proven to be an upgrade as head coach for the program. The Bruins have averaged 22.6 wins per season in his tenure.

With the key returnees both being in the backcourt, they will look to continue leading one of the nation’s most efficient offenses. In each of the past two years, the Bruins have ranked inside the top 12 nationally in KenPom adjusted offensive efficiency. Last season, UCLA was one of just four schools in the country to be ranked in the top 16 of both KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency metrics.

With the continual growth under Cronin and seven NCAA Tournament wins the past two seasons, the Bruins are the safest bet to win the conference in the upcoming season. 

Quack attack: Buy stock in a response season from Oregon

Before last season, Dana Altman had led the Ducks to seven of the previous eight NCAA Tournaments. But then a 6-6 start — the worst by the program in Altman’s tenure — and an 0-2 start to Pac-12 play were quite a shock for a team ranked No. 13 in the preseason AP Top 25.

It was an inconsistent season for Oregon, an outlier based on the program’s pedigree. The Ducks were outside the top 100 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, and they could not make up for those flaws in the scoring column on a consistent basis.

Will Richardson stars for Oregon

Will Richardson scored 25 points and dished out five assists to help the Oregon Ducks edge past the Utah Utes in a contest last season.

Looking ahead to 2022-23, Oregon has the pieces for a bounce-back season. Leading scorer Will Richardson is returning to Eugene for his fifth season. The 6-foot-5 guard will charge the Ducks’ backcourt after he posted 14.1 PPG on 45% shooting en route to All-Pac 12 Second-Team honors. Richardson struggled late last season, as a head injury suffered against USC seemed to impact him in the ensuing games. He then missed the conference tournament due to a non-COVID-related illness.

Beyond Richardson in the backcourt, Jacob Young, De’Vion Harmon and Eric Williams Jr. are all gone, but Altman added a key reinforcement with South Carolina transfer Jermaine Couisnard. The leading scorer for the Gamecocks last season, the 6-foot-5 combo guard averaged 12.0 points and 3.2 assists. With Frank Martin out in Columbia, Couisnard went searching for a new destination. He has two years of eligibility remaining, and you can expect him to start alongside Richardson in the backcourt.

Altman also added an intraconference transfer with Colorado‘s Keeshawn Barthelemy. The rising junior, a 6-foot-2 guard from Montreal, averaged 11.1 PPG this past season and will bolster the backcourt as well.

What really stands out about Oregon, though, is its frontcourt potential. The Ducks could cause some matchup problems in the paint, as they usher in five-star, 7-foot prospect Kel’el Ware. Out of North Little Rock High School in Arkansas, the big man possesses a ton of skill for someone his size and can run the floor pretty well. Ware will work alongside a rising senior in 6-foot-11 N’Faly Dante, a former five-star recruit who averaged 8.1 points and 6.3 boards last season. Also, don’t forget about 6-foot-8 senior forward Quincy Guerrier, who could round out their starting five.

It’s a different Oregon team with a leader in Richardson back, a potentially dynamic frontcourt and some new complementary pieces that Altman and his staff hope will jell together better than last year’s group.

I would not bet against the Ducks, who should be back as one of the conference’s best teams.

At Arizona, can Kerr Kriisa and Courtney Ramey form a 1-2 punch in the backcourt?

What a season for Arizona. In Tommy Lloyd’s first year at the helm, the Wildcats went 33-4, won the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament titles and were a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. While a Sweet 16 loss to Houston was a disappointing end of the season for a potential Final Four team, it seems the Cats are back on the map and could contend for another conference championship this season.

Arizona’s Kerr Kriisa splashes seven 3s in one half

Kerr Kriisa drilled seven first-half 3-pointers in a game against Utah last season, including a half-court jump shot.

With Bennedict Mathurin and Dalen Terry getting selected sixth and 18th, respectively, in the NBA Draft and Christian Koloko going 33rd, there’s no question the Wildcats have lost some major talent. But Arizona still has two of its top four scorers back in Azuolas Tubelis and Kerr Kriisa

With Terry and Mathurin gone, the key will be how Kriisa, the rising junior point guard, will coexist with Texas grad transfer Courtney Ramey.

Kriisa is an interesting talent who will provide several “wow” plays for his team throughout the course of a game, but keeping himself under control is a key area for continued growth. The 6-foot-3 guard from Estonia averaged 9.7 points and 4.7 assists this past season, but he also ran into turnover issues, with 72 giveaways in 33 games.

It will be on Ramey to serve as a calming presence in the backcourt. The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 9.4 points and 1.6 assists for Chris Beard at Texas in a season that he has said he would like to forget. Now, he has a fresh start and brings 128 games of college experience. Ramey did not even need to visit Arizona before making this decision. He was convinced by Terry over the spring that it would be the right choice, a testament to what the Wildcats have going on in Tucson. 

A player in the backcourt who will need to take another leap is 6-foot-5 junior Pelle Larsson, who averaged 7.2 points. He served as a key reserve but should jump into the starting rotation in the upcoming campaign. 

In terms of the rest of the roster, the 6-foot-11 Tubelis will anchor the Wildcats’ frontcourt after he averaged 13.9 points and 6.2 boards last season. One of the big keys will be how redshirt junior Oumar Ballo replaces a fellow 7-footer in Koloko. Arizona should still have a pretty steady frontcourt.

Depth is going to be a storyline to watch for the Wildcats. It will be interesting to see how Lloyd manages a bench with some questions to answer. They received a nice piece of news just a few weeks ago, with four-star guard Kylan Boswell reclassifying his recruitment to this season and electing to head to Tucson. 

There are certain things for Arizona to figure out, and the loss of several NBA talents means there will be roles opening up, but this team could still be a top-20 squad this year. 

USC fills out a clear-cut top four in the conference 

The Trojans have been able to sustain a level of success under 10th-year head coach Andy Enfield, with the program riding back-to-back NCAA Tournament berths into the 2022-23 campaign. The biggest positive for USC heading into the season? Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson are back for another year. 

Ellis, a 6-foot-3 point guard who transferred into the program last year from Memphis, averaged 12.5 points and 2.4 assists. He relished stepping up in some big spots for USC and had some major scoring outbursts along the way, going for at least 17 points on 12 occasions. 

Then there’s Peterson, who’s a really interesting prospect at 6-foot-9. The fifth-year senior possesses versatility and great length for a guard, averaging 12.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists. His shotmaking kept growing, too, as he put up the best clips of his college career at 47% from the field and 41% from 3.

While the backcourt is a certainty for the Trojans, the fascinating dimension to USC heading into this season is a top-10-ranked recruiting class headlined by major frontcourt talent. Five-star center Vince Iwuchukwu enters the program from Montverde Academy. The 7-footer should start immediately for the Trojans, as his ability to protect the rim is a major asset. He’ll be joined by four-star prospect Kijani Wright, a 6-foot-9 forward out of Sierra Canyon in California. It’s very much within the realm of possibility that the Trojans have an all-freshman starting frontcourt.

Another key question for USC to answer will be complementary scoring. Forwards Chevez Goodwin and Max Agbonkpolo are gone, and they were two players Enfield could rely upon for eight-to-11 points per game. Sophomore guard Reese Dixon-Waters should take on an increased role, and incoming four-star freshman wing Tre White could end up being an option on the wing. Scoring depth beyond Ellis and Peterson will be a key for this team. 

The Trojans should have the pieces to maintain their solid defense, finishing 45th in KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency last season after a pair of top-20 results in that category the two previous years. 

The big question: Who’s the fifth-best team in the Pac-12? 

I asked 10 college basketball reporters this question and received five different answers, so parity should be a theme in a log-jammed middle of the conference. 

Stanford could be a candidate for that fifth spot, and Jerod Haase needs to make moves as he enters his seventh season at the helm. The Cardinal have not appeared in the NCAA Tournament during his tenure, but they have their top two scorers back in a pair of 6-foot-7 forwards, Spencer Jones and Harrison Ingram. Assist leader Michael O’Connell is also back for his third year with the program.

Tad Boyle and Colorado could end up sneaking in there, though losing leading scorer Jabari Walker to the NBA Draft certainly hurts. The Buffaloes hope K.J. Simpson and Nique Clifford can take a leap this year. Boyle also added a pair of Ivy League transfers in Princeton’s Ethan Wright (14.7 PPG, 6.9 RPG) and Yale’s Jalen Gabbidon (11.3 PPG and 3.6 RPG last year). 

While there has been some turnover, Boyle has been consistent enough that he has earned some faith that his teams will, if nothing else, be somewhere in the picture of the top half of the league.

It’s a critical season for Mike Hopkins at Washington and Bobby Hurley at Arizona State, as both need to get their programs on track. 

Washington has gone 37-53 while failing to reach the Tournament in any of the past three seasons. He’ll have a tall task after losing four starters from last year’s team. He and his staff have had an active offseason in the portal, highlighted by adding Kentucky transfer Keion Brooks. The 6-foot-7 wing averaged in double figures last season for John Calipari, and the Huskies will need him to step up his game to another level. Additionally, Fresno State transfer Braxton Meah and Oregon transfer Franck Kepnang should fill into the frontcourt well, while Washington State transfer Noah Williams will look to build on his 9.5 PPG from last season. 

As for the Sun Devils, Hurley returns his leading scorer from last season, DJ Horne (12.5 PPG). That’s the only certainty Arizona State has because nine players are gone from last year’s team. Seven entered the transfer portal, while a pair exhausted their eligibility. Hurley filled those holes with a flurry of transfers — Frankie Collins (Michigan), Warren Washington (Nevada), Desmond Cambridge (Nevada) and Devan Cambridge (Auburn). He also brings in a highly touted, four-star point guard in Austin Nunez out of Wagner High School in San Antonio.

The Sun Devils sort of highlight what several power-conference, middle-of-the-pack teams are dealing with in an offseason — transfer overhaul. It’s tough to gauge what they will be, but going 25-31 in the past two years puts an extra point of emphasis on this season for Hurley.

While Utah needs more time to become a real factor again, Craig Smith’s team could be flying under the radar a bit. The Utes went 11-20 last season but do return five of their top seven scorers.

So who finishes fifth? It’s really a wait-and-see situation.

The question for the Pac-12 is simple: Can the league put up enough quality nonconference results to legitimize itself? 

We know UCLA, Arizona and Oregon should be contenders, but for the conference to have depth, the first two months of the season can’t be overstated. There are some teams with some major questions to answer this season, so the league could be in for a four-bid season, but sometimes those unknowns and the amount of transfer overhaul can bring some surprises. 

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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