As the 2022-23 men's college basketball season draws closer, ESPN.com's panel of experts is predicting the order of finish for the nation's top conferences. Having already looked at the mid-majors and the American, the focus now shifts to the Pac-12.
There is uncertainty ahead for this league. With both UCLA and USC set to bolt for the Big Ten in 2024 and reports that others schools within the conference could also be looking to move, it's unclear what the Pac-12 will look like in the coming years, or if it can sustain its standing among the power conferences.
This season in men's basketball, however, it faces a familiar challenge in the national landscape: This is a top-heavy conference with a couple of teams that seem capable of second-weekend potential. The last time that happened -- 2020-2021 -- two Pac-12 (Oregon State, USC) teams reached the Elite Eight, and UCLA only missed its chance to play in the title game because of a 30-foot buzzer beater from Gonzaga in the Final Four.
This league might lack last year's star power, but the returning veterans should contribute to the collective postseason potential of the entire league.
Find more preseason analysis here.
Pac-12 2022-23 superlatives
Player of the Year
Medcalf: Jaime Jaquez Jr., UCLA
Borzello: Jaime Jaquez Jr., UCLA
Gasaway: Jaime Jaquez Jr., UCLA
Lunardi: Jaime Jaquez Jr., UCLA
Newcomer of the Year
Medcalf: Amari Bailey, UCLA
Borzello: Amari Bailey, UCLA
Gasaway: Amari Bailey, UCLA
Lunardi: Amari Bailey, UCLA
Pac-12 2022-23 roundtable
In his first season as a head coach, Tommy Lloyd won the Pac-12 championship and earned Arizona a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. How can this season's squad repeat that success?
Lunardi: Not only did Arizona win the Pac-12 unexpectedly, not only did the Wildcats grab an NCAA regional No. 1 seed, they were the second overall seed -- trailing only Gonzaga, where Lloyd spent the previous two decades riding shotgun to Mark Few. One could argue Lloyd is the first man to ever assemble the nation's top two teams in the same season.
The 2022-23 Wildcats will not be as individually talented as last season's, but a half dozen guys who played 20-plus minutes return. That's a lot of experience from a 33-win team, so it's not unreasonable to once again reach the second weekend. This time, though, they'll be the hunter instead of the hunted top seed. And that kind of vengeance would be very sweet indeed.
Gasaway: Lloyd brought a bit of Gonzaga south last year in the form of incredibly accurate team-wide 2-point shooting: Arizona connected on 58% of its tries inside the arc in Pac-12 play. That stat will take a hit with Bennedict Mathurin, Dalen Terry and Christian Koloko gone, but not too much. Azuolas Tubelis is still around, as are Oumar Ballo and Pelle Larsson. In addition, Texas transfer Courtney Ramey will supply help from the perimeter. Arizona and UCLA are the co-favorites for the league.
Medcalf: Based on Mathurin's highlight reel plays from the Indiana Pacers' NBA preseason games, the Wildcats will definitely miss his bounce and sheer talent. Overall, 45.1 PPG (Mathurin, Koloko, Terry and Justin Kier) from last season is gone. You can't recoup that. But I think Ramey, who finished with a 13.1% turnover rate in Big 12 action last season, can be a capable ball handler for the Pac-12 title contenders. Still, a squad with Kerr Kriisa (9.7 PPG) and Ramey in the backcourt, and Tubelis (13.9 PPG, 6.2 RPG), Larsson (Pac-12 sixth man of the year) and Ballo, is stacked enough to earn a strong seed on Selection Sunday -- assuming Arizona can maintain its defensive success (21st in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom last season).
Borzello: Arizona was truly elite offensively most of last season, with Lloyd bringing in a faster-paced system predicated on sharing the ball and scoring at will around the rim. Of course, he had three top-35 NBA draft picks to help. So some of last year's complementary pieces will need to take on bigger roles. Those around the program expect a breakout campaign from Larsson, and Ballo continues to improve down low. Whether Arizona can push UCLA for a league title will likely come down to the young additions: freshmen Dylan Anderson and Henri Veesaar, and seldom-used returnee Adama Bal.
UCLA had high hopes entering last season, but couldn't quite meet them, thanks to a myriad of reasons, including injuries and COVID pauses. Can the Bruins bounce back this season, and what do they need to do to go far?
Tyger Campbell in-bounds a dime to Jaime Jaquez Jr. for 2
Gasaway: How fickle is this thing called college basketball? The Bruins were up three on North Carolina in the Sweet 16, with a little more than two minutes remaining. So perhaps UCLA was closer than we actually think, in reaching back-to-back Final Fours. In any event, Jaquez, Tyger Campbell and fellow returnee Jaylen Clark will say hello to national top-20 recruits Amari Bailey and Adem Bona. With Campbell handling the ball, the Bruins may crush the rest of the Pac-12 in shot volume once again in 2023.
Medcalf: Mick Cronin will be living good no matter what happens after UCLA's Final Four (2021) and Sweet Sixteen (2022) runs. But a healthy Jaquez (13.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 2.3 APG) -- who battled ankle injuries throughout 2021-22 -- gives UCLA one of college basketball's most complete players. UCLA committed turnovers on just 11.5% of its possessions with Campbell on the floor last season, per hooplens.com. Bona and Bailey are projected first-round picks. I think the secret about UCLA this year is that Cronin might have his best Bruins team. If that's true, well, we all know he's done more with less.
Borzello: I agree. The Bruins should be able to generate momentum more consistently, even without Johnny Juzang and Jules Bernard. Jaquez is a preseason All-American, Campbell is one of the best point guards in the country, Clark averaged 14.8 points and 6.4 rebounds during a five-game February stretch as a starter. If Bailey and Bona are indeed the game-changers they're expected to be, UCLA is the clear Pac-12 favorite.
Lunardi: UCLA struggled to meet expectations last year in part because said expectations were unreasonable, based more upon its five 2021 NCAA tournament wins than what had been a mostly mediocre regular season. The truth figured to fall somewhere in the middle, which is exactly what happened last season. It is likely better positioned for a Final Four run in 2023. The two best players are back along with more than enough emerging talent to keep the good times going. With Arizona losing the element of surprise, I like UCLA to regain its Pac-12 crown and make a very deep NCAA run this March.
A good number of coaches in the Pac-12 will be under scrutiny this season: Mike Hopkins (Washington), Jerod Haase (Stanford), Bobby Hurley (Arizona), to name a few. Who's in the most trouble, and how can they save their seat?
Borzello: Washington had a surprisingly solid 2021-22 campaign, finishing 17-15 overall and 11-9 in the league, but have still only been to one NCAA tournament in Hopkins' five seasons at the helm. There is some optimism surrounding its incoming transfers.
Arizona State won seven of its final eight regular-season games, and athletic director Ray Anderson gave Hurley a vote of confidence for another year. This is another team counting on an influx of newcomers -- and a healthy Marcus Bagley, who has only played 15 games in two seasons due to injury.
Lunardi: Including the canceled 2020 tournament, Hurley has three NCAA tournament appearances (no wins), Hopkins one and Haase none in 18 aggregate seasons. Only Hopkins has won an NCAA game (2019), after also capturing the league crown. Because his "high" was the highest and his fall the furthest, his seat is probably the hottest. Among the three, he also has the worst team this season, meaning his chance to eventually succeed Jim Boeheim at Syracuse has likely come and gone.
Haase has the best team of the trio, and figures to ride the NCAA bubble all season. Hurley has another NIT-level team, which may or may not work for the powers-that-be in Tempe (who already fired their big-name football coach this year).
Medcalf: Hopkins was Boeheim's successor, which only added weight to his arrival in Seattle. Now he has a 45-49 league record and a single NCAA tournament appearance. He is also, like many other head coaches, battling intensified expectations from boosters, who can now play a more critical (and legal) role in recruiting through name, image and likeness (NIL) opportunities. And the transfer portal has created the possibility that any coach can manufacture a just-add-water squad with second-weekend potential. All this in a Seattle region that just produced the No. 1 pick (Paolo Banchero) and other top NBA talent such as Dejounte Murray, and it's easy to see how another rocky season for Hopkins could lead the program's top brass to assume someone else could be better.
Gasaway: It's possible Stanford, Arizona State and Washington will all be better than they were last year. Conversely, could Oregon State look not much different than in 2021-22? Getting back to Haase: In 10 seasons as a head coach (with six coming at a major-conference program), he's reached one NCAA tournament. On the other hand, he did have his best KenPom team in 2020. No luck.
Who or what are we not talking nearly enough about across the Pac-12?
Medcalf: Dana Altman has won at least one game in the NCAA tournament seven times since 2012-13: He's reached the Sweet 16 three times, the Elite Eight once and the Final Four once during that stretch. His 2022-23 Oregon Ducks squad -- led by veteran Will Richardson and McDonald's All-American Kel'el Ware -- has a chance to add to that stat. Altman's consistency in a turbulent collegiate landscape over the last decade, which four Pac-12 titles, has also been overlooked.
Gasaway: Andy Enfield has taken USC to more NCAA tournaments than any coach in program history. The Trojans could get there again in 2023 with Drew Peterson, Boogie Ellis and promising newcomers Vincent Iwuchukwu and Tre White. Plus, the hoops gods owe USC a favor. Last year a league that shot 33% on its 3s drained 39% of its tries against the Trojans.
Borzello: It feels like we've been down this road before, but Stanford appears to be a consensus preseason top-five team in the Pac-12 this season -- which could potentially result in the Cardinal's first trip to the NCAA tournament since Jerod Haase took over in 2016. He's recruited effectively over the last few years, but hasn't been able to consistently put it together on the floor. But Spencer Jones and Michael Jones are elite shooters, and Harrison Ingram is a former five-star recruit and potential NBA player. Can the Cardinal get efficient point guard play from Michael O'Connell or Isa Silva? It could determine their March fate.
Lunardi: I'm still having a hard time getting used to the idea of no Pac-12 representation in L.A. -- whether it's two years from now or two decades.
That said, it's high time the league gets off its you-know-what and does something about San Diego State. The Aztecs would be no worse than the third best team in the league this year. They may not be in L.A., but they're the closest (only?) major program available. Instead of dithering, the Pac-12 needs to be as aggressive as possible. I would add SDSU yesterday and then make whatever arrangements are necessary to swipe Gonzaga as a special basketball-only member.
It's not going to happen, but if other conferences can think and act outside the box, why not the Pac-12?