Note: Predicted conference standings may not line up exactly with our Top 40 rankings; this is because Top 40 were ranked via consensus voting, while individual conference ranks are up to the specific writer.
Player of the Year: Payton Pritchard, G, Jr., Oregon
Coach of the Year: Mike Hopkins, Washington
Newcomer of the Year: Kevin Porter, G, USC
Freshman of the Year: Kevin Porter, G, USC
See full preview here: #29 in our Top-40 countdown
See full preview here: #40 in our Top-40 countdown
Key Returners: Bennie Boatwright, Jonah Matthews, Derryck Thornton, Nick Rakocevic, Jordan Usher
Key Losses: Jordan McLaughlin, Chimezie Metu, Elijah Stewart, DeAnthony Melton
Key Newcomers: Kevin Porter, Elijah Weaver, J'Raan Brooks
Outlook: Had Turner Sports not made the completely befuddling (and utterly indefensible) decision to release at-large teams in alphabetical order during last year’s NCAA Selection Show, the exclusion of USC would have been a major shock. Of course, most everyone had figured it out by the time the list skipped over the Trojans, and the final blow was struck in a tremendously disappointing season in southwest LA. It started with DeAnthony Melton’s suspension due to possible behind-the-scenes schadenfreude and was compounded by another injury-riddled season for Bennie Boatwright, ultimately dooming a preseason top 10-15 squad to the NIT. They were a victim of circumstance, sure – SMU’s collapse due to injury’s resulted in that game appearing as a “bad loss,” and they didn’t get to play the Arizona schools at home – but in reality, the Trojans just couldn’t overcome the personnel issues, and Jordan McLaughlin, Chimezie Metu, and Elijah Stewart (and Melton) disappeared meekly into the college basketball night.
What a sob story! So is USC doomed this year? Fear not, Fight On crew.
Andy Enfield’s relentless recruiting has served him well, as he has some solid pieces to move up into the vacancies left by so many departures. Players like Derryck Thornton and Charles O’Bannon didn’t live up to the hype that preceded them, but they also were blocked in the lineup by the veterans – with more minutes and clearly-defined roles, perhaps they’ll hit their stride.
The pressure is on both of those players, because two freshmen – Elijah Weaver at PG and Kevin Porter on the wing – will be pushing for their jobs. Porter looks like a future Pac-12 star (for however long he stays on campus), given his athleticism and skill level. A graduate of Seattle powerhouse Rainier Beach (Nate Robinson, Dejounte Murray, Jamal Crawford), he’ll immediately be one of the best dunkers in collegiate hoops, and he has a smooth J to complement his vertical threat. O’Bannon was also a Top 50 recruit from a renowned high school (Bishop Gorman in Vegas), but he (and fellow sophomore Jordan Usher and redshirt senior Shaqquan Aaron) will likely need to cede time to Porter for the good of the team.
The point guard role will be huge, especially considering how reliant on that spot Enfield’s offenses have been in the past. Whether it’s Thornton or Weaver that starts (once Weaver returns from injury), both will run a lot of pick-and-roll with Nick Rakocevic, Victor Uyaelunmo, or J’Raan Brooks, with Boatwright, Usher, and Jonah Matthews lurking as dangerous floor spacers. Enfield will also look to get Boatwright some mid-post or perimeter isolations, as his combination of size, shooting, handle, and fluidity make him an extremely tough check for almost anyone.
Where USC really struggled last year, though, was on the defensive end. Despite having nearly an identical roster to 2016-17, the Trojans made no strides on defense, and Enfield was forced to resort to a soft matchup or 2-3 zone far more often than he would have liked:
Boatwright in particular has a reputation as an atrocious defender, and while the on/off numbers don’t fully bear that out (USC’s D was the same on a points per possession basis regardless), he still has a lot to prove on that end. Plus, with the departing core never having finished better than 80th defensively, maybe some roster turnover is actually what the team needs. If the defense continues its poor trend this year, though, much of the blame will have to fall on Enfield.
One thing they did do well, though, was force opponents to play in the halfcourt. They allowed the 2nd-fewest percentage of shots in transition, per hoop-math, and opponents had the longest average offensive possessions in the country, per KenPom. The problem is, once in the halfcourt and sitting back in their Pillsbury doughboy zone, the Trojans simply couldn’t get stops – even with the long possessions, opponents frequently found open looks towards the end of the shot clock, particularly from deep.
Bottom Line: Enfield is constantly bringing strong recruiting classes to LA, but he’s going to need to figure out how to assemble a respectable defense ASAP or he’ll never maximize that talent. I don’t think his seat can truly get warm this year (unless they really crash and burn), but the cycle of, “just wait to see how good we’ll be when the next class gets here!” is starting to feel like pedaling through mediocrity. In a year where the top of the conference is wide open, it’s as good a time as any to finally break through.
6. Arizona St.
Key Returners: Remy Martin, Romello White, DeQuan Lake, Mickey Mitchell
Key Losses: Tra Holder, Shannon Evans, Kodi Justice
Key Newcomers: Rob Edwards (Cleveland St.), Zylan Cheatham (San Diego St.), Luguentz Dort, Taeshon Cherry, Elias Valtonen, Uros Plavsic
Outlook: Something strange is happening in Tempe. Following the graduations of Shannon Evans and Tra Holder, along with the development of the team’s big men and the additions of several athletes on the wing, the Sun ‘Evils could maybe, just maybe, play competent defense for the first time since Herb Sendek was roaming the sidelines. That’s right, the “D” is going back into Sun Devils!!
Bobby Hurley has long been a predominantly man-to-man coach, and his roster has never been better-equipped to play that style. He finally has a confluence of three key components, each of which he's largely lacked recently: perimeter size and length, shot-blocking, and depth.
Rather than starting two slight-framed 6’1 guards, neither of whom was an on-ball demon, along with a standstill shooter in Kodi Justice, Hurley will roll out ballhawk sophomore Remy Martin at point, plus two of 6’4 Cleveland St. transfer Rob Edwards, 6’7 junior Mickey Mitchell, 6’5 freshman Luguentz Dort, or 6’7 sophomore Kimani Lawrence. Edwards was a strong defender for the Vikings, and given a smaller offensive burden, he could jump to being excellent (he was pretty much all CSU had in 2016-17). Dort is an intimidating perimeter player, possessing a massive frame (think Marcus Smart) and tremendous vertical explosion. Lawrence is the wild card – he played sparingly after being declared eligible in January, but his defensive upside flashed in that limited time.
The presences of De'Quon Lake and Romello White provide an element of physicality and intimidation in the paint that Hurley hasn’t really had in Tempe. Both are superb rebounders and finishers (Lake actually led the entire country in offensive rating after shooting 71% from the field), and Lake was also one of the country’s 50 best shot-blockers by rate last year, and when the two played together (not often in Hurley’s system), ASU absolutely demolished teams on both ends of the court:
However, they still may not play together a ton due to the presence of versatile forwards like Taeshon Cherry, Zylan Cheatham, Mitchell, and Lawrence. That exemplifies the depth that ASU simply hasn’t had over the past two years, as they ranked 304th and 351st (yes, dead last) in bench minutes played over the last two seasons. Point guard is really the only spot they don’t have a true backup option (Edwards can slide over for short spells, or Mitchell can play point forward), but the tireless Martin should be fine playing 32+ minutes per game. Being able to cycle in fresh bodies to battle in the paint will be crucial in helping the defense improve.
Alright, this is a Bobby Hurley team – enough about defense. Despite the loss of Holder and Evans bombing from deep, this should still be a solid offensive unit. With the speedy Martin at the helm and a stable of athletes along the rest of the roster, they’ll continue to go, go, go in transition, where Dort, Lawrence, and Cheatham will thrive. None of those three is a refined shooter, though (Dort has potential), so Martin, Edwards, Finnish freshman Elias Valtonen, and Cherry (a budding perimeter threat) will be relied on heavily for spacing in the halfcourt. Once there, they’ll run quite a bit of pick-and-roll (24th-most in the country last year), with Martin and Edwards looking to pull-up or feed the athletic bigs as they dive to the hoop. Opponents that take away transition opportunities will probably find some success against ASU, as the halfcourt offense isn’t as threatening.
White and Lake’s inside scoring helped on offense, as well. When they played together, the Sun Devils grabbed 34.9% of their misses, a rate that would have ranked 13th in the entire country if borne out over the full season – not bad for a team that actually ranked 203rd in that stat. Very few teams have two mobile bigs strong enough to combat them, and although it cramps spacing slightly, playing them with shooters in the backcourt should help alleviate that.
Bottom Line: There are a ton of new faces in Tempe, but Hurley has an impressive amount of talent and lineup options with which to work. The hope is that with a deeper and more versatile roster, the Sun Devils can avoid a fiasco like The Tale of Two Seasons that occurred last year. If that taught us anything, we learned that the transition- and three-point-reliant Hurley offense can beat anyone with a hot shooting performance, but without much resistance on D, ASU was always prone to off nights. With so many new pieces, the Sun Devils has a wide range of outcomes – it’s up to Hurley to guide them towards the higher end of the spectrum.
Key Returners: McKinley Wright, Tyler Bey, Namon Wright, Dallas Walton, Lucas Siewert
Key Losses: George King, Dominique Collier
Key Newcomers: Shane Gatling (JUCO), Elijah Parquet, Daylen Kountz
Outlook: Quick quiz: who is the all-time winningest coach in Colorado hoops history?
If you said Russell “Sox” Walseth for his storied tenure from 1957-1976 (that featured a whole 3 NCAA Tournament appearances), then congratulations: you are either a true CU Buff buff, or one of Sox’s descendants!
I ask that question to point out that, after eight seasons in Boulder, Tad Boyle is already 1) the 3rd-winningest coach in school history with 166 wins, and 2) the all-time leader in NCAA Tournament appearances at the school with four. In a league that features historically great programs like UCLA and Arizona, Boyle has done a tremendous job building a solid squad, and this year presents an opportunity for a bounceback campaign following last year’s slightly disappointing 17-15 record.
Boyle is perhaps best known for his conservative (but normally stout) man-to-man defenses, foregoing forcing turnovers to secure the paint and the defensive glass. Given a relative lack of size last year (wing George King spent a ton of time as the nominal power forward), Boyle played a little more zone than usual, but he’s largely a man coach. With some development (both physically and cerebrally) from Tyler Bey, D’Shawn Schwartz, and Lucas Siewert, though, the Buffaloes should have a more conventional lineup and revert back to the man-to-man ways of years past. Dallas Walton showed serious shot-blocking chops as a freshman, and ideally, he’ll emerge as even more of a defensive force as he, too, gains strength. Bey and Schwartz give the Buffs nice versatility/length at the forward spots, and fellow sophomore Lazar Nikolic is another 6’7ish switchable defender (although he’s a complete non-entity as a scorer).
Maturity/growth should also be a primary story on offense. A thin backcourt led to a massive burden falling squarely on true freshman McKinley Wright, and although he was unequivocally excellent given his responsibilities, expect his shooting percentages to uptick with more experience and (hopefully) some ball-handling/creation help from JUCO transfer Shane Gatling and perhaps freshman Elijah Parquet. If that’s the case, Wright could really break out as a scorer (along with his already outstanding distribution skills) and even be a dark horse for conference player of the year, given the dearth of top-of-the-line candidates for that award.
Coupled with the aforementioned team defensive rebounding focus, Boyle wants his guys to grab and go, pushing the ball in transition for easier opportunities. Teams that stress getting back on D could cause the young Buffs problems, as halfcourt offense was a bit of a bugaboo last year and could be even moreso given the departures of King and Dominique Collier, the team’s most prolific shooters. Redshirt senior Namon Wright and Schwartz will need to help fill that void, hopefully exhibiting an increase in both volume and efficiency. Siewert is a nice stretch-five option off the bench, helping to provide driving lanes for McKinley Wright, and the offense was 7 points per 100 possessions better when those two shared the floor. Figuring out how to maximize the effect of Siewert’s shooting while also minimizing the drag from his defense (more zone?) will be one of Boyle’s bigger challenges.
Bottom Line: Colorado will still be extremely young this year, relying heavily on five sophomores (four of whom are likely starters). However, this is a relatively talented roster in a wide open league, so a rosy projection of “Top 4 in the league, NCAA Tournament bid” is not a ridiculous thought. The more likely scenario, though, is settling in the middle once again, with 2019-20 and 2020-21 being possible conference title contender years.
Key Returners: Sedrick Barefield, Donnie Tillman, Jayce Johnson, Parker Van Dyke
Key Losses: David Collette, Justin Bibbins, Tyler Rawson, Gabe Bealer
Key Newcomers: Charles Jones Jr. (JUCO), Novak Topalovic (Idaho St.), Vante Hendrix (redshirt), Timmy Allen, Riley Battin, Both Gach
Outlook: The legend of the large white big man runs deep at Utah. Keith Van Horn, Michael Doleac, Andrew Bogut, and Jakob Poeltl were all lottery picks over the past 21 years – hell, even the current Utes coach is 6’10 – but this season, Larry Krystkowiak was worried. David Collette and Tyler Rawson graduated, and with only Jayce Johnson to carry the standard in the post, the 6’10 coach went out and nabbed 7’0 Idaho State grad transfer Novak Topalovic and 6’9 freshman Riley Battin, preserving the chance of the Utes starting dual giant polar bears for a second straight year and calming the terrifying winds of change sweeping through Salt Lake City. Opponents will again have to face the white-capped Rocky Mountains in both terrain and basketball figure.
Jokes aside, the Utes will likely go with a smaller, more athletic frontline featuring one of those towers alongside potential star Donnie Tillman and/or Timmy Allen. This will help keep more shooting on the floor, as well as aid the defense with more speed and versatility.
One concern is certainly going to be point guard play. Justin Bibbins filled that slot admirably after coming over from Long Beach State, but now the reins likely fall to Sedrick Barefield and Southern Idaho JUCO star Charles Jones, both of whom are more “combo” than true point. Playing alongside each other should hopefully allow them to alternate the role, sometimes running PnR with the bigs and setting up others, sometimes looking to snipe from the wing (Jones shot 45.5% from 3 at Southern Idaho) or driving against closeouts.
That concern is mitigated somewhat by how well-coached the Utes are offensively. The Utes are in constant motion, with off-ball movement distracting would-be help defenders and a flurry of ball screens and dribble handoffs happening on the strong side. The spacing and fluidity of movement can be impressive to watch, and with the presence of shooters like Parker Van Dyke, Jones, and Barefield and attackers like Vante Hendrix, Tillman, and Allen, they won’t have to be entirely reliant on one player to set the table. Without Rawson’s vision and shooting at 6’10, they may struggle a little more against teams that pack it in, but there should be enough weapons to maintain a top 50ish offense.
Krystkowiak recognizes the value in mixing up defenses; they’ll often play an amoeba-esque matchup zone meant to throw opponents out of rhythm, as the rotations are exceedingly tough to figure out. I’d expect to see a lot of that zone when they play two of Johnson/Topalovic/Battin/Lahat Thioune together, but a more switchy man-to-man makes sense in a traditional lineup. By design, Krystkowiak defenses don’t force many turnovers, but Tillman, Allen, and Hendrix have the length to at least bother opponents on the perimeter.
Bottom Line: Utah has seen a ton of talent leave campus over the past four years (a first round pick in each of 2015, 2016, and 2017, plus four senior starters last year), but Krystkowiak has kept the drum beating throughout. The altitude, hostile environment, and his coaching will always make the Huntsman Center a difficult place to play, and although this year’s team may not have the clear returning talent to look like a title contender, the Utes could still push for a tournament bid. I’ve said it a million times, but the Pac 12 middle (and even top) is not a terribly intimidating group, so the possibilities are there. If Jones breaks through right away post-JUCO and Tillman has the coming out party many think he can, this projection will almost certainly be too low.
Key Returners: Daejon Davis, Marcus Sheffield (back from injury), KZ Okpala, Oscar Da Silva
Key Losses: Reid Travis, Dorian Pickens, Michael Humphrey
Key Newcomers: Cormac Ryan, Bryce Wills, Keenan Fitzmorris, Jaiden Delaire, Lukas Kisunas
Outlook: Before you get angry at me for ranking Stanford 9th, I will answer your screams – yes, I may be underrating just how sizable the addition-by-subtraction of Robert Cartwright will be. It’s entirely possible that, freed from the tyranny of his average-in-nearly-every-way skills, the rest of the roster emerges as the west coast’s best team and rampages to the Final Four. Basketball in Palo Alto – nay, the entire Bay Area – could change forever, allowing for insane possibilities like St. Mary’s playing a decent non-conference schedule or even (gasp) the Golden State Warriors winning an NBA Championship. Things could get truly crazy.
As it stands, though, I’m trying to not dwell too much on Cartwright’s departure and instead focus simply on the roster at hand. Jerod Haase will lead a talented but young roster (the sophomore class is particularly intriguing) against a Pac 12 that isn't exactly dotting the top of NCAA Championship odds.
Part of my concern with the roster is in its fit relative to the way Haase wants to play offensively. He has long preferred to pound the ball inside to his bigs (think Reid Travis and Michael Humphrey, or even Chris Cokley and William Lee at UAB), opening up defenses for kickouts and drives against scrambling defenders. This inside-out philosophy de-emphasizes the three-pointer (312th and 333rd in 3PA rate past two years) and places a premium on offensive rebounding and post scoring. Unfortunately, this roster may not have many post threats. Josh Sharma was once a fringe Top 100 4-star recruit, but he has yet to blossom – perhaps his senior year is finally the time? The other candidates are talented but skinny: Oscar Da Silva is a breakout candidate at forward who flashed plenty of potential last year and for Germany’s youth teams, but freshman Keenan Fitzmorris just doesn’t have the strength yet (think Nate Reuvers at Wisconsin last year). Da Silva actually knocked down a wild 56% of his 52 three-point attempts, so some high-low with Sharma inside could be deadly. Here’s a quick clip from one of Da Silva’s Germany games – this is not an easy pass (or read) for a big man (ignore the gif skippiness):
All that said, if Haase does choose to tweak the attack, Stanford has perimeter weapons with which to work. Daejon Davis was solid as a freshman thrown into the fire, and if he cuts down on turnovers, he’ll soon be a force with his length, explosion, and shooting touch. Marcus Sheffield returns after missing all of last year with a foot injury, and he and budding star KZ Okpala should form a nice wing corps. Okpala missed the season’s first ten games due to an NCAA inquiry, but his skill level and size oozes potential. Lineups with he and Da Silva manning the frontcourt, though thin, could be nightmares to guard. Cormac Ryan may compete with the returning Sheffield for a starting spot; his ability to space the floor with an effortless jumper could help give the erratic Davis more driving lanes (Ryan can handle the rock, too). Bryce Wills, another big freshman guard, should also see some minutes on the wing as a freshman when Okpala slides down to the four spot.
Defensively, Haase will mix it up some, but given the length and athleticism he’ll have all over the floor, I’d love to see him play more switching man-to-man. A smallish backcourt featuring Cartwright and Isaac White, plus missing Okpala for part of the year, forced the Cardinal into more zone than Haase probably would have liked last year. Sharma is foul-prone, but he’s also an excellent rim protector, providing a safety valve even if the young perimeter players get burned for playing too aggressively. The upside is definitely here, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Top 50 unit.
Bottom Line: The Cardinal will have only one senior (Sharma) in the rotation, so building to next year should be the primary goal. That said, there’s enough young talent here to make some noise (particularly at home). Davis seems destined for an all-conference team at some point, and Okpala and Da Silva (or even Ryan?) could join him. It hasn’t been immediate, but Haase might have Stanford rolling soon.
10. Oregon St.
Key Returners: Tres Tinkle, Stephen Thompson Jr., Ethan Thompson, Alfred Hollins
Key Losses: Drew Eubanks
Key Newcomers: Warren Washington, Kylor Kelley (JUCO), Jack Wilson, Jordan Campbell, Antoine Vernon
Outlook: After what seemed like a promising start to Wayne Tinkle’s tenure – the Beavers earned their first NCAA Tournament bid in 25 years during his second season – the Beavers have stalled back into their typical rut. The Beavers were one of the worst Power 6 teams in recent memory in 2016-17, and even after getting some players healthy last year (mainly Tres Tinkle), Oregon State still struggled to a 16-16 record.
The problem? They simply don’t have enough Pac 12-caliber players. Tinkle and the Thompson brothers, Stephen Jr. and Ethan, are a solid corps, but with Drew Eubanks heading to the professional ranks, it’s unclear who else will rise to the necessary level around them. Outside of those four, no one else on Oregon State played even 14 minutes per game last year (!!), and the newcomers aren’t exactly the Fab Five. They’re kind of a west coast version of Boston College – the top of the roster is solid, even above average for the league, but there’s just not enough decent role players or depth for them to survive a full conference campaign and be competitive every night.
In years past, we’ve jokingly called Oregon St. the “Offspring” due to the best players being sons of famous Beaver icons – Tinkle and the Thompsons are all sons of current coaches, and at the time, Gary Payton II was on the team – and playing through those guys is the Beavers’ best chance for success. Tinkle in particular is a matchup nightmare at either forward spot given his diverse skill set, as he can stretch the floor from deep, put the ball on the floor, or pick apart the defense if doubled. Both Thompsons also possess a varied skill set, although Stephen Jr. is more of a shooter while Ethan prefers to slash.
The defense has failed the Beavers over the last couple years as well. Tinkle’s squads at Montana were widely known for disrupting the offense’s rhythm and forcing them into difficult midrange jumpers using a tough-to-prepare-for matchup zone, but his players at Oregon State simply haven’t taken to it as well as in Missoula. They made some progress last year, starting to resemble a true Tinkle defense again, but once again, not having the players to execute the zone may be a problem. Gligorije Rakocevic is a large human, but he posted an embarrassing 0.8% block rate (lower than both Thompsons) and will not bother anyone at the rim, so JUCO transfer Kylor Kelley will likely be called upon immediately (or one of freshmen Jack Wilson or Warren Washington).
The Beavers’ perimeter lacks length and athletes, although the continued emergrence of Alfred Hollins could provide some. He’s a relatively unique player on this roster with his ability to disrupt offensive rhythm, making him a natural fit in Tinkle’s scheme. He flashed some offensive ability as well, meaning he could ascend into Eubanks’s spot as part of a “Big Four,” for lack of a better term. And when those guys play together, the Beavers are legitimately good:
Problem is, they can't play every minute, and so the rest of the roster needs to pick up the slack.
Bottom Line: If Oregon State could clone their top four players, they might have a legit rotation. As it stands, they’re going to need a bunch of surprise emergences from JUCO/freshmen to be able to move further up the conference standings. Tinkle probably isn’t quite in trouble, job security-wise, but he needs to get the ball rolling back in a positive direction soon. That starts on the recruiting trail, as the talent level simply isn’t high enough up and down the roster.
Key Returners: Darius McNeil, Justice Sueing, Juhwan Harris-Dyson
Key Losses: Don Coleman, Kingsley Okoroh, Marcus Lee
Key Newcomers: Paris Austin (Boise St.), Matt Bradley, Andre Kelley, Jacobi Gordon
Outlook: The first year of the Wyking Jones era in Berkeley was…not good. The Golden Bears played like the legendary golfer whose nickname they share; unfortunately, they played like the 78-year-old current version, not the prime, PGA Tour-ass-kicking version. Cal was the worst Power 6 team in the country by KenPom rank (plenty of people might argue that Pitt was worse, and I wouldn’t fight them), and this year won’t exactly be a walk among the roses. They’ll be one of the most inexperienced teams in the country, featuring as many as eight freshmen/sophomores in the rotation, and larger questions exist around whether Wyking Jones even has control of the program. He’s cut three scholarship players (Cal still honors the scholarship), two of whom were rising sophomores whom Jones himself recruited…so it’s fair to wonder whether the Bears are even on a positive track.
Last year’s offense was an abomination, exemplified by the team’s 28.6% shooting from three-point range, 349th in the country. The Bears were dead last in offensive efficiency among Power 6 teams, residing in a pile of slop at the very bottom of the barrel with the aforementioned Panthers and undermanned Rutgers:
Don Coleman, who transferred to South Alabama, strangely decided to become an unrepentant chucker, and his shooting splits of 32.8%/24.3%/74.6% (FG/3FG/FT) were so toxic, they caused an outbreak of salmonella in the local water supply. The goal basically became to punt the ball at the hoop and hope Kingsley Okoroh and Marcus Lee could get put-backs; as it turns out, that’s not a sustainable offense against Division I athletes.
This year, the sophomore trio of Darius McNeil, Justice Sueing, and Juhwan Harris-Dyson will be responsible for far more shot creation, and although all three were massively inconsistent as rookies, they showed enough upside to think the team’s shooting (and overall offense) can improve. Turnovers were another bugaboo, typical of such young backcourts, and the addition of Boise State transfer Paris Austin will help immediately given his experience and ball-handling. He won’t, however, fix another offensive flaw: shot distribution. The Bears were 36th in the country in most 2-point jumpers attempted and shot 31.4% on them, 338th nationally. If you’re gonna be terrible at the shots regardless where you shoot them from, just take the ones that are worth more! Freshmen Matt Bradley and Jacobi Gordon are more big, physical wings than shooters, calling into further question where the shooting will come from.
The offensive glass was a major asset last year, but I’d expect a smaller lineup this year with Sueing often playing the four; perhaps that will aid the team’s spacing. Roman Davis, Grant Anticevich, and freshman Andre Kelly will battle for minutes up front; none of that group offers much excitement, so it probably makes most sense to let Kelly take some lumps.
Given the frequency of two-big lineups the Bears were forced to play last year, it’s not surprising they had to play a massive share of zone (45% of possessions, T-24th most in the country). This also made for simpler reads for the young players, but it also allowed opponents to completely scorch them from deep – Bear foes knocked down 39.4% of their threes, a baffling 10.8% higher than Cal themselves. If you’ve watched any basketball in the past 5 years, you know that’s a recipe for Geostorm-level disaster. Without two superb shot-blockers anchoring the back line, the Bears should make an effort to reshape the entire defensive scheme into a more extended, mobile philosophy. Jones has coached under Paul Westphal, Steve Alford, and Rick Pitino, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him play even faster with more perimeter talent.
Bottom Line: Jones has at least done well enough on the recruiting trail the last two years to be encouraged, but the youth and lack of truly elite talent means another rebuilding year. It shouldn’t be as bleak as last year, but progress will be slow, and even the “best” possible scenario still probably doesn’t get Cal out of the Pac-12’s bottom four. Next year, that could be different, but Jones and his squad will need to exhibit some signs of life to quiet the doubters who questioned his hiring, even as it was announced.
12. Washington St.
Key Returners: Robert Franks, Carter Skaggs, Viont'e Daniels
Key Losses: Malachi Flynn, Drick Bernstine, Milan Acquaah
Key Newcomers: Ahmed Ali (JUCO), Isaiah Wade (JUCO), Marvin Cannon (JUCO), Jervae Robinson (JUCO), CJ Eleby, Aljaz Kunc, James Streeter (JUCO)
Outlook: Ernie Kent’s KenPom rankings in his four years in Pullman: 186th, 193rd, 186th, 186th. I’ll give him credit for consistency, but pretty much everything else has been an unmitigated disaster. Ken Bone got fired for having just one year in that region of suck (he was in the top 100 for three years before finishing 190th and getting canned), so it’s unclear why Kent has hung on this long despite not having the excuse of needing to get “his guys” into the program anymore. He’s clearly blackmailing the administration, and I think we should divert some of the FBI’s attention into this blatant case of extortion at a public university…perhaps the investigation would even have some results by 2028!
While I feel comfortable tucking the Cougars into the 12 spot this year, it’s unlikely to be a calamitous campaign on par with the 2015-16 season thanks to the return of Robert Franks, a versatile combo forward who tested the NBA Draft waters. Franks took a star turn last year after being an inefficient role player in 2016-17, knocking down 41% of his threes and ranking 6th in the entire league in usage. His range from the frontcourt, along with snipers Viont’e Daniels and Carter Skaggs on the wings, should actually give Wazzu excellent spacing – the problem is finding a big man or penetrating guards who can take advantage of that.
Kent attempted to plug those gaps with junior college options, as JUCO transfers Jervae Robinson and Ahmed Ali will likely battle for the starting point guard slot and Isaiah Wade and James Streeter appear to be the primary center options (along with returnee Jeff Pollard). While those players (particularly Ali and Wade) have some potential, the path to sustainable (or even fleeting) success in a power conference is rarely through JUCO Band-Aids.
Ali has Division I game – he’s a good passer and a very capable outside shooter with deep range. The problem is, he’s small, and he’ll likely get overwhelmed defensively unless the Cougars go zone. Wade was a double-double machine at Iowa Western, and he’ll likely replace Drick Bernstine as a relatively undersized 5-man. The Cougars will probably continue to struggle on D, though, particularly against teams with excellent point guard play and/or big front lines that can play bully ball inside.
Coincidentally, Kent has played more and more zone in Pullman as the years have gone by, and he may need to do that again this year given the questionable-at-best defensive lineups he’ll march out there. The Cougars ranked 278th nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defense rankings last year (last in the Power 6 conferences by 59 spots), and with minimal influx of defensive weapons, they could continue to be abysmal on that end. One possible asset could be Marvin Cannon, a monster athlete at 6’5 and yet another JUCO addition. Cannon is a bouncy lefty who put up 35 points as Barton knocked off #1 (and undefeated) Indian Hills in the NJCAA Tournament – between Daniels and Skaggs (more standstill shooter types), the Cougars are dying for some wing athleticism, so he fits perfectly. Davante Cooper earning more minutes as a shot-blocker in the paint wouldn’t hurt, either.
Bottom Line: Washington St. appears to be under-manned and limited by a past-his-prime coach, putting them comfortably 12th in a mediocre-at-best conference. If they once again finish in the Pac-12 cellar, it’s probably time for Kent’s tenure to end, and the Cougars need to find a jolt of energy somewhere in the coaching ranks (for fun, I’ll put a couple names out there: dream situation: Paul Weir or Chris Jans, more realistic choices: Jim Hayford or Travis DeCuire). As it stands, the program seems neglected, and unless something changes drastically, Wazzu will likely remain in its moribund position for the time being.