Pac 12 2019-20 Preview

- Matt Cox

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.

Additionally - we conducted our Top 40 voting prior to Oregon getting both N’Faly Dante and Addison Patterson. Those two additions are obviously difference-makers for the Ducks.

Preseason Predictions

Player of the Year: Tres Tinkle, R Sr., Oregon St.
Coach of the Year: Tad Boyle, Colorado
Newcomer of the Year: Nico Mannion, Fr., Arizona
Freshman of the Year: Nico Mannion, Fr., Arizona

*I couldn’t decide between Duarte and Mathis for the final All-Conference and All-Newcomer spot, both of whom I expect to be instant impact guys for the Ducks. I cheated and gave both guys recognition.

**I strongly considered Jaden McDaniels here, but ultimately gave the edge to Green. I think his game and role will translate to more immediate and consistent production, while McDaniels may need more time to develop.


Team Previews

Tier 1

1. Oregon

See full preview here: #23 in our Top 40 countdown*
*Note: Oregon Top 40 rank not inclusive of N'Faly Dante and Addison Patterson roster additions

2. Arizona

See full preview here: #17 in our Top 40 countdown

3. Colorado

See full preview here: #37 in our Top 40 countdown

4. Washington

Key Returners: Nahziah Carter, Hameir Wright, Jamal Bey, Sam Timmins
Key Losses: Jaylen Nowell, Matisse Thybulle, Noah Dickerson
Key Newcomers: Quade Green, Jaden McDaniels, Isaiah Stewart, RaeQuan Battle

Lineup:

Outlook: Lorenzo Romar pulled off the improbable task of turning Washington basketball into …

  1. a hotbed of individual talent

  2. and a wasteland of team accomplishments

Typically, ‘talent’ and ‘winning’ are highly correlated, but Romar was a special breed of ‘coach’ and led an annual protest against playing defense in Seattle. All sarcasm aside, since leaving Jim Boeheim’s nest in 2017, Hopkins has sustained Romar’s stranglehold on the recruiting trail, while instilling a newfound structure and identity to Washington basketball.

Hopkins’ tentacles continue to spread throughout the grassroots circuits, which he used to haul in the nation’s 10th best recruiting class, per 247sports.com. I’d argue that rank should be higher - it undervalues the impact of two top-10, 5-star gamechangers, which is exactly who Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels project to be. Coming from someone who’s inherently biased against big men, the 6’9 240 pound Stewart has captivated my attention. With ‘upside’ and ‘potential’ often the prevailing reasons certain prospects climb high in the recruiting rankings, ‘production’ and ‘dominance’ are words I’d attach to Stewart. He’s an absolute load in the middle and a plus-7 wingspan (7’4) will enable him to finish over 95% of college defenders - though, he’d probably just prefer go around you or go through you. Stewart’s most endearing strength is his level of compete, as he always works relentlessly to jockey for post position inside.

On the contrary, Jaden, younger brother of former San Diego State standout Jalen, comes to college with a much wider range of outcomes in what will almost surely be a one-year rental for the Huskies. There’s a million ways I could gush about his ‘unicorn-ish’ combination of size, skill and fluidity combination, but Sam Vecenie summed it up best in his offseason 2020 draft class breakdown: ‘This is the Kevin Durant starter kit’. For Pac-12 opponents, that’s a terrifying proposition, but that description is a long way from coming to life. As much as I love McDaniels, the idea of what he could become is far from what he is now, which gives me some pause on projecting him to be a world-beater in the Pac-12 as an 18-year old.

Both Stewart and McDaniels will have ample opportunities to showcase their offensive skillsets this year, given that Hopkins imposes minimal restrictions on his players offensively. He made it a priority to throw the ball inside to Noah Dickerson last season, so expect Stewart to be the Huskies’ meal ticket on offense, who should command double-teams against the majority of Pac-12 frontlines. The question is how these two youngsters, along with another top-100 freshman in RaeQuan Battle and Kentucky grad transfer Quade Green will all blend together defensively, along with the lesser known incumbents. At face value, Stewart and McDaniels appear to be tailor-made fits on the backend of the zone. Stewart will patrol the middle and body up any big who gets a touch in the paint, while McDaniels’ length and lateral quickness will make him a disruptive presence at one of the baseline wing spots. At 6’6, Nahziah Carter is an exceptional athlete who has the chops to slide back and forth between the other baseline spot and the top of the zone.

However, while the individual pieces should fit into the defensive puzzle, integrating a lot of new faces into a specialized, nuanced system is tricky.

Since Hopkins is essentially an extension of Jim Boeheim’s coaching mind, I looked back at Syracuse’s overall defensive efficiency ranks and the year-over-year minutes continuity ranks for the past 10 seasons (both per kenpom.com) to see if the data supported my anecdotal concerns here. Essentially, my hypothesis is that having more experienced players who have been with the program for multiple years matters A TON for perfecting such a unique defense:

While there’s many unique circumstances tied to each team, the data here appears to moderately support my theory. Of Boeheim’s three teams with the highest year-to-year roster turnover, two checked in with his worst defensive units in the past decade (2007 and 2017), while one actually produced his best defensive squad (2018). Pascal Chukwu was a force in the middle of Cuse’s zone in 2018, but keep in mind he spent an entire season with the program before that year learning the rotations and guidelines of how to play it correctly. Stewart has the physical tools to be equally, if not more, destructive than Chukwu was defensively, but climbing the learning curve that quickly will be a challenge.

The second and far more obvious reason why I see the Huskies’ top-20 defense from last year taking a bit of a tumble is the absence of Matisse Thybulle. Playing at the right point position in the top-2 of the zone, Thybulle posted historic steal and block rates last season, effectively shutting down that side of the floor for opposing offenses. Sure, RaeQuan Battle has the physical makeup to someday grow into that level of defensive pest, but I’m not betting on that in his first collegiate season. 

To continue with my pessimistic tone, I also need answers as to who is running the offense and picking up the perimeter scoring slack until Green becomes eligible at semester – and even then, putting both of those responsibilities on Green’s lap feels unfair. Carter, along with Bishop Gorman product Jamal Bey, both played particularly well during the Pac-12 tournament and in both NCAA tournament games, but neither have a long enough track record to give me confidence they’re viable solutions long-term. Battle is a knockdown shooter and a bouncy athlete, but he seems to lack that crafty slashing ability that Nowell had when he came in as a freshman two years back, which is a major void on the roster as it stands today.

Bottom Line: As much as I like the individual pieces and Hopkins as a coach, backcourt stability (particularly at point) and high roster turnover for a complex defensive scheme prevent me from buying all the way in to the Huskies this year. McDaniels and Stewart are special talents, but I tend to balk at believing blue-chip big men prospects will produce right away at the college level, especially when there’s question marks as to who’s going to get them the ball. McDaniels and Stewart will have to rely on unproven guards to find them in the right spots at the right time to maximize their immediate impact, which could make Quade Green the ‘make or break’ guy for the Huskies this year. Until Green becomes eligible, I’ll have a close eye on the lesser known guards and wings to see how willingly and consistently they prioritize getting both McDaniels and Stewart the touches they deserve.


Tier 2

5. Arizona St.

Key Returners: Remy Martin, Rob Edwards, Kimani Lawrence, Taeshon Cherry, Romello White, Mickey Mitchell
Key Losses: Luguentz Dort, Zylan Cheatham, De’Quon Lake
Key Newcomers: Alonzo Verge, Khalid Thomas, Andre Allen, Jaelen House, Jalen Graham

Lineup:

Outlook: To all my business-savvy friends out there, I take it you’re familiar with the concept of ‘Earnings Management’, right? If not, or if you didn’t sell your soul to the almighty corporate dollar during your collegiate years and studied something other than business, no worries at all - we’re all capable of grasping the concept of what I’m hereby coining as ‘Resume Management’. This is the politically correct way to describe the art of distorting or ‘dressing up’ the components of actual work experience to look far more impressive and important than it actually was. For example, when I was 16 years old, I didn’t work a cash register at a local concessions stand; I managed inventory at a local concessions stand…

Don’t act like you haven’t done this before. We all have. Yet, none of us hold a candle to what Bobby Hurley and his Arizona State Sun Devils pulled off in each of the last two seasons with their own version of ‘Resume Management’ - that is, ‘NCAA Tournament Resume Management’.

I’m convinced Hurley hired a Watergate-esque operation to go into the NCAA Selection Committee headquarters overnight and remove embarrassing loses from their team cheat sheets, allowing the sexy big wins over Kansas (twice!), Kansas State, Xavier and Mississippi State over the past two seasons to outshine their hidden blemishes. If you scroll to the bottom of that same metaphorical resume, you’ll find “Washington State at home”, “Princeton at home” and “Stanford at home” buried down in the footer of the page in size 6-font.

Putting that tangent to bed, Arizona State has been one of the most bi-polar, unpredictable teams in college basketball over the last two years. Look no further than that circus of a game against St. John’s in the NCAA tournament last season, in which ASU did everything in their power to lose (and almost succeeded). The reckless abandon in which Hurley’s teams play is somewhat of a double-edged sword. While it’s prone to highly erratic decision-making, it also feeds an irrational sense confidence that allows guys to play with an unrivaled sense of swagger (or ‘drip’, as the kids say these days).

I mean, how else do you go into Allen Fieldhouse and take down the big bad Kansas Jayhawks. Junior Remy Martin has been with Hurley every step of the way over the last two years, and encapsulates this mindset to a T. He’s been a human Red Bull the last two seasons, routinely infusing the Sun Devils with an instant spark when they needed it most. After deferring to Tra Holder and Shannon Evans as a freshman, and then to Luguentz Dort last year, Martin will now finally get to spread his wings as the unquestioned floor general and primary playmaker.

The eye-test tells me that giving Martin the keys to the offense could be problematic, but the data debunks this completely. Despite Martin’s frenetic pace of play and occasional knee-jerk shot-selection, he’s maintained a 2.35 assist-to-turnover ratio throughout his career and posted respectable shooting splits last year, which spiked substantially during league play. From January 1st onward, he shot 50%, 38% and 70% from 2PT, 3PT, and the free throw line, respectively, and was one of five players in the Pac-12 with a usage rate above 20% to post an Offensive Rating higher than 115. Maintaining that efficiency going toe-to-toe with the opposing team’s top perimeter stopper on a nightly basis will be tough, but Martin isn’t alone in the backcourt.

5th year senior Rob Edwards is back to support Martin at the off-guard spot, a durable catch-and-shoot floor spacer with a sturdy physical build at 6’4, 200-plus pounds. Last season was a big leap for Edwards after transferring up from the ever-declining Horizon League, and he struggled to finish over the superior size and strength inside. In fact, both Edwards and Martin were borderline atrocious at converting at the rim last year, but this was partially mitigated by either: 1) a whistle and a subsequent trip to the charity stripe (Edwards and Martin are both 75 – 80% career free throw shooters) or 2)  an easy put back finish from one of ASU’s rim crashing brigade, comprised of Zylan Cheatham, Romello White and De’Quon Lake.

After missing all of November early last season with a back injury, Edwards ended up replacing 6’7 jack-of-all-trades Kimani Lawrence in the starting lineup. Despite playing a full workload for the latter half of the season last year, it was reported by the AZCentral (part of the USA Today network) that Edwards was never actually fully healed:

No longer does he think and worry about his back while on the court, Edwards said this week before the Sun Devils left for a road trip to play Oregon and Oregon State. But as good as Edwards has been the past two weeks, he’s not fully healthy. His back is still an issue, and he spends a considerable time stretching and receiving other therapy under the guidance of sports performance coach Daniel Marshall.

With how much stock Hurley puts in his guards, Edwards could be the X-factor this season and the calming presence alongside Martin the Sun Devils need. And when you add Finnish wing Elias Valtonen to the equation, there should be enough long range firepower for Martin to dish to.

Another backcourt weapon who could easily play his way into the starting lineup is highly anticipated JUCO star Alonzo Verge. Per a report from Cronkite News, the news division of ArizonaPBS, the former JUCO All-American has already gotten the coaching staff’s attention with his playmaking and table setting for others:

“Alonzo Verge has already stood out for me with just his creativity and making guys better on the floor,” Hurley said. “Our guards are going to be very vocal this year, between Remy, who’s a natural communicator on the court, and Alonzo who’s the same way. He talks constantly in a positive way.”

Verge averaged a casual 30, 8 (assists) and 4 last season, so don’t be surprised if he shoots right to the top of the offensive pecking order, just like Dort did as a freshman last year. Verge headlines a sneaky strong class of newcomers, including top-15 JUCO prospect Khalid Thomas, and a pair of 4-star freshmen Jaelen House and Jalen Graham.

The Sun Devils only played one side of the ball during Hurley’s first two seasons in Tempe, and it wasn’t until Hurley decided to invest in his frontcourt that the Sun Devils became a serious NCAA tournament at-large candidate. This is where Romello White, Taeshon Cherry, and Mickey Mitchell, along with the aforementioned newbies Thomas and Graham, have their work cut out for them this season. Zylan Cheatham was a one-man-wrecking-crew on the defensive glass last year and one of the top shot-swatters in the Pac-12. Per hoopslens.com, ASU surrendered 0.90 points per possession with him on the floor, compared to 1.07 PPP when he sat.

Bottom Line: Losing Cheatham’s activity inside is a crushing blow, but White really came into his own down the stretch last season. He isn’t much more than a rim runner and rim diver offensively, but his work on the glass is far more important than lighting up the scoreboard. Both of the JUCO forwards are elastic athletes (Thomas and Andre Allen), and the rookie Graham is on a fast track to becoming a human eraser:

Even with the Pac-12 back on the up-and-up, the Sun Devils pack enough of a punch to stay within the top-5 spots of the standings. This is contingent on Hurley pinpointing a reliable frontcourt rotation, but if the men in the middle answer the bell here, Arizona State could be dancing for the third year in a row.

6. UCLA

Key Returners: Prince Ali, Jules Bernard, Chris Smith, Cody Riley, Jalen Hill, David Singleton, Alex Olesinski
Key Losses: Kris Wilkes, Jaylen Hands, Moses Brown
Key Newcomers: Tyger Campbell (missed last season with torn ACL), Shareef O’Neal (missed last season with heart condition), Jamie Jaquez, Jake Kyman

Lineup:

Outlook: I have no clue where to begin on detailing what was a circus act in Westwood this summer. For those who are completely out of the loop, all you need to know is UCLA’s hiring process should be documented and disseminated as a memo to aspiring athletic directors all across America on how NOT to identify, communicate and negotiate with prospective new coaches. When the dust settled, it was Mick Cronin who emerged as the official successor to follow Steve Alford’s 6-year tenure.

Let me start with this: UCLA, a traditional blue-blood power located in one of the premier media markets in the country, is as well reported on as any school in America. The narrative that’s being pushed by many of the national outlets is that the brand of basketball Cronin built his reputation on at Cincinnati clashes with the style of play the fans in Los Angeles want to see. This report from the Stadium cited an interesting quote from UCLA’s athletic director Dan Guerrero back in 2013, just after the firing of Ben Howland:

“We will look for someone who plays a fun brand of basketball,” UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero said in 2013 after Howland was fired, according to the L.A. Times. “We don’t want to bring in a coach who averages 50 points per game.”

Clearly this mindset played a part in steering the administration toward Steve Alford as Howland’s replacement, but it’s ironic that Guerrero is still calling the shots and ultimately was the one who pulled the trigger on Cronin.

So, has Guerrero come full circle, back to embracing defense and toughness as foundational principles to winning? Or, will Cronin evolve as a coaching tactician, and perhaps open his mind to playing a faster and more creative style of offense? The answer is likely somewhere in the middle, but it’s that shift in style from Alford to Cronin that serves as the backdrop as we project the fate of the 2019-20 UCLA Bruins.

Starting with the offense, let’s first establish what a deliberate pace Cronin’s teams have played at over the last six seasons. Since 2014, Cincinnati has not once finished higher than 328th overall in kenpom.com’s adjusted tempo metric. In fact, the only time Cronin has ever played even moderately fast was his very first season as a head coach, back in 2004, when he took over as Murray State’s head honcho. I’m fascinated by what this means for UCLA’s two most dynamic guards, Tyger Campbell and Prince Ali, both of whom I would think prefer Alford’s style if you hooked them up to a lie detector test…

Alford said last summer that losing Campbell, who was sidelined all last year with a torn ACL, was a catastrophic blow for his 2018-19 strategic plans. Reading between the lines, it sounds like Campbell was pegged to be UCLA’s fast-break catalyst, similar to the role that Lonzo Ball assumed before him. Per ESPN’s recruiting analysis, Campbell maintained an absurd 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio throughout his time in high school and on the EYBL circuit, an impressive clip for a teenager playing against some fierce competition at La Lumiere High School. While he may not love Cronin’s more moderate speed, he could win over Cronin instantly if he sustains that level of decision-making as the primary ball handler. We witnessed at Cincinnati that Cronin clearly favored Justin Jenifer, a more reliable and consistent point guard, over Cane Broome, but Campbell’s small frame could counteract this advantage on the defensive side of the ball.

David Singleton was a sneaky bright spot for the Bruins last year, a 3-point sniper and defensive hound on the perimeter who played his way into the starting lineup by late February. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Cronin plug him into the starting lineup over the more explosive, yet more volatile, Ali, both of whom will spend the bulk of the summer rehabilitating and conditioning after suffering serious injuries toward the end of the season last year (Singleton = broken foot; Ali = plantar fasciitis).

The depth chart projects to be much more crowded on the wing and up front with multiple guys vying for a fixed number of minutes. Jules Bernard is the best pure fit at the 3, but with Kris Wilkes taking his talents to the NBA this offseason, look for the versatile 6’9 Chris Smith to slide down to the wing on occasion as well, along with top-100 freshman Jaime Jacquez.

Two members of ‘the Gucci Bandits will anchor the frontline, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, along with Alex Olesinski, who should be primed for a bounce back season after a stress fracture held him out for most of the 2018-19 campaign. To be frank, Riley showed me nothing last year to convince me there’s a leap coming this season, so my money’s on Shareef O’Neal to steal his run and split the frontline minutes with Hill and Olesinski. One of our go-to sources for prospect analysis, Mike Gribanov, has identified O’Neal as one of his under-the-radar prospects heading in to the 2019-20 season, a fluid athlete at 6’8 with an advanced perimeter skillset.

One last stylistic note: For all the fodder claiming this will be a major wake up call for a roster that effectively punted on defense last season, it’s worth mentioning that UCLA and Cincinnati’s defense didn’t look all that different last year in structure. While the Bearcats were FAR better at executing it, Cronin utilizes a matchup zone that often takes the form of a 2-3 zone, which is what Alford leaned on heavily last season.

While Alford’s scheme was generic, Cronin’s version morphs into somewhat of a hybrid man / zone structure, which prioritizes walling off the lane at all costs. In Pac-12 play last year, opponents shot 51% inside the arc against the Bruins, a clip that will cause Cronin’s head to explode if they don’t improve upon that immediately – and based on the chart below, which shows Cronin’s historical 2-point % defenses and corresponding national ranks, I expect it will:

Bottom Line: As stated above, I’m most enthralled by the stylistic shift that is (or isn’t) about to unfold in Hollywood. While there’s a natural tendency to fixate on the turbulence this change could potentially cause, this roster has plenty of depth for Cronin to sort through and identify the right mix of ingredients. The health bug bit the Bruins pretty hard last year, so he’ll need Campbell, Singleton, Ali and Olesinski all to be ready to go by November, otherwise that roster depth advantage will be moot.

7. USC

Key Returners: Nick Rakocevic, Jonah Mathews, Elijah Weaver
Key Losses: Bennie Boatwright, Shaqquan Aaron, Derryck Thornton, Kevin Porter
Key Newcomers: Isaiah Mobley, Onyeka Okongwu, Max Agbonkpolo, Kyle Sturdivant, Daniel Utomi, Quinton Adlesh

Lineup:

Outlook: Confession: Numerous times last season, I found myself screaming at the top of my lungs out of sheer frustration at USC’s complete and utter lack of organization on the basketball court. This annoyance has been in a steady escalation for a few years now, as I continually find myself irked with Andy Enfield’s coaching (or complete lack thereof). To contextualize Enfield’s incompetence, I pulled some recruiting figures from 247sports.com and set them side-by-side USC’s overall season performance (defined by kenpom.com’s overall rank and USC’s finish in the Pac-12 standings):

To be honest, that data made me slightly reassess my distain for Enfield. While there is still a visible trend of underachievement in recent years, last season was the first year the Trojans’ season could unquestionably be categorized as a ‘failure’. Is it possible I may have bashed Enfield too harshly?

Eh, first off, I don’t entirely trust those recruiting rankings. There’s an inherent bias in the calculations that tends to value quantity (deeper classes with more players) over quality (‘top-heavy’ classes with one or two blue-chippers). Even then, that’s splitting hairs…

The point is as follows: I’ve seen this movie before. USC brings in a star-studded recruiting class to pair with some established veteran pieces, only to fall miles short of their preseason hype. The table above makes me question whether my animosity towards Enfield has gone too far, but I continue to walk away with a sour taste in my mouth every time I watch the Trojans play and it’s that lingering aftertaste which stops me from being optimistic on USC’s outlook this season. There’s your bulletin board material Andy!

Since Enfield arrived in 2013, the defense is what’s held USC back from fulfilling its potential. Enfield has cozied up to a bland 2-3 zone, which in no way optimizes the surplus of athletes at his disposal. While Mike Hopkins at Washington unleashes his athletic weapons in creative ways, the Trojans’ zone looks much more apathetic, neighboring on disinterested. With the terrifying frontline Enfield will trot out on the floor this season, USC *should* be able to bother opposing offenses. In a report this summer from the LA Times, Enfield confirmed the revamped frontcourt will lead to a subsequent makeover in style of play, relative to the 4-out, in 1-in offense he utilized with Boatwright last year:

“Bennie was more of a stretch four,” Enfield said. “So what we’re giving up is the three-point shooting of a guy like Boatwright, what we’re gaining is a more traditional two-big lineup where we should be able to score in the paint. We’ll have rim protection with Onyeka and Isaiah, and Nick has developed a little bit with shot blocking. We need consistency out of our front line from a defensive standpoint, which we didn’t really have last season.”

Enfield refers to both of his 5-star prospects in that blurb, 6’9 Isaiah Mobley (#17 overall recruit) and 6’8 Onyeka Okongwu (#20 overall recruit), along with the Trojans’ lone source of consistency last year, Nick Rakocevic. 6’8 Max Agbonkpolo and 6’6 Chuck O’Bannon, both 4-star prospects in their own right, are more of the wing variety, but Enfield will likely thrust them into the rotation right away as well. On paper, this group shapes up to be a wrecking ball on the glass, and Rakocevic gives the Trojans a reliable outlet for inside scoring. Okongwu got everyone’s attention this summer after dominating on the Trojans’ foreign trip to France, so he’s my pick to shine the brightest out of this bunch.

The incoming freshmen guards aren’t as heralded as the wings and bigs, so they’ll likely have to wait in line behind a pair of incumbents in Elijah Weaver and Jonah Mathews. Weaver has the inside track to take command of the point guard spot after replacing Derryck Thornton in the starting-5 for the last four games of the season. He had a rocky start to his collegiate career but played his best ball down the stretch, and his 6’5 frame pairs nicely with the smaller Mathews. Mathews is a deadeye marksman from deep, but I’d like to see him blossom into a more well-rounded scoring threat (he sometimes looks too content to float beyond the 3-point line). Mathews looked to be the only reliable long-range shooter until Enfield picked up Daniel Utomi off the grad transfer wire, who’s cashed in 39% of his triples over a 4-year span at Akron. Columbia import Quinton Adlesh was another nice grad transfer pick up, who projects to be a stout defender, capable of spelling Weaver and Mathews at both guard spots in the backcourt.

Bottom Line: I’ll let the College Football Bros tee up the official 3MW verdict on USC…

Yes fellas, you should know better. While I’m moderately intrigued by the potential 3-big lineup Enfield has teased this summer, I don’t trust the coaching staff to unlock the defensive potential of this bully ball lineup, nor do I trust the shooting / floor spacing on the other end of the floor. The Trojans are neck-and-neck with their crosstown rival and Arizona State, so while a 5th place finish could be in the cards, the coaching variable matters when the margins are razor thin.

8. Oregon St.

Key Returners: Tres Tinkle, Ethan Thompson, Kylor Kelley
Key Losses: Stephen Thompson
Key Newcomers: Payton Dastrup, Roman Silva, Jarod Lucas, Sean Miller-Moore, Dearon Tucker, Julien Franklin, Gianni Hunt, Joey Potts

Lineup:

Outlook: Wayne Tinkle’s summer to-do list probably read something like this…

  • 1) Rationalize convincing son to stay in school

  • 2) Convince son to stay in school

  • 3) Verify son stays in school

It’s hard to fathom the internal conflict father Tinkle was wrestling with, caught between a rock (ensuring Oregon State’s roster is well-equipped to make a Pac-12 title run) and a hard place (guiding his son to make the best financial decision for him and his future).

That power of fatherly persuasion is a revelation for Oregon State fans. The return of Tres Tinkle is the difference between the Beavers remaining in the meat of the Pac-12 standings and surviving to stay out of the gutter. As his stat line indicates in the roster picture above, he’s effectively a video game create-a-player brought to life. If you assigned video game numeric ratings to every aspect of his game, he’d score a 90 or above across the board.

At 6’8, Tinkle has the lateral mobility, handle, shooting touch and passing vision most guards envy. Oregon State runs a lot of screening and cutting action away from the ball, designed to create open looks by exploiting overextended and undisciplined off-ball defense. As the clip below shows, Tinkle will often assume a point forward role in the offense:

His height allows him to see passing lanes over the defender, while his quickness enables him to attack a less athletic forward off-the-dribble. It’s no surprise that Tinkle led the entire conference last year in usage rate at just under 30% during league play.

Tinkle’s versatility is one-of-a-kind, but he’s called upon so often to make something happen because there’s just simply not a lot else around him. As my colleague Jim cited in his Pac-12 preview last year, after the top-3 (Tinkle and the Thompson Brothers), the talent caliber dropped off a cliff. The elder Thompson, Stephen, had to drag the Beavers’ unhelpful supporting cast to victory on countless occasions, most noticeably when Tinkle missed a game against USC on January 10th. With Mr. Everything sidelined, Thompson went off for 34 points, grabbed 10 boards and dished out 5 assists in a thrilling overtime victory over USC.

Well, guess what. Big brother is no longer around, which cuts out a critical third of that top-3 pie and leaves little brother Ethan Thompson to pick up the pieces. Both Thompson brothers are dynamic lead guards, but Ethan grew into his own as the primary ball handler and facilitator last season. With Stephen gone, Ethan will have the ball in his hands as much as anyone in the Pac-12 this season, but he’ll have to become the aggressor that his brother was last year to replenish some of that scoring slack.

With the Beavers strapped for bodies last season, the emergence of Kylor Kelley was a life saver on both sides of the ball. Offensively, his skillset remains fairly limited, but he found his niche as an exceptional roll man in pick-n-roll action:

On defense, he’s basically ‘the Wall’ from Game of Thrones, standing 7’1 armed with Inspector Gadget reach. Tinkle has always been privy to mixing in some 1-3-1 and matchup zone defensive schemes, but he leaned heavily on those zones last year to fully weaponize Kelley’s shot-blocking. As the chart below shows, the Beavers played zone roughly half the time last year, much of which was geared toward keeping Kelley near the rim and out of foul trouble:

After Kelley, Tinkle will be grasping for straws as he looks fill out the rest of the core rotation. Alfred Hollins, an athletic glue guy who makes his pay on the defensive side of the ball, couldn’t figure out how to be efficient last year, even in a reduced role offensively. Zach Reichle is best cast as a stand-still shooter, but it’s hard to defend that description after converting just 32% from behind the arc last year. Antoine Vernon brings intensity and a high basketball IQ to the mix, but it’s hard to see him making a drastic jump. With minimal buzz surrounding the freshmen, BYU transfer Payton Dastrup, who was a top-100 ranked prospect once upon a time, should bolster the frontline, but he failed to translate his physical gifts into consistent production at BYU.

Bottom Line: The limitation for Oregon State ever since Gary Payton graduated in 2016 has been roster depth, as the talent pool just isn’t as strong as the upper-echelon Pac-12 programs. This was the case last season, evidenced by the Beavers’ big-3 rarely coming off the floor. I once again see a big-3 and then a gap the size of the Grand Canyon between Kelley and whoever you consider the fourth best player (Hollins? Reichle? Prolific scoring freshman Jarod Lucas?). With how good Tinkle, Thompson and Kelley are collectively, the Beavers should avoid tumbling into the Pac-12 basement, but an injury to any one of them will cause widespread panic in Corvallis.

9. Stanford

Key Returners: Daejon Davis, Oscar Da Silva, Bryce Wills
Key Losses: KZ Okpala, Cormac Ryan (transfer), Josh Sharma
Key Newcomers: Tyrell Terry

Lineup:

*Kodye Pugh is out for the season after injuring his knee in an exhibition game last month in Switzerland

Outlook: Many of the same themes from my USC narrative above could be duplicated here. While Jerod Haase hasn’t quite had the same recruiting success as Enfield, talent scarcity has not been the issue in Palo Alto. I’ll give Haase a partial pass for a swarm of injury bugs last season, as both Daejon Davis and Corman Ryan were in and out of the lineup throughout the year. Still, there was still plenty of offensive ammo remaining to mitigate the blow of their absences – hell, Stanford’s walk-ons should’ve been enough to beat Cal at home in that regular season finale fiasco.

All in all, the Cardinal were ready for lift off last season with the likes of Davis, KZ Okpala and Oscar Da Silva entering that pivotal sophomore year improvement window. Yet, after making substantial gains during Haase’s 2nd year at the helm in 2018, the highly anticipated maturation of that auspicious sophomore trio quickly started backpedaling. Davis is one of the biggest enigmas in college basketball, a once highly sought-after recruit who still is light years away from reaching his sky-high ceiling. Davis’ 2-year performance review scorecard would show an F in the ‘reading defenses’ and ‘making sound decisions’ departments, which explains how the Cardinal turned the ball over at the highest rate in the Pac-12 last season.

That said, I watched two of the five conference games (home vs. Oregon, home vs. Cal) last year in which Davis was sidelined and came away thinking Davis was arguably Stanford’s most important player not named KZ Okpala. For every time he tries threading the needle between three defenders on offense, he has a knack for promptly correcting it with a subsequent steal on the other end or a jaw-dropping drive-and-dish the next offensive possession. As mind-numbing as some of his decisions are, there’s something to be said for the fact that Stanford was 1-4 with Davis out of the lineup last year and the Cardinal looked borderline helpless on offense in certain stretches with him off the floor.

Cormac Ryan decided to leave NorCal this summer, so Bryce Wills is the odds-on favorite to take over as Davis’ second in command in the backcourt. Wills has all the physical tools you want in a multi-positional guard (6’6, long, athletic), but he was even looser than Davis was with the rock – though, the obligatory “he’s just a freshman” excuse is still valid here. If the lightbulb doesn’t flick on for Wills next season, look for top-100 4-star recruit Tyrell Terry to carve out a consistent spot in the rotation. Terry carries a strong reputation as an elite passer with next-level vision, so it’s possible that translates into some ball handling stability right away - though, I typically appraise first year point guards with a cynical eye.

While the Cardinal were tossing souvenirs into the crowd and hoisting bricks at the backboard (31% team 3PT% graded out as dead last in the Pac-12) on offense, an airtight defense helped Stanford keep their heads above water. Haase deserves some credit for welding together the Pac-12’s 3rd best defensive unit (66th nationally), especially for the way he embraced the analytic nerds’ defensive motto: “Protect the rim and run shooters off the line AT ALL COSTS”.

Stanford was not just good, but ELITE at forcing 3-point shooters to put the ball on the floor last year, surrendering the lowest 3PA rate in the entire country by nearly 2%.

While it’s fair to assume Haase placed an increased emphasis on it last season, not many teams in America trotted out a 5-man lineup that went 6’6, 6’5, 6’9, 6’9 and 7’0 on a large chunk of possessions. The laterally fluidity and length of KZ Okpala and Oscar Da Silva at their respective positions made it nearly impossible to get a clean look from distance, while the 7-footer Josh Sharma roamed the paint like a security guard.

Bottom Line: With Sharma and Okpala gone, the Cardinal are missing their top-2 most valuable defenders from last year, so I can only assume the defense is destined for a minor deflation in 2020. Offensively, there’s not much gravitational pull on the perimeter with Davis being the lone respected long-range shooting threat (unless someone magically revives Isaac White this summer), and I don’t see a reliable source of scoring other than the historically passive Da Silva. This certainly feels like a make or break year for Mr. Haase and while it’s still a young team, the Cardinal’s dazzling collection of  top-100 recruits has led me astray before. I refuse to be fooled again. 

10. Utah

Key Returners: Timmy Allen, Both Gach, Riley Battin
Key Losses: Sedrick Barefield, Donnie Tillman, Parker Van Dyke, Jayce Johnson
Key Newcomers: Too many to name

Lineup:

Outlook: Here’s a fun trivia question you can pose to your fellow CBB degenerate friends…

Who had the best offense in the Pac-12 last year? Yes, the location of this question makes the answer a dead giveaway, but I bet most were in the dark on this factoid.

The Utes didn’t have the blue-chip NBA talent that some of their other Pac-12 competitors featured, but that didn’t stop them from lighting up the scoreboard at the most efficient rate in the conference. Even more shocking was the manner in which they scored, which was via a 3-point trigger happy offensive attack. For a program that’s always valued interior physicality and low-post scoring, this was out of character for Larry Krystkowiak. Given the rag tag roster he had last year, ‘the West Coast Coach K’ deserves a standing ovation for his coaching performance, as the Utes clawed their way to a 3rd place outright finish. Krystkowiak clearly has an eye for the way the game is trending, but part of the stylistic shift last season was a byproduct of the roster construction. Jayce Johnson was the only proven big man returning and there was too much depth on the perimeter to ignore.

If Krystkowiak thought last year’s team was a tough riddle to solve, he hasn’t seen anything yet. Utah will now dive into a deep dark abyss of the unknown with a roster that features 8 freshmen and ZERO scholarship upperclassmen. By default, the leadership will fall on the shoulders of a rising sophomore triumvirate: Timmy Allen, Both Gach and Riley Battin. Allen is the shining star amongst this trio, who was thrown into the fire out of necessity last season to help stop the defensive bleeding. The Utes’ flamethrowers last year partially covered up the fact that they couldn’t guard their shadows on the defensive side of the ball. Krystkowiak admitted in a post-game press conference during the season that Allen’s chance to prove himself arose from his defense, but he quickly learned Allen had much more to offer. At 6’6, Allen has a classic old man game, which features a crafty array of midrange drives and counter finishing moves at the rim. He’s an excellent athlete and far more advanced in his physical maturation than most other rising sophomores, which allowed him to convert at an efficient clip at the rim.

Gach is Allen’s co-pilot on the wing and flashed a variety of offensive tools last year. Consistency is the key with Gach, both from an effort and engagement perspective, as well as from an outside shooting perspective. Gach was hyper efficient scoring inside the arc, but needs that to rub off on his outside shooting stroke (he shot just 32% from downtown last year). An 86% conversion rate from the free-throw line is an encouraging indicator Gach could see that 3PT% spike in his second full collegiate season.

After somewhat of a roller coaster season last year, Battin is the third member of the Utes’ three-headed monster. At 6’9, Battin’s inside-out game was a weapon for Utah last season, especially against zone, where his ability to flash in the middle and step out to the baseline is invaluable. He’s active on the glass as well, but he’ll take a much bigger beating this season down low without Novak Topalovic and Jayce Johnson nearby for protection.

There’s a crater-sized hole at point guard, but Krystkowiak’s timely recruiting may have pinpointed the long-term solution here. Meet Rylan Jones, a 4-star prospect / fringe top-100 recruit, a consummate offensive maestro who will only make his teammates better the minute he steps on the floor. Jones plays with a calming sense of composure, never in a rush and never forcing the action. He likely won’t need to pull out his scoring bag of tricks, but he’ll pick his spots to attack if he catches his defender falling asleep at the wheel:

With Barefield gone, Krystkowiak dipped into the JUCO talent well to replenish the shooting dearth. In steps Alfonso Plummer, a top-100 JUCO prospect per JUCORecruiting.com who is renowned as a lights-out shooter. His percentages this past season at Arizona Western Community College were ridiculous:

  • 3PT: 126/288 (44%)

  • FT: 79/89 (89%)

Predicting how Coach K will shuffle the rotations is guesswork, but I’d be stunned if Plummer is not a key cog by the time Pac-12 play rolls around, especially with his newfound affection for the 3-point shot.

On the polar opposite end of the positional spectrum is Utah’s other prized recruiting present, Branden Carlson, another 4-star prospect and former top-100 recruit in the class of 2017 (he spent the last two years on a mission trip). Carlson’s scouting reports are a bit dated from his high school days, but those who watched him play gush about his skill level at his size, so I’d expect his game to translate right away. The other newcomer who’s garnered a moderate amount of buzz is 6’8 Finnish freshman Mikael Jantunen, who is yet another hybrid forward capable of sliding back and forth between the 3 and the 4 spots.

Bottom Line: The 2019-20 season has ‘rebuild’ written all over it. As many as five different freshmen are likely to crack the primary rotation after the roster was wiped clean this offseason, so near-term expectations must be tempered. Timmy Allen will have to grow up in a hurry and help Krystkowiak shepherd in a deep freshmen class, but I doubt the Utes slip too far this season. Despite all the youth and inexperience, Allen, Gach and Battin are about to onto the sophomore year springboard, and Krystkowiak will still be pacing the sidelines.


Tier 3

11. Washington St.

Key Returners: CJ Elleby, Jeff Pollard, Marvin Cannon
Key Losses: Robert Franks, Viont’e Daniels, Ahmed Ali
Key Newcomers: Daron Henson, Isaac Bonton, Noah Williams, Deion James

Lineup:

*EDIT (9/16): After flirting with transferring, but opting to return to school earlier this summer, Ahmed Ali has officially transferred to Hawaii

Outlook: The Pac-12 cellar is usually a dark and depressing topic, but Washington State and Cal fans can finally see a beacon of light in the distance. It turns out Ernie Kent’s contract extension was as binding as an ‘IOU’ written on the back of a napkin. Kent’s luster from his Oregon glory days were quickly forgotten and he learned all too well how hard it is to convince an 18-year old high-schooler to spend the next 4-years of his life in Pullman, Washington. It takes a savvy recruiter and / or a brilliant tactician to be competitive at Washington State, and new program director Kyle Smith is well-versed in both domains

Smith’s coaching performance last year at USF speaks for itself, but I’m more encouraged by his data-driven approach to recruiting. Most don’t realize Smith was one of the college basketball analytic pioneers and has leaned heavily on advanced statistics in player evaluation for years. Through this numerical-intensive approach, Smith and his staff routinely find diamonds in the rough undetected by major programs on the recruiting trail. He talked at length on Jon Rothstein’s podcast earlier this summer about the need to utilize this approach at Washington State, specifically in the international talent pool.

While the first year of the recruiting cycle for most head coaches typically involves playing catch-up, I’d expect the crop of new faces hand-picked by Smith and his staff to ‘exceed expectations’, relative to their recruiting ranks.

Shifting to a more cynical mindset, as much as I swoon for Smith and everything he brings to the table as a coach and program CEO, I just can’t ignore how vital Robert Franks was to this team. Working with Alan Boston last year as a part of his day-to-day handicapping operation, we would routinely assign individual player values to guys expected to miss games as adjustments in our spread projections. Few players ever exceed 2.5 – 3 points, but we found ourselves docking Washington State 4-5 points when Franks was out. On defense, he was one of the lone Cougars with the size and athleticism to combat opposing rim attackers and glass crashers. On offense, he was a mismatch nightmare, able to stroke it from all over the floor but could also blow right by his defender on aggressive closeouts.

Thank goodness CJ Elleby came back, who will now have to wear Franks’ superhero cape. Elleby was an absolute stud last year, showcasing a Swiss army knife-type of game with few holes. At 6’6, the offense can run through him as a point-forward, or he can slide off the ball as more of a score-first wing. He’ll need some help throwing it in the ocean, but Smith is hoping Colorado State transfer Deion James or one of the experienced JUCO additions (Isaac Bonton and Daron Henson) can lend a hand here right away. Other than Elleby, bouncy wing Marvin Cannon and center Jeff Pollard are the only other incumbents with a spot solidified in the rotation. Cannon initially tested the transfer waters but opted to return to Pullman.

Stylistically, I’m quite curious to see what Smith implements defensively. Last year, Kent resorted to zone in hopes of covering up soft spots inside, but Smith is more of a man-to-man believer. Franks was the Cougs best rim protector last season, and since Pollard is nowhere near a high-flyer, I’m not sure it’ll matter what scheme Smith devises – Wazzu could be gashed at the rim this season.

Bottom Line: While I’m fairly confident the Cougars will finish near the bottom of the Pac-12 totem pole, I expect both Washington State and Cal to be far more competitive than last year’s renditions. While Elleby is a star in the making and the JUCO additions have some decent pedigree, the backcourt incumbents are limited. Patience is a virtue and I’m antsy to see Smith resurrect this program over the next few years, but it will certainly be a process.

12. California

Key Returners: Paris Austin, Matt Bradley, Andre Kelly, Juhwan Harris-Dyson
Key Losses: Justice Sueing, Darius McNeil, Connor Vanover
Key Newcomers: Kareem South, DJ Thorpe, Joel Brown

Lineup:

Outlook: Let’s start with the positives! The Bears made a nice little push to close out the season, winning their last three conference games and showing some heart and tenacity when they could’ve just as easily rolled over on their lame duck head coach.

*searches notes*

Welp, that’s about all I got here…

It’s safe to say the Wyking Jones era was a monumental catastrophe and that’s nowhere near hyperbole. He just couldn’t recruit and the guys he did coerce to come to Cal, he couldn’t keep.

I guess it’s nice that Juhwan Harris-Dyson decided to stay true to his letter of intent, as did two enticing incoming prospects Joel Brown and DJ Thorpe. A severe flu and a fractured hand over the past two years have collectively thrown a wrench in Dyson's development curve since he arrived in Berkeley, but he’s too talented to completely toss aside as an afterthought. Brown and Thorpe are each ranked inside the top-200 per 247sports.com and will have a legit shot to crack the starting lineup right from the get-go. With the mass exodus up front, Thorpe likely has the path of least resistance to carve out a spot in the starting rotation, especially since Aussie big man Grant Anticevich has been sporadic at best in his first two years in Berkeley.

The perimeter is where the *known* commodities lie, but the trio of Paris Austin, Matt Bradley and Kareem South looks more like a mid-major backcourt than a Power-6 caliber one. Austin will be the Bears’ floor general for the second year in a row and is debatably Cal’s best player now with Justice Sueing and Darius McNeil departing this summer. To contextualize the scarcity of talent on this roster, Austin was Boise State’s third-best player back in 2017-18 before transferring up to Cal - though, I’m not sure “up” is applicable here, given he essentially left a top-100 Boise team to play for a Pac-12 program in the midst of a historic demise.

The point is simple. Austin is solid, but he’s not someone you want carrying the workload on a nightly basis. Hopefully, rising sophomore Matt Bradley and his bowling ball frame can seize the alpha dog role this year. At 6’4, 220 pounds, Bradley is a linebacker who’s somehow blessed with a soft shooting touch. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi transfer Kareem South is the odds-on favorite to cling to that third starting spot in the backcourt next to Bradley and Austin. Similar to the Austin narrative above, asking the best player on a middle of the road Southland team to step into a featured role in the Pac-12 is a tall task, but South may actually have the chops to make the leap. He’s got that innate shiftiness and shake with his dribble that helps him get separation pretty much whenever he wants, along with a knack for making tough, contested shots off the dribble. Whenever Cal needs a bucket in late shot clock situations, I bet South is the guy Fox entrusts with the rock to make something out of nothing.

Bottom Line: In the grand scheme, how big of a leap Bradley makes or how quickly South adjusts to the speed and physicality of the Pac-12 are meaningless topics. This is about Mark Fox’s big picture plan of slowly restoring a deeply scarred program back to national relevance. Stylistically, Fox will breed a culture of tenacity on the defensive side of the ball, while playing within a sound and structured system on offense.

"Offensively we want to play as fast as we can play well, but what is most important is that we become as efficient as possible," Fox said. "[Defensively], we have to establish a defensive mentality that makes us hard to play against us and we have some work to do there."

While the offense could look ugly at times, I’m cautiously optimistic the Bears will get enough stops to grind out at least a few conference wins this season.