No matter which team wins the Pac-12 tournament this season, please turn off the lights on your way out. And you get Bill Walton’s protection.
The 108-year history of the “Conference of Champions” is about to close. Four teams – UCLA, USC, Oregon and Washington – will head to the Big Ten next season, while four others – Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah – will join the Big 12. Meanwhile, the Bay Area schools—Stanford and Cal—will somehow be in a league named after the opposite ocean. Rivalries like UCLA-Arizona and Oregon-Oregon State may or may not continue.
“I’m really saddened by the collapse of the Pac-12,” first-year Cal coach and former Stanford star Mark Madsen said at the league’s media day this month. “In the back of my mind, there’s always the hope that, 20 years from now, 15 years from now, things don’t work out with some of the other conferences and it somehow comes back together.”
Even the Big Ten can scoff at the Pac-12’s lack of recent postseason achievements — Arizona’s 1997 national title is the league’s last, and the conference has only claimed seven finals berths since 1998. Again, there are many reasons to watch this. Last round, except to see Walton crying in tie dye.
Two main stories
Can Arizona know March?
Tommy Lloyd’s first two seasons in Tucson have been a resounding success by any reasonable measure. Lloyd went 61-11, winning the Pac-12 regular season title and back-to-back conference tournament crowns and earning No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. We call it a “reasonable measure,” not the small-sample-size results of March Madness. The Wildcats were one of the favorites to win the 2022 national title after being upset in the Sweet 16 last season by No. 15 Princeton. Lloyd talked about injecting more strength into the program, and the Lightning brought in North Carolina transfer guard Caleb Love for more offensive diversity. Arizona is the preseason Pac-12 favorite, but many people will judge it — rightly or not — by what happens in the postseason.
When does Brony James play?
Normally, little attention is paid to a four-star recruit who signs with USC, but this one has the name LeBron James Jr. and has been linked to his father’s NBA future. Broney suffered a heart attack in July, caused by a congenital heart defect, and his playing status is unclear. (Trojans teammate Vincent Iuchukuku suffered a similar incident at the same point in the summer of 2022 and made his debut on January 12, though no two health conditions are the same). If the younger James suits up for Andy Enfield’s team, the resulting media coverage will be unlike anything in USC’s relatively quiet basketball history.
Three players to watch
Omar Ballo, Arizona: Love is the impressive new addition, but Ballo remains the Wildcats’ ballast. The 7-foot senior averaged 14.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks last season while shooting 64.7 percent from the field. Should have more room to work in the post, American Azulas Tublis left. Don’t be surprised if Ballou is the Pac-12 Player of the Year.
Adei Mara, UCLA: 7-3 Spaniard with good footwork and passing ability, who might not be strong enough to defend in the lane? And who will play Mick Crony for what he wants? Whichever way this goes, it will be fascinating to watch.
Tristan Da Silva, Colorado: Not enough people outside of Boulder know about Da Silva, who averaged 15.9 points and nearly five rebounds last season while shooting 39.4 percent from 3. The 6-9 senior from Germany has improved each season and can. The little thing in the court.
Isaiah Collier, USC: He was the No. 1 recruit in the 2023 class for a reason. Collier is a passer with tremendous size for a point guard (he’s 6-5). A Jaylen Suggs or Lonzo Ball type of impact could have one year, but when leading scorer Boogie Ellis returns, he shouldn’t have to carry all of the load in the backcourt. With Bronie James on the mend, USC will be a team to watch this season.
Coaches who deserve to win
Mike Hopkins, Washington Jerrod Haase, Stanford
We usually limit this category to one hot seat, but the Pac-12 has several coaches who face critical situations. After a fast start in Seattle that included a 2019 league title, Hopkins went 53-69 without any postseasons. He has just two years left on his contract, and AD Jane Cohen, who hired him, left for USC this summer.
Many were surprised when Stanford chose to keep Hase; The Cardinal have not made the NCAA Tournament in seven seasons despite landing several blue-chip recruits. If Haase struggles again and legendary Stanford alum Madsen gets things going against rival Cal, that decision looks terrible in hindsight.
The final of the league is predicted
1. Arizona: “The first thing I thought after the Princeton game was we’ve got to increase our margin of error, and to me toughness is how you do that,” Lloyd said at Pac-12 media day. “If you want to be competitive in these games, sometimes you have to be able to physically control your opponent.” San Diego State transfer Keshad Johnson, a defensive tackle, needs to add some grit and grit.
2. USC: Questions linger over that extremely talented backcourt, including Yuchuk’s health and the frontcourt in general. Washington State transfer DJ Rodman – another son of an NBA legend – could be key, as well as young bigs Kejani Wright and Arinten Paige. The skill level on the roster is hard to ignore.
3. Colorado: We’re bullies on the Buffs — and it has nothing to do with Deion Sanders. Tad Boyle returns potential first-team all-league performers in Da Silva and junior point guard KJ Simpson and welcomes back five-star recruit Cody Williams, the younger brother of Oklahoma City Thunder wing Jalen Williams. Bruising TCU transfer Eddie Lumpkin Jr. is as immobile as Flatiron.
4. UCLA: This is probably a stupid sell on a Cronin-coached team, but the Bruins have seven new players, including six freshmen. Sophomore big man Adam Bona is the main tackler and Bona’s trusted (sorry) rim protector. UCLA can take some bumps in a brutal schedule, but watch out if things gel. “We have some guys with real talent,” Cronin said. “You just have to get them experience. You have to make sure you’re constantly teaching them.”
5. Oregon: The trend line hasn’t been good for Oregon and Dana Altman, who have missed the NCAA Tournament the past two years. Injuries have played a big role, so it’s not encouraging that star starting point guard Mookie Cook is out a few months after ankle surgery. Still, there’s plenty of talent in the 11th-ranked recruiting class, from veterans Nifali Dante, Carrillo Oquondo and Jermaine Quisnard. Ducks just need a little luck.
Off the court, has Oregon lost? “You have to have men who want it.”
6. Stanford: Haase hasn’t done much to inspire confidence, but at least he has a promising and experienced roster after losing Harrison Ingram to North Carolina. Leading scorer Spencer Jones returns along with four seniors who were rotation players last season. Top 25 Andrej Stojakovic – Son of Peja; Hey, we sense a theme in this league – adding some caches. Perhaps Providence transfer Jared Bynum could give some much-needed strength.
7. Washington: Hopkins could start five seniors, including former Kentucky transfers Keon Brooks Jr. and Sahvir Wheeler and Rutgers’ Paul Mulcahy. The former longtime Jim Boeheim assistant plans to move out of a 2-3 zone defense, allowing Wheeler to load the ball and 7-footer Braxton Meah, a Pac-12 all-defense honor last season, to clean up at the rim. Will that be enough to turn things around, or will the Huskies need a new coach to lead them into the Big Ten?
8. Arizona State: The Sun Devils lose four starters and nine starters and end up with a curious bunch from the transfer portal. Bobby Hurley will have a meaningful hand in this roster, which includes West Virginia transfer Jose Perez , who just arrived on October 15. Hurley has taken the team to three of the past five NCAA Tournaments, so he deserves some credit. The doubt. But it’s easy to see how things could go sideways, especially if two-time transfer Adam Miller isn’t eligible.
9. Utah: Any list of the most underrated players in the country has to include the Utes’ 7-footer Brandon Carlson, who would rank in the top 25 nationally if his usage rate were slightly higher. Craig Smith has plenty of size — 7-1 Colorado transfer Lawson Loring could start — but the guard game could be shaken if two-time transfer Devin Smith doesn’t get a waiver. Still, like its football counterpart, Utah basketball often exceeds expectations.
10. Cal: Maybe the team that won three games last season (lowering reading glasses) is full of hope. But Madsen brought in four transfers, led by Texas Tech former Pats Fardaus Aimaq and Jaylon Tyson. Madsen has had a solid career at Utah Valley, winning 48 games over the past two seasons, and looks ready for a big challenge. And make no mistake, Cal is a big challenge.
11. Oregon State: Wayne Tinkle decided to build on his freshman squad last season and an 11-win season followed. Each player hopes that the growing pains will begin to pay dividends as they return, led by point guard Jordan Pope. No team will be more consistent, but more patience may be required.
12. Washington State: Kyle Smith is the best coach in the wazoo since Tony Bennett, and taking the Cougars to back-to-back NITs wasn’t easy. But losing four starters to Portal, including Rodman and TJ Bamba, has put the program in trouble this season. On paper, this is the least impressive roster in the league, even if Smith squeezes in everything he can.
(Top photo of Omar Ballo: Christopher Hook/Getty Images)