The Pac-12 finds itself in familiar territory this season, down a few rungs from the top conferences in the country but just dangerous enough to contend for a half-dozen NCAA Tournament bids.

After landing only three teams in March Madness last year, including disappointing early exits by Arizona and UCLA, optimism is high around these parts. But the big question is: Can the Pac-12 end its 25-year NCAA title drought?

We tackle that question and several other storylines to watch out for this season below.

Can Arizona run it back?

Given UCLA’s injuries in 2021-22 and a massive regression by teams like Oregon and Oregon State, it’s not altogether shocking that Arizona performed as well as it did in Tommy Lloyd’s first season. The Wildcats had talent in the backcourt and the frontcourt, on the perimeter and in the post. If it wasn’t Bennedict Mathurin it was Azuolas Tubelis. If it wasn’t Tubelis it was Kerr Kriisa or Pelle Larson or Christian Koloko or Dalen Terry. Arizona truly was loaded last season.

So much of that talent is gone: Mathurin, Koloko, Terry, and Justin Kier. Reinforcements are in town in the form of Courtney Ramey, freshman guard Kylan Boswell and Serbian freshman forward Filip Borovicanin. Oumar Ballo and Adama Bal are expected to take a step forward. Will that be enough for the Wildcats to replicate their season from a year ago?

It’ll be fascinating to see how this team’s identity reveals itself.

In a 30-point exhibition win over Western Oregon, Tubelis led the way with 19 points, but Kriisa was absent, going scoreless on 3 shots. After the game, Lloyd downplayed Kriisa’s performance, saying, “Kerr has been great. Kerr and I obviously have a great understanding of what he means to this program. And I think he’s kind of taken a little bit of a wait-and-see attitude (with others) to get themselves comfortable.”
Lloyd also downplayed 3 of 17 3-pointers and 17 turnovers.

“It’s not 40 minutes of positive things, where every possession you’re feeling great about it,” Lloyd said, according to AZ Desert Swarm’s Brian J. Pederson. “I love it when we get a little bit of adversity, because adversity and struggle are great teaching tools.”

Can Arizona State get off to a better start?

The Sun Devils weren’t just bad last year in non-conference play, they were brutal. They may have even cost other teams a shot at an NCAA Tournament bid. That’s how bad they were.

ASU went 4-6 in non-conference play, suffering losses to UC Riverside, San Francisco, and Loyola (IL). Losing to Baylor and Syracuse can be forgiven. Losing to UC Riverside can’t.

The Sun Devils’ chemistry was clearly off last year until February, when they rang off 7 wins in 8 games to finish the season.

It’s on Bobby Hurley to get non-conference chemistry course corrected from the opening jump, or he could be looking for a job next year.

Who is going to score for Cal?

Cal’s top three scorers are all gone, and it’s not like they scored much anyway. But replacing Jordan Shepherd, Grant Anticevich and Andre Kelly won’t be easy.

Considering the Bears’ top returning scorer — Jalen Celestine — scored just 7.5 points per game and is currently sidelined after offseason knee surgery, the answer is not readily apparent.

Will former Kentucky and Texas guard Devin Askew be the one to step up? Or maybe former Coppin State high scorer DeJuan Clayton?
Or will it be Joel Brown, who averaged just 4.8 points as starting point guard a year ago, or hulking German Lars Thiemann, who got valuable time at center last season but managed just 4.7 points per game?

Will Colorado avoid landmines en route to NCAA Tournament?

An early season loss to Southern Illinois dealt Colorado a blow last year. A mid-season 2-point loss at Washington was damaging to the Buffaloes’ NCAA Tournament chances. A late-season trip-up against Arizona State was the coup de grace.

A 20-12 record was not enough for Colorado to earn a March Madness berth a year ago, and Tad Boyle has to be kicking himself for falling short. With an early matchup against a talented Tennessee squad, the Buffaloes have the chance to bolster their early resume.

But can they stay consistent enough throughout the year to make a strong case?

How will Oregon regain its mojo?

The Dana Altman-led Ducks didn’t look much like themselves last season, finishing with 20 wins — the lowest during the Altman Era — and 15 losses, the most since his first season in 2010-11.

For a program that scaled new heights under Altman, advancing to the Elite Eight in 2016 and the Final Four a year later, the season was a big disappointment. This is a program that had gone to the Sweet 16 5 times in the previous 8 seasons.

Oregon had 4 players score in double-figures last year, but no true go-to-guy. This year, they’re hoping Will Richardson takes the role after leading the team with 14.1 points per game last year. Former Syracuse All-ACC third-team pick Quincy Guerrier could take a big step, and South Carolina transfer Jermaine Couisnard will be key for the Ducks.

If any of them average closer to 18 points than 14, Oregon should find itself back in the Tourney.

Can Oregon State bounce back?

If the Ducks regressed last season, the Beavers turned back into toddlers last year, going 3-28 after finishing 20-13 the year prior and advancing to the Elite Eight. Wayne Tinkle didn’t forget how to coach overnight, but he called into question some major chemistry and buy-in efforts last year.

After an absolute deluge of talent exited the program, including Warith Alatishe, and the loss of former Georgia guard Christian Wright to a knee injury, it’s fair to ask just how realistic it is that Oregon State rebounds from the depths.

Can Spencer Jones and Harrison Ingram help Stanford out of its funk?

With a pair of potential all-conference players, the excuses are over for Jerod Haase. The Cardinal head coach has had a half-dozen years to figure it out on the Farm, yet Stanford has just one 20-win season — 2020, when the NCAA Tournament was canceled. The Cardinal have not been able to get over the hump in conference play.

After going 11-7 in Pac-12 play in 2017-18, Stanford has gone 8-10, 9-9, 10-10, and 8-12 last year, its worst mark since 2016-17.

In Jones and Ingram, though, the Cardinal have two preseason all-league first-team members. Only UCLA can say that, as well.

It’ll be on those two to carry Stanford through a non-conference schedule that includes Wisconsin, San Diego State, Texas, and Loyola Chicago. If the Cardinal can win 2 of those 4 and finish above .500 in conference play, an NCAA Tournament bid is realistic.

Can UCLA’s freshmen mature in a hurry?

It has been years since UCLA has brought in top-line talent like it did this year in 5-star combo guard Amari Bailey and Nigerian-Turkish 5-star center Adem Bona. The journey of their development will be the crucial story for Mick Cronin and Co. in 2022-23.

The Bruins boast some known quantities in Tyger Campbell, Jaime Jaquez Jr., and Jaylen Clark, though their roles will certainly evolve this year, Campbell’s in particular. Cronin said he wants Campbell to morph into Steph Mode, and he lived up to the billing in the team’s exhibition win over Concordia, scoring 25 points to match Jaquez.

If UCLA gets that kind of production out of its two senior stalwarts, the play of the freshmen won’t be quite so significant. At least on the offensive side of the ball. Defensively, if the Bruins are to reach their now-lofty expectations, the kiddos are going to have to come along quickly.

Will Vincent Iwuchukwu be able to play for USC?

USC once again had a successful signing day, reeling in a 5-star big man for the fourth straight class.

But the Trojans optimism turned to concern in July, when 7-foot center Vincent Iwuchukwu suffered what he later described as a cardiac arrest. The news, which wasn’t reported until late September, has dire consequences for USC and will dominate their coverage all year.

First and foremost, you feel for the kid. The 24th-ranked recruit in the country, Iwuchukwu was on a sideline bike for much of his freshman summer, and he’ll probably be under a microscope for the rest of his career.

For the Trojans, Iwuchukwu was expected to make an immediate impact with both Chevez Goodwin and Isaiah Mobley exiting the team. His absence leaves a gaping hole in the post for USC, which has improved from 16 to 22 to 25 to 26 wins over the last four seasons. Andy Enfield has something nice going, but he’s going to need all the help he can get.

Is Branden Carlson enough to help Utes fatten up early?

Aside from a December 1 early Pac-12 showdown with Arizona, Utah’s early season schedule is among the most manageable in college basketball.

Long Island University? Cal State Bakersfield? St. Thomas-Minnesota? Jacksonville State?

The Utes need to pounce early to build any momentum heading into Pac-12 play at the end of the season. But they don’t have a ton of top-end talent aside from all-Pac-12 preseason first-team pick Branden Carlson. Carlson led the team in scoring last season at 13.6 points per game, but he’ll need to vastly improve that to carry the Utes. If his volume goes up but his 51 percent field-goal shooting stays the same, Utah won’t be a pushover.

After big turnaround, can Washington maintain momentum?

After winning conference Coach of the Year honors in his first season at the helm of Washington, Mike Hopkins has experienced the flip side of that success over the last three years, hitting rock-bottom in a 5-21 campaign in 2020-21.

The Huskies bounced back to finish over .500 last year at 17-15 overall, a 12-win turnaround that deserves praise. That praise will be faint if Washington fails to capitalize on that momentum, however.

It’ll be difficult for the Huskies to do that without the services of Terrell Brown Jr. and Emmitt Matthews Jr., who left for West Virginia. Jamal Bey is going to have to take the leap for Washington.

Will Mouhamed Gueye live up to his preseason billing?

A five-time Pac-12 Freshman of the Week last year, the Washington State forward averaged 8.8 points in conference play last year, second among conference freshmen.

The former No. 34 recruit in the country, we saw Gueye at his best on Feb. 23 last year, connecting on 11-of-23 shots for 25 points with 5 rebounds.

Five days later, Gueye went 7-for-7 from the field for 19 points against Oregon State.

Between Gueye and T.J. Bamba, the Cougars have some talent. If Kyle Smith finds the right rotation, Washington State could contend for a March Madness bid.

Can the Pac-12 get more than 3 teams in the NCAA Tournament?

It wasn’t so long ago — six years to be exact — when the Pac-12 was more than an afterthought on Selection Sunday. In the halcyon days of 2016, the conference boasted 7 NCAA Tournament bids, tied with the ACC, Big 12, and Big Ten for the most in the country.

That was the high point of a half-decade of sustained conference success, as the league had no fewer than 4 March Madness berths every season from 2013-2017.  Since then, the conference has managed 3 bids in 2018, 2019, and last season, with 5 bids during the magical Madness of 2021, when three Pac-12 squads advanced to the Elite 8.

Those are not the kind of numbers that the Pac-12’s braintrust aspires to or expects. The league’s head honchos consider it one of the flagship basketball conferences in the country. Three bids do not add up to that.

It can be argued that there are few conferences with three teams as regularly competitive as Arizona, UCLA, and Oregon.

But leagues are judged by their 23-, 24- and 25-win teams, not by their 29-, 30- and 31-win teams.

The Pac-12 has too often watched as its 2nd and 3rd tiers have been among the Power 6’s worst. The question is: can Stanford, Colorado, and Arizona State perform well enough in non-conference play to contend for NCAA Tournament berths?

Is there an All-American in the group?

The Pac-12 has placed one player on either the NCAA consensus all-American first team or second team in each of the last 3 years. Before there was Mathurin, a 2nd-team selection last year, there was USC’s Evan Mobley, a 2nd-teamer a year before. Before Mobley, Payton Pritchard was a 1st-team pick for Oregon in 2019.

Who are the likeliest candidates this year?

Arizona’s Tubelis is a contender, as are UCLA’s Campbell and Jaquez. A host of talented freshmen could certainly bake sooner than expected.

But it doesn’t feel like there’s a sure-shot ready to be coronated.

Is this the year?

We’re just going to keep asking this again and again and again until the Pac-12’s quarter-century of misery finally ends.

Much hullabaloo is made over UCLA’s 10 championships in 11 years from 1964-75, but historians typically overlook the fact that the presently constituted Pac-12 claimed NCAA men’s basketball titles in 1939 (Oregon), 1942 (Stanford), 1944 (Utah) and 1959 (Cal). So it’s not like the mountaintop has been reserved for just one Pac-12 team.

But perhaps even more stark than the title drought is the fact that no Pac-12 team has made it to the championship game since UCLA in 2006. In the decade in between Arizona’s 1997 NCAA title and the Bruins’ runner-up finish against the Florida Gators in 2006, Utah (1998) and Arizona (2001) also fell in title games.

And it’s not like the league is putting a ton of teams into the Final Four either — since UCLA appeared in the 3rd of its 3 straight in 2008, just Oregon in 2017 and the Bruins in 2021 have made it that far.