Arizona, UCLA, and the Pac-12 hoops squads with the highest upside heading into next season
We’re talking about upside.
As far as the Pac-12 is concerned, the 2021-22 season is wrapped. Washington State was the last team in the league still playing—the Cougars lost in the NIT semis on Tuesday—which probably feels moderately disappointing to some at the league office considering the potential Arizona and UCLA both showcased this season. But don’t fret! Neither of those programs are going anywhere anytime soon, and the Pac-12 could be deeper around them next season.
So which teams have the best future potential heading into the 2022-23 season? Here are our top five.
5. Washington State Cougars
This was going to be Colorado until Keeshawn Barthelemy jumped into the transfer portal and Jabari Walker declared for the NBA Draft. The larger college basketball public should probably talk about CU head coach Tad Boyle more than it does, but he’s going to have an interesting job on his hands going into next season with a young backcourt and the need to replace his top three scorers from this season.
Instead, the fifth spot goes to the aforementioned Cougars, who went 18-13 in the regular season, won a game at the Pac-12 conference tournament, and then won three more in the NIT as a 4-seed. Transfer guards Michael Flowers and Tyrell Roberts fit in well with what head coach Kyle Smith wanted his team to do and these guys defended their butts off all season. The Cougars sit 29th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency a year after finishing 24th. The offense climbed into the top-100 thanks in large part to Flowers and Roberts, and WSU took a major step forward from the 14-13 mark it finished 2020 with.
All throughout the conference slate, Wazzu was near the top of most defensive metrics in the league and it finished with the fourth-best adjusted defensive efficiency in league play, the best forced turnover percentage (21.4%), and the best block percentage (12.1%). Offense was a challenge, as they were one of the worst shooting teams in the league, but the Cougars’ defensive strength kept them in every ball game.
Flowers is the only guy in the rotation out of eligibility. Perhaps Smith looks back to the transfer portal for another guard to take his place, but the Cougs could get by next season with a Roberts/Noah Williams/TJ Bamba/Mouhamed Gueye/Efe Abogidi lineup and be just as tough defensively. The partnership of Gueye and Abogidi in the frontcourt is what powers their outlook. Both are excellent. Gueye will only get better and Abogidi had an under-the-radar excellent season. Dishon Jackson got better late. I want to see more of Bamba. Williams had a down year in 2020 trying to adjust to a more secondary role but averaged 14 points a game and shot 38% from 3 in 2020. They’ve got the goods to remain a team no one in the league likes to see coming up on the calendar.
4. USC Trojans
“Because of the West Coast time difference, I’ve had the feeling over the last few years that some parts of the country, whether it’s the fans or the media, haven’t recognized that there are good teams in the Pac-12 and USC is one of those good teams,” head coach Andy Enfield said at the outset of the NCAA Tournament, according to The Los Angeles Times’ Ryan Kartje. USC has had lottery picks in each of the last two NBA drafts, won at least 20 games in six of the last seven seasons, and made four appearances in the tourney in Enfield’s nine years after appearing in only 32% of brackets since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
USC deserves respect as a program. Enfield deserves respect as a talent evaluator. The Trojans have the sixth-best class in the country coming to town next season, headlined by 5-star center Vince Iwuchukwu and 4-star forwards Kijani Wright and Tre White. Enfield told TrojanSports.com’s Ryan Young that both Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson will return next season. Isaiah Mobley should return, which isn’t to report he will but rather to argue he should. If a team were to draft Mobley, it’d likely be in the second round. He can help his stock by coming back.
Reese Dixon-Waters’ development will be key to track. I like his game quite a bit. He shot 46% on 50 attempted 3s this past season, but averaged more turnovers per 40 minutes than assists. Dixon-Waters flashed in the second half of USC’s loss to Miami, and he’ll need to grow more comfortable as a ball-handler going forward. USC needs a pure point to run the show, similar to what UCLA and Arizona have in Tyger Campbell and Kerr Kriisa/Dalen Terry. Mobley is wonderful to watch, one of the most skilled big men in the country, but an offense constructed around a passing big man with the collection of shooters USC possesses will have its limitations. Plus, guard play is what wins tournament games. And it’s not a given Mobley returns.
Still, this was a 26-win team that should return enough talent to remain in the league’s top four. Uneasiness at the point guard position caps the ceiling for now.
3. Oregon Ducks
Dana Altman has two of the four highest-rated 2022 recruits heading to the Pac-12 coming his way. Center Kel’el Ware (5-star, 10th overall in the 247 Composite) and point guard Dior Johnson (5-star, 23rd overall) are a nice one-two to build a class around. Ware drew a Jarrett Allen comparison at practice for the 2022 McDonald’s All-American Game, according to 247Sports, and that feels like it could be a pretty big deal for the Ducks if he can live up to it. He’s a 7-footer who moves really well for his size. The offensive potential is there, though the repertoire is raw. Ware once posted an 18-block triple-double. Like… what?
How he fits into the Oregon ecosystem will be interesting to watch. The Ducks can bring back N’Faly Dante and Franck Kepnang from this past season’s rotation. Nathan Bittle, a 5-star 7-foot center from the 2021 class, will be in the frontcourt discussion as well. How Altman chooses to work those guys into a rotation will be interesting. A twin towers lineup is certainly possible, but if Ware is the Allen to the Ducks’ Cleveland Cavs frontcourt, he needs his Evan Mobley and none of the other three big men can space the floor.
Maybe more important than what happens under the basket is what Altman does at guard. Jacob Young is moving on. Will Richardson is TBD. In all fairness, so is just about everyone else given the way Altman discussed the season when it finally came to a close. “I only want guys that want to be at Oregon and are fully invested in our program,” he said on the heels of a 20-15 campaign. “Our work ethic has to get better, whoever stays has to be all in.” The starting 2022 backcourt could very well be the new guys, as Dior Johnson and Tyrone Williams are two of the best prospects at their respective levels. Johnson has the frame to be a strong rebounder and defender, and already possesses a pro-ready offensive skillset. Williams was the highest-scoring player at the junior college level this past season, a 6-foot-5 2-guard with “anywhere on the floor” scoring potential. That duo gives Oregon exactly what it lacked this past season when Richardson went cold and then went down—off-the-dribble scoring punch. Johnson can get to where he wants with excellent body control and finishes at all three levels. Williams averaged nearly 28 points a game on 50% shooting from the field.
Does Altman find that leadership this 2021-22 Ducks squad lacked? That remains to be seen, but Altman isn’t a coach you bet against and he should have plenty of talent to work with. Expect Oregon to go into the transfer portal to supplement the roster once everyone has made their decision about next season.
2. Arizona Wildcats
Arizona had three guys finish among the Pac-12’s 10 best players in terms of PER this season. Two of them, Bennedict Mathurin and Christian Koloko, are projected first-round picks in the 2022 NBA Draft. Mathurin is the league’s Player of the Year. Koloko is the league’s Defender of the Year. That’s a tough blow for a program to absorb. There’s also the potential Dalen Terry—the exact kind of player every NBA team reaches for in the draft—could shoot up draft boards if he declares.
The Wildcats won 33 games in head coach Tommy Lloyd’s first season. For long stretches of the year, they blasted opponents. The style of play Lloyd lets his guys run is a winning brand of basketball and Lloyd should probably already be included in the category with some of the best 10 or 15 coaches in the country. Arizona is not going away, to be clear. As I see it, there are tiers in the Pac-12 right now—Arizona and UCLA are on one, USC and Oregon another, and then a pretty big gap between them and the next cluster of teams.
The difference at the top might just be that UCLA has a top-10 class with a pair of 5-stars coming in now to supplement the roster and Arizona won’t see that kind of talent infusion for another year. Lloyd has earned commitments from two of my favorite guards in the 2023 cycle, so they’re coming. He might have to look to the transfer portal this offseason, though, if more than just Mathurin jumps to the NBA.
If Koloko decides to come back, bump Arizona to No. 1. He’s one of the most impactful players in the country.
If just Terry returns, can things get turned over to him a bit more on offense? If he takes another step in his game, Arizona will again be scary. Terry’s game doesn’t get proper credit because you can only talk about so many Arizona studs before people get sick of listening. His ability to see the floor is impressive. He’s got a clutch gene to his game, hitting timely buckets often. Expect another step from Azuolas Tubelis. Pelle Larsson is another potential NBA guy depending on what happens this summer. He hit 36% of his 3s this past season; the form is such that his percentages should only go up. Oumar Ballo is a center who will make life a nightmare for just about anyone in the league if he adds even just a few moves to his offensive game this offseason.
1. UCLA Bruins
You get mixed signals about which Bruins are leaning toward coming back for another year in Westwood and which are ready to move on. UCLA could bring back any mixture of Johnny Juzang, Jaime Jaquez Jr., and Jules Bernard, or it could lose all three. The latter would be tough. Tyger Campbell’s return at point guard should keep the floor pretty high, though. He’s a calming offensive presence and a big-time playmaker when needed; the biggest influencing factor in how UCLA plays.
If Peyton Watson stays, the blow of departures on the wing could be softened. A 5-star forward from the 2021 class, Watson played just 13 minutes a night for UCLA this season. He should stay, but NBA teams have shown a willingness to overlook weird freshmen years if the tools are there. And the tools are definitely there for Watson. If UCLA can run him, Jaylen Clark, and Amari Bailey out next to Campbell and whoever Cronin taps at center, UCLA will be just as good.
Clark had a mini-breakout this season. Already an incredible defender, another offseason of work at the other end and it wouldn’t be far-fetched to think he could go from a seven-points-per-game scorer to a 12-15 ppg guy. Watson and Clark both shot sub-27% from 3 this season, so one of them is going to have to get that number up. Ideally both.
Bailey has best-in-class potential. The second-ranked prospect in the country for the 2022 class, he’s a walking bucket with excellent physical tools. Could end up being a top-5 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft if Mick Cronin lets him run a bit. Adem Bona, a 5-star center and top-20 prospect in his own right, can form a talented rotation with Myles Johnson at center, giving the Bruins a formidable backline even against some of the league’s bigger teams despite rolling with a four-out lineup.
It seems a little weird to place the team that finished the 2021-22 season second ahead of the team that finished first, but consider the top two here more 1A and 1B than anything else.