Arizona's rise to Oregon State's flop: Grading every Pac-12 team's 2021-22 season
Basketball season is done and dusted. Kansas won an entertaining national championship game to cap a wild and remarkable NCAA Tournament.
From the Pac-12’s point of view, maybe it wasn’t quite as enjoyable, though. The league only sent three teams, watched one go out in the opening round, and then its remaining representatives dropped in the Sweet 16 when both had hopes of going to a Final Four. Based on tournament results, maybe this was a disappointing season for the league. For the teams who made the tournament, though, I don’t think “disappointing” is a phrase that can be used.
On that note, let’s hand out grades for every team:
Arizona Wildcats — A
Couldn’t be anything but. Arizona was a team picked to finish in a tie for fourth in the Pac-12 prior to the season and a team numerous prognosticators guessed would be on the bubble around the time Arizona was actually wrapping up an outright regular-season Pac-12 title. Anyone who said, “It’ll take some time with a first-year head coach,” got it horribly wrong. (It happens.)
Tommy Lloyd was remarkable in his first year as the leading man, pushing all the right buttons at all the right times. He dominated the National Coach of the Year category because he was able to instill a new system of play that fully and immediately maximized the talent he had on hand, then found ways to take his team over the finish line when that system ran into some trouble. Arizona led the country in assists, posting a total of 84 more than a second-place team in Duke that played two more games than the ‘Cats. The brand of basketball was modern, enjoyable, and beautiful to watch. A first-year head coach with a collection of players making their debut in the NCAA Tournament going out in the Sweet 16 isn’t a failure. It’s a starting point upon which to build.
UCLA Bruins — B+
The Bruins had a fantastic regular season, but a disappointing postseason. How do we square those two facts? In 23 regular-season wins, UCLA beat Arizona, USC, and Colorado—teams that finished alongside the Bruins in the top four of the Pac-12—as well as Villanova. At times, the Bruins genuinely looked like one of the best teams in the country. In the Pac-12 Tournament title match, UCLA had a 12-point second-half lead and lost. In the NCAA Tournament, it labored past an admittedly tough matchup in Akron, got by Saint Mary’s, and then gave up another second-half lead to North Carolina in the Sweet 16.
It’s tough to get too worked up over losing to a team that would go on to play for the national title, but Bruin fans have to be a little sick to the stomach thinking about how the path was laid out perfectly for a trip back to the Final Four. The No. 1 seed in their region was dispatched before they could have met. The team that would have been waiting for UCLA in the Elite Eight was a Saint Peter’s team that was completely gassed. Head coach Mick Cronin’s rotations were a source of frustration for some during the postseason. UCLA’s center spot was a position of weakness a little too often. The Bruins are a deserving top-ranked team going into the 2022-23 season, but they felt like a Final Four team prior to the tourney this season and didn’t get there. UNC got hot, yes, and there’s randomness baked into the tournament, but that’s disappointing enough to drop the the letter grade.
USC Trojans — B
“A fantastic regular season, but a disappointing postseason,” is the way to characterize USC’s year as well. One could say the Trojans beat up on a weak early schedule and were exposed against the top teams they played. One could say USC is still a program that has to do more to earn respect. I say USC, with its winningest regular-season in program history and a coach that continues to re-establish the Trojan standard on the hardwood, is more than deserving of respect right now. But that becomes a harder statement to defend when you go out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and look as genuinely poor as USC looked in its first half against Miami.
The Trojans need a true point guard. That much was clear against the tougher teams on the schedule who could heat up Isaiah Mobley and Boogie Ellis. Drew Peterson is going to hit clutch shots, but the Trojans needed a guy who could carry it through halfcourt sets earlier in games so they weren’t scratching and clawing at the end. The defense was excellent early and trailed off late.
Colorado Buffaloes — B
Coach Tad Boyle’s team was tough as hell. They went 21-12 and lost more than two games in a row only one time all year. The young guards developed. The frontcourt flourished. The highlight of the year came in a home win over Arizona for Senior Day.
The lowlight came in a home loss to St. Bonaventure in the opening round of the NIT. Colorado thought it should have had more of shot at making the NCAA Tournament field than it did. The Pac-12 thought it should have gotten more than three bids. Colorado was supposed to justify those feelings in the NIT. Winning a couple of games might have done that. Losing the opener sure didn’t. Still, this was a team picked to finish sixth in the league and it earned a first-round bye to the league tournament.
Oregon Ducks — D
Picked to finish second, this Oregon team had enough talent to challenge for a Pac-12 title. Instead it lost 15 games, got bounced in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament, and had questions all year long about just how committed the team was. After the season, coach Dana Altman talked about leadership needing to be better, buy-in needing to be better, and guys who chose to come back for next season needing to be wholly committed to working.
The year was a grind. That Oregon managed 20 wins points to the raw talent available to it. A backcourt with Jacob Young and Will Richardson and De’Vion Harmon should have been a great one. Inconsistency kept that from happening. From Dec. 21 to Feb. 10, Oregon went 10-1 to put itself on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. The Ducks then lost six of eight to limp into the postseason. Most seem more than ready to turn the page toward what figures to be a promising 2022-23 season.
Washington Huskies — B-
Winning 11 games in league play after mustering only four victories the year prior feels like a huge win. Washington was picked to finish 11th and it earned the 6-seed in the league tournament. The Huskies had a 12-game improvement in the wins column year-over-year. The downside: against the top five teams in the league, UW went 2-8.
It also feels like a truly special year from guard Terrell Brown Jr. went a little to waste. A transfer from Arizona, Brown was magical with the ball. He scored 22 points a game in 36 minutes a night. He led the Pac-12 in scoring, finished fourth in assists (4.2), and finished seventh in effective field goal percentage all while carrying the largest usage rate in the league and occupying the bulk of opposing teams’ scouting reports. The pressure was on his shoulders all year and the focus was on his game all year and he produced on a nightly basis. To only get a single win at the Pac-12 tournament and nothing else is sort of tough to stomach, but this was a group that was all but written off prior to the season and coach Mike Hopkins had them fighting.
Washington State Cougars — B+
Maybe it could be an A. Maybe I’m too high on the Cougars’ season. They went 11-9 in league play after a 7-12 season the year prior, but unlike Washington, just about every loss was a bitter one. Of the team’s 15 losses, 10 of them came by two possessions or less. Their defense, one of the best in the league all year, kept them in just about every game.
The transfer backcourt of Michael Flowers and Tyrell Roberts gave coach Kyle Smith enough scoring. The frontcourt of Efe Abogidi and Mouhamed Gueye was strong. This team made it all the way to Madison Square Garden and the semis of the NIT. They were the last Pac-12 team standing when it was all said and done. That should be a springboard into next season. Smith got quite a bit out of this team.
Arizona State Sun Devils — C
The Sun Devils only have three winning records in league play in the last 12 years, but the 2020-21 squad went 7-10 and the 2021-22 squad went 10-10 against the rest of the league. Improvement, right? They were picked to finish seventh and finished eighth. They had an abysmal offense to start but then got hot and won seven of their last eight.
Arizona State had a season. There were hard stretches but some entertaining parts. The arc of Marreon Jackson’s season was an interesting storyline, as he struggled and then later turned into the player so many thought he’d be when he committed to transfer to ASU. They didn’t exceed expectations but given the way they closed, the fought back to make sure it wasn’t a complete disappointment.
Stanford Cardinal — D-
What is the plan under Jerod Haase? In six seasons at the helm, he has a winning record in conference play just once. They have yet to play in an NCAA Tournament. They have yet to enter the AP Top 25 at any point. There was a future first-round NBA Draft pick on the roster three years ago, a lottery pick on the roster two years ago, and a player in Harrison Ingram this past season who was a 5-star/top-20 player with hopes of being a top pick in this upcoming draft.
Ingram had a so-so year. He should have returned for another, and doesn’t show up in many mock drafts at all, but maybe it says more about the program that he’s willing to risk that over coming back. Spencer Jones hit everything he threw up in the Pac-12 Tournament, but he also shot 47% from the field and 38% from 3. Stanford had enough talent to win more games than it did.
California Golden Bears — D
A 9-20 squad during the 2020-21 campaign, Cal won 12 games this past season and showed a two-game improvement in league play. Modest gains. Against a top-100 schedule, the defense was better, but they got blown out a little too often. From Jan. 3 through Feb. 8, the Bears didn’t win a single game (0-10). The biggest issue remains shooting.
After shooting 38% from 3 against its conference slate during the 2015-16 season—the second-best mark in the league, per KenPom—Cal has finished no higher than ninth among league teams in 3-point percentage any year since. The Bears have been dead last in 3-point shooting each of the last two seasons. Cal is 15-43 against league opponents in coach Mark Fox’s three years. Those last two facts feel like they help explain each other.
Utah Utes — D
In the Runnin’ Utes’ first season under coach Craig Smith, they posted their worst record since 2011-12. That season, coincidentally, was also a first for a new coach and it preceded steady improvement each year over the next four. Utah won 27 games under Larry Krystkowiak in the 2015-16 season. It has been a slow decline from that point.
There were a few signs in Year 1, though, that Smith’s group was doing what was asked. He seems like the kind of coach who can reverse course. Utah played at a good tempo, worked to clean the glass and swing points at the free throw line. They were the fifth-best 3-point shooting team in the conference and the second-best from the charity stripe. Branden Carlson was good. But, like Cal, Utah suffered through a month stretch in January where it lost 10 straight games.
Oregon State Beavers — F
What’s to say that hasn’t already been said. Oof.
A year prior, the Beavers won 20 games, won the conference tournament championship, then marched to the Elite Eight at the NCAA Tournament. They won as many games in two weeks at the NCAA Tournament during the 2020-21 campaign as they did all season long in 2021-22.
To go from 20-13 to 3-28 is such a stark fall you almost can’t do anything but reserve judgment until you see what the follow-up to the disaster is. If things go haywire again, you know you have some problems. If Oregon State finds a way to stabilize, you just kind of hold that season out far away from you and plug your nose as you drop it down the garbage shoot. Ethan Thompson must have been one of the most important players in the history of college basketball.