ESPN panel picks UCLA to dominate Pac-12 in preseason hoops preview
ESPN’s panel of college basketball experts was unanimous in picking the Bruins to win the league this season. They were unanimous in picking Jaime Jaquez Jr. to win the Pac-12 Player of the Year award. And they were unanimous in picking freshman guard Amari Bailey to win the Newcomer of the Year award.
In short, the ESPN crew likes UCLA to run away with the Pac-12 this season.
A panel consisting of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, Joe Lunardi, and John Gasaway all got together this week to offer a preseason preview of the Pac-12. Topics included Arizona’s encore, UCLA, coaches on the hot seat, and under-the-radar teams.
Here’s what they all had to say on the Bruins in 2022-23:
Gasaway: How fickle is this thing called college basketball? The Bruins were up three on North Carolina in the Sweet 16, with a little more than two minutes remaining. So perhaps UCLA was closer than we actually think, in reaching back-to-back Final Fours. In any event, Jaquez, Tyger Campbell and fellow returnee Jaylen Clark will say hello to national top-20 recruits Amari Bailey and Adem Bona. With Campbell handling the ball, the Bruins may crush the rest of the Pac-12 in shot volume once again in 2023.
Medcalf: Mick Cronin will be living good no matter what happens after UCLA’s Final Four (2021) and Sweet Sixteen (2022) runs. But a healthy Jaquez (13.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 2.3 APG) — who battled ankle injuries throughout 2021-22 — gives UCLA one of college basketball’s most complete players. UCLA committed turnovers on just 11.5% of its possessions with Campbell on the floor last season, per hooplens.com. Bona and Bailey are projected first-round picks. I think the secret about UCLA this year is that Cronin might have his best Bruins team. If that’s true, well, we all know he’s done more with less.
Borzello: I agree. The Bruins should be able to generate momentum more consistently, even without Johnny Juzang and Jules Bernard. Jaquez is a preseason All-American, Campbell is one of the best point guards in the country, Clark averaged 14.8 points and 6.4 rebounds during a five-game February stretch as a starter. If Bailey and Bona are indeed the game-changers they’re expected to be, UCLA is the clear Pac-12 favorite.
Lunardi: UCLA struggled to meet expectations last year in part because said expectations were unreasonable, based more upon its five 2021 NCAA tournament wins than what had been a mostly mediocre regular season. The truth figured to fall somewhere in the middle, which is exactly what happened last season. It is likely better positioned for a Final Four run in 2023. The two best players are back along with more than enough emerging talent to keep the good times going. With Arizona losing the element of surprise, I like UCLA to regain its Pac-12 crown and make a very deep NCAA run this March.
The panel’s consensus predicted order of finish in the Pac-12 this season has Arizona finishing second, Oregon third, and USC fourth.
Picking the Bruins isn’t exactly going out on an island. They’re eighth in the preseason AP poll, bolstered by Jaquez — a preseason All-American forward — and point guard Tyger Campbell. In Mick Cronin’s fourth season with the program, he’s looking to make it three straight NCAA Tournament trips and maybe even continue the year-over-year trend of improvement.
The Bruins won 19 games his first season, then 22 in 2020-21, then 27 a year ago. Improve on that number and the Bruins will likely be looking at their first conference title since the 2012-13 campaign.
The season begins on Nov. 7 at home against Sacramento State at 8:30 p.m. PT.