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Sports >  NCAA basketball

Pac-12 basketball outlook: Assessing the trajectory of each program headed into 2021-22

UPDATED: Fri., April 23, 2021

By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

After an unprecedented regular season and an epic postseason for the Pac-12, we’re left to wonder: What’s next?

Was the jaw-dropping, cash-minting NCAA Tournament performance a mere outlier?

Was it the launch point for a multi-year run atop the sport?

Welcome to the first installment of a multi-week Hotline series looking at the immediate future of Pac-12 basketball.

We don’t dare venture beyond the next two or three seasons — not with the sport on the brink of massive change on numerous fronts:

— Immediate eligibility for transfers, including intra-conference transfers

— Compensation for athletics through the use of their Name, Image and Likeness

— New media rights deals for the conference

In this installment, we’ll examine the trajectory for each program. Essentially, it’s our guide to fan enthusiasm levels.

For framing purposes, each team has been placed into one of five categories.

Can’t wait for next season: Excitement is surging, and wholly justified

OK, I’m paying attention: Program on the ascent, at least for now

Is this all there is?: Ceiling reached until proven otherwise

I want to care, but …: No tangible reason for optimism

Look out, belooooow: Abandon hope, all ye who care

Here we go …

Arizona

Category: OK, I’m paying attention

Comment: The NCAA hammer looms, but at least the coaching change makes Arizona interesting again, after so many years of the same old, same old with Sean Miller: Same style of play, same bunker mentality, same longing for a time gone by. (Last NCAA Tournament win: 2017.) In our view, fans should take a cautiously optimistic approach to the Tommy Lloyd hire. There’s plenty to like but one giant unknown: Can he produce A-level success at an A-level program where the roster, built on transfers and international players, could lack continuity.

Arizona State

Category: Is this all there is?

Comment: Yes, sure: COVID undermined the most anticipated ASU campaign in years, but the virus wasn’t the only reason the Sun Devils opened the season with a top-20 ranking and ended it with a sub-.500 record. There were enough issues with chemistry and execution to provide reasonable grounds for fans to wonder if the program has reached its ceiling with Bobby Hurley’s guard-centric, transfer-heavy approach. While higher than it was prior to Hurley’s arrival six years ago, the ceiling might not be nearly as high as fans would like.

Cal

Category: Look out, beloooow

Comment: Rarely does a botched coaching hire derail a program as clearly and severely as did Cal’s decision to promote Wyking Jones back in the spring of 2017. The move set in motion a stretch of misery that, when combined with the pandemic, has swallowed whole the Mark Fox era. Fox is a solid enough strategist, but recruiting is a huge challenge given the state of Cal’s facilities, the height of its admissions bar and the utter lack of momentum. The transfer portal era makes roster building more difficult for the Bears than many of their peers.

Colorado

Category: Is this all there is?

Comment: Our outlook for the Buffaloes might come as a surprise following a 23-win season in which CU reached the second round of the NCAAs. But it’s worth wondering if ’21 was the top end of CU’s potential, a one-time rise created by the stellar play of McKinley Wright, equally stellar management of the pandemic and an ideal first-round matchup (against Georgetown). In other words: There were too many years of mediocrity — of 10-8 conference records and NIT bids — to ignore. We’re not convinced. Tad Boyle’s a quality coach, but CU’s a tough gig.

Oregon

Category: Can’t wait for next season

Comment: Of course Oregon fans should be excited: As long as Dana Altman’s in charge, the Ducks possess the potential to attract elite talent, compete for Pac-12 championships and advance deep into the NCAAs. Altman’s uncanny ability to assimilate disparate pieces allows the Ducks to navigate severe personnel turnover: They can recruit one-and-dones and high-level transfers with equal ferocity, knowing that it will all coalesce by the middle of February and produce a postseason run that refuels the roster-building cycle.

Oregon State

Category: Can’t wait for next season

Comment: Enthusiasm is justifiably soaring after the Beavers produced a postseason for the ages with the Pac-12 tournament title and run to the Elite Eight as a No. 12 seed. The program has momentum and stability (in the form of Wayne Tinkle’s contract extension) at levels not seen since the Gary Payton era. There’s enough returning talent — the list starts with Warith Alatishe — to maintain the ascent. But admittedly, our categorization comes with a bit of trepidation: It’s not hard to envision a swift return to pre-March levels.

Stanford

Category: I want to care, but …

Comment: We couldn’t justify placing Stanford in the Is this all there is? category, because the program hasn’t reached the point of possessing any this under Jerod Haase: Five successive seasons without an NCAA bid or serious contention for a Pac-12 title. And yet the situation is not utterly hopeless; the program is not in free fall. As with Cal, the transfer era conflicts with the Cardinal’s admissions bar. But we don’t see a paucity of talent on the roster. Quite the opposite: Stanford has recruited well; it just doesn’t maximize the talent at hand.

UCLA

Category: Can’t wait for next season

Comment: Even if Michigan State had held that five-point lead with 90 seconds left in the First Four and sent the Bruins to their fifth consecutive loss, we would have slotted UCLA into the OK, I’m paying attention category because of broader forces (returning personnel, recruiting uptick, etc.). But pushing the No. 1 overall seed to the brink in one of the greatest games ever played requires a next-level classification. If Johnny Juzang returns, the Bruins could be No. 1 in the preseason polls. Either way, UCLA is undeniably looking a lot like UCLA.

USC

Category: OK, I’m paying attention

Comment: To the extent that USC basketball is now on the radar of USC fans, the question for Andy Enfield becomes one of maintaining that attention. We’re a tad more skeptical than 25 wins, thrashings of Kansas and Oregon and an Elite Eight run would suggest. But rarely are recruiting upturns tied so closely to the hiring of a single assistant coach. And in USC’s case, Eric Mobley has no more sons and a diminished supply of talent tucked away in his AAU back pocket. Had we seen more in the pre-Mobley era, USC’s trajectory would warrant our highest classification.

Utah

Category: OK, I’m paying attention

Comment: This short-term outlook is based not on recent success or the quality of the returning roster but, rather, on what we consider a gem of a coaching hire. Craig Smith, who worked wonders at Utah State, has enough relevant recruiting connections to counteract current attrition and quickly turn stagnation into progress. The Utes lack the margin for error of several Pac-12 peers because of the modest in-state talent. But in the right hands, they should avoid the bottom tier of the conference and make the NCAAs twice every three or four years.

Washington

Category: Look out, belooooow

Comment: The easiest call of ’em all: The Huskies have unraveled at an astounding pace after the initial success under Mike Hopkins, to the point that their 5-21 record this season stands as a benchmark for 2021-22. The program needs major overhauls in recruiting strategy, player development and game tactics. And yet, with everyone but the water boy in the transfer portal — or so it seems — we aren’t sure what the roster will look like next season as Hopkins coaches for his job. Then again, maybe a complete restart would be a good thing.

Washington State

Category: Can’t wait for next season

Comment: That’s right: Even after a 7-12 record in conference play, WSU fans should be excited about the direction of the program under Kyle Smith. The Cougars don’t have the resources or recruiting base to pivot quickly from a downturn — it will take Smith three or four years. But he clearly has an eye for talent and, as was the case with Mike Leach, a system that maximizes the personnel available to the Cougars. Everything is relative: WSU fan enthusiasm shouldn’t equal UCLA fan enthusiasm. But for what’s possible in Pullman, we see a clear upward trajectory.

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