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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

College basketball 2022-23: Tommy Lloyd story was great, but Pac-12 needs growth in the middle to get back to the top

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

Tommy Lloyd hardly saved Pac-12 basketball. But he put some of the fun back in it.

If the longtime Gonzaga assistant coach wasn’t a shocking choice when the University of Arizona was shopping for someone to move it beyond the dour death march that the Sean Miller era had evolved into, he was certainly untraditional. It’s rare that a long-established elite program like the Wildcats turns to a replacement without head-coaching experience, never mind one from outside a power conference.

But Lloyd couldn’t have been a bigger hit, which made him one of 2022’s best basketball stories. Opening up Arizona’s attack and bringing a fun and frank public profile, he led the Wildcats to a 33-4 season – the best first-year coaching performance at a power conference school in 24 years.

Still, it didn’t last as long as expected. The Wildcats – a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament – fell to fifth-seeded Houston in the Sweet 16.

So it goes in the Pac-12, where every basketball gain seems to come up shy of a true breakthrough.

It’s hardly going to get any easier. Over the summer, the college athletics gods – that is to say, TV power brokers and deceitful educrats – conspired to deliver another blow when UCLA and USC announced they were turning tail on the Pac-12 come 2024.

It was a football-based decision, of course. But it’s going to take the league’s one true basketball blueblood out of the equation, as well the second-winningest program over the past five years.

But even with the two L.A. schools still in the fold, the Pac-12 remains on the respect treadmill. The league got pretty chesty after the NCAA Tournament of 2021 – five teams in the bracket, all winning at least one game, three to the Elite Eight and one, UCLA, coming within a Jalen Suggs miracle from playing for the title. Pac-12 basketball was back, went the company line, and deserved its due.

And then … not so much.

Only Arizona, UCLA and USC made the field last year, and none made it past the Sweet 16. The Pac-12 was 8-19 against the other power leagues, including a wince-worthy 0-7 against the SEC. Oregon, with its usual assemblage of talent, never found the chemistry to get itself back into the tournament. Oregon State, everybody’s darling off its Cinderella run in 2021, imploded with dysfunction and wound up 3-28.

Will there be an upturn in 2023? It largely depends on the league’s middle class – and there’s been enough roster churn there to create more questions than answers.

Arizona Wildcats

Coach: Tommy Lloyd (33-4), 2nd year

2021-22 record: 33-4. Pac-12: 18-2, 1st

Key newcomers: Henri Veesaar (7-0, F); Courtney Ramey (6-3, G); Kylan Boswell (6-1, G)

Key losses: Bennedict Mathurin, Christian Koloko, Dalen Terry

Outlook: Tommy Lloyd’s head coaching debut – taking the Wildcats to the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament titles – may have set an impossible bar for himself, especially after three starters were lost to the NBA. But there are three new faces to help in the backcourt – top 25 freshman Kylan Boswell and transfers Courtney Ramey (Texas) and Cedric Henderson (Campbell). Oumar Ballo, the ex-Gonzaga big man, will try to thrive with starter’s minutes, but the major points up front will come from Azoulas Tubelis, an All-Pac-12 pick but not the most physical player. Estonian Henri Veesaar may have been the top get on the international market.

Arizona State Sun Devils

Coach: Bobby Hurley (160-120), 8th year at ASU

2021-22 record: 14-17. Pac-12: 10-10, 8th

Key newcomers: Desmond Cambridge (6-4, G); Warren Washington (7-0, C); Frankie Collins (6-1, G)

Key losses: Jay Heath, Marreon Jackson, Kimani Lawrence

Outlook: Coming off back-to-back losing seasons and with just two NCAA appearances in seven years, Bobby Hurley could be hearing the ticking of the clock – though the general mess of ASU’s athletics might work in his favor. Guard DJ Horne, last year’s leading scorer, returns but more critical is getting a full, productive season from 6-8 Marcus Bagley. Otherwise, it’s all about the new faces, led by Desmond Cambridge Jr., a career 16.4 scorer in four years at Brown and Nevada. Frankie Collins, a backup at Michigan, will take over the point, and another Nevada transfer, Warren Washington, will be counted on for muscle.

California Bears

Coach: Mark Fox (321-234), 4th year at Cal

2021-22 record: 12-20. Pac-12: 5-15, 10th

Key newcomers: DeJuan Clayton (6-2, G); ND Okafor (6-9, F); Devin Askew (6-3, G)

Key losses: Jordan Shepherd, Andre Kelly, Grant Anticevich

Outlook: Fifteen Pac-12 wins in three years does not suggest that Mark Fox has righted the ship, and now last year’s three top scorers have vamoosed – one of them, Andre Kelly, to UC Santa Barbara, not especially a step up. The returning starters – point guard Joel Brown and wing Jalen Celestine – aren’t likely to take over games, so help must come from three-time all-MEAC transfer DeJuan Clayton and Texas transfer Devin Askew. Seven-footer Lars Thiemann showed some promise while starting the last 11 games, and fellow bigs Kuany Kuany and Sam Alajiki need to make similar jumps.

Colorado Buffaloes

Coach: Tad Boyle (306-197), 13th year at Colorado

2021-22 record: 21-12. Pac-12: 12-8, 4th

Key newcomers: J’Vonne Hadley (6-6, G); Jalen Gabbidon (6-5, G); Ethan Wright (6-3, G)

Key losses: Jabari Walker, Evan Battey, Keeshawn Barthelemy

Outlook: The Buffaloes are the epitome of consistency – 21 wins a season in a dozen years under Tad Boyle. But there has never been a big breakout, and losing 2022’s top three scorers weighs against such a thing happening in 2023. But Boyle does have two tantalizing pieces in 6-9 Tristan da Silva and 6-2 KJ Simpson, both on the brink of stardom. For help, Boyle raided the Ivy League for guards Ethan Wright (Princeton) and Jalen Gabbidon (Yale), and found a dynamic wing in the junior college ranks in J’Vonne Hadley. Another upper-division finish seems more than reasonable.

Oregon Ducks

Coach: Dana Altman (710-368), 13th year at Oregon

2021-22 record: 20-15. Pac-12: 11-9, 5th (tie)

Key newcomers: Kel’el Ware (7-0, C); Jermane Couisnard (6-4, G); Brennan Rigsby (6-3, G); Keeshawn Barthelemy (6-2, G)

Key losses: Jacob Young, De’Vion Harmon, Eric Williams

Outlook: As well as the Ducks recruit, missing the NCAA Tournament is massive underachieving. So Dana Altman just goes out and finds more ammunition. His best sales job this time was landing Kel’el Ware, a 7-footer with lottery pick potential, but No. 2 may have been getting Will Richardson and his 14 points a game to return for a fifth year. Transfer guards Jermaine Couisnard (South Carolina) and Keeshawn Barthelemy (Colorado) come aboard as double-figure scorers, and even more backcourt firepower is available in JC imports Brennan Rigsby and Tyron Williams, who led the nation in scoring. Ware has experienced, and long, company up front in N’Faly Dante and Quincy Guerrier.

Oregon State Beavers

Coach: Wayne Tinkle (274-228), 9th year at OSU

2021-22 record: 3-28. Pac-12: 1-19, 12th

Key newcomers: Christian Wright (6-3, G); Dzmitry Ryuny (6-9, F); Justin Rochelin (6-5, G); Jayden Stevens (6-7, F)

Key losses: Jarod Lucas, Dashawn Davis, Warith Alatishe

Outlook: Under-talented and dysfunctional, the Beavers’ fall from Elite Eight Cinderella in 2021 to last year’s 3-28 was the definition of “yikes.” Alas, the under-talented part remains, at least in the context of competing in the Pac-12. Only four players return after a housecleaning, the only potential standout being 6-6 Glenn Taylor Jr., who made the all-freshman team. Three transfers all bring iffy credentials: Christian Wright was a rotation piece at Georgia, Justin Rochelin redshirted at ASU and Dzmitry Ryuny only started one season in four at San Francisco. Freshmen Tyler Bilodeau and Michael Rataj will likely be thrown into action, even if they’re not physically ready.

Stanford Cardinal

Coach: Jerod Haase (178-143), 7th year at Stanford

2021-22 record: 16-16. Pac-12: 8-12, 9th

Key newcomers: Michael Jones (6-5, G); Ryan Agarwal (6-6, G); Jaylen Thompson (6-7, F)

Key loss: Jaiden Delaire

Outlook: Long gone are the days when the Cardinal were NCAA perennials – 11 straight appearances in 1995-2005. Now their followers would settle for just going once under Jerod Haase, and maybe this is the year, given the return of four starters and a true alpha dog in 6-7 Harrison Ingram, who opted out of the NBA marketplace. Stanford opponents must keep up with the Joneses – 6-7 Spencer Jones, 2022’s leading scorer, and 6-5 Michael Jones, a 42% 3-point shooter at Davidson and the Cardinal’s first transfer in more than a decade. Michael O’Connell is one of the Pac’s most experienced point guards.

UCLA Bruins

Coach: Mick Cronin (433-201), 4th year at UCLA

2021-22 record: 27-8. Pac-12: 15-5, 2nd

Key newcomers: Amari Bailey (6-3, G); Adem Bona, (6-10, C); Dylan Andrews (6-3, G)

Key losses: Johnny Juzang, Jules Bernard, Cody Riley

Outlook: Hard to imagine that a decade has passed since the Bruins won a Pac-12 regular season title. That could well change in 2023, what with the return of one of the nation’s best guard combos – Tyger Campbell, who’s become as adept at the 3-point line as he is at distributing, and the relentless Jaime Jaquez Jr. If that wasn’t enough backcourt firepower, Amari Bailey arrives as the school’s highest rated recruit since Lonzo Ball. The question, as it has been recently, is up front where promising Mac Etienne has to bounce back from an ACL injury and depth is dubious – but not talent. Adem Bona is a five-star recruit and a McDonald’s All-American.

USC Trojans

Coach: Andy Enfield (224-146), 10th year at USC

2021-22 record: 26-8. Pac-12: 14-6, 3rd

Key newcomers: Vince Iwuchukwu (7-1, C); Tre White (6-7, G); Kijani Wright (6-9, F)

Key losses: Isaiah Mobley, Chevez Goodwin, Max Agbonkpolo

Outlook: The Trojans’ horizons clouded over suddenly on a July afternoon when five-star recruit Vince Iwuchukwu collapsed during an informal team workout – diagnosed as an episode of sudden cardiac arrest and resulting in hospitalization. The centerpiece of the nation’s No. 7 recruiting class, the 7-1 center was back riding a stationary bike when the Trojans opened workouts at the end of September, but for the time being they’ll have to carry on up front with two other prize freshmen, Kijani Wright and Iaroslave Niagu. Drew Peterson and Boogie Ellis are the established go-tos, but watch out for 6-5 wing Reese Dixon-Waters, who came on strong last February.

Utah Utes

Coach: Craig Smith (164-99), 2nd year at Utah

2021-22 record: 11-20. Pac-12: 4-16, 11th

Key newcomers: Mike Saunders Jr. (6-0, G); Gavin Baxter (6-9, F); Keba Keita (6-8, C)

Key losses: Both Gach, David Jenkins Jr.

Outlook: Craig Smith’s retooling of the Utes enters Year 2 with four starters back, led by 7-footer Branden Carlson, an all-league level center whose worth was underscored when Utah lost five straight during a 20-day absence last year. To keep opponents from ganging up on him inside, the Utes hope for a healthy year for BYU transfer Gavin Baxter and quick development by freshman Keba Keita. Two players who followed Smith from Utah State – point guard Rollie Worster and Marco Anthony – had solid transition years to the Pac-12, and the Utes hope for a similar boost from Cincinnati transfer Mike Saunders Jr.

Washington Huskies

Coach: Mike Hopkins (89-80), 6th year at UW

2021-22 record: 17-15. Pac-12: 11-9, 5th (tie)

Key newcomers: Keion Brooks (6-7, F); Noah Williams (6-5, G); Koren Johnson (6-2, G)

Key losses: Terrell Brown Jr., Emmitt Matthews Jr., Daejon Davis

Outlook: The fan base’s disillusionment with the trajectory of Mike Hopkins’ program wasn’t helped by the departure of four starters, leaving just the erratic Jamal Bey after climbing back into the first division. But some good news came on the recruiting trail, along with some drama – the transfer of Noah Williams from Washington State, where he was all too eager to snark the rival team in his hometown. He brings other baggage – his offensive game stalled at WSU – so Husky fans may prefer to pin their hopes on highly regarded freshman Koren Johnson and Keion Brooks, a double-figure scorer at Kentucky. Two 7-footers, Franck Kepnang (Oregon) and Braxton Meah (Fresno State) arrive for rim protection.

See Washington State preview, page 13