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Pac-12 preview: Departing schools can enjoy one last trip to Pullman. Next year, travel will really take its toll.

Arizona Wildcats forward Oumar Ballo, a Gonzaga transfer, gestures after teammate Pelle Larsson hit a 3-pointer against the Arizona State Sun Devils in the semifinal of the Pac-12 tournament on March 10 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.  (Getty Images)
By John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

Welcome to the Collateral Damage Conference.

Realignment – a polite word that encompasses the money grabbing and duplicity that courses through the veins of college educrats – is breaking up the old gang that is the Pac-12, as you know from your required reading on lawsuits, injunctions, restraining orders and commissioner George Kliavkoff’s emails.

It’s football-driven insanity, this business of coastal big shots desperate to play on Eastern and Central time. But it’s basketball – and the so-called Olympic sports – that will really have to pick up the travel tab, not to mention the loss of class time, the semblance of a college lifestyle and the tradition of actual regional rivalries.

But the old normal does get one more go-round this winter before the Pac-12 becomes the Pac-2, and Washington State and Oregon State wind up playing a best-of-seven in Las Vegas or something.

So get ready for UCLA’s last visit to Friel Court. For the most acrimonious WSU-Washington games ever. For the teams looking at future road trips to Morgantown, Piscataway and Blacksburg and realizing, hey, Pullman doesn’t look so remote, after all.

The revival of Pac-12 football on the field this fall has managed to wrestle some of the attention away from the backroom and courtroom drama. The same could happen on the hardwood, given the number of all-league caliber players returning and the top end’s success in the recruiting/portal markets. Half of last year’s All-Pac-12 first team players return and nine of the nation’s top 50 freshmen have made their way to Pac-12 teams. Five teams cracked ESPN’s recruiting top 20.

For those inclined to mourn losses on the local front, there’s fodder there, too. Oumar Ballo, whose career seem stalled before it got started at Gonzaga a few years back, has blossomed after following coach Tommy Lloyd to Arizona and returns as an all-league player. And DJ Rodman, whose Senior Night announcement that he would play one more year at WSU even lifted coach Kyle Smith off his feet, changed course a month later and transferred to USC.

The Trojans’ crop of newcomers – including LeBron James’ son Bronny, if he’s cleared after a summer heart episode – will help them challenge favorite Arizona for the title, but it could get crowded with Colorado, UCLA and Oregon all having aspirations. For the rest of the Northwest, it could be a challenging year.

But no more so than the next one.

Arizona Wildcats

Coach: Tommy Lloyd (61-11), third year at Arizona

2022-23 record: 28-7. Pac-12: 14-6, second (tie)

Key newcomers: Caleb Love (6-4, G); Jaden Bradley (6-3, G); Keshad Johnson (6-7, F)

Key losses: Azuolas Tubelis, Kerr Kriisa, Courtney Ramey

Outlook: Tommy Lloyd embraced the burden of expectation as an assistant at Gonzaga, but life as a head coach is new ballgame – as he discovered when the Pac-12 tournament champs were bounced by Princeton in the first round of the NCAAs. His challenge is to mix in some toughness and defense with the Zag-style firepower. Gonzaga refugee Oumar Ballo, the lone returning starter, has blossomed in the post, but Lloyd has reloaded with two transfers – Caleb Love and Keshad Johnson – who have played in NCAA title games. Soph Kylan Boswell and Alabama transfer Jaden Bradley add more backcourt siccum. Now, how much can Lloyd get from 7-footers Dylan Anderson and Henry Visser?

Arizona State Sun Devils

Coach: Bobby Hurley (183-133), ninth year at ASU

2022-23 record: 23-13. Pac-12: 11-9, fifth (tie)

Key newcomers: Adam Miller (6-3, G); Malachi Davis (6-4, G); Bryant Selebangue (6-8, F)

Key losses: Desmond Cambridge Jr., DJ Horne, Warren Washington

Outlook: After two pretty nondescript seasons, Bobby Hurley got the Devils back in the NCAA Tournament – by a thread – and even won a First Four game. And then came the inevitable roster churn, which brings five transfers via the portal and two more via JC. Pulling it all together will be Frankie Collins, one of the Pac’s top playmakers despite being snubbed for any preseason accolades. LSU transfer Adam Miller is a shotmaker and not shy, nor are Brycen Long (Houston Baptist) or JC bomber Malachi Davis. Another LSU transfer, 7-foot Shawn Phillips, will have to make an impact on an unproven front line.

California Bears

Coach: Mark Madsen (70-51), first year at Cal

2022-23 record: 3-29. Pac-12: 2-18, 10th

Key newcomers: Fardaws Aimaq (6-11, F); Keonte Kennedy (6-5, G); Jalen Cone (5-11, G)

Key losses: Lars Thiemann, Kuany Kuany

Outlook: A Stanford guy coaching at Cal? The fan base dealt with it during the Mike Montgomery years, and really they won’t much care as long as it isn’t Mark Fox, who staggered to a 3-29 coda. Replacement Mark Madsen’s first move was to reconnect with Fardaws Aimaq, his WAC Player of the Year at Utah Valley, and a fix for what ails one of the worst rebounding teams in America. More help arrives in the backcourt in Keonte Kennedy (Memphis). There’s even one in-house asset in Devin Askew, a 15-point-a-game scorer before injury took him down.

Colorado Buffaloes

Coach: Tad Boyle (324-214), 14th year at Colorado

2022-23 record: 18-17. Pac-12: 8-12, eighth (tie)

Key newcomers: Cody Williams (6-8, F); Eddie Lampkin (6-11, C); Courtney Anderson Jr. (6-5, G)

Key losses: Nique Clifford, Lawson Loverging

Outlook: It starts with the best returning scoring combo in the league, 6-9 Tristan da Silva and 6-2 KJ Simpson, both multi-dimensional talents. But it doesn’t end there. The Buffs return three other part-time starters in the backcourt in J’Vonne Hadley, Luke O’Brien and Julian Hammond III, and landed a five-star talent inside in Cody Williams, who picked CU over Arizona and USC. Mix in Colorado’s always reliable defense and the Buffs have the stuff to be in the title hunt, especially if TCU transfer Eddie Lampkin Jr. and 6-10 freshman Assane Diop come through up front.

Oregon Ducks

Coach: Dana Altman (731-383), 14th year at Oregon

2022-23 record: 21-15. Pac-12: 12-8, fourth

Key newcomers: Jackson Shelstead (6-0, G); Mookie Cook (6-7, F); Kwame Evans (6-9, F)

Key losses: Will Richardson, Quincy Guerrier, Rivaldo Soares

Outlook: The bad chemistry of 2022 evolved into the bad injury luck of 2023 for Dana Altman, as two years running now the Ducks haven’t made the NCAAs. That should change thanks to a mix of high-end veterans – center N’Faly Dante should be a POY candidate – and outstanding freshmen like Mookie Cook and Jackson Shelstead, who could move in ahead of the holdovers at the point. But the depth of firepower is what’s eye-popping with sharpshooting newcomers Kario Oquendo (Georgia), Jesse Zarzuela (CMU) and juco import Jadrian Tracey. Top 20 recruit Kwame Evans should make his mark inside, too.

Oregon State Beavers

Coach: Wayne Tinkle (285-249), 10th year at San Diego

2022-23 record: 11-21. Pac-12: 5-15, 11th

Key newcomers: Thomas Ndong (6-10, F); Gavin Marrs (7-0, F)

Key losses: Glenn Taylor Jr., Dzmitry Ryuny

Outlook: Ice cubes in the Sahara last longer than the high did from OSU’s magical Elite Eight run in 2021, which has been followed by 49 losses. The vibe didn’t improve much in the off-season when Wayne Tinkle’s top recruit, Southern Idaho scorer Nate Meithof, tore an ACL which will cost him this season. That puts more weight on last year’s freshman revelation, guard Jordan Pope, who made 60 3-pointers. There are other youngsters with promise – Tyler Bilodeau and Michael Rataj, both 6-9, and big newcomers Thomas Ndong and Gavin Marrs. There’s not much depth at guard, however.

Stanford Cardinal

Coach: Jerod Haase (192-162), eighth year at Stanford

2022-23 record: 14-19. Pac-12: 7-13, 10th

Key newcomers: Andrej Stojakovic (6-7, G); Jared Bynum (5-10, G); Jaylen Thompson (6-8, F)

Key losses: Harrison Ingram, Michael O’Connell

Outlook: Now more than a decade removed from the school’s last March Madness, Stanford sticking with Jarod Haase remains a bit of a surprise. Or not. The Cardinal could push their way into the first division behind a veteran group that includes three rangy returning starters – 6-7 Spencer Jones (on his way to the school’s 3-point record), 6-8 Brandon Angel and 7-1 Maxime Reynaud. To run the show, Haase brought in Providence transfer Jared Bynum, and landed five-star freshman Andrej Stojakovic – son of former NBA all-star Peja. Davidson transfer Michael Jones gets himself to the line and will bolster the backcourt.

UCLA Bruins

Coach: Mick Cronin (464-207), fifth year at UCLA

2022-23 record: 31-6. Pac-12: 18-2, first

Key newcomers: Jan Vide (6-6, G); Brandon Williams (6-7, F); Lazar Stefanovic (6-7, G)

Key losses: Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell, Jaylen Clark, Amari Bailey

Outlook: Two of the last three UCLA seasons have ended at the hands of Gonzaga with a similar cast of characters. Now Mick Cronin returns but one starter – 6-10 standout Adem Bona – and yet the roster still looks loaded. Real Madrid star Jan Vide leads a strong incoming group that includes Utah transfer Lazar Stefanovic, four-star freshman Brandon Williams and 7-3 giant Aday Mara. Tyger Campbell’s successor at the point looks to be Dylan Andrews, who saw little time as an apprentice last year but was a top-50 recruit. Another top-100 talent, Devin Williams, adds even more size.

USC Trojans

Coach: Andy Enfield (246-157), 11th year at USC

2022-23 record: 22-11. Pac-12: 14-6, second (tie)

Key newcomers: Isaiah Collier (6-4, G); Bronny James (6-3, G); DJ Rodman (6-6, F)

Key losses: Drew Peterson, Tre White, Reese Dixon-Waters

Outlook: The Trojans have averaged 14 Pac-12 wins over the last three seasons en route to NCAA appearances, and this looks like the year for more. Behind player of the year frontrunner Boogie Ellis, the Trojans are deeper and more talented than ever. One reason is the nation’s consensus No. 1 recruit, Isaiah Collier, who will take on some of the playmaking burden. The rest of country’s No. 4 recruiting class includes LeBron James’ son Bronny – whose cardiac arrest episode in the summer leaves him a question mark. Joshua Morgan and Kobe Johnson are defensive stoppers inside and out, and WSU transfer DJ Rodman can do a little bit of everything.

Utah Utes

Coach: Craig Smith (181-114), third year at Utah

2022-23 record: 17-15. Pac-12: 10-10, seventh (tie)

Key newcomers: Jake Wahlin (6-10, F); Deivon Smith (6-1, G); Hunter Erickson (6-3, G)

Key losses: Lazar Stefanovic, Marco Anthony

Outlook: Hard to think the Utes won’t continue their climb back to respectability – and maybe more – given that four starters return, most notably 7-footer Branden Carlson, one of the Pac’s top scorers, rebounders and shot blockers. He’s not the only option up front, what with Ben Carlson (no relation) a returning starter and Colorado transfer Lawson Lovering adding a shot-blocking element. Starting guards Rollie Worster and Gabe Madsen aren’t about flash, but they are productive, and there’s quality relief coming in JC transfer Hunter Erickson and four-star freshman Deivon Smith. Still, the first division will be tough to crack.

Washington Huskies

Coach: Mike Hopkins (105-96), seventh year at UW

2022-23 record: 16-16. Pac-12: 8-12, eighth (tie)

Key newcomers: Wesley Yates III (6-4, G); Moses Wood (6-8, F); Sahvir Wheeler (5-9, G)

Key losses: Keyon Menifield, Cole Bajema, Jamal Bey

Outlook: Is it football’s success that’s providing cover for Mike Hopkins on Montlake? The Huskies have been spinning their wheels for four years and the depth of competition in the Pac suggests more of the same. They do have one of the league’s more explosive talents in slashing Keion Brooks Jr. and an elite rim protector in Braxton Meah, but what else? Well, top recruit Wesley Yates III is an elite scorer and there are six Division I transfers incoming, led by point guards Sahvir Wheeler (Kentucky) and Paul Mulcahy (Rutgers) and wing shooter Moses Wood (Portland). It wouldn’t hurt to get a full year out of 6-11 Franck Kepnang, who played just nine games before a knee injury.

See Washington State preview, page 13