(Photo: Zac Pacleb/WCSN)
Leading the Pac-12 are four schools who reeled in the wins last season. All four teams posted a solid 2013-14 overall record, with Arizona clearly dominating in both overall record and conference record. Utah and Colorado hovered around 50 percent within the conference, while Arizona put up a near-perfect records and UCLA finished with twice as many conference wins as losses.
These four teams are projected to be the top prospects of the Pac-12 in 2014-15. Each team’s success will hinge upon their ability to do three things: Fill holes, ward off the equal talent that exists within this high-ranked region and adapt to those teams who have rebuilt with the potential to pose a completely new game-time strategy, all in pursuit of the high and mighty NCAA tournament berth and bid, come end of the season.
– Arizona (33-5, 15-3 in 2013-2014)
Offseason Report: Arizona’s two biggest losses over the offseason came in the form of the NBA draft. Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson went in the first and second rounds, and were picked up by Orlando and Houston respectively. In Gordon’s migration to the NBA, Arizona loses a versatile forward, its team leader and the top eighth rebounder league-wide. In Johnson, they lose much the same, as well as the league’s tenth-leading scorer, knocking down baskets that amounted to nearly 300 points last season.
The biggest pick-up for Arizona in the offseason was 6-foot-7 freshman shooting guard Stanley Johnson. Johnson comes to the team with an extensive grocery list of accolades that point to his potential to become a huge scoring fixture for the team, as well as a dominant vocal presence on the court.
Outlook: While players have moved on, the talent that remains seems somewhat consistent with the skill that made Arizona Pac-12 champions last season. Stanley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brandon Ashley will all provide enough point power to allow the Wildcats to continue their reign as No. 1 in field-goal percentage, but the loss of Gordon may cause them to fall from their leading role in rebounding.
Key Stat: +11.3 scoring margin – The Wildcats were leaps above every other team in the conference in scoring margin last season, with the next highest coming from UCLA at +6.9. This puts a little context around Arizona’s last season opposing team dominance.
Best-case: Arizona embarks on another unstoppable tirade with a fast-paced, attack-driven offense and two 7-footers, in newcomer Dusan Ristic and staple Kaleb Tarczewski to protect the rim.
Worst-case: The Wildcats rely too much on their easy, huge-point deficit-wins last season and are unable to supplement the roster with enough oomph to replace Gordon and Johnson’s star roles last season.
Bold Prediction: Arizona finishes the season atop the Pac-12 but gets upset in the Pac-12 Championship game.
– Utah (21-12, 9-9 in 2013-2014)
Offseason Report: Players were not the only focus in Utah’s offseason. The Utes secured their coach, Larry Krystkowiak, who rebuilt this Utah squad into their current powerful state. A notable pickup for Utah this offseason was 7-foot, 253-pound freshman Jakob Poeltl from Austria. Poeltl shot 75% from the field in the Bundesliga, the top domestic league in Austria.
Outlook: With the return of junior Jordan Loveridge and senior Delon Wright, Utah has an unyielding axe in both the shot and block departments. Loveridge was on the league-wide, career leaderboard of returners for the 2014-15 season for points (872), rebounds (453), three-pointers (79) and assists (141). Wright’s magic number was six, coming in sixth league-wide for returners with 174 assists, 80 steals and 42 blocks.
Key Stat: 6.72 steals per game – The Utes do a great job at maintaining possession of the ball while breaking up the opposing team’s momentum.
Best-case: Loveridge, Wright and Brandon Taylor continue to yield numbers like last year and work to integrate the new 7-footer into the squad, molding him into a threatening force inside the paint, as well as a sturdy wall at the post.
Worst-case: Utah is not able to thrive in a tougher non-conference schedule this year, including a game against Kansas. The Utes pose a threat from the charity stripe but lack in their backcourt protection.
Bold Prediction: The Utes put up a better conference record this season but they struggle to reel in the non-conference wins, causing their overall win column to suffer, capping it, at the most, with 20 wins.
– Colorado (23-12, 10-8 in 2013-2014)
Offseason Report: Colorado signed freshman Dominique Collier, a four-year letterwinner who averaged 23.4 points in his high school senior campaign. He comes to the team as a guard who could work his way onto the starting lineup aside junior Josh Scott and senior Askia Booker who have put up a career 1,208 and 810 points for the Buffaloes, second and seventh among the league-returners respectively.
Outlook: This Buffalo team is soaked in experience. The team boasts 13 letterwinners and returns almost its entire starting lineup from last season. Colorado is also an unyielding strength on its home court, only giving up nine losses in the last four years. Despite their home-court dominance, the Buffaloes struggle on the road, (going 5-6 last season) and have a smaller team size-wise (with only one player reaching 6-foot-10), putting them at a disadvantage against teams who stacked 7-foot, shot-blocking potential onto their roster over the offseason.
Key Stat: 68.2 points per game allowed – The Buffaloes are able to utilize their backcourt in the scoring endeavor, playing up their strength of speed knowing that they lack in size.
Best-case: Colorado wins more conference games this season, pulling up their overall record and allowing them to a spot in the postseason for the fifth consecutive year.
Worst-case: The height deferential and the loss of Spencer Dinwiddie, a team leader for Colorado picked up by Detroit in the NBA draft, prove too much against other opponents and the team losses on the road are detrimental to their ability to play post-season basketball.
Bold Prediction: The Buffaloes excel on offense with the addition of Collier but struggle to protect the rim, allowing a short post-season run, keeping them out of the NCAA tournament and the Pac-12 Tournament.
4) UCLA (28-9, 12-6 in 2013-2014)
Offseason Report: This top-four team had the biggest turnover in the offseason after making it to the Sweet 16 last season. The Bruins lost three of their top four leading scorers last season to the NBA draft. Zach LaVine, Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson all went in the first round. Norman Powell is among the few returnees that did damage for the Bruins last year, being named to honorable mention for All-Pac-12 Defensive Team last season. Despite the losses, UCLA brought in a recruiting class that was ranked seventh in the nation.
Outlook: The Bruins brought on 6-foot-9, 220-pound freshman forward Kevon Looney, and 7-foot freshman center Thomas Welsh, two MacDonald’s All-Americans. Looney and Welsh will aid the rebuilding initiative on defense, as five of UCLA’s eight rotation players from last season left.
Key Stat: 81.2 points per game – UCLA was second league-wide in scoring offense last season, only missing out on first place to Oregon by seven-tenths of a point.
Best-case: UCLA is able to adapt quickly, with the new players gelling as a unit from the start in order to keep their loss column in the single digits as they did last year. They finish the conference in good standing to get another try at an NCAA berth.
Worst-case: A team who was first in the Pac-12 in assists and steals last season feels the loss of the three players who got them there and can’t seem to put up the same numbers that they once had. They struggle in the non-conference schedule and weaken their chances of getting a bid for the tournament.
Bold Prediction: UCLA does not do as well as expected this year with their legion of new players who are inexperienced with college-level play and finish the season with a 22-15 record; a decent record that is not as strong as last season.
You can reach Kristina Vicario on Twitter @KristinaV_18 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org