Pac-12 Needs the Two Cs to Recover

Posted by RJ Abeytia on February 1st, 2018

The Pac-12 is struggling. About that there can be no doubt. The conference has no teams in the top 10 in the RPI and only two among the top 40 (#16 Arizona, #37 USC). Joe Lunardi’s latest edition of bracketology holds those two teams plus Arizona State in his field of 68, with only Washington landing among the first four out. Jeff Sagarin ranks the conference sixth overall with only (again) the Wildcats and Trojans cracking his top 40. Nothing amazing is going to happen in February to salvage the league this year. The question is whether there are any signs of daylight cracking through the wall of despair the league has built between it and the upcoming NCAA Tournament. First, let’s look to youth. A quick scan of the PER leaders among freshmen shows a pretty impressive group of players.

Player School
DeAndre Ayton Arizona
Kenny Wooten Washington
Romello White Arizona State
Jalen Nowell Washington
McKinley Wright IV Colorado
Donnie Tillman Utah
Justice Sueing California
Kris Wilkes UCLA
Remy Martin Arizona State
Troy Brown Oregon

 

Now, this list does not encapsulate the entirety of elite freshman talent in the Pac. Stanford alone has Daejon Davis, who has already won a Pac-12 Player of the Week award, and KZ Okpala, who despite not playing until the final non-conference game is already garnering calls to the Cardinal offices from NBA scouts. Speaking of Players of the Week, Arizona’s Dusan Ristic and Utah’s Justin Bibbins just ended a three-week stretch from the new year onward when a freshman was the conference player of the week. The most intriguing part of this list is that, aside from Ayton, there isn’t a surefire NBA lottery pick in the group. That’s not to say there isn’t NBA talent on that list or elsewhere across the league. It’s to say instead that, aside from Ayton, most of this group should be back for at least one more season. That certainly matters, because Ayton’s ongoing brilliance isn’t going to single-handedly bring the conference back to glory.

What’s missing in this conference is continuity. Washington has built a really nice young core of talent in addition to what head coach Mike Hopkins inherited. UCLA is loaded with young talent even after jettisoning three freshmen from the roster.  There will always be young talent that chooses to leave when it probably shouldn’t, but the list above is not dominated by any one school — only the Huskies and Sun Devils have more than one player on it. With eight different schools represented, that’s a nice, even dispersal of talent.

The other ‘c’ that matters is coaching. After a few years of hit-and-miss coaching situations, the league finally has a pretty good group of suits patrolling the sidelines. Bobby Hurley has driven Arizona State considerably forward this season, and he’s got two guys on the elite freshman list above. We don’t really know much about Wyking Jones in his first coaching gig at California, or Ernie Kent in what will almost certainly be his last (at least in the Pac-12) at Washington State, but Jerod Haase, Steve Alford, Andy Enfield, Sean Miller, Dana Altman and Larry Krystkowiak have all taken schools to the NCAA Tournament. Wayne Tinkle, Tad Boyle, Hurley and Hopkins all look like they have their programs headed in the right direction as well.

What the Pac-12 needs is a core group of players who are top talents but not quite one-and-done level. That’s how you build teams who annually push into the NCAA Tournament year after year. UCLA and Arizona will always get the most talent in this conference, but even they do not live in the rarefied air of Duke and Kentucky. Even the Bruins and Wildcats need returnees like Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins to remain in the hunt. UCLA predictably lost Lonzo Ball after one year in Westwood, but they also lost TJ Leaf and Ike Anigbogu, both of whom are seeing modest minutes with the Indiana Pacers. Should they have stayed in school another year?  It’s hard to tell young guys what to do with their own careers, but from the standpoint of the Bruins and the Pac-12, the answer is clear. A robust front line of returnees to go along with Aaron Holiday, Thomas Welsh, Kris Wilkes, Jalen Hands and Prince Ali would be a major threat nationally.

The Pac-12 is down — there is no doubt about that. However, the first and second-year talent across the league rates well in comparison with the talent among the five leagues above it. A resurgence as soon as next year is plausible. It’s just a matter of how many of these schools get the Two C’s that every team needs to succeed.

Richard Abeytia (40 Posts)


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