Pac-12 basketball preview: Jaime Jaquez, UCLA prepped for another Final Four run
The 2022-23 college basketball season is one day away. Come back each day this week as we break down the biggest conferences, teams and more leading up to the season. Check out our conference previews on the Big 12, ACC, Big Ten, ACC, Big East, SEC and mid-majors.
While the top of the conference is strong once again, the Pac-12 should run through Westwood this season.
Mick Cronin has one of the best Bruins teams he's had since taking over at UCLA, which could easily land them back in the Final Four. While Arizona lost several key stars from last year's title team, the Wildcats still have plenty of experience to work with. USC and Oregon will be in the mix, too — especially if UCLA or Arizona stumble late.
This is a league that should be sending multiple teams into the NCAA tournament this spring.
Here’s what you need to know about the Pac-12 this season:
Ranked Pac-12 Teams
For the full Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll, click here.
No. 8. UCLA
No. 17. Arizona
No. 21. Oregon
Others receiving votes: USC (3)
Preseason Media Poll
This poll was conducted by the Pac-12 Conference with first-place votes in parentheses.
1. UCLA (26)
2. Arizona (3)
3. Oregon (3)
5. Stanford (1)
7. Arizona State
8. Washington State
12. Oregon State
Notable national championship odds, via BetMGM (as of 11/4)
North Carolina and Gonzaga are preseason co-favorites at +900.
UCLA, Jaime Jaquez Jr. ready to return to Final Four
The Bruins should run the table in the Pac-12.
Not only are they good enough to claim a conference title, thanks to preseason All-American Jaime Jaquez Jr., but returning to the Final Four is absolutely an obtainable goal.
Jaquez averaged 13.9 points and 4.7 rebounds last season, despite battling numerous ankle injuries. Assuming he’s healthy, those numbers should skyrocket. The Bruins also have senior point guard Tyger Campbell, who put up 11.9 points with 4.3 assists during the Bruins’ Sweet 16 run last year.
“We’ve got two horses this year. We’re going to run them,” Cronin said at media day of Jaquez and Campbell. “We’re excited about this season. We’ve got five guys on our team that have played the Final Four, but we’ve got a lot of freshmen as well. …It always makes it nice when you’ve got two guys that could both win Player of the Year in the league on your team.”
Those freshmen, both five-star Rivals.com recruits, will make a big difference, too. Amari Bailey, a 6-foot-5 guard, is listed as the third-best guard in his class, and 6-foot-10 center Adem Bona was the No. 23-ranked player overall.
The Bruins will have to get past some great opponents early on, including potentially No. 5 Baylor, but this is perhaps the best team Cronin has had since arriving at UCLA.
Arizona regrouping for title defense
This Arizona team isn’t as good as last season’s. But that’s a high bar, considering the Wildcats pulled off a Pac-12 title and a No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.
While they lost significant pieces from last year’s group — including Bennedict Mathurin, who is now with the Indiana Pacers, and big man Christian Koloko, now with the Toronto Raptors — there’s still plenty of reason to think coach Tommy Lloyd can pull off a second straight title.
Arizona landed Texas transfer Courtney Ramey this past offseason, and he is more than capable of running its offense. Forward Azuolas Tubelis is back after averaging a career-high 13.9 points and 6.2 rebounds as a starter last season, and guard Kerr Kriisa, who put up 9.7 points last season, should be great in the backcourt alongside Ramey.
Seven-foot center Oumar Ballo is around to, at least try to, replace the hole Koloko left down low. Reigning Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year Pelle Larsson should move into a starting role, too.
“He’s gonna obviously have more opportunities. …We’re counting on him to be a great player on both ends of the floor because he’s an elite defender,” Lloyd said of Larsson at media day. “Offensively he continues to get more polished. I think he’s a pretty special player.”
While it’ll require getting past a very solid UCLA team, Lloyd is in great position to pull off a second straight conference title this spring.
What about Oregon, USC?
Oregon has potential to become a solid program come March. The start of the season, however, could be rough.
The Ducks will be opening their season next week without several key pieces available to them due to injuries. South Carolina guard transfer Jermaine Couisnard is out for “a while” after knee surgery earlier this week, and Brennan Rigsby, Ethan Butler and Lok Wur will all miss at least their season opener with various injuries.
Yet counting out Oregon coach Dana Altman, who has been one of the most consistent in the conference, is never a good idea. The Ducks still have guard Will Richardson, who averaged 14.1 points and shot nearly 39% from behind the arc last season, and five-star Rivals.com recruit Kel’el Ware — a 7-foot center ranked No. 7 in his class. If Altman can get his group together, the Ducks could easily find themselves back in the tournament.
USC has a great freshman class around Drew Peterson — who is coming off a career season — and Boogie Ellis, who shined after transferring in from Memphis before last season. Star freshman Vincent Iwuchukwu is still sidelined after he was hospitalized after a cardiac arrest earlier this summer, however. The 7-footer is the third-best center in his recruiting class, and would be huge for the Trojans. USC has four-star recruits Kijani Wright and Tre White coming in, too.
It might be a big of a long shot to claim the Pac-12 title, but USC coach Andy Enfield should be able to lead this Trojans team to a third straight NCAA tournament.
Notable early games
No. 23 Illinois at No. 8 UCLA * | Friday, Nov. 18
No. 3 Houston at No. 21 Oregon | Sunday, Nov. 20
No. 8 UCLA vs. No. 5 Baylor/No. 18 Virginia * | Sunday, Nov. 20