ARIZONA BASKETBALL

What to watch for in men’s basketball for the Pac-12’s final year

Oct 26, 2023, 11:11 AM

Caleb Love, Arizona Wildcats press conference...

Caleb Love speaks for the first time as a member of the Arizona Wildcats on Wednesday, July 26, 2023. (YouTube screenshot)

(YouTube screenshot)

The Pac-12 produced one of the great dynasties in sports history and some of the best college basketball players the game has ever known.

John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins won 10 titles in 12 years with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar then Bill Walton. Reggie Miller played in the Pac-12. So did Gail Goodrich, Gary Payton, Sean Elliott and Jason Kidd.

Now, after 108 years of history and tradition, the Pac-12 could be entering its final chapter.

Ten of the conference’s schools are headed out the door next season and the remaining two are facing uncertain futures, turning the “Conference of Champions” into a conference of ashes.

“I’m incredibly sad about the breakup of the Pac-12,” said first-year California coach Mark Madsen, who played at Stanford. “In the back of my mind, I hope in 20 years we’ll be able to put it back together in some way. A lot of West Coast rivalries, even in different conferences, will still try to find a way to play each other.”

Until then, they get one more shot as conference opponents.

The Pac-12 had four teams make the 2023 NCAA Tournament and could have at least that many in this season’s bracket, if not more.

No. 12 Arizona has added key players to a solid core, including former North Carolina guard Caleb Love. No. 21 Southern California has Boogie Ellis back and one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, headlined by guard Isaiah Collier and LeBron James’ son Bronny.

UCLA may take time to jell with a roster full of new players, but Mick Cronin brought in a stellar recruiting class with an international flavor. Colorado, led by power forward Tristan da Silva, could have its most talented team in 13 seasons under coach Tad Boyle.

Arizona State is looking for its second straight NCAA Tournament under Bobby Hurley, Utah has one of the conference’s best big men in 7-footer Branden Carlson and so does Oregon with N’Faly Dante.

Washington has shown improvement the past two seasons under Mike Hopkins. Stanford has a veteran team and five-star freshman Andrej Stojakovic, whose father Peja played in the NBA.

If this is one last Pac-12 hurrah, it could be a good one.

“It probably means a little bit more to me that the league is not going to be here,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “I’ve always really liked the league. I thought it was really competitive. Even in years that people said our league was down, I don’t think it was.”

DESERT LOVE

Arizona had one of the biggest transfer splashes by adding Love.

The dynamic guard took a star turn at the 2022 NCAA Tournament, nearly singlehandedly beating rival Duke in the Final Four. Love also has been criticized for his shot selection, particularly when the Tar Heels struggled last year, so Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd will have to find a way work him into the Wildcats’ system.

“I know maybe he’s been a little bit of a lightning rod because, when you play at a place like Carolina and you’re preseason No. 1 and it doesn’t work out, there’s going to be some criticism that comes with that. He knows that,” Lloyd said. “But he’s someone that everyone in college basketball — media, fans — should be rooting for.”

BRONNY’S STATUS

Bronny James was one of the nation’s most hyped incoming freshmen, in part because of his father.

The freshman guard’s status for this season came into doubt when he went into cardiac arrest on July 24 during an offseason workout.

USC coach Andy Enfield said James is progressing well and the Trojans are hoping he can play this season.

BEAVERS AND COUGARS

While most Pac-12 teams will be heading to new conferences, Oregon State and Washington State are still trying to sort out their futures.

The Beavers had one of the more improbable Elite Eight runs under coach Wayne Tinkle in 2021, but won a combined 14 games the past two seasons.

The Cougars have been steady in four seasons under Kyle Smith, yet haven’t been able to break through to the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s sad that, as a guy that grew up mostly in the Northwest and Spokane, I never saw this coming,” Tinkle said. “It is what it is. We’ve got to find a way to deal with it, but I know this: who we are at Oregon State and Washington State could probably be painted with the same brush. We find ways to solve problems.”

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