Back the Pac: Next season’s Pac-12 hoops garners excitement

Matthew Andrade's column "Back the Pac" covers all things Pac-12.

The Pac-12 basketball season left a lot to be desired.

Next season will be better. It has to be, right? Sending three teams to the NCAA Tournament is nothing. Imagining the conference sending even fewer teams next season is incomprehensible.

The only way to go is up. But, the conference has a bit of work to do before it’s competitive with the other Power Six conferences.

The Pac-12 is fighting somewhat of an uphill battle this offseason with some of the conference’s top names moving on to the NBA. 

Washington graduate guard Terrell Brown Jr., Arizona sophomore guard Bennedict Mathurin and Colorado senior forward Evan Battey are some of the players whose departures to the NBA will drastically impact their respective teams.

Some teams will have a lot of pieces to replace. USC will potentially be without four of its starters from this season and UCLA will lose Johnny Juzang and veteran forward Cody Riley plus potentially Jules Bernard to the NBA Draft. 

So, with all of these departures from an already disappointing Pac-12 season, how is the Pac-12 looking up for next year?

The answer: recruiting and experience.

USC and UCLA are both in the 247Sports top 10 for the 2022 recruiting class. The Bruins are bringing in the No. 2 player in the entire class in Sierra Canyon guard Amari Bailey. 

This is important because UCLA’s freshmen didn’t make as much of an impact last season as expected. Now, the Bruins have first-year players who can and should make that immediate impact. The Los Angeles teams aren’t rebuilding, they’re reloading.

Oregon is also No. 18 in the recruiting rankings. That should be good enough for the Ducks to move up from narrowly missing the NCAA Tournament to securing a spot in next year’s bracket.

The obvious team not mentioned at the top of the conference’s recruiting is Arizona. The Wildcats are due for a slight step back next season and that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the conference. 

Following up a season as a No. 1 seed won’t be easy especially without a stellar recruiting class, but Arizona Head Coach Tommy Lloyd built this season’s dream team out of a roster many didn’t expect much from. With one year under his belt, who’s to say he can’t do it again?

Those four teams (USC, UCLA, Oregon and Arizona) making the NCAA Tournament would already be an improvement from last season. It’s not hard to picture Colorado, Washington State or another Pac-12 dark horse making the cut for March Madness as well. 

In terms of experience, a few teams will take a step up next season with just their current roster having another year under their belt.

Oregon had a rough 2021-22 season but senior guard Will Richardson returning for another season is crucial to the team’s development. Richardson missed several games down the stretch and will have a lot to prove entering his fourth year.

In the possible event that the upcoming Pac-12 season ends with as many teams in March Madness as this past season, the conference needs major upheaval. The gap between the Pac-12 and mid-major conferences will shrink to dangerously small levels.

Even in a down year for the ACC, the conference sent five teams to the Big Dance. The Pac-12 can only hope to get to that number at the conference’s peak. That’s an unsettling thought and goes to show where the conference is in the national landscape.

The Pac can get to where it wants to be. It can come as soon as next season. But with how top-heavy the conference is, the middling Pac-12 teams will need a major step up to shift the country’s opinion on the once proud basketball conference.

We’ll see, in time, whether the conference is able to. For my money, the Pac-12 will take that step. But nothing is ever certain in the so-called Conference of Champions.

Matthew Andrade is a sophomore providing analysis on Pac-12 basketball in all its glory. His column, “Back the Pac,” runs every other Friday.