Pac-12 expert picks, 2019-20 preview: Oregon's talented recruits, Payton Pritchard put Ducks over Arizona

Contrary to what some might have you believe, the Pac-12 has been just as underwhelming recently as its reputation suggests. Consider the following -- which is a ranking of so-called power conferences by how many teams they placed in the NCAA Tournament over the past two seasons:

  • ACC: 15
  • SEC: 15
  • Big 12: 13
  • Big Ten: 12
  • Big East: 10
  • American: 7
  • Pac-12: 6

Simply put, the Pac-12's great programs haven't been great enough, and its average programs have mostly been average (or worse). That's a terrible combination. But it should be noted that four of the best 11 recruiting classes in the country this year do belong to Pac-12 institutions, and the league has rid itself of some uninspiring coaches, which suggests better days are ahead. In fact, here's a prediction: Regardless of who wins the league -- Oregon, Arizona, Washington, Colorado or somebody else -- the Pac-12 will not be the laughingstock this season that it's been in recent seasons. There's probably not a national championship contender in the bunch. But I won't be surprised if at least five or six schools make the NCAA Tournament, and at least two or three advance to the second weekend of the three-week event.

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Oregon's Payton Pritchard is the CBS Sports Pac-12 Preseason Player of the Year. USATSI

Preseason Player of the Year: Payton Pritchard, Oregon

A league's Player of the Year is often the best player on the best team. So, with that in mind, it's easy to understand why Oregon's Payton Pritchard was the top vote-getter here. The senior is the leading returning scorer for the team picked to win the Pac-12, a 6-foot-2 guard who averaged 12.9 points, 4.6 assists and 3.9 rebounds while helping the Ducks advance to the Sweet 16 of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. He'll probably have to be statistically better than that to hold the Pac-12's postseason trophy. But with so much of Oregon's roster gone from last season, Pritchard's production is likely to go up. And if he and his teammates perform to their potential, this career 37% 3-point shooter could leave school super-decorated.

Preseason Coach of Year: Dana Altman, Oregon

Oregon lost five of the top six scorers from a 25-win team that made the 2019 Sweet Sixteen. But Dana Altman restocked the roster brilliantly via a top-five recruiting class highlighted by 5-star prospects N'Faly Dante and CJ Walker. It's why his Ducks are the pick to win the Pac-12, and why, if they do, Altman will be deserving of Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors for what would be the fourth time in an eight-year span. He's led Oregon to six of the past seven NCAA Tournaments. He should win at least 23 games this season for the ninth consecutive year and 15th time in his career.

Preseason Freshman of the Year: Isaiah Stewart, Washington

Washington is a program with rich history and great tradition -- one that's even had a player (Markelle Fultz) selected first overall in the NBA Draft. But the school has never enrolled a prospect as heralded as Isaiah Stewart -- a 6-9 center who is No. 3 in the Class of 2019, according to 247Sports composite rankings. He should be fabulous in Washington's zone and also a real option on the offensive end of the court. The player most likely to push Stewart for this award might be his teammate, Jaden McDaniels, or Arizona's Nico Mannion. But, ultimately, Stewart is the best prospect in the Pac-12 and frontrunner heading into this season.

Pac-12 predicted order of finish

1
Dana Altman did a nice job restocking the Ducks' roster this offseason by adding, among others, 5-star studs N'Faly Dante and CJ Walker. It was enough to give Oregon the fourth-best recruiting class in 2019 and push the Pac-12 favorite into the top 15 of the CBS Sports Top 25 And 1. Payton Pritchard is the leading returning player. He averaged 12.9 points per game last season for a team that took a 10-game winning streak into the Sweet 16 -- where the Ducks lost 53-49 to the eventual national champion (Virginia). Barring a surprise, Oregon will be in the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time in an eight-year span. The Ducks are good enough, on paper, to possibly challenge for the Final Four.
2
The NCAA cloud still hovering over the Wildcats' program didn't prevent Sean Miller from enrolling a top-10 recruiting class highlighted by 5-star prospects Nico Mannion and Josh Green. Losing Brandon Williams to season-ending knee surgery this offseason was an awful break because it means Chase Jeter is the only returning player who averaged at least 7.5 points per game last season. That's not ideal. But the influx of talent should have Arizona back in the NCAA Tournament after a one-year hiatus in a season that was low-lighted by the first losing conference record of Miller's 15-year career as a head coach.
3
Only one school in the country -- yes, it was Washington -- enrolled two top-10 prospects from the Class of 2019, according to 247Sports composite rankings. So it seems clear that Mike Hopkins has a roster talented enough to at least compete for back-to-back Pac-12 regular-season championships. The most heralded prospect in the celebrated recruiting class is Isaiah Stewart. But Jaden McDaniels, the younger brother of former San Diego State star Jalen McDaniels, should join Stewart in the lottery of the 2020 NBA Draft after helping the Huskies make their second straight NCAA Tournament.
4
The Buffaloes return two First-Team All-Pac-12 players in McKinley Wright and Tyler Bey, which suggests nobody in the league has better experienced top-end talent than Colorado. So keep an eye on Tad Boyle, who is entering his 10th season at the school and has a team equipped to maybe bring the school its first regular-season conference championship since 1969. But, if that's to happen, the Buffaloes will have to be better offensively. They ranked 131st in offensive efficiency last season, which is worth noting because 16 of the past 18 Pac-12 champs have had an offensive efficiency rating that ranks in the top 50 -- and none have been worse than 110th.
5
Bobby Hurley last season became the first Arizona State coach to lead the Sun Devils to consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances since Ned Wulk did it in 1980 and 1981. So Hurley's hiring, after just two years at Buffalo, has proven successful. And the former Duke All-American has a real chance to make the NCAA Tournament for a third straight year thanks to the return of Remy Martin, who averaged 12.9 points and 5.0 assists last season in a team-high 32.6 minutes per game. He's the leading returning assist-man in the Pac-12 and a possible Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate, if things break right for ASU.
6
The Trojans' monster recruiting class that's highlighted by 5-star frontcourt players Isaiah Mobley and Onyeka Okongwu will give Andy Enfield a good chance to bounce-back after a dreadful sixth year at USC in which his team closed the regular season with four straight losses. No, Evan Mobley, Isaiah's younger brother, isn't on campus yet; he's the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2020 and will be on next season's team. But the smart money still has USC taking a step forward before possibly competing for the Pac-12 title in the 2020-21 season.
7
The Bruins' coaching search to replace Steve Alford was all over the place and dumb. But it still eventually led the school to Mick Cronin, one of college basketball's most consistent winners who will likely have UCLA competing at the top of the Pac-12 again soon. That said, Cronin didn't inherit much. The top three scorers from last season's team -- Kris Wilkes, Jaylen Hands and Moses Brown -- all left school early, which leaves Prince Ali as UCLA's leading returning scorer. So a middle-of-the-pack finish seems about right. But it'll be surprising if Cronin doesn't have UCLA in the NCAA Tournament by no later than next season.
8
If you're looking for a sleeper team in the Pac-12, Oregon State might be the right place to look. The Beavers return three of the top four scorers from a team that finished 10-8 in the league last season -- among them Tres Tinkle, who averaged 20.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per game while shooting 48.3 percent from the field. The 6-8 forward is the leading returning scorer in the Pac-12 and a lock, barring injuries, to be named First Team All-Pac-12 for the third straight year. He's the key to Oregon State trying to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016.
9
The Utes finished outside of the top 60 at KenPom -- they actually finished 109th -- last season for the first time since 2013 and are now missing three of the top four scorers from that team. So even though the recruiting class is solid and headlined by Rylan Jones, last season's Gatorade Player of the Year in Utah, there's not much on paper to suggest an NCAA Tournament appearance is likely. If the Utes don't get there, that will be three straight misses and would represent an undeniable dip from where the program was under Larry Krystkowiak when Utah averaged 26.5 wins in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons that both culminated with victories in the NCAA Tournament.
10
Jerod Haase has finished eighth-or-worse in the Pac-12 in two of his three years at Stanford and will likely do so again this season. That's because he lost three of his top five scorers -- including top-35 NBA Draft pick KZ Okpala -- from last season's team that finished 15-16 and enrolled a modest recruiting class featuring zero top-100 prospects to replace them. Needless to say, such is not a recipe for success in a league like this league. So Haase will probably miss the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight season while once again winning fewer than 20 games.
11
Ernie Kent did some nice things at Oregon once upon a time. But Washington State's decision to hire him in 2014 never made much sense, and the fact that he never won more than 13 games in any season made his termination after five years appropriate, if not overdue. Insert Kyle Smith, who just won at least 20 games in three straight seasons at San Francisco and was able to become one of the few coaches recently to leave a West Coast Conference school voluntarily. He has a rebuilding job ahead of him, undeniably. But Smith has the kind of coaching chops that'll give him a chance to eventually make Washington State respectable again.
12
The Wyking Jones era went worse than even skeptics of Cal's decision to promote the assistant when Cuonzo Martin left for Missouri could've imagined. He went 5-31 in the Pac-12 in two years with the Bears. They finished alone in last place each season. So it was smart for the school to pull the plug on Jones and replace him with Mark Fox, who has never had a season anywhere as bad as either of Jones' two seasons at Cal. Nothing will get fixed overnight. But Fox provides a level of experience and confidence that'll eventually pull the Bears out of the Pac-12's cellar.

Pac-12 Expert picks

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Gary Parrish is an award-winning college basketball columnist and television analyst for CBS Sports who also hosts the highest-rated afternoon drive radio show in Memphis, where he lives with his wife... Full Bio

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