The Pac-12 made a loud resurgence onto the national scene during the 2021 NCAA Tournament by sending three teams to the Elite Eight, including No. 11 seed UCLA, which advanced from the First Four to the Final Four. Now, as the 2021-22 season dawns, the Bruins have swapped out their underdog status for a No. 2 national ranking and expectations of an outright league title.
While UCLA is expected to be the standard bearer for the league in 2021-22, there is hope the Pac-12 as a whole can sustain the momentum it generated in the NCAA Tournament. The league sent just three teams to the Big Dance in 2018 and 2019 but showed its potential last season as all five of its NCAA Tournament teams won at least one game in the event.
Oregon and USC should be solid again after reaching the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, respectively, last season. Oregon State also brings back several key players from a surprising Elite Eight run and looks capable of reaching another NCAA Tournament. But there are also mysteries on many of the league's rosters as every program other than UCLA must replace its leading scorer. Let's dive in and being to unpack what's in store for the Pac-12.
CBS Sports Pac-12 Preseason Player of the Year
Johnny Juzang, UCLA
Juzang transferred back home to California after playing sparingly at Kentucky as a freshman in 2019-20, and he certainly won the breakup with the Wildcats. While UK struggled last season, Juzang thrived and led the Bruins to the Final Four. He averaged a stunning 22.8 points per game during the NCAA Tournament and turned down the NBA Draft to return for more. UCLA has so much talent that it would be surprising if Juzang improves on last season's average of 16 points per game, but there's little doubt about who will have the ball in clutch moments for the league's consensus favorite.
CBS Sports Pac-12 Preseason Coach of the Year
Mick Cronin, UCLA
Cronin has done his best work late in the season during his first two years on the job after arriving from Cincinnati for the 2019-20 season following a wild UCLA coaching search. He wasn't the Bruins' first choice, but it's clear now that he is the man for the job. He managed to keep the roster in tact upon arrival and has done so again following last season's special Final Four run. We'll see how the Bruins fare as the hunted team for the first time under his direction, but everything he's done so far suggests he'll have the Bruins ready to shine in the national spotlight.
CBS Sports Pac-12 Preseason Freshman of the Year
Peyton Watson, UCLA
Given the talent the Bruins return, Watson may not be required to carry a heavy load early. But the 6-foot-8 small forward brings a unique element of length and versatility to the wing for UCLA and could prove hard to keep away from a featured role. His potential defensive versatility should give coach Mick Cronin some lineup flexibility.
CBS Sports Pac-12 predicted order of finish
The consensus order as voted by our experts with how they voted below
|UCLA has only added pieces to the group that made an improbable Final Four run. Transfer center Myles Johnson from Rutgers blocked 2.4 shots per game in just 24.7 minutes for the Scarlet Knights last season and will bring an element of rim protection that the Bruins lacked last season. Peyton Watson, a five-star freshman wing, will add depth and versatility on the perimeter. Combine them with five returning players who averaged 10 points or more -- NCAA Tournament stars Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez are the most notable -- and you get what is clearly the deepest and most-talented roster in the Pac-12.|
|It's another year and another group of talented incoming transfers for 12th-year coach Dana Altman, who made the Elite Eight last season with two transfers and a JUCO player as the leading scorers. That trio is gone, but roster turnover is an annual tradition for Oregon, and the incoming group of Jacob Young (Rutgers), Quincy Guerrier (Syracuse) and De'Vion Harmon (Oklahoma) each averaged double figures for NCAA Tournament teams last season. They will combine with proven producers Will Richardson and Eric Williams Jr. to form the nucleus. Five-star freshman center Nathan Bittle and former five-star center N'Faly Dante are wild cards -- Dante will be out with a knee injury to begin the season -- but if they can help out, this team could make another deep NCAA Tournament run.|
|USC loses the Pac-12 Player of the Year in Evan Mobley, who doubled as the league's defensive player of the year after averaging 2.9 blocks in addition to his 16.4 points and 8.7 rebounds. With he and top guard Tahj Eaddy gone, there are some holes to fill from an Elite Eight team. But this isn't a total rebuild for ninth-year coach Andy Enfield. Six players who started at least one game for the Trojans last season are back, including preseason Pac-12 first-team member Isaiah Mobley. It's hard to imagine USC being as dominant defensively this season, but with so many producers back and former Memphis guard Boogie Ellis transferring in, the drop-off shouldn't be too steep.|
|Departed coach Sean Miller left behind some decent players for longtime Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd, who is bringing in a batch of transfers to round out a young but promising roster. Pac-12 All-Freshman honorees Bennedict Mathurin, a 6-foot-7 wing, and 6-foot-11 post player Azuolas Tubelis both averaged double figures last season and should be the leading scorers. Finding a true point guard might be Lloyd's toughest challenge. Estonian prospect Kerr Kriisa played well upon getting eligible in February of last season but remains green. Utah transfer Pelle Larsson flashed some distributing ability for the Utes last season while proving to be an effective outside shooter. But he also struggled with turnovers. If The Wildcats can find their facilitator, they can make noise in the Pac-12.|
|The darlings of the 2021 NCAA Tournament lose star guard Ethan Thompson, but they return several key players from their remarkable Elite Eight run. The senior class looks strong, with front court players Warith Alatishe, Maurice Calloo, Rodrigue Andela and Roman Silva bringing toughness and leadership. If guard Jarod Lucas can take another step forward after a breakout sophomore season and embrace some of the ball-handling duties left behind by Thompson, the Beavers will have a shot at making the NCAA Tournament again.|
|This looks like a transition season for Colorado after the Buffaloes earned a No. 5 seed and won an NCAA Tournament game in their best season yet under coach Tad Boyle, who is entering his 12th season. Fifth-year senior Evan Battey is the last remaining member of the program's incredibly productive 2017 recruiting class and will lead the team. He will pair with second-year forward Jabari Walker to form a quality front line. The ceiling will be determined by how ready the Pac-12's top-ranked recruiting class is to contribute right away. After the 2017 class — led by the likes of Battey McKinley Wright and D'Shawn Schwartz — anchored the Buffs for several seasons, this incoming class looks capable of doing the same in the years to come. Five freshmen are coming in, including top-100 prospects K.J. Simpson, Quincy Allen and Lawson Lovering.|
|The Cougars showed signs of life last season in Year Two under Kyle Smith by notching victories against the likes of Oregon and UCLA during the regular season. But they were inconsistent and turned the ball over more than anyone in the Pac-12 during conference play on the way to a 7-12 league mark. High-usage guard Isaac Bonton is gone after finishing fourth in the league in points per game at 17.7, but incoming transfers Tyrell Roberts (UC San Diego) and Michael Flowers (South Alabama) are proven outside shooters who should help pick up some of the scoring load. Junior guard Noah Williams is also back off of a breakout season and will pair with Pac-12 All-Freshman center Efe Abogidi to give Smith two returners who started all 27 games. Look out for sophomore big man Dishon Jackson, who came on strong late last season.|
|Say what you will about seventh-year Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley, but the Sun Devils are never boring. After a bust of of a 2020-21 season in which the Sun Devils finished 11-14 (7-10 Pac-12), Hurley's roster has undergone a makeover. The back court is entirely new and will rely on transfers Marreon Jackson (Toledo), Jay Heath (Boston College), Luther Muhammad (Ohio State) and DJ Horne (Illinois State). The front court should be solid with sophomore Marcus Bagley returning after testing the NBA Draft waters. Between Bagley and veterans Jalen Graham and Kimani Lawrence, there's no excuse for the Sun Devils to struggle on the boards again. If No. 29 overall prospect Enoch Boakye, a 6-foot-10 center, is ready to contribute early, that would be a bonus and help this team compete for an NCAA Tournament bid.|
|A year after signing the top-rated prospect in program history in Ziaire Williams, Stanford brings in its third-highest rated prospect, Harrison Ingram, to fill the void Williams leaves after getting drafted 10th overall. That's the good news for the Cardinal. The bad news is that the program has just one NCAA Tournament appearance since 2008, and it didn't come under sixth-year coach Jerod Haase. If the drought is going to end this season, it's going to require an unlikely turnaround. In addition to losing Williams, Stanford loses first-team all-conference performer Oscar da Silva from the front court and a steady guard in Daejon Davis. That puts the onus on Ingram, junior forward Spencer Jones and last season's Pac-12 most-improved player Jaden Delaire to spark a program that has finished .500 in league play the last two seasons.|
|Utah is pressing reset with a new coach in Craig Smith, who comes in from Utah State. As is typical with first-year coaches in the mass transfer era, the roster is undergoing an overhaul. The good news is that Smith made fast progress during three-year stints in his previous stops -- he was at South Dakota before Utah State -- but the reality is that a quick fix will be tough in the Pac-12. The Utes' only returning full-time starter is junior center Branden Carlson, and Utah didn't even have an honorable mention in the preseason all-conference voting. Senior wing Both Gach is back after one season at Minnesota, and guard David Jenkins Jr. has been a bucket getter in the past at South Dakota State and UNLV. They should combine with Carlson to at least give this team a competitive core.|
|Washington ranked at or near the bottom of of the Pac-12 in nearly every statistical category last season during a 5-21 season, and the ensuing roster turnover was needed. Senior wing Jamal Bey is a nice returning piece on the perimeter, and Nate Roberts started all 26 games in the front court. After that, the rotation figures to be stocked with new faces. Guard Daejon Davis (Stanford), guard PJ Fuller (TCU), forward Emmitt Matthews Jr. (West Virginia) and guard Terrell Brown Jr. (Arizona) stand out as the most-proven of the new arrivals. Blending it all together and coming up with a successful formula will be a huge challenge for fifth-year coach Mike Hopkins. But after going 9-29 in league play over the last two seasons, the Huskies needed a roster reboot.|
|A whopping 10 players who started at least one game for Cal last season return, but considering the Bears finished 9-20 (3-17 Pac-12), it's unclear whether that's a good thing. There is something to be said for having senior leadership in college basketball, though, and Cal will have plenty of it with Grant Anticevich, Makale Foreman and Andre Kelly all back after logging 20+ minutes per game last season. Anticevich and Kelly comprise a solid front court, but the wing and back court are sources of concern. Prolific scorer Matt Bradley left for San Diego State after averaging 18 points per game on 36.4% 3-point shooting last season, and his departure could make the Pac-12's worst 3-point shooting team even worse.|
Most overrated team
It feels like Wildcats' are getting the benefit of the doubt based on their history by landing fourth in our poll. First-year coach Tommy Lloyd has never been a Division I head coach and will be baptized by fire during a non conference schedule that includes Wichita State, No. 11 Illinois, No. 18 Tennessee and potentially No. 6 Michigan. Bennedict Mathurin and Azuolas Tubelis are promising sophomores, and the Wildcats have some other potentially solid pieces. But they are too lean on veterans and proven production to be trusted as a lock for the league's upper third.
Most underrated team
The Sun Devils were one of the most disappointing team in the nation last season, but sixth-year coach Bobby Hurley has already turned the Sun Devils around once in his tenure. In an effort to do it again, he's overhauled his back court with transfers and newcomers. So long as he hit on a couple of them, this team will be better than eighth in the Pac-12. Getting Marcus Bagley for another season was huge after the heralded prospect dealt with injuries last season. If he stays healthy and a couple serviceable guards emerge, this team will exceed expectations.