Player of the Year: Allonzo Trier, Jr., Arizona
Coach of the Year: Wayne Tinkle, Oregon State
Newcomer of the Year: DeAndre Ayton, Fr., Arizona
Freshman of the Year: DeAndre Ayton, Fr., Arizona
See full preview here: #2 in our Top-40 countdown
See full preview here: #7 in our Top-40 countdown
See full preview here: #22 in our Top-40 countdown
See full preview here: #27 in our Top-40 countdown
Key Returners: Reid Travis, Dorian Pickens, Michael Humphrey
Key Losses: Marcus Allen
Key Newcomers: Kezie Okpala, Daejon Davis, Oscar da Silva, Isaac White
Postseason Projection: 11 seed - NIT
Outlook: Jerod Haase's most impressive accomplishment in his first season at Palo Alto was leading the Cardinal to a 102nd overall ranking in kenpom.com's adjusted efficiency rankings - the exact same spot the team he inherited finished the year prior (2016 on the left; 2017 on the right).
That's not meant to be a dig at Haase by any means, but it does encapsulate what was a rather frustrating year for Stanford (it's also an absurdly unlikely statistical occurrence!). The Cardinal's only true road win came in Corvallis, Oregon - the home of last year's Pac-12 dumpster fire, the Oregon State Beavers - and if you're trying to locate a "signature" win on their resume it'd be a toss-up between Seton Hall and Utah.
So while you could take a jab at Haase for simply "maintaining" (literally) the progress or momentum from Johnny Dawkins the year prior, he has generated some real buzz with his work on the recruiting trail. Haase brings in the Pac-12's 4th best freshman class, headlined by a pair of top-50 prospects in Daejon Davis and Kezie Okpala, along with a potential 'diamond in the rough' prospect in Oscar Da Silva (Da Silva ranks just inside the top-150). Given the glaring weakness of the Cardinal in recent years has been dynamic guard play - specifically since Chasson Randle graduated in 2015 - Davis, in particular, should get ample opportunities to prove his worth right away. While his veteran backcourt mate Robert Cartwright is more of a game manager and opportunistic scorer/shooter, Davis is much more gifted athletically and should be much more effective at beating his man 1-v-1 at the point of attack. With Cartwright and Christian Sanders dominating most of ball handling duties last season, Davis' ability to break down the defense should be a breathe of fresh air for Haase this season. Davis, along with athletic wing Marcus Sheffield, will need to assert themselves offensively this year to help to ease the scoring burden off the Cardinal workhorses down low - Michael Humphrey and Reid Travis.
The young wings in Okpala and Da Silva could wind up being a special duo for Haase in the near future, but the combination of their mature skill sets and NBA-ready length and athleticism implies there's no guarantee they stick around Palo Alto for all four years. Da Silva has already started to grab the attention of NBA scouts during his stint with the U19 German national team this summer in the FIBA Basketball World Cup (read more about his performance here). And according to ESPN Recruiting analysis, Okpala may actually be underrated as the 44th ranked prospect overall, given he's dealt with the awkward combination of a late growth spurt and injury issues during his latter years on the AAU circuit. Kodye Pugh rounds out the laundry list of young weapons at Haase's disposal this year - he might be overlooked in many scouting reports this season, given he redshirted last year and has yet to showcase his talents at the D1 level.
One quick stylistic change that Cardinal fans may have observed in Haase's first year strolling the sidelines was a reduction in zone defense, compared to when Dawkins was calling the shots. As a former Bill Self disciple from his days as a KU assistant, Haase clearly gravitates to a more traditional man-to-man defense, relative to Dawkins' preference to mix up multiple defensive schemes over the course of a season. The data indicates Stanford played zone on only 10% of all defensive possessions last season, compared to almost 40% the year prior (Dawkins' last year).
Bottom Line: The interesting dynamic with this year's Cardinal squad is that the veteran leaders are the four members of Johnny Dawkins' prized 2014 recruiting class. Reid Travis, Michael Humphrey, Robert Cartwright and Dorian Pickens ranked 36th, 66th, 85th and 148th, respectively, in 247sports.com's national recruiting rankings coming out of high school. Fast forward four years later and the most heralded piece of hardware this quartet has put in the trophy case is the 2015 NIT championship, which only Travis played a significant part in accomplishing. Now, with a fresh new batch of freshmen talent that appears to fill some critical holes in last year's roster, Haase may have stumbled upon the perfect mix of young talent and veteran experience, which has proven to be a recipe for success at the college level.
6. Arizona State
Key Returners: Shannon Evans, Tra Holder, Kodi Justice
Key Losses: Torian Graham, Obinna Oleka, Sam Cunliffe (transfer)
Key Newcomers: De'Quon Lake (JUCO), Remy Martin, Kimani Lawrence
Postseason Projection: NIT - CBI/CIT
Outlook: While the Bobby Hurley hire hasn’t yet translated to consistent winning at Arizona State, you can't deny that he's at least made the Sun Devils a delight to watch (although, “the curtain of distraction” certainly deserves some credit as well). Hurley has constructed a roster that closely mirrors his 4 and sometimes 5-guard lineups that were so tough to defend back at his days in Buffalo. He loves to stockpile lightning-quick, lead guards who are built to thrive in space and then gives them free reign to make things happen in the open floor. Led by a perimeter core of Shannon Evans, Tra Holder, Kodi Justice and Torian Graham, the Sun Devils were able to blitz opposing defenses with a flurry of 3s last season, typically sparked by 1-v-1 dribble penetration and all made possible with endless floor spacing.
Unfortunately, Pac-12 caliber bigs have routinely exposed Hurley’s gamble to prioritize speed over size, something that smaller MAC front lines could not do back when he was at the helm in Buffalo (although the injury bug did not leave him much of an option last season). Combine that with an over reliance on outside shot-making and a lack of another consistent means to score, Arizona State suffered through too many offensive droughts at times last year. And without any reliable size on the roster, the interior defense was essentially nonexistent - the Sun Devils finished the season ranked 257th in overall defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, and were especially incompetent on the defensive glass.
This year, a pair of newcomers in Romello White and De'Quon Lake may offer a ray of hope for the Sun Devils to strive for at least mediocracy when it comes to rebounding and defense. Hurley had high hopes for the 6'8 White heading into last season, but the NCAA deemed him academically ineligible before his college career began. The former 4-star and top-100 recruit is a top-tier athlete who should emerge as a beast on the boards, as well as an asset in the Sun Devils' transition attack with his ability to run the floor. Lake - who is currently slotted at 15th in JUCO.com's 2017 rankings - is blessed with even greater size and length than his front line counterpart, and his bouncy hops should be an instant boost to the Sun Devils' interior rim protection. Given the surplus of elite size across the Pac-12 landscape this year, it's hard to envision a scenario where Hurley doesn't give Lake and White major minutes from the get go.
The real weapon on this year's roster who will give Hurley the flexibility to switch between a 4-out, 1-in offensive look (similar to what was relied upon last year) and a more traditional two big lineup is 4-star freshman Kimani Lawrence. Lawrence blossomed into a knock down 3-point shooter during the most recent AAU circuit, which should make him a perfect floor spacer playing alongside Evans and Holder on the perimeter. If he can replicate the 45% 3-point shooting stroke he put on display during the EYBL regular season last year, a small ball lineup of Lawrence and Justice at the 3 and 4 respectively, will be a nightmare for opposing defenses to match-up with.
Bottom Line: Despite the high roster turnover this summer (5 transfers out and 3 transfers in), Hurley has to feel much more optimistic about his core rotation heading into 2017-18. The major improvement was bolstering the front line depth, which was completely gutted late last season when Jethro Tshisumpa decided to leave town. The backcourt duo of Holder and Evans is bonafide playmaking tandem and are as sure handed with the ball as any guard in the conference. With their ability to create shots for both themselves and for others almost at will - along with a timely jolt to the rebounding and rim protection departments - the Sun Devils should climb safely into the upper half of the Pac-12's standings in 2017-18.
Key Returners: David Collette, Sedrick Barefield
Key Losses: Kyle Kuzma, Lorenzo Bonam, Devon Daniels (transfer), Jojo Zamora (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Justin Bibbins (Long Beach St. transfer), Donnie Tillman, Christian PoPoola Jr., Kolbe Caldwell (JUCO)
Postseason Projection: NIT
Outlook: It's easy to forget that just over 5 years ago, Larry Krystkowiak inherited a barren cupboard when he took over the head coaching spot at Utah. His first season was simply dreadful as the Utes stumbled across the finish line with only 5 wins against division 1 opponents. It took just two years for the "West Coast Coach K" to revive the program back to a .500 Pac-12 team - over the last three seasons he's tallied a total of 37 wins in league play (only Arizona and Oregon have racked up more over that span).
Utah's recent summer trip to Europe confirmed this year's squad will be led by four key veterans - a solid guard tandem in Justin Bibbins and Sedrick Barefield, and a stout front line unit in David Collette and Tyler Rawson. In the 3-game tour across the pond, Barefield and Collette led a balanced Utes scoring attack, tallying 14 and 12 points a game, respectively, while Rawson and Bibbins each tacked on double figure scoring averages of their own. Collette patrols the paint with an ultra-high motor on both ends of the floor and is an excellent finisher through contact whenever he gets a touch in the low-post. Rawson's respectable jump shot and under-appreciated passing ability should make him a perfect complement to Collette up-front in Utah' half-court offensive attack.
While Barefield is the Utes' incumbent floor general, snagging Bibbins via the grad transfer wire was a huge acquisition for Krystkowiak. Utah's perimeter production was gutted this offseason with the graduation of Lorenzo Bonam, along with the transfer announcements of JoJo Zamora and Devon Daniels. Bibbins, who at 5'8 is significantly undersized compared to his predecessor Bonam (6’4), has an approach to the game that resembles a “pure point guard” mentality - he should fit like a glove next to sharpshooting Barefield in the backcourt, who cashed in a team best 39% from downtown last year.
However, the size depth at the guard position last year was a big reason why the Utes ranked 10th in the nation in effective field goal percentage as Bonam and Daniels each converted a ridiculous 68% and 62%, respectively, of their shots inside the arc. Bibbins was an exceptionally efficient scorer against Big West competition over his last two seasons at Long Beach, but was a shell of himself when he had to go toe-to-toe with stiffer competition. The graphic below proves Bibbins was a completely different player when he went up against the likes of Wichita State, North Carolina, Louisville, UCLA and Kansas (yes, his former coach Dan Monson routinely constructs a murderer's row of opponents for Long Beach's non-conference).
Stylistically, head coach Larry Krystkowiak has shown a willingness to mix up defensive schemes over the past two seasons (the Utes played zone on ~ 25% of all defensive possessions last year). Whether Krystkowiak chooses to showcase man-to-man or some variation of zone, his defensive principles remain unchanged. Since "Coach K" took over as the head man in Salt Lake City back in 2011-12, the Utes have consistently ranked among the Pac-12’s best in 2-point FG % defense, defensive rebounding rate and 3-pointers allowed on a per possession basis. Collectively, success in those three areas typically produces stout defenses by simply reducing your exposure to getting beat by a barrage of 3s, as well as limiting high percentage shot opportunities at the rim.
Bottom Line: Losing Kuzma, Bonam, and Zamora feels like a slight regression may be in store for this year’s Utes. The 2017-18 squad will be heavily reliant on four players to generate offense on a nightly basis, but Krystkowiak will likely go deep into his bench early in the year to see if any hidden gems emerge. It’s very plausible that Utah actually takes a minor step back on both offense and defense this season, but still finds itself in the middle of the pack in a watered down Pac-12 conference.
8. Oregon State
Key Returners: Tres Tinkle, Drew Eubanks, Stephen Thompson Jr., JaQuori McLaughlin
Key Losses: None
Key Newcomers: Ethan Thompson, Alfred Hollins
Postseason Projection: NIT - CBI/CIT
Outlook: Any of the words above would be a fair description of the Oregon State basketball team last year. Sure, they lost their two best players (Tres Tinkle and Stephen Thompson Jr.) to season ending injuries in the first game of the year. And fine, their highly-rated JUCO prospect Keondre Dew's indefinite suspension lasted until he decided to transfer to Tulsa, later admitting, "I walked in there thinking I was better than I was." But c'mon, just one conference win in a season in which both Washington schools were dreadful as well? Welp, time to turn the page Beaver fans...
The major offseason headline came when Drew Eubanks decided to return to school after [questionably] testing the draft waters. At 6'10, 250 pounds, Eubanks is a load on the block and does about everything you could ask from a true "center"- he converts at an efficient clip scoring in the post, he boards on both ends and he protects the rim. Eubanks is just one of three beasts that Tinkle will interchange at the 5. Rising sophomore Ben Kone (6'9 250 lbs.) and Gligorije Rakocevic (6'11 255 pounds) are also physical specimens, but their size was about all they brought to the table last year. While Rakocevic looked to be serviceable at times, "the Kone project" got off to a rocky start in his first collegiate season. The major achilles heel that must be corrected this season was the sloppy footwork and poor decision-making on the offensive end from Eubanks, Kone and Rakocevic. Each posted turnover rates above 20% last year, which is simply inexcusable for bigs who aren't asked to handle the ball that often.
But the forwards were not solely to blame for the turnover bug that bit the Beavers' in 2016-17. Only 6 teams in the entire country coughed up the ball more frequently than Oregon State did last year, much of which was attributable to a young backcourt in JaQuori McLaughlin and Kendal Manuel, each of whom looked and played like true freshmen. While McLaughlin is a borderline top-100 recruit with some legitimate upside, Kendal Manuel was never a heralded prospect and has dealt with both injuries and off-the-court issues in his first two seasons in Corvallis (specifically, a broken right leg and a misdemeanor assault case). I'd bet on the highly touted freshman Ethan Thompson, younger brother of the aforementioned Stephen Thompson, sneaking his way into the starting lineup, which would be a promising backcourt trio with the Thompson bros on the wing and McLaughlin at the point. If the younger Thompson can get acclimated to the speed of the college game quickly, Tinkle could have a formidable crunch time lineup of McLaughlin, the Thompsons, Eubanks down low and his son Tres Tinkle - a darkhorse Pac-12 POTY candidate - playing a "super stretch-4".
Tinkle recently revealed that the Beavers will be looking to speed up the pace this season, which was virtually impossible to do last season with only a 6-7 man rotation. So with improved health and reinforcements coming in via the 2017 freshman class, a replenished bench should give Oregon State the fresh legs needed to proactively push the tempo and wreak havoc defensively, particularly when they switch to a Tinkle's trademark 1-3-1 zone scheme.
Bottom Line: The Beavers will contend with Mizzou for the biggest year-over-year improvement this season in college basketball and you could make a valid case that Oregon State's ceiling is a trip to the NCAA tournament. With three proven all-league caliber players in Thompson (Stephen), Tinkle and Eubanks, a breakout candidate in the younger Thompson (Ethan) and one year of growing pains under McLaughlin's belt, the 2017-18 squad may look like a completely different basketball team. However, it's almost impossible to find a historical precedent of a team leaping from one of the worst power-6 conference teams in the history of college basketball to a NCAA bubble team in just one offseason. But barring any shocking NBA draft declarations next offseason, Wayne Tinkle could have the Beavers ready to compete in the upper-echelon in the Pac-12 in 2018-19.
Key Returners: George King, Dominique Collier
Key Losses: Derrick White, Xavier Johnson, Josh Fortune, Wesley Gordon
Key Newcomers: Namon Wright (Missouri transfer), D'Shawn Schwartz, Evan Battey, Tyler Bey, McKinley Wright
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Just looking at the individual roster Tad Boyle had to work with last year, it’s hard to explain how the Buffs slowly faded into basketball oblivion. Led by a godsend in D2-turned-D1 standout Derrick White, who we now know to be an NBA 1st round caliber player, along with a talented and experienced supporting cast, the boys from Boulder failed to tally any marquee wins en route to a sub-500 finish in Pac-12 play. With only one of those talented assets in George King returning this year - not to mention a roster that will feature five true freshmen - this season has "rebuild" written all over it for the Buffs.
King is the consonant wing scorer who hops out of bed in the morning already in attack mode. His glaringly low assist rate is indicative of his score-first mindset, but when’s he locked-in, few defenders in the country can stop him from getting to the rack. King especially thrives in the open floor, using a respectable handle and top-flight athleticism to attack back-pedalling defenders in transition.
The other notable upperclassmen will need to have big years to keep the Buffs relevant in the Pac-12 - I'm looking at you Dominique ("Dom") Collier and Mizzou transfer Namon Wright. Collier has played significant minutes in each of his three seasons at Boulder, but has yet to find his place offensively as he's continuously bounced back and forth between the point and off-guard positions. However, it's hard to overlook his value on the other side of the ball, especially after he racked up the 2nd most steals in the Pac-12 last season on a per-minute basis. Wright also earned a ton of clock in his sophomore season back in 2015-16 at Mizzou, but much like Collier, failed to make a real impact in any one facet of the game. How far Colorado slips in the standings this year will rest in the hands of Collier and Wright, the only two proven D1 caliber guards on the roster. And if their maturity in age fails to translate on to the court production, expect Boyle to begin inserting his new wave of young guns into the mix early on, particularly McKinley Wright, who appears to be Colorado's "point guard in-waiting".
King, Collier, Wright (Namon) and Tory Miller-Stewart comprise the only pieces on the depth chart with Pac-12 experience, meaning some of the froshies will be tossed right into the fire from day 1. Hindered by a rail thin front line, look for Boyle to play a ton of “small ball”, with either Miller-Stewart or Lucas Siewart as the lone 5, and one of a few freshman wings at the 4 (D’Shawn Schwartz, Tyler Bey and Evan Battey). In the Buffs international tour this summer to Italy, Boyle actually took this one step further, experimenting with a 5-out starting lineup of McKinley Wright, Dom Collier, George King, Lucas Siewart and Dallas Walton.
Bottom Line: While the depth of this year's freshman class is certainly a nice foundation to build upon, the newcomers lack the blue-chip pedigree of many of the other freshmen around the Pac-12. This will certainly be the George King show this year in Boulder, so unless Boyle gets any atmospheric leaps from the young guns, the Buffs project to be a bottom-6 team in Pac-12 this season.
Key Returners: David Crisp, Matisse Thybulle, Noah Dickerson
Key Losses: Markelle Fultz
Key Newcomers: Hameir Wright, Jaylen Nowell, Nahziah Carter, Michael Carter III
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Despite losing a generational talent in Markelle Fultz to the NBA, the Huskies should legitimately expect to be better this year - although, that isn't asking a lot when the bar is two conference wins, just one more than the bottom-feeder Oregon State Beavers tallied last season. For lack of a better term or phrase, let's just say that the "Lorenzo Romar effect" will no longer be lingering over Washington's basketball program. But before getting to the stylistic changes new head coach Mike Hopkins - long time assistant of Jim Boeheim at Syracuse - will instill, let's quickly run through the projected lineup.
Noah Dickerson's decision to return to Washington was huge news for Hopkins this summer - Dickerson flirted with the idea of transferring, before ultimately deciding to remain a Husky. Despite his top-100 nationally ranked defensive rebounding rate last year, Washington, as a team, was abysmal at hauling in their opponent's misses - had Dickerson opted to leave town, the Huskies would be a strong candidate to be the worst power-6 conference rebounding team in recent memory. Dickerson has also failed to provide any sort of rim protection in his first two seasons at Washington and often appears lost on the defensive end, much like many of his teammates. Hooplens.com's advanced player plus minus statistics reveals a scary truth about the returning Husky guards. When David Crisp, Carlos Johnson and Dominic Green played together, an already shoddy Husky defense went to a new level of stink - Washington surrendered an unfathomable 1.32 points per possession when the three were on the floor. The only other relevant returner, Matisse Thybulle, was not much better himself, but at least he managed to generate some steals.
So when new head coach Mike Hopkins confirmed on Jon Rothstein's podcast this summer that he intends to feature the patented Syracuse 2-3 zone at his new employer, Husky fans must've celebrated like it was 1999:
“Washington fans are going see the 2-3 zone,” Hopkins said on the College Hoops Today Podcast. “The first thing that I noticed when I saw this team on tape was the size that it had. We’re going to maximize that on the defensive end of the floor for sure with the zone.”
He raises an excellent point about the length of the Husky guards, particularly with Johnson (6'4), Thybulle (6'5) and Green (6'6) at the top of the zone, who will be joined by two top-100 freshmen in Jaylen Nowell (6'4) and Hameir Wright (6'7) this season as well. Certainly on paper, it appears Hopkins at least has the bodies and athletes that have made the 'Cuse zone so hard to score on for so many years.
Bottom Line: Tracking the net impact of Fultz departing and Hopkins arriving will be fascinating to watch play out this season. The Lorenzo Romar "can't coach" narrative persisted for far too long in Washington, despite his ridiculous streak of sending freshman to the NBA lottery year after year. You could certainly talk me into sliding the Huskies ahead of Colorado in these rankings, but the other eight teams feel like safer bets to finish in the upper half of the conference standings when it's all said and done.
Key Returners: Kingsley Okoroh
Key Losses: Ivan Rabb, Charlie Moore (transfer), Kameron Rooks (transfer), Jabari Bird, Grant Mullins
Key Newcomers: Marcus Lee (Kentucky transfer), Justice Sueing Jr., Deschon Winston, Juhwan Harris-Dyson
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Despite the plethora of talent Cuzonzo Martin acquired during his three year stint at Cal, his teams still appeared to be offensively challenged at times. During his time at Berkeley, the Bears' identity was rooted in defense and physicality, even when the roster was injected with some high-end offensive talent (specifically the 2015-16 bunch that earned a 4-seed in the NCAA tournament). So after Martin decided to head back home to the Midwest, closer to his childhood roots of East St. Louis, the athletic department chose Martin's top assistant, Vyking Jones, to replace him at the helm. By all accounts, Jones appears to be an extension of everything Martin stood for - in an interview with Jon Rothstein this offseason, he blatantly expressed his desire to continue building upon the same culture of grit and toughness that his former boss ingrained before him. Unfortunately, grit and toughness won't help this team put points on the scoreboard, which could be a major chore with a roster that looks to be deprived of any offensive polish.
For most casual college basketball fans, the only recognizable name from the projected lineup table above is Marcus Lee, the ex-Kentucky transfer who is now eligible after sitting out last season. It’s been over two years since Lee etched his name into the national conversation as one of the many blue-chip prospects at UK dripping with NBA potential. He and 7’1 giant Kingsley Okoroh will anchor what should be a top-notch rebounding and rim protecting front line, but they're going to have be consistent contributors in the scoring attack by generating 2nd shot opportunities on the offensive boards. While Lee has more upside as a skilled low-post scorer than Okoroh, both will do most of their scoring damage by playing volleyball on the glass to get easy stick backs around the rim. And based on the poor shooting reputations of the returning Bears' guards, there should be an abundance of offensive rebounding chances to go around for the twin towers.
Similar to Tad Boyle's situation at Colorado, Jones will look to replenish a recent exodus of talent with a deep incoming recruiting class. While none of the seven incoming freshmen are big name prospects, Justice Sueing, Juhwan Harris-Dyson and Darius McNeil each rank inside the top-200 of 247sports.com's recruiting rankings. Harris-Dyson and McNeil, along with Deschon Winston, should get ample opportunities to showcase their skills right away, given all three will face minimal veteran competition in the backcourt (apologies to Don Coleman). Jabari Bird's departure also leaves a major void in the form of a wing shooter/scorer, which is precisely what the lefty Sueing brings to the table. I would not be surprised to Jones starting three freshmen by the time Pac-12 play rolls around, which would likely feature Sueing at the 3, one of either Harris-Dyson and McNeil and Winston at the 2 and Winston running the point.
Bottom Line: Viewer Beware. The Cal Bears will be among the most excruciating teams to watch play this season – that is, unless you a have a weird fetish for slow-paced offenses that rely on a "chuck and chase" approach to score. The freshmen will likely take their lumps early as they adjust to the speed and strength of the division 1 game, but being thrown right into the mix should pay dividends down the road. Unfortunately, unless the freshmen catapult themselves into all-league caliber performers, the near-term prognosis for the Bears is quite bleak.
12. Washington State
Key Returners: Malachi Flynn
Key Losses: Josh Hawkinson, Ike Iroegbu
Key Newcomers: Drick Bernstine (North Dakota transfer), Kwinton Hinson (JUCO), Davante Cooper (JUCO), Carter Skaggs (JUCO)
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: For someone who swooned over the 2006-07 Oregon Ducks team, which was led by a pair of dynamos in Aaron Brooks and Tajuan Porter, it's hard to watch Ernie Kent struggle to find any ounce of momentum at his new home in Pullman. It's now been three years since Kent accepted the head coaching position at Washington State, and it's becoming evident that the longtime Oregon leading man may have officially lost his mojo. And don't let the 5-game improvement in Pac-12 wins from 2015-16 to last season fool you - the advanced statistics will quickly reveal that the Wazzu were just as incompetent in 2016-17, even with a potent 1-2 inside out punch in Josh Hawkinson and Ike Iroegbu leading the charge. And with those two graduating this offseason, along with two more starters in Conor Clifford and Charles Callison, an already bare cupboard has been officially cleaned out.
The only ray of hope for even the slightest bit of optimism heading into the 2017-18 campaign was the acquisition of a fringe top-100 prospect in Roberto Gittens early this summer, who was the first 4-star recruit landed by the Cougars since Klay Thompson. Kent's quote directly after Gittens committed earlier this summer exemplifies the frustration that's accumulated over his first three seasons at Washington State:
“it’s been a while since we’ve truly had something to get excited about with regards to the future of Coug basketball.”
Welp, that optimism was ripped away just two months later when it was reported that Gittens would instead be attending Junior College in the fall, which appeared to be related to academic eligibility concerns. So while Gittens did reiterate via Twitter that he does intend to play Washington State once his JUCO tenure is complete, the 2017-18 outlook remains quite bleak for Mr. Kent.
Rising sophomore Malachi Flynn, a pair of JUCO newcomers in Kwinton Hinson and Davante Cooper, a redshirt freshman in Milan Acquaah and grad transfer Drick Bernstine are the only names that present any amount upside for Kent and the Cougs this season. Flynn's long-range shooting stroke was sharp in his inaugural college season, benefitting from playing alongside a viable playmaker in Iroegbu at point guard. Acquaah came into Pullman with a relatively high pedigree prior to last season, but an injury forced him to redshirt for the entire 2016-17 campaign. Assuming Acquaah slides right in to the point guard spot, the Cougs may actually trot out a promising backcourt duo with him and Flynn at the 1 and 2 positions, respectively.
Hinson, who connected on 35% of his 3s in junior college, along with forward Robert Franks and newcomer Carter Skaggs, present some additional long range shooting threats, which should keep the floor spaced for Acquaah and the uber-athletic Jamar Ergas to slash and create offensively. Bernstine and Cooper will bang bodies down low and will collectively have to fill the rebounding void left behind by Hawkinson, who was the best defensive rebounder in the Pac-12 last season on a per-minute basis. Bernstine's counting stats are by no means jaw-dropping, but his 20 point, 15 rebound performance against Arizona in the NCAA tournament last season qualifies as one encouraging data point for his potential upside.
Bottom Line: Unless Flynn ascends to an all-conference caliber player, or one of the redshirt freshmen or JUCO newcomers explode on the D1 scene, the Cougs will likely wind up back in the cellar of the Pac-12 standings this year. I do think the Wazzu will be better than the abomination many publications will likely project them to be, but it's hard to make a reasonable case to slot the Cougs ahead of Cal or their in-state rival Washington.