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By Bill Seals
Sports Reporter 

Arizona is the favorite in the final season of Pac-12 men's basketball

 

October 19, 2023

The Pac-12 conference held their final men's basketball media day meeting last week in Las Vegas, and the results were predictable. The Pac-12 coaches are not happy about being treated as second-class citizens to football and the basketball writers are picking the Arizona Wildcats to win the Pac-12 men's basketball title. It was not an upbeat event.

With the disintegration of the Pac-12 conference in the offseason, there will be ten schools leaving for three different conferences. UCLA, USC, Oregon, and Washington are headed to the Big Ten conference. California and Stanford are headed to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and Arizona State are headed to the Big 12 conference. The moves are being made in order to accommodate football, which brings in a significant amount of revenue through television contracts.

Oregon State and Washington State are looking for a future home or will attempt to rebuild the Pac-12 conference. But it will not be the same conference. It will not be the "Conference of Champions." It will likely need a new commissioner. Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff did not attend the final Pac-12 basketball media day meeting.

None of the conferences that the ten schools are leaving for are located in the western region of the country and all will require a great deal of travel. Many rivalries in the west will be lost or will be difficult to maintain. An example of that would the UCLA-Arizona rivalry.

Both Arizona head coach Tommy Lloyd and UCLA head coach Mick Cronin have indicated they would like to continue the rivalry but the uncertainty of scheduling in the future with the conference changes may make that difficult if not impossible.

Cronin was among the coaches that voiced their displeasure with the conference changes. "Well, I think the big key for college basketball is that we can continue to focus on what's best for college basketball, which has been obviously very hard to do with football and football television money deciding our fate," Cronin said.

Cronin added that, 'I get concerned about the constraints of the big conferences and where it's all headed, because I think where does it end is the question." Cronin and other coaches are concerned that the new conferences want to add additional games to the league schedules, plus challenge games and with the additional travel, the coaches are concerned that playing nonconference games against schools like Kentucky and Duke will become very difficult, if not impossible.

Oregon head basketball coach Dana Altman indicated that it his intention to continue the rivalry with Oregon State, and would like to add other schools. "We're going to have enough travel during conference going to the East Coast, Altman said. "I'd love to stay on the West Coast and play some nonconference games. I haven't talked to Tommy, but I'd love to play Arizona and keep that going. Arizona State, Utah, Colorado. I'm not interested in traveling all over the country playing nonconference games now. I'd like to keep it more regional."

The football side of the Pac-12 conference is experiencing a kind of renaissance in their final season. There are currently six Pac-12 teams or half the conference ranked in the AP top 25. On the men's basketball side, the conference is always strongest when UCLA and Arizona have good teams, which they have had the past few seasons. The Pac-12 has six of the 24 McDonald's All-Americans headed to Pac-12 teams. Two are going to USC, two to Oregon, one to Stanford, and one to Colorado.

Arizona was selected as the preseason favorite. They will return first-team All-Pac-12 center Oumar Ballo, along with guard Kylan Boswell. They are adding transfer guard Caleb Love from North Carolina. In the 2022 NCAA men's basketball tournament, Love scored 27 of his 30 points in the second half to lead North Carolina to a 73-66 win over UCLA. In a Final Four semifinal game, Love scored 28 points to lead UNC past Duke, 81-77. Love should bring some toughness to the Wildcats, a quality the team has lacked in the past in the NCAA Tournament. Lloyd is aware of the toughness questions surrounding his team.

"Toughness can be kind of a catchall term," Lloyd said. "I never felt that we're soft. I think we play a very aggressive, physical style of basketball. But at the end of the day, you get in a single elimination tournament, and toughness comes in lots of forms. It could be sticking to a game plan. It could be obviously the physical things you think come with dominating the point and dominating the glass and things like that. I need to increase our margin for error, and to me, toughness is a way that you do that."

USC will return a strong team led by guard Boogie Ellis, guard Kobe Johnson, and forward Joshua Morgan. Ellis was first-team All-Pac-12 guard last season, while Johnson and Morgan made the All-Defensive team. USC has a top five recruiting class led by point guard Isaiah Collier from Georgia, the No. 2 ranked player in the nation.

UCLA lost three players to the NBA draft, including the Pac-12 Player of the Year, Jaime Jaquez, Jr., and the Naismith National defensive Player of the Year, Jaylen Clark. But the Bruins may have the best recruiting class in the conference and potentially the best team in the conference. The class is ranked 13th in the nation by 247sports, with one five-star recruit and six four-star recruits. Four of the recruits are from Europe and all four are considered NBA prospects. The Bruins are young and talented.

Cronin indicated that because the team is younger, they will have to go deeper into the roster than in the past but that might not be a bad thing. "We legitimately have twelve scholarship players that can play for us," Cronin said. The Bruins return forward Adem Bona, the Freshman of the Year in the Pac-12 last season. Bona also made the Pac-12 All-Defensive team and point guard Dylan Andrews returns. Cronin calls Andrews the fastest player he has ever had with the ball in his hands.

The fans and the coaches should enjoy this final season of Pac-12 basketball. UCLA and USC have a lot of east coast trips to look forward to in the future and will lose those regional rivalries, but at least they will have the football television money.

 

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