As the regular season begins, four Pac-12 teams have made the cut.
The Pac-12 had two teams in the Associated Press preseason top-25 rankings, which was the fewest of any major conference. The Hotline is a little more upbeat.
In the Pac-12’s final season, we see at least four teams capable of making the NCAA Tournament.
Arizona and USC are obvious choices, but Colorado and UCLA are also viable options for March Madness. Is there anyone else? We will not rule out Arizona State or Oregon as at-large candidates. Beyond that, the pickings are slim.
The Hotline’s top-25 rankings for the upcoming season, which begins on Monday.
Hunter Dickinson’s (Michigan) arrival adds one of the nation’s top players to a strong group of returning players. It may take some time for the pieces to fall into place — two-thirds of the roster is new — but the Jayhawks could be the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament come Selection Sunday.
The moment center Zach Edey announced his return, the Boilermakers were a lock for the top tier of the sport. The 7-foot-4 rebounding and scoring machine is one of five returning starters from a team that won 29 games before falling short in the NCAA tournament.
The list of blue-chip prospects begins with Kyle Filipowski and Jeremy Roach, but even a high school dropout can sense the pressure building on second-year coach Jon Scheyer to make a deep run in March.
Except for forward Olivier-Maxence Prosper, the Big East regular season and tournament champions return all of their key players. The Golden Eagles’ main problem is that their conference, which includes the defending national champions, is absolutely loaded.
- Michigan State
As a slew of blue-chip recruits join coach Tom Izzo’s gifted group of veterans, the Spartans are exceptionally well positioned for a lengthy run through the NCAAs. Tyson Walker, the all-around guard, is at the top of that list. The Big Ten appears to be a two-team race.
The 2023 national champions were decimated by attrition (unsurprisingly), but they appear to be well-prepared to navigate the roster transition with a stellar incoming class led by Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer. Good luck if you don’t get the Huskies early.
Few programs fared better in the offseason than USC, which welcomed back guard Boogie Ellis and recruited No. 1 guard Isaiah Collier. Add a talented frontcourt — keep an eye on former five-star prospect Vince Iwuchukwu — and coach Andy Enfield has arguably his best roster.
The return of guard Jamal Shead and the addition of wing LJ Cryer (from Baylor) will aid the Cougars in navigating their first season in the tough Big 12. The increased competition may hurt Houston’s seed, but it will strengthen the roster for the NCAAs.
We continue to believe that the departures of forward Azuolas Tubelis (NBA Draft) and guard Kerr Kriisa (transfer portal) will benefit the Wildcats in March, as their minutes will be distributed to tougher, more athletic players. If that means a few more early-season losses, so be it. The number of NCAA championships won will be used to measure success.
- San Diego State
How does the encore look? The NCAA Tournament runner-up must deal with rising expectations and increased scrutiny. The return of Lamont Butler, Jaedon LeDee, and Darrion Trammell, as well as the arrival (from USC) of guard Reese Dixon-Waters, who fits in perfectly with the Aztecs on both ends of the court, will help tremendously on that front.
If guard Zakai Zeigler fully recovers from his torn ACL by the time league play begins — and if they find a bit more pop offensively — the Vols will be the team to beat in the SEC.
The Bluejays return three double-digit scorers from a team that won 24 games last season and have added guard Steven Ashworth (Utah State) as a key transfer. However, one of the top-12 teams in the country is only the third-best in the Big East.
As the pressure on coach John Calipari mounts, the Wildcats have returned to their one-and-done roster construction strategy. The results were impressive: they signed three of the country’s top recruits. Big Blue should be quite dangerous by March.
Seven months after the miraculous Final Four run, our faith in FAU remains strong. Why? Because all five starters and coach Dusty May are back. However, the move to the American Athletic Conference means increased competition, more losses, and a more difficult path back to March Madness.
Meet the SEC’s most talented team, thanks to a strong recruiting class, two impact transfers (Tramon Mark from Houston and Keyon Menifield from Washington), and two outstanding returnees (Devo Davis and Trevon Brazile). Don’t write off the Hogs as a Final Four contender.
The Hurricanes have a big hole to fill after guard Isaiah Wong left, but coach Jim Larranaga’s team should be competitive. The ACC is wide open after Duke.
We simply do not see the same level of talent in Spokane that existed under coach Mark Few for years. Transfers Ryan Nembhard (Creighton) and Graham Ike (Wyoming) will help offset Drew Timme’s loss, and the WCC remains Gonzaga’s to win. However, the overall trajectory appears to be flattening.
- North Carolina
The Tar Heels fell from NCAA Tournament runners-up in 2022 to mere observers in 2023. Armando Bacot and R.J. Davis are back, but the race for second place in the ACC (behind Duke) will be decided by newcomers to Chapel Hill, including Stanford transfer Harrison Ingram and Notre Dame transplant Cormac Ryan.
The Buffaloes, who welcome back forward Tristan da Silva and guard KJ Simpson, lead the second tier of Pac-12 contenders. Two newcomers, mega-recruit Cody Williams and TCU transfer Eddie Lampkin, form a core four that should propel CU back into the NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats thrived in the transfer portal, attracting players such as Washington State’s TJ Bamba and Richmond’s Tyler Burton, to name a few. With returnees Justin Moore and Eric Dixon, the post-Jay Wright slump seen in 2023 could be short-lived.
- Texas A&M
The Aggies have won 52 games in the last two seasons but none in the NCAA tournament, putting a lot of pressure on fifth-year coach Buzz Williams. Four returning starters should be able to handle the heat.
- Saint Mary’s
The Gaels, led by guard Aidan Mahaney, one of the best players on the West Coast, should win 20 games (again) and return to the NCAA tournament. However, while the floor is high due to Randy Bennett’s excellent coaching, the ceiling is low due to a lack of high-end talent.
Any program that has averaged 26 wins per season (over the last four years) while competing in what is arguably the best league in the country deserves a spot in our rankings. However, with the departures of Adam Flagler, Keyonte George, and LJ Cryer, coach Scott Drew faces a difficult task.
- St. John’s
It should come as no surprise that Red Storm first-year coach Rick Pitino accumulated a lot of talent in a short period of time. (Oregon State transfer Glenn Taylor is on the list.) By March, we expect St. John’s to be competing in the NCAAs — and the NCAA to be investigating St. John’s.
The roster turnover was significant, but coach Mick Cronin is more than capable of making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. He won’t have much leeway, especially in what should be a close conference race. However, Westwood may surprise you on the bright side.