BettorIQ’s College Basketball Betting Preview: PAC-12
Today, following our Big 12 preview, we are closing out our look at the power five conferences with a the PAC 12. Below is a brief glance at the state of the conference, as well as a more in-depth discussion of a few of the conference’s teams and major storylines.
Last season was a disaster for the PAC-12. A power conference in name only, it only managed to field three NCAA tournament teams, none of whom received a seed above the 9-line. Oregon went some length in restoring a touch of pride for the PAC-12, with a spirited run to the Sweet 16 that was more in line with its preseason #15 AP ranking. However, that was a tiny silver lining in a season of disappointment. Traditional powerhouses UCLA and Arizona were embarrassing, with the Bruins’ 73-58 home loss to Liberty standing out as a low point. Arizona struggled all season as an FBI investigation loomed over the entire program.
This season could also be bad for the PAC-12. A look at the preseason KenPom numbers paints a dire picture for a conference that can claim nothing like the talent and depth of its fellow major conferences. The top KenPom Pac-12 team is Arizona, and, while ranked 21st in the AP preseason poll, only come in at 27th in KenPom. The only other team ranked in the AP preseason poll, Oregon, also appears to be overrated by the media, as KenPom lists them at 29th. Four teams below the top 100 is unacceptable, and the bottom school, Cal, sits 179th, two spots below Brown. There are five teams in the top-50 however, so there’s a reasonable chance that the PAC-12 will at least do better than the three tournament berths earned last season.
It is somewhat telling about the confusion in the PAC-12 that the preseason PAC-12 rankings were so indecisive. Five teams received first place votes and only 100 points separate preseason title pick Oregon from 6th placed Arizona State. This is less a testament to competitive depth, and more a statement of uncertainty about what exactly the PAC-12 has here. However, Oregon at least does seem to have some potential. A return to the Sweet 16 would not be completely out of the question. The biggest reason for that is the return of their talismanic leader, Payton Pritchard. The senior point guard has had a great career and is a preseason first-team player with the potential to win Conference Player of the Year. He should have more star power to work with. He’ll be helped by JuCo transfer Chris Duarte, who has NBA talent, and N’Faly Dante, although he will not be eligible until mid-December. Throw in highly-touted freshman C.J. Walker and there’s plenty of top-end talent for respected coach Dana Altman to mold into a potential contender.
It could be tough sledding at first. Altman voiced his displeasure after a scrimmage, saying, “It was just bad basketball,” Altman said. “They’re just running up and down shooting it, it’s not the way we play. Got us out in front of people, which is good and gave us an opportunity to work on a few things conditioning-wise I guess.” The opening game against Fresno State was a bit sloppy. Oregon turned the ball over 13 times and shot 1-for-13 from three. 41.7% at home to the Bulldogs is not good enough. Oregon won by 14 and failed to cover the line of -14.5. There may be value in fading Oregon early, especially while the media perception of them as a top-15 team outstrips where they might be execution-wise at the beginning of the year. If Dante arrives as advertised, there could be some betting opportunities toward the end of 2019.
Just how far have the Bruins fallen? They start the year ranked 107th in KenPom’s preseason ranking, sandwiched between the aforementioned Fresno State Bulldogs and the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. Picked to finish 8th in the PAC-12, this is a much-needed rebuilding year for new Head Coach Mick Cronin. The transition impacted recruiting, as the Bruins only managed to sang a single top-100 recruit, the 95th ranked Jamie Jaquez Jr. while having to watch as USC got two top-20 players, including Isaiah Mobley. Mobley will be joined by his brother Evan, the top recruit for 2020, next year. UCLA have lost plenty of ground in California, and will look to Cronin to build a culture upon which the program can claw its way back.
UCLA could have done much worse than Cronin. It is a testament to the scale of the task and the long-term nature of it, that UCLA resisted the idea of making some high-profile, splashy hire to sugarcoat over the bigger systemic problems that plague the program. Cronin built a rock-solid program at Cincinnati, one in which he fostered an atmosphere of competitiveness and hard work desperately needed at UCLA. Cronin’s teams are notoriously hard-nosed and difficult to play against, and if Cronin can start out by getting buy-in on the defensive end of the floor, there will be a light to see at the end of the tunnel. Cronin looks to bring tough coaching, but positive energy to UCLA. “The one thing, I’m not throwing curve balls. I don’t have a lot of tricks. I don’t have a doghouse. I don’t even have a dog. If I don’t like it, I’m going to tell you. You need to listen, and then two plays later you can’t be over there — you’ve got to get back in the game. So I think you’ve got to create men that can deal — part of our job is to create young men that can deal with things and move on and not hang their heads. I think that’s the biggest part of what I’ve been trying to do for the last five months with these guys, and I think that’s the biggest key to us having a successful season this year.”
There is still pedigree on this roster, and if Cronin finds a committed group, they could exceed expectations and present real value this season. If you’re looking for a player to key in on, look no further than point guard Tyger Campbell. A former McDonald’s All-American, Campbell himself seems to have bought in. Desperate to prove himself after an ACL tear, he has the potential to provide the solid lead guard play that has defined so many Mick Cronin teams. There’s plenty of size, and seven returning players who logged over 10 minutes per game last year. Shaquille O’Neal’s son Shareef is also healthy enough to return, and shows again that there’s still some star power in Inglewood. This will be a truly fascinating team to watch.
There is perhaps no team better positioned to bring back some of the national attention the PAC-12 craves after a lost season like 2018-19. One of the flagship programs of this conference, Arizona has been beset by scandal, and the results on the floor have reflected that. The Wildcats’ 8-10 conference record was the worst since Lute Olson took the reins in 1983. The 17-15 overall record was easily the worst for Head Coach Sean Miller since a 16-15 record in his first year on the job in 2009.
But, there’s a good chance some degree of order will be restored at Arizona this year. Expectations are high for one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, headlined by top-10 recruits Josh Green and Nico Mannion. Both players could find themselves lottery picks in next year’s NBA draft. They’ll be anchored by fellow recruit Zeke Nnaji. After missing a exhibition against Chico State, it appears top-40 ranked recruit Nnaji will play against Northern Arizona. “Zeke is a beast on both ends of the floor,” senior guard Max Hazzard said. “Coming from the Big West, you don’t see guys that big, that skilled that often. I was surprised at how good he is. He still surprises me everyday and I can’t wait for all you guys to see that.”
Miller knows this is a work in progress, and the name recognition and preseason ranking may lead to value opportunities to fade Arizona, as they work out the kinks. Miller said, “Based on having eight new players and what we went through a year ago, it would not surprise me, if we don’t take a few lumps in the month of November and December. But I do believe we have a much bigger upside, a higher ceiling.”