We’re halfway through the 2020–21 college basketball regular season, and conference play is well underway across the country. As teams jockey for position both in their own league standings and for NCAA tournament seeding, Sports Illustrated is checking in on the seven major conferences in men’s college hoops (American, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC) this week to see where each stands and how it has shaped up compared with preseason expectations.
State of the conference
A look at the latest AP Top 25 poll shows a modest Pac-12 presence: Only Oregon (No. 21) and UCLA (No. 24) make the cut. But the advanced metrics paint a more favorable picture. The conference’s best team based on KenPom’s rankings is actually Colorado (No. 17), while USC (No. 21) also cracks the top 25. By the same metrics, UCLA has the nation’s ninth-most efficient offense, while USC and Stanford each rank in the top 20 defensively. The Pac-12 also fares well from an individual talent perspective, with three projected lottery picks in SI’s latest mock draft. The point is that this league has a strong core of teams that seem like safe NCAA tournament bets, while also boasting an elite collection of top-end players who should make a splash at the next level. That might not be the most conclusive way to measure conference success, but it’s a step up from where the Pac-12 has stood in the recent past.
Biggest surprise: USC
Of USC’s top eight players in terms of minutes played this season, only two—sophomore forwards Isaiah Mobley and Max Agbonkpolo—played for the Trojans last year. The rest are all new pieces, centered around freshman big man phenom Evan Mobley. A slew of transfers have gelled together much more seamlessly than anticipated, and the result has been one of the most disruptive defensive teams in the country, one that ranks first in the Pac-12 and eighth nationally in blocked shots per game (5.8).
The younger Mobley has been as good as advertised, but perhaps as critical a development has been the play of Rice transfer Drew Peterson. The 6’ 8” guard leads the team in assists (3.5 per game) and three-point percentage (43.2%), providing playmaking and scoring for an offense that can at times be stagnant. The Trojans appear poised to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017.
Biggest disappointment: Arizona State
After being picked second in the Pac-12 preseason media poll, Arizona State has struggled to find its footing this season. The team’s headliners have produced—Josh Christopher, Remy Martin, Alonzo Verge and Marcus Bagley all average over 13 points and 30 minutes per game—but overall there’s been a lack of rhythm to this team, which isn’t necessarily surprising given the Sun Devils went three weeks without a game while dealing with COVID-19 issues within the program. Arizona State has been close in all three of its conference losses, two of which came without Martin in the lineup. There’s still time for a turnaround, but improvements must be made quickly, particularly on the glass: Arizona State ranks 331st in the country in rebounding margin.
Current favorite: UCLA
UCLA is the lone unbeaten team in conference play, an especially impressive feat considering the loss of senior guard Chris Smith to a season-ending ACL tear. The Bruins are the Pac-12’s best three-point shooting team, and their strength lies in their four-guard lineup consisting of Tyger Campbell, Jaime Jaquez, Jules Bernard and Johnny Juzang. Despite the offensive prowess and relatively smaller lineup, UCLA doesn’t race up and down the floor, ranking 335th nationally in tempo. The Bruins force opponents into playing their style and take care of the basketball, as they have the second-best assist-to-turnover ratio in the league. UCLA won’t run the table in the Pac-12, but for the first time in a while, the path to the conference crown runs through Westwood.
Top challengers: USC and Oregon
USC has the talent to compete with most teams in the nation and the length to provide matchup problems across the board, so the Feb. 6 crosstown showdown with UCLA is one to circle. Oregon, meanwhile, hasn’t played since Jan. 9 after shutting down due to COVID-19 protocols. That layoff has somewhat tempered what’s been an impressive season from senior guard Chris Duarte, who leads the team with 18.4 points per game on 45.6% shooting on three-point attempts. He and Rutgers transfer Eugene Omoruyi (16.9 points per game) are the highest-scoring duo in the Pac-12.
Dark horse: Colorado
The Buffaloes suffered a bad loss to last-place Washington on Wednesday, dropping them to 5–3 in conference play. Senior guard McKinley Wright IV was uncharacteristically cold, going 4 for 12 from the field, while Washington was 12 for 25 (48%) on three-point attempts. Coming into the game, the Huskies ranked 11th in the conference in outside shooting (30.9%), so we can chalk this up to a bit of a fluky night. Colorado is a well-rounded, experienced group and the best free throw shooting team in the nation (84.2%), which should serve the Buffaloes well in tight conference games. A home stand against the Los Angeles schools at the end of February could mark a pivotal stretch to decide the Pac-12 race.
NCAA tournament outlook
At present, the Pac-12 appears to have four teams tracking nicely toward NCAA tournament bids in UCLA, Oregon, USC and Colorado. Stanford is looming on the bubble and needs to start picking up key wins, especially after the Cardinal were swept on the road at Utah and Colorado. None of these teams is likely to vaunt itself up to a top seed line—Bracket Matrix currently has Colorado as a No. 4 seed, with the Bruins, Ducks and Trojans all as No. 6 seeds.
That feels about right, and though there isn’t a Final Four-or-bust team in the mix, there’s a lot of upside and intrigue to this group. The league hasn’t had more than four teams make the field since 2016, and just one Pac-12 team has made it to the Sweet 16 in the past two tournaments (Oregon in 2019). Getting five teams in would feel like something of a triumph, but the conference will be judged by how many squads can advance to the second weekend. The Pac-12 has the talent to make a good showing—now it needs the production to match it.