The Pac-12 made a loud resurgence onto the national scene during the 2021 NCAA Tournament by sending three teams to the Elite Eight, including No. 11 seed UCLA, which advanced from the First Four to the Final Four. Now, as the 2021-22 season dawns, the Bruins have swapped out their underdog status for a No. 2 national ranking and expectations of an outright league title.
While UCLA is expected to be the standard bearer for the league in 2021-22, there is hope the Pac-12 as a whole can sustain the momentum it generated in the NCAA Tournament. The league sent just three teams to the Big Dance in 2018 and 2019 but showed its potential last season as all five of its NCAA Tournament teams won at least one game in the event.
Oregon and USC should be solid again after reaching the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, respectively, last season. Oregon State also brings back several key players from a surprising Elite Eight run and looks capable of reaching another NCAA Tournament. But there are also mysteries on many of the league’s rosters as every program other than UCLA must replace its leading scorer. Let’s dive in and being to unpack what’s in store for the Pac-12.
CBS Sports Pac-12 Preseason Player of the Year
Johnny Juzang, UCLA
Juzang transferred back home to California after playing sparingly at Kentucky as a freshman in 2019-20, and he certainly won the breakup with the Wildcats. While UK struggled last season, Juzang thrived and led the Bruins to the Final Four. He averaged a stunning 22.8 points per game during the NCAA Tournament and turned down the NBA Draft to return for more. UCLA has so much talent that it would be surprising if Juzang improves on last season’s average of 16 points per game, but there’s little doubt about who will have the ball in clutch moments for the league’s consensus favorite.
CBS Sports Pac-12 Preseason Coach of the Year
Mick Cronin, UCLA
Cronin has done his best work late in the season during his first two years on the job after arriving from Cincinnati for the 2019-20 season following a wild UCLA coaching search. He wasn’t the Bruins’ first choice, but it’s clear now that he is the man for the job. He managed to keep the roster in tact upon arrival and has done so again following last season’s special Final Four run. We’ll see how the Bruins fare as the hunted team for the first time under his direction, but everything he’s done so far suggests he’ll have the Bruins ready to shine in the national spotlight.
CBS Sports Pac-12 Preseason Freshman of the Year
Peyton Watson, UCLA
Given the talent the Bruins return, Watson may not be required to carry a heavy load early. But the 6-foot-8 small forward brings a unique element of length and versatility to the wing for UCLA and could prove hard to keep away from a featured role. His potential defensive versatility should give coach Mick Cronin some lineup flexibility.
CBS Sports Pac-12 predicted order of finish
The consensus order as voted by our experts with how they voted below
Most overrated team
It feels like Wildcats’ are getting the benefit of the doubt based on their history by landing fourth in our poll. First-year coach Tommy Lloyd has never been a Division I head coach and will be baptized by fire during a non conference schedule that includes Wichita State, No. 11 Illinois, No. 18 Tennessee and potentially No. 6 Michigan. Bennedict Mathurin and Azuolas Tubelis are promising sophomores, and the Wildcats have some other potentially solid pieces. But they are too lean on veterans and proven production to be trusted as a lock for the league’s upper third.
Most underrated team
The Sun Devils were one of the most disappointing team in the nation last season, but sixth-year coach Bobby Hurley has already turned the Sun Devils around once in his tenure. In an effort to do it again, he’s overhauled his back court with transfers and newcomers. So long as he hit on a couple of them, this team will be better than eighth in the Pac-12. Getting Marcus Bagley for another season was huge after the heralded prospect dealt with injuries last season. If he stays healthy and a couple serviceable guards emerge, this team will exceed expectations.