Pac-12 men’s basketball: Five predictions for the 2022-23 season

One of the best phrases in sports can now be said: The offseason is over.

The 2022-23 college basketball season starts Monday. Gone are the exhibitions; in are the games where the results matter.

For its part, the Pac-12 has a lot of interesting storylines. While some key players like Bennedict Mathurin, Johnny Juzang, Peyton Watson and Jabari Walker left college for the pros at the end of last season, there are still quality veterans and a few highly-heralded freshmen eager to take their place among the elite of the conference.

Program-wise, it could prove to be a close race down the stretch for the title, as there are quite a few contenders in this deep conference.

With that, here are five predictions for the Pac-12 as we head into the 2022-23 college basketball season.

UCLA wins the Pac-12 regular season title

Jan 22, 2022; Boulder, Colorado, USA; UCLA Bruins guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. (24) stops the ball from going out in the first half against the Colorado Buffaloes at the CU Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

I know. Picking the favorite. Not exactly going out on a limb here.

But the Bruins haven’t given me a reason to go against the grain.

Admittedly, they did lose five key players from last year in guards Johnny Juzang and Peyton Watson, forwards Jules Bernard and Cody Riley and center Myles Johnson, but UCLA does return a lot of depth in Jaylen Clark, David Singleton, Kenneth Nwuba and Mac Etienne.

Add in the returns of Naismith Player of the Year candidate Jaime Jaquez, one of the nation’s top point guards in Tyger Campbell, the addition of five-star guard Amari Bailey — widely expected to be a one-and-done — and two other highly touted freshmen in Adem Bona and Will McClendon, and UCLA has an embarrassment of riches.

Arizona and Oregon could each provide a fight, but I still expect the Bruins to win the regular season crown and be a national title contender.

Kerr Kriisa to win Pac-12 Player of the Year

Mar 24, 2022; San Antonio, TX, USA; Arizona Wildcats guard Kerr Kriisa (25) against Houston Cougars guard Jamal Shead (1) during the first half in the semifinals of the South regional of the men’s college basketball NCAA Tournament at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

For all the praise I just heaped on UCLA, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pac-12 Player of the Year comes from outside Westwood. The Bruins rely on multiple players to play their roles well instead of running things through one star.

With that out of the way, Arizona guard Kerr Kriisa could take a major leap in his junior season. Bennedict Mathurin is now gone and Kriisa could play on the ball more than he has in his first two seasons in Tucson.

A combination of the offense being run more through Kriisa and his being on a winning team increases the opportunity of him being named Pac-12 Player of the Year. Add in the fact that Kriisa has shown the ability to be a sharpshooter from three and a good defender, I expect Kriisa to leap firmly into the Pac-12 echelon and take home player of the year honors.

It’s a bold prediction, sure. But for the preseason All-Pac-12 second-team selection with boom or bust traits, I think this is the year Kriisa gets the opportunity to play the true leading role for the Wildcats and takes full advantage of it.

Colorado will make the NCAA Tournament

Oct 26, 2022; San Francisco, CA, USA; Colorado Buffaloes coach Tad Boyle during Pac-12 Media Day at Pac-12 Network Studios. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It’d certainly be a leap for Colorado, especially with the losses of Jabari Walker and Evan Battey, but the Buffs have the potential to put together a good showing in the regular season.

The returns of Tristan da Silva and KJ Simpson will likely prove to be key for the Buffaloes, and J’Vonne Hadley showed his ability to score in their exhibition win over Nebraska. Nique Clifford is another versatile player for Colorado who shows good instincts defensively and the ability to make an impact on the boards. Lawson Lovering is going to be a player to watch throughout the season for the Buffs as he takes on an increased role, but if the 7-foot center translates his defensive potential into production in regular season play, Colorado will have a formidable starting five. Bench depth is a question, but those five should be enough for Colorado to win games early on.

A big litmus test is on the horizon for the Buffs when they travel to Knoxville on Nov. 13 to play No. 11 Tennessee.

The Pac-12 will produce six NCAA Tournament teams

Feb 19, 2022; Stanford, California, USA; Stanford Cardinal forward Spencer Jones (14) controls the ball against Colorado Buffaloes guard KJ Simpson (2) during the second half at Maples Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

The Pac-12’s core four — UCLA, Arizona, Oregon and USC — are locks for March Madness, barring either a deluge of injuries or a meteor striking Earth, which would make the entire Pac-12 men’s basketball season a rather moot point anyway.

The question is, can the Pac-12 earn two more berths?

I already made the case for Colorado earlier, which likely leaves the conference’s hope at a sixth NCAA Tournament invite up to Stanford.

Coming off his Pac-12 Freshman of the Year rookie season, Harrison Ingram returns to Palo Alto, along with fellow All-Pac-12 first-team member Spencer Jones and guard Michael Jones, who put up 12 points per game last season in his own right. While Stanford’s depth could be tested, that trio is good enough to win games for the Cardinal on some nights.

UCLA's Mick Cronin will win Pac-12 Coach of the Year

Jan 8, 2022; Berkeley, California, USA; UCLA Bruins head coach Mick Cronin calls out from the sideline during the second half against the California Golden Bears at Haas Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Usually, the Pac-12 Coach of the Year honor goes to a coach of a team that comes out of relative obscurity to have a good season.

Mick Cronin, the coach of the Pac-12 favorite No. 8 Bruins, would go against that logic, but UCLA has the potential to put together a season the likes it hasn’t seen since the mid-2000s. Yes, an even better season than their surprising run to the Final Four in 2021 could be on deck.

If Cronin’s Bruins win games as they should, and show the defensive intensity that has been a hallmark of the program since he took the job in 2020, UCLA will win a strong Pac-12 Conference and could challenge for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. If UCLA has a season that impressive, the choice at that point would be pretty clear.

For the Bruins, it’s just a matter of putting it all together.

Further reading

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