Top Pac-12 Returning Guards: #1 – McKinley Wright. Jr., Colorado

Today, we are finishing up our Pac-12 returning guards countdown with our #1 ranking – our final player feature to be published until after NBA Draft decisions that are made. This #1 slot belongs to a player who will undoubtedly be the favorite to win the Pac-12 Player of the Year if he returns for the 2020-2021 season in McKinley Wright of Colorado. Wright is not a projected draft pick right now, but he has not withdrawn from the draft process after hiring an NCAA-approved agent in May. One Pac-12 coach said of Wright: “If he returns, he could be next year’s Payton Pritchard”. Pritchard was the conference Player of the Year this past season and saw his draft skyrocket from on the outside looking in to a potential early 2nd-round pick. 

The hype is real and warranted for Wright, who proved to be one of the most versatile guards in the country during his junior season for the Buffalo. An effective three-year starter in Colorado, the Minnesota native averaged 14.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 5.0 assists on 45% shooting over the course of the year, putting Colorado in position for an NCAA Tournament berth, had the season made it that far. It would have been Colorado’s first tournament appearance since 2016. 

Wright kicked off his season with an impressive effort in a conference game versus Arizona State, posting 17 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists. The turn of the calendar was good to Wright, who was on fire in late December and early January, torching opposing defenses for three double-doubles in four contests. He started this streak with a 29-point, 10 rebound effort against #13 Dayton in an overtime victory and notched double-doubles against Oregon State and Iona as well. 

Sandwiched between those two games was a 21-point showing against #4 Oregon. His successful streak also kicked off an absurd end-of-year run that saw him notch at least 10 points in 21 of his final 22 games. Consistency was the name of the game, as despite playing alongside projected first round pick Tyler Bey, Wright took advantage of his opportunities and consistently turned in impressive efforts for the Buffalo. He notched three more double-doubles, against Washington State, Oregon State, and Stanford and ended the year averaging 18 points and 8 rebounds over his last five games. If that hot streak and his overall consistency rolls over into a potential senior campaign, Wright should be the odds-on favorite for the Player of the Year award in the Pac-12, and become a very intriguing draft prospect in 2021.

Top Returning Pac-12 Guards: #2 – Ethan Thompson, Oregon State

The Pac-12 is full of question marks regarding the 2020 season right now. And these question marks don’t only relate to if and when and how the season will be played, but the vast uncertainty regarding which of the conference’s top players will be making a re-appearance at the collegiate level. With the delayed draft came an extended deadline for players to make this announcement, and while it has created question marks in most conferences, we’re seeing it affect the Pac-12 in a particularly tough way. Yesterday we featured in our countdown of the top returning guards Chris Smith of UCLA, slotting in at #3 in our rankings. Smith is yet to make a decision regarding the NBA Draft, and the same goes for our top two returning guards in the countdown. Today’s feature belongs to Oregon State star Ethan Thompson, who, if he returns, will be one of the top returning scorers in the conference. Thompson declared for the 2019 NBA Draft and withdrew, and he declared for the 2020 draft as well, and his status is still in limbo as of this moment. With Oregon State’s top scorer and rebounder graduated, Thompson, who led the Beavers in assists in 2019, will also be the team’s top returner in points and rebounds. Oregon State will be desperately hoping their three-year starter comes back for one more run with the bulls in the Pac-12. The Beavers haven’t cracked the AP Top 25 since 1990, and only one NCAA Tournament appearance in that time. If they hope to end such a run, they absolutely need Thompson on the court in 2020-21.

Thompson finished a strong junior campaign with career bests in points (14.8 ppg), assists (4.5) and steals (1.3) while also posting 4.2 rebounds per contest on excellent 46% shooting from the field. He features a great scoring touch from the start of the year, with his efforts in non-conference play highlighted by a 25-point performance against North Dakota and a 17-point, 7-rebound, 5-assist showing against Oklahoma. He heated up as conference season commenced, posting 89 points and 19 assists in his four three Pac-12 clashes, which included two road contests and a battle versus a ranked Arizona team. A mid-season slump from three-point range (5-25 in a seven-game stretch) dented Thompson’s averages, but he would rally in impressive fashion. Thompson notched 15 points against the #14 Oregon Ducks in early Feburary, giving the Beavers their signature win of the year. He followed up that game with his lone double-double of the year, collecting 13 points and 11 rebounds against Utah. Those two contests sparked a nine-game streak of double-digit scoring efforts to end the Oregon State season. He knocked down critical free throws in an opening-round victory in the Pac-12 Tournament, but the season was cancelled before the Beavers got a chance to stun the world against Oregon in the quarterfinals.
Ultimately Oregon State’s season was doomed by two untimely four-game skids, without which they were 18-5. Both they and Thompson finished on hot streaks and looked very impressive outside their mid-season slump. It could be a bright season for the Beavers if Thompson decides to give the collegiate game one last spin.

Top Returning Pac-12 Guards: #3 – Chris Smith, UCLA

We’ve hit the #3 slot in our top returning Pac-12 guards countdown, and after two straight Oregon guards to kick off our rankings, we head away from Eugene and down to sunny Los Angeles for our third feature. Coming in at #3 in this Pac-12 countdown is Chris Smith of UCLA, who averaged 13.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game on 46% shooting from the field. For Smith, a change in coaching proved crucial in sparking his breakout collegiate campaign, as he was hardly on the Pac-12 radar, let alone in a national spotlight after two relatively nondescript seasons.. However, as the Bruins rapidly improved under first-year head Mick Cronin, so did Smith, who led the Pac-12 runner-ups in scoring, while earning a first-team all conference selection and the Pac-12 Most Improved Player award. Smith declared for the NBA draft this past spring, but he did not hire an agent and maintains his eligibility if he decides to return. This ranking at #3 is working under the assumption that Smith comes back for his senior season. Currently ranked the 65th best available prospect in the draft, Smith appears to be a fringe selection if he stays with the draft. Staying for a final season with Cronin could see his stock shoot up towards first-round value. 

After averaging under 20 minutes per game in both his freshman and sophomore years, Smith became the go-to-guy in the UCLA offense this past season. Averaging 28.3 minutes on the court per game, Smith improved his shooting from 40 to 46% and from 28% to 34% from beyond the arc, allowing him to post more consistent performances throughout the season. Smith put up solid numbers out of the gate, but UCLA faced a watered-down non-confernece schedule that featured just one ranked opponent, so his improved efforts were hardly considered a major headline at the time. However, he truly broke out in the Pac-12 opener at Washington, as he dropped 17 points on the Huskies, while ripping down 12 rebounds and dishing out five assists, giving the Bruins a critical road win to start their conference season. He did all his damage inside the arc, shooting 8-12 from 2-point range. He followed that performance up with a 22-point torching of Washington State and another double-double against USC, who finished 3rd in the Pac-12. 

Smith’s early domination of the Pac-12 was certainly a nod to his marked improvement in his junior season, but it wasn’t until January 30, with UCLA sitting at 3-4 in conference play and welcoming #20 Colorado onto their court, that Smith delivered his signature effort of the year. In a critical game for the Bruins, the Chicago product shot 8-11 from two-point range and cooly sank 13 of 15 free throws en route to a 30-point effort, which he complemented with nine rebounds and three steals. UCLA won the game, 72-68, and proceeded to rip off a 9-1 run in their next ten games to rise near the top of the Pac-12 standings. 

Smith continued to torch the Pac-12, racking up another double-double against Washington State and shooting a combined 7-13 from three-point range in key road victories against Arizona and Colorado, helping UCLA earn a #2 seed in the Pac-12 tournament. The cancellation of the conference tournament and March Madness deprived basketball fans of the Pac-12’s newest star shine in the postseason, but should Smith come back for his senior season, he should be making headlines as one of the best in the business, both in the Pac-12 and in the country.

Top Returning Pac-12 Guards: #4 – Chris Duarte, Oregon

We’re back to our top returning guards in the Pac-12 countdown and we’re coming back with our second straight Oregon Duck. Yesterday, we slotted St. Johns transfer L.J. Figueroa at #5 in our rankings, and today, Chris Duarte is the man of the hour, coming in at #4 in the countdown. Duarte, like Figueroa, is a premier defender, coming off a season in which he ranked second in the Pac-12 with 1.7 steals per game. With Figueroa, the defending steals leader in the Big East, and Duarte, the Ducks have possibly the most fearsome defensive backcourt in the league. Duarte’s offensive numbers in 2019 didn’t pop off the chart, as he played second-fiddle in the Oregon offense to Pac-12 player of the year Payton Pritchard. However, Duarte still averaged 12.9 points per game, while crashing the boards for 5.6 rebounds a contest, both marks ranking second on the team. With Pritchard off to the NBA, Duarte will be the go-to-guy in Eugene, and expect his numbers to take a jump across the board. 

Duarte didn’t always get the most opportunities last season, but when he did, he showed what he’s capable of, and that should have Oregon fans for this coming winter. In an early-season overtime loss to #6 Gonzaga, Duarte posted 16 points and 9 rebounds, and when conference season picked up, so did Duarte’s numbers. In a three-game Pac-12 winning streak against Utah, Arizona State, and #24 Arizona, Duarte combined for 51 points and 21 rebounds. Three games later, he put forth his signature effort of the year, facing Pac-12 contenders USC in a game that went to two overtimes. Duarte dropped 30 points on the Trojans, while collecting 11 rebounds for his lone double-double of the year. If that wasn’t enough, the junior guard was a terror defensively, notching eight steals. He followed it up with 24 points and 6 steals against UCLA. Those two efforts against the two next-best teams in the conference should thrill Oregon fans, who were looking primed for a Final Four run behind Pritchard, but Duarte looks up to the task.

Duarte’s biggest hindrance to big efforts were his three-point shot. He shot 34% from deep on the year, but in an 8-game stretch that lasted from the Utah game to the UCLA clash, he shot 44% on his 3-point offerings and averaged over 18 points per game. If he keeps that type of consistency in 2020-21, both he and the Ducks have an extremely high ceiling.

Top Returning Pac-12 Guards: #5 – LJ Figueroa, Oregon

When playing in a Power-6 conference in college basketball, winning road games is absolutely critical to building a successful season. With a bevy of hostile environments throughout the country, nearly every team finds it necessary to steal some victories away from home. To win such games, you need players that thrive in the spotlight and can silence opposing crowds. That’s the asset that LJ Figueroa, the senior transfer for Oregon, who averaged 14.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game, brings to the table. On the road, Figueroa notched 16.4 points away from home en route to being the leading scorer for the Red Storm on the year. As Figueroa prepares for his senior campaign on the opposite coast, he slots in as our #5 returning guard in the Pac-12.

As the Red Storm coasted to a 10-2 start to non-conference play against a relatively weak schedule, Figueroa put up solid numbers, highlighted by a 25-point effort against UNH and 23-point showing versus Brown. In their first premier contest of the season, St. Johns battled #16 Arizona in a neutral-court clash, and Figueroa shined, finishing with 21 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 steals.

On the year, the Red Storm star led the conference with 1.9 steals per game. Later in the year, against #18 Seton Hall, Figueroa posted an astounding 7 steals, complementing a 16-point, 5-rebound effort. Figueroa’s season was highlighted by some truly impressive road performances at Depaul (28 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists), Georgetown (23 points, 5 rebounds), and at #16 Seton Hall (19 points, 4 rebound). He punctuated an impressive season that saw him near the top ten in overall scoring in the conference with a huge performance in a Big East Tournament victory against Georgetown, notching 22 points against the Hoyas, who had defeated the Red Storm twice during the season. 

Figueroa, if he gets the waiver for immediate eligibility, should fit quite well into Oregon’s system, and at the surface, he is landing in a much better situation in Eugene. The Ducks are replacing a projected second-round pick and Pac-12 player of the year Payton Pritchard, but with the dynamic returning guard in Chris Duarte and the acquisition of Figuero, Oregon figures to be near the top of the Pac-12 again and mixing into the national title conversation as the season winds on. 

Pac-12 Status Report: Struggles On The Bubble

Last year, the Pac-12 sent just 3 teams to the NCAA tournament, the fewest of any Power-6 conference, and this year looks to be more of the same, unless some of the teams stuck in the mud can get unstuck really fast. As a whole, the conference is struggling, featuring just three ranked teams and just one in the Top 20. Arizona is still the title favorite in my mind, but Oregon and Colorado also seem like viable candidates. Identifying biggest risers and fallers is difficult in a conference where every team seems to be playing with consistent mediocrity, but here is our best shot:

Biggest Risers: USC

  • The Trojans actually lead the Pac-12 with a 4-1 mark in conference play, but that one loss was a 32-point demolition, suffered at the hands of the Washington Huskies. USC responded to that with three straight wins – but two of those were against UCLA and Cal, two of the worst teams in the league. Saturday’s home victory over Stanford showcased USC’s potential, but whether they’re a tournament team is somewhat undecided.

Biggest Fallers: Oregon State

  • I listed the Beavers as a team that, while a title seemed unlikely, could make a decent run in the conference tournament, especially given their 17-point win over Arizona. Oregon State followed this with two straight losses. Although their road loss to a solid Washington team can be excused, I cannot justify their 13-point loss to Washington State – quite possibly the worst team the conference and at the very least in the bottom echelon of teams. In a league with a core top 3 teams and a definitive ‘basement tier’, such a bad loss will quickly move you into the biggest faller category.

Quick Hits

  • Right now, I’m going to predict exactly 3 teams to make the NCAA tournament out of the Pac-12. Outside of Arizona, Oregon, and Colorado, I just don’t feel comfortable picking another of these squads to crack the field.
  • On the bubble, I’m listing 5 teams in order of how I rate their chances: Stanford, USC, Washington, Arizona State, and Oregon State.
  • As for teams that have no chance, I believe there are already four that have played themselves out of contention – Utah, UCLA, Washington State, and Cal.

Biggest Upcoming Games

  • USC @ Oregon State
  • UCLA @ #12 Oregon
  • Stanford @ Cal