By Andy Katz
FOX Sports College Basketball Analyst
SAN FRANCISCO — Mick Cronin and Andy Enfield happened to be eating breakfast together as the Pac-12 head coaches settled into their seats in a conference room at the Pac-12 network headquarters prior to media day Wednesday.
The UCLA and USC coaches have two more seasons in the Pac-12 — this one and next — before their schools move to the Big Ten.
But while the pending departures are naturally a sore subject in the league, neither the coaches nor their programs are being ostracized.
The intimacy of the Pac-12 media day — arguably the most efficiently run media day among the Power 5 conferences — lends itself to casual conversations, hangouts and overall congeniality among the dozen head coaches.
Not one coach affected, as in the other 10, by the departure of two of the four biggest brands in the conference (the other two in men’s hoops being Arizona and Oregon) appear to have any ill will toward Cronin or Enfield.
The fans on the road could be a different story, but you won’t find any distancing among the peers.
And that’s what should happen. UCLA is the clear favorite to win the Pac-12. USC, picked fourth, has a squad likely bound for the NCAAs yet again. Sandwiched in the middle are the Wildcats and Ducks, rivals of both schools in the past few seasons as they have all jockeyed for control of the league.
The Pac-12 needs UCLA and USC to be who they are and have been recently — conference title contenders. The Bruins have the two most recognizable players in Jaime Jaquez Jr., and Tyger Campbell, both contenders for Pac-12 Player of the Year. They both played in the Final Four two seasons ago, and if Jaquez hadn’t hurt his ankle last season in the second round against Saint Mary’s, then UCLA might have taken out North Carolina and ultimately Saint Peter’s en route to back-to-back Final Fours. Campbell is one of the most reliable ballhandlers in the league, as well as a defensive pest who can jump-start a transition game.
USC isn’t too far behind in experience, with the return of Drew Peterson and Boogie Ellis, and having both LA schools as locks for Quad 1 games for each Pac-12 opponent is going to help any other NCAA Tournament cases. Assuming Oregon is back to being Oregon and Arizona doesn’t dip much at all, then the rivalry games among the four teams should be appointment viewing this season.
There is a quiet confidence about the Ducks bouncing back and again ascending toward the top of the league. There is also a not-so-subtle boastfulness from Arizona’s Kerr Kriisa. He’s bullish on the Wildcats and didn’t hesitate to call me out for not including the Wildcats in my preseason top 25.
The fifth spot is wide open with Stanford, Colorado and Arizona State all legitimately claiming they’ve got NCAA Tournament-caliber squads. This isn’t to say they can’t finish higher, but there are still questions among all three. Yes, this was a preseason media day, but each coach and multiple players didn’t hesitate to mention their postseason potential once prompted.
Washington State, Washington, Utah, Cal and Oregon State are still in reshuffling mode, and a run to an NCAA Tournament bid would certainly put them ahead of schedule with their current rosters.
What we know is that UCLA and USC are out in 2024-25. The league is leaving the Pac-12 Network offices after this season and relocating to a remote workforce and a new studio home still to be announced. But what won’t change is the Bruins and Trojans being in the thick of a title chase.
Andy Katz is a longtime college basketball writer, analyst and host. He can be seen on the Big Ten Network, as well as March Madness and NCAA.com, and he hosts the podcast “March Madness 365.” Katz worked at ESPN for nearly two decades and, prior to that, in newspapers for nine years.
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