Top-10 recruiting classes for both schools will make for some of the most exciting basketball of the year.
After an 0-3 NCAA tournament campaign last season, Bill Walton’s Conference of Champions is in a stronger position for the 2018-19 season.
Arizona will be weaker than usual after losing its starting five, but Oregon and UCLA have reloaded with the third and sixth best recruiting classes in the country, respectively, per 247sports. Likewise, Arizona State has returned key players and recruited the 11th best class.
But the Sun Devils, as exciting as they are, aren’t the real story here. If there’s one thing the 2016-17 season taught us, it’s that college basketball is better when the Ducks and Bruins are battling for Pac-12 bragging rights. A strong combination of freshmen and upperclassmen will make this season an unforgettable one, much like Lonzo Ball and Bryce Alford or Payton Pritchard and Dillon Brooks did in 2016-17.
In order to see how these teams will match up during the upcoming season, I’ll first run through the changes each team has made, then I’ll show how the lineups compare in their strengths and weaknesses.
UCLA (21-12, 11-7)
Losses: Aaron Holiday (20.3 PPG, 5.8 APG), Thomas Welsh (12.6 PPG, 10.8 RPG), Gyorgy Goloman (7.1 PPG, 4.2 RPG)
Returning: Kris Wilkes (13.7 PPG, 4.9 RPG), Jaylen Hands (9.9 PPG, 2.6 APG), Prince Ali (9.1 PPG, 3.1 RPG), Chris Smith (3.9 PPG, 1.9 RPG), Alex Olesinski (4.5 PPG, 3.9 RPG)
Recruits: Moses Brown (C), Shareef O’Neal (PF), Jules Bernard (SG), David Singleton (SG), Tyger Campbell (PG), Kenneth Nwuba (C)
The Bruins have big holes to fill. However, one of the nation’s most-balanced recruiting classes—including a point guard, two shooting guards, a power forward, and two centers—will help this team not only survive but also improve on last season.
It’s no secret the Bruins will miss now-pro point guard Aaron Holiday. He was their threat from all over the floor, posting a 61% true shooting percentage and shooting 43% from deep in his junior season with the team. Holiday was also a premier passer with his 30% assist rate.
The Bruins won’t be in trouble at the point guard position, though. Jaylen Hands is a very capable replacement after he proved as a freshman he can command the floor and score like Holiday. Four-star recruit Tyger Campbell also helps the Bruins’ case, bringing superb court vision and deep three-point range to the table. Thanks to Hands and Campbell, the Bruins have as much depth at point guard as they could hope for without Holiday.
Prince Ali’s return gives the squad stability at the shooting guard position as well. While Ali is not spectacular in any aspect of his game, he is a solid two-guard who rebounds and shoots a respectable 36% from deep. There’s not much more you can ask, and his two years of experience will be valuable for this young team.
Besides Ali, four-star guards Jules Bernard and David Singleton add very nice size and skill to the position. Bernard is a great slashing guard who can rebound and play defense—although he could improve his long-range jumper. Singleton is an all-around scorer with a lethal jumpshot and the ability to score at all three levels.
The unique skillsets of Ali, Bernard, and Singleton make this trio the deepest two-guard platoon in the nation. Working alongside the crafty and explosive Hands and Campbell, the UCLA guard corps is absolutely loaded.
Thomas Welsh and Gyorgy Goloman have left UCLA, taking with them major consistency from the Bruins’ frontcourt. Welsh, a seven-foot rebounding machine with the best mid-range jumper in the nation, was a constant stabilizer for the UCLA offense. Goloman, while also a capable scorer and rebounder, provided more help on the defensive end. The absence of his 5.5% block rate will make it easier for opponents to convert in the paint. That is, if it weren’t for recruits Shareef O’Neal and Moses Brown.
At seven feet tall, Brown is known for his excellent rim protection and timing in shot-blocking. Brown has proven his ability against top-level talent in the Under Armour Association circuit in 2017, putting up roughly 14 points and nine rebounds per game, along with two blocks. As one of the best players in his class, Brown will shore up the UCLA frontcourt and make an immediate difference with his prowess in the post. He’ll have the help of big man Shareef O’Neal as well.
Like Shaq (his father), O’Neal is known as a prime-time shot-blocker and finisher at the rim. But Shareef also adds a sweet jump-shot to the mix. Averaging 27 PPG his senior season, O’Neal is not afraid to pop treys. Shareef’s step-out ability gives the UCLA offense extreme versatility.
UCLA’s young post stars complement returners Chris Wilkes and Alex Olesinski nicely. Wilkes aids the balanced offense with his ability to score from anywhere, rarely turning over the ball. Olesinski adds a nice option near the rim, along with seven-foot recruit Kenneth Nwuba. Just like its guard corps, UCLA’s post corps is balanced and stacked.
Over all, the Bruins’ recruiting class has the potential to be a top-25 team if they can learn the college game quickly and produce. Their depth makes them a threat not only in the Pac-12 but also throughout college hoops. But the Oregon Ducks are headed in the same direction, and the conference certainly does not belong to the Bruins.
Oregon (23-13, 10-8)
Losses: Troy Brown (11.3 PPG, 6.2 RPG), Elijah Brown (13.6 PPG, 3.3 RPG), MiKyle McIntosh (11.8 PPG, 6.1 RPG)
Returning: Payton Pritchard (14.5 PPG, 4.8 APG), Paul White (9.4 PPG, 3.5 RPG), Kenny Wooten (6.4 PPG, 4.5 RPG), Victor Bailey (6.7 PPG, 1.7 RPG)
Recruits: Bol Bol (C), Louis King (SF), Miles Norris (PF), Francis Okoro (C), Will Richardson (SG)
The Ducks certainly have holes of their own to fill after losing three of five starters. Troy Brown and MiKyle McIntosh combined to make a fearsome rebounding duo who could also finish at the rim and step out for deep jumpers. Without them, the Ducks will be searching for versatile options in the post.
Luckily for them, top-20 players Bol Bol and Louis King will join the team along with top-75 players Miles Norris and Francis Okoro. If Oregon can find shorts long enough for Bol to wear, he’ll be a steady addition in the post. At seven-foot-two, Bol is surprisingly quick and smooth with the ball in his hands. It’s obvious that he’s a good rebounder, but his jumpshot and handles will keep opponents off guard. He’s got the skill and the size to make waves in the Pac-12. Take a look at Bol playing with some of the best players in his class:
The Ducks also have Louis King, a premier scoring forward, coming in. He’s quick off the dribble, has a sweet stroke, and can pass too. Nearly averaging double-doubles in points and rebounds on the Nike EYBL circuit proves King can run with the best.
While Bol provides the size and King provides the true scoring ability, Miles Norris adds the exciting athleticism. While he needs some development with the ball in his hands, he has the power and explosiveness to make a difference on both ends of the floor. I’m expecting lots of put-back slams and highlight reel dunks from Norris to add to an already stacked Ducks frontcourt.
These big recruits will be a nice addition to the talents and experience of Kenny Wooten and Paul White. Wooten, averaging 2.6 blocks per game as a freshman, has asserted himself as one of the best shot blockers in the nation. White uses his size to rebound consistently and step out for jumpers, shooting over 35% from deep.
The Ducks now have such depth with their frontcourt that they can go defensive with Wooten, Bol, and Norris or they can go for offense with White, King and, Bol. It’s hard to bet against this Oregon squad when they have five-star depth like that.
At the guard position, Payton Pritchard and Victor Bailey know what to do. Pritchard can score from anywhere on the floor and puts his court vision to good use, posting over a 25% assist rate last season. Pritchard is the foundation for this Ducks team, and now he has all the options in the world. He will be joined by Will Richardson, a pure scoring guard. Richardson isn’t known as a great defender, but Pritchard can teach him a thing or two about that. Richardson will be a nice scoring option, and he may even beat out Bailey for a starting role.
The Ducks have the potential to be like last year’s Duke squad, dominated by bigs Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter. Although the Blue Devils weren’t able to capitalize in the tournament, they were a dominant force and an impossible matchup for every team they crossed. With such power in the paint, the Ducks have what it takes to be an Elite 8 team.
The Rivalry: How They Match Up
Not only will UCLA/Oregon matchups create great drama in the Conference of Champions, but they will also create some of the best one-on-one battles in college hoops. It doesn’t get much better than watching Moses Brown go head to head with Bol Bol in the post.
UCLA has the advantage in the backcourt in terms of experience and skill. Even without Bernard, Singleton, and Campbell, the Bruins would be well off enough with Hands and Ali. The three exciting freshman, however, give them serious depth that the Ducks just can’t match.
The most interesting matchup here will be between the two relatively older players: Pritchard and Hands. Since Hands had such a phenomenal freshman season, it seems unlikely that Campbell will take the starting job. Pritchard can dominate this matchup. What he lacks in size and power, he makes up for in decision-making and determination. If Pritchard wants to get to the rim, he’ll do it. And if he wants to stick a three-pointer in your face, he’ll do it. One more thing about Pritchard: He loves playing against UCLA.
Hands will be a tough matchup for Pritchard and company, but he lacks a consistent jumpshot, so the Oregon bigs should have no trouble neutralizing him.
The problem for Oregon is where they’ll look to when Pritchard is out of the game. Having Richardson on board as a complete scoring weapon will help, but the Ducks have no other proven options at point guard, which will give UCLA an edge.
Once Ali and Hands tire out, they have three four-star guards who can come into the game. If the Bruins need size and defense, they can sub in Jules Bernard and Singleton. If they want to rain down threes, they have Campbell and Singleton. If Hands needs to come out, they can throw Campbell in the game and keep Ali in. They have legitimate options for whatever game plan they chose. All eyes will be on Richardson and how he performs against the other top guards in his class.
These games will be decided in the post. Oregon brought in the best big-man class in the country with two five-star and two four-star players, so they will be able to dominate most teams in the paint. Except for UCLA, that is. The Bruins didn’t quite match the Ducks with bigs, but they did snag Moses Brown—one of the most talented players in the nation overall—and eighth-ranked power forward Shareef O’Neal.
The most important pair of players here is Moses Brown and Bol Bol, the nation’s fourth-rated center against the top-rated one. This is a showdown for the ages. While Bol has a two-inch height advantage over the seven-foot Brown, both have massive wingspans and they know how to use ‘em.
One reason this will be so great to watch is that for seven-footers, both Bol and Brown have excellent quickness and coordination. They can handle, catch, pass, and make moves at the rim. Both players are great shot-blockers, especially on weak side help. This will be an important indicator for whether they can perform at the next level against players of their own size. They both have something to prove. For Bol, can he defend the slightly quicker Brown? For Brown, is he strong enough to fend off Bol in the post, and can he score on somebody with a seven-foot-nine wingspan? Whatever the outcome, these centers will put on an absolute show for basketball fans everywhere.
Another key freshman competition will be between Ducks power forward Miles Norris and Bruins power forward Shareef O’Neal. There’s a lot of hype around O’Neal, and rightfully so. But Norris could be his Pac-12 kryptonite. Norris is a staunch defender, and he’ll be all over O’Neal’s jumper.
This will show if both players have the strength and quickness around the rim to dominate. My guess is that O’Neal will be forced to settle for more outside shots because of Norris’ defensive prowess and the added threat of Wooten’s menacing shot-blocking skills. I expect Oregon to neutralize O’Neal early on, especially with their lethal combination of offense and defense. O’Neal will still have to prove he can play airtight defense, even if he’s neutralized on the other end.
Finally, we come to five-star wing Louis King. If he starts (which he should), he’ll most likely come up against UCLA’s Kris Wilkes, another solid scoring forward. Wilkes will have his hands full…
King is just too fast, too smooth to be a 6‘8 forward. He handles like a point guard, shoots like a two-guard, posts up like a power forward, and runs the floor for showtime dunks like it’s nobody’s business. UCLA does not have an answer for a player like King, and he’s what will push Oregon to victory in these games. I’ll be surprised if he’s not called “The King” or “Sweet Lou” after his first game.
UCLA and Oregon both landed the perfect freshman classes for 2018. Ultimately, I like Oregon to take the season series from UCLA. Their length and athleticism is unparalleled, and when you assume King can basically play as a third guard…phew. That’s one heck of a starting lineup, led by Pritchard. When the two play each other in January and February, I fully expect both teams to be in the top 25. If we’re lucky, we may get a finish or two like this one:
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