UCLA vs USC for Best in the West: Pac-10 2008-09 Basketball Preview

M ConmyCorrespondent IApril 8, 2008

Pre-NBA draft declaration deadline edition* 

First, a look at the year that was**:

Overall Record: 207-133 (60.9%)  Against D1: 95-24 (79.8%)        


                Tournament Breakdown
Round  64 32 16 8 4
# of Teams  6 3 3 1 1


Conference Rankings:   RPI (2)   Pomeroy Rank (2)   Sagarin Rank (1) 

08-09 Preview for all Ten Teams:

Arizona [07-08: 7th, 18-14 (8-10)]

Key Returners: Jordan Hill (62.0% eFG%, 7.9 RPG, .8 APG), Nic Wise (55.7 eFG%, 2.3 RG, 4.4 APG)

Key Losses:  Jerryd Bayless (53.6% eFG%, 2.7 RPG, 4.0 APG), Chase Budinger (52.6 eFG%, 5.4 RPG, 2.5 APG), Jawann McClellan (49.8 eFG%, 3.6 RPG, 2.7 APG).

Key Additions: Brandon Jennings (Rivals: 5/5, #3 PG, #8 overall), Jeff Withey (Rivals: 4/5, #9 Center, #39 overall)

Arizona's biggest challenge will be replacing Jerryd Bayless, who recently announced his intention to enter the draft. Bayless led all scorers with 19.7 PPG and was able to routinely create opportunities for scoring on the perimeter, especially for Budinger, by collapsing defenses through drives into the paint. I's difficult to see who will replace Bayless at the 2 as there is not a proven player on UA's roster who fits that position. Heralded recruit Brandon Jennings has shown he can be a big time scorer, but at 6 ft 170 lbs he simply lacks the size to play shooting guard at the college level. Regardless, it will be interesting to see how the battle for point between Wise and Jennings shakes out. 

Of key importance for Arizona's success will be whether or not Chase Budinger stays and continues to develop.  Should Budinger stay he will be expected to be Arizona's key playmaker. If he can consistently shoot the three and get inside for offensive rebounds, and assuming Jordan Hill continues to play at a high level, then Arizona's offense will be very difficult to stop.

After a tough season the Wildcats have a lot to look forward to. Fans should welcome the return of Lute Olson and his up tempo offense from O'neil's set plays, and although Jennings can't replace Bayless, any team benefits from depth at the point guard position. As things stand Arizona should field an elite team next season, and should definitely make an improvement over this year's seventh place finish. 

Arizona State [07-08: T-5th, 21-13 (9-9)] 

Key Returners: James Harden (58.6 eFG%, 5.2 RPG, 3.2 APG), Jeff Pendergraph (59.3 eFG%, 6.4 RPG, .9 APG), Ty Abbott (52.4 eFG%, 3.6 RPG, 1.5 APG)

Key Losses: None, especially since Harden is not expected to declare for the draft.

Key Additions: Hard to say. I don't think anyone expected Abbott or Kuksiks to come out and contribute so quickly, so who knows how Sendek's next batch of recruits will pan out.

After a difficult 06-07 campaign in which the Sun Devils finished last in conference, Herb Sendek engineered an incredible turnaround to make ASU a serious threat in the loaded Pac 10. Much of the credit has to go to James Harden, perhaps the most overlooked member of this year's freshman class. Harden led all players at 17.8 PPG and did so with excellent efficiency. Harden also contributed significantly to rebounding and has a highly developed game. With Abbott, Kuksiks, and Glasser backing him up, Arizona St. is very well rounded in the back court.

The front court, however, is another issue. While Pendergraph is a solid (if unspectacular) PF/C, Eric Boateng must become a better overall player if ASU expects to compete on a high level. But even if Boateng becomes a significantly better player, Sendek still faces the issue of overall lack of depth at the position. Two incoming recruits(at 6'7'' and 6'8'') may be able to contribute, however, the team may have to resort to playing two small forwards (such as Harden and Kuksiks) and hope to get better production out of Kuksiks on the boards. This may be unreasonable to expect, but only the future can tell.

If Pendergraph and Boateng can endure heavy minutes and avoid foul trouble then the front court issue may be moot, but more likely than not, the lack of size will prove fatal in at least a couple of games. Expectations are high in Tempe for a team that should return every player that counts, but it still may be too soon to expect a Pac 10 title. Regardless, ASU will definitely be a contender.

California [07-08: 9th, 17-16 (6-12)]

Key Returners: Patrick Christopher (51.1 eFG%, 3.6 RPG, 2.0 APG), Jamal Boykin (52.8 eFG%, 3.8 RPG, 1.2 APG).

Key Losses: Ryan Anderson (55.9 eFG%, 9.9 RPG, 1.4 APG), Devon Hardin (55.4 eFG%, 7.4 RPG, .7 APG). 

Key Additions: D.J. Seeley (Rivals: 4/5, #10 SG, #53 overall)

Save for one good season in 05-06, Berkley fans have had to endure one mediocre season after another over the last 5 years under Ben Braun. New head coach Mike Montgomery, who led Stanford to the NCAA tournament 12 times in his 18 year career, should be able to turn the program around, but how quickly depends on star player Ryan Anderson. Should Anderson return Montgomery may have Cal back in the NCAA tournament by the end of next season. Should the sophomore choose the draft, however, Montgomery will have a difficult project ahead of him. 

California returns a solid back court with a lot of potential. Patrick Christopher and Jerome Randle should have no trouble handling the point, while Jamal Boykin and Harper Kamp will play swing. However, like ASU, Cal must deal with a number of question marks in their front court. With senior Devon Hardin out the door, and Anderson declaring for the draft, someone on the roster will need to step up. Seven footer Jordan Wilkes saw limited playing time last year and did little to justify more time on the court, his best game was a 6 point, 6 rebound outing against the super power Nevada. Freshman import "Max" Zhang, coming in at a towering 7'2'', saw no playing time at all. Getting those two even up to role player status will do Cal a world of good.

Without Ryan Anderson Cal loses its entire front court, and it will have to look to a pair of unproven bench warmers to fill in the gaps. With Anderson the Golden Bears may be able to build a solid game in the post and will likely have another top tier offensive attack. Without him, Cal has many more obstacles to overcome. Only time can really tell what the near future holds for Berkeley Basketball, but at least there is a light at the end of the tunnel. 

Oregon [07-08: T-5th, 18-14 (9-9)]

Key Returners: Tajuan Porter (49.2 eFG%, 2.3 RPG, 2.4 APG), Joevan Catron (52.8 eFG%, 5.7 RPG, 2.2 APG).

Key Losses: Maarty Leunen (66.4 eFG%, 9.2 RPG, 2.8 APG), Malik Hairston (60.9% eFG%, 4.8 RPG, 2.1 APG), Bryce Taylor (54.6 eFG%, 3.8 RPG, 1.4 APG)

Key Additions: Michael Dunigan (Rivals: 4/5, #8 C, #32 overall)

Ernie Kent was on the short list to be fired, after Ben Braun and Jay John, before Oregon pulled off a bit of a late season surge to fight their way into the NCAA tournament. Its obvious why Kent may have been sent packing; after returning four of five starters from a squad that advanced to the elite eight Oregon failed to make a significant impact in the Pac-10. Ernie may be safe for now, but he better enjoy his summer break as he'll enter next year on the hot seat again.

As can be seen from the stat line above, Maarty Leunen may be the best player no one has ever heard of. He was the team's most efficient scorer with an impressive 66.4 effective field goal percentage, and somehow led the team in both rebounds and steals. Leunen also clocked in at second in points per game and assists. Oregon will also have to replace the athletic Malik Hairston, the teams leading scorer. Oregon must also find an answer for the loss of PG Aaron Brooks, the only player who didn't return from that elite 8 squad. For Oregon to be successful Tajuan Porter must step and fill that point guard role, along with improving his mediocre 49.2 eFG%. Joevan Catron in turn will be expected to anchor Oregon's interior, despite coming in at only 6'6''.

Throughout the season I heard many comments with regard to Oregon's offense, that they were missing shots they made last year, that they weren't as explosive, blah blah blah. In truth Oregon had an offense comparable to those of the best teams in the country, ranking #6 in Division 1 according to stats guru Ken Pomeroy. It was their defense that stunk. If Ernie Kent can somehow equal that offensive output next year and improve their D, Oregon would be an elite team. However, if Kent couldn't do it with last year's experienced lineup then its doubtful he will be able to do it with an almost entirely new starting 5. Oregon is looking at a tough year ahead, and probably looking at a new coach after next season.

Oregon St. [07-08: 10th, 6-25 (0-18)] 

Key Returners: Roeland Schaftenaar (48.4 eFG%, 4.1 RPG, .6 APG)

Key Losses: I would say Marcel Jones, but he was pretty bad. I would also say CJ Giles, but he was dismissed earlier in the year. 

Key Additions: Eshaunte Jones (Rivals: 3/5, #31 SG, #121 Overall) has a legitimate shot at becoming OSU's best palyer.

The future is bleak for Oregon St. fans. After a season in which the team saw its head coach get fired, had one of its better players dismissed (C.J. Giles), and experienced the worst Pac 10 record in history there is still not much to look forward to.  New Coach Craig Robinson was able to engineer a turnaround at Brown in his two years there, but the Pac 10 is about as far removed as you can get from the Ivy League.

OSU suffers from an overall lack of talent. In fact, no Beaver ranks in the top 500 players in the country in eFG%. The 6'11'' Roeland Schaftenaar, who averaged about 19.2 minutes per game, actually leads all players in effective shooting percentage. No immediate solutions are incoming either, as 3 star Eshaunte Jones is the best in the two man class. It will be very difficult to effectively execute even Robinson's preferred Princeton offense with the current crop of players.

Who knows, maybe Oregon St. will be this year's Washington St., but I honestly doubt it. It is still probable that even moderate success is at least two years away, but at least OSU has begun the process of rebuilding. Besides, the Beavers cannot possibly be any worse than they were this year.

Stanford [07-08: 2nd, 28-8 (13-5)]

Key Returners: Mitch Johnson (50.8 eFG%, 4.3 RPG, 5.2 APG), Lawrence Hill (47.1 eFG%, 4.8 RPG, 1.1 APG).

Key Losses: Brook Lopez (46.8 eFG%, 8.2 RPG, 1.4 APG), Robin Lopez (53.6 eFG%, 5.7 RPG, .6 APG), Taj Finger (55.9 eFG%, 4.4 RPG, .5 APG).

Key Additions: Jeremy Green (Rivals: 4/5, #17 SG, #75 overall)

Believe it or not, if Stanford wants to win games next year they will need to rely on their guards. Mitch Johnson, Anthony Goods, and Kenny Brown will all have to step up in a big way as the Cardinal's front court will be severely depleted with the loss of the Lopez twins to the draft and senior Taj Finger to graduation. In other words, Stanford may be in for a long season.

Lawrence Hill will in all likelihood be their best player in the post next year and will need to be more aggressive in rebounding and scoring to make up for the loss of Stanford's star players. In addition, 6'7'' Landry Fields may have to make the transition to forward as 6'8'' freshman Josh Owens saw few minutes while 6'9'' sophomore Will Paul saw no playing time whatsoever. Even if coach Trent Johnson sees significant improvement in Lawrence Hill's game its clear that post play will be a downgrade over this past season. On the bright side, if Mitch Johnson can continue to dish the ball into the post with the same effectiveness he had last year, then at least play in the paint won't be a weakness.

There are few elite programs that are able to avoid the dreaded rebuilding year, and Stanford just is not one of them. Trent Johnson has done an admirable job of continuing the program's success after the departure of former coach Mike Montgomery, but there is no dancing around the fact that the 08-09 Stanford team just is not as talented as recent Cardinal teams. Barring a major surprise, the farm will field an average to good team that will fight it out in the middle of the Pac 10. For the sake of Trent Johnson, let us hope that Montgomery doesn't have to much success in his first year at Berkeley. 

UCLA [07-08: 1st, 35-4 (16-2)]

Key Returners so far: Kevin Love (60.1 eFG%, 10.6 RPG, 1.9 APG), Darren Collison (57.2 eFG%, 2.6 RPG, 3.8 APG), Russell Westbrook (49.5 eFG%, 3.9 RPG, 4.3 APG)

Key Losses: Lorenzo Mata-Real (49.5 eFG%, 3.5 RPG, .2 APG)

Key Additions: Jrue Holiday (Rivals: 5/5, #1 PG, #3 Overall), Drew Gordon (Rivals 4/5, #16 PF, #49 Overall)

What more can be said about UCLA? The Bruins are arguably the most successful basketball program of all time and are beginning to glimpse the glory days of John Wooden under the direction of coach Ben Howland. It is fair to say that no other program, except perhaps Florida, has experienced the same amount of success year in and year out as UCLA over the last 3 years.  But with the draft looming large it is hard to say if the team will continue to achieve at the same level going into 2008-09.

There is no doubt that UCLA will field the deepest and most talented team in the conference should everyone return, but what if Love, Collison, and Westbrook declare for the draft as expected? Luckily for fans of the true blue and gold, the team has quality players waiting in the wings. There is no question that UCLA will not be able to completely replace Love's production, but a rotation of  Mbah-a-Moute, Aboya, Keefe, Dragovic, and the incoming Drew Gordon will go a long way in wearing down opposing post players. In addition, Jrue Holiday should be able to replace Collison or Westbrook without too much drop off in athleticism or talent. The team will also welcome the return of guard Michael Roll, who has sat out most of the season due to injury.

At least until April 26, UCLA is the best team in the Pac 10. Realistically, however, they face losing their three best players to the draft and will have a tough battle to fight in conference. Regardless of how much talent UCLA loses, expect them to be favorites for the Pac 10 title next year through sheer depth and quality coaching.

USC [07-08: T-3rd, 21-12 (11-7)]

Key Returners so far: O.J. Mayo (52.4 eFG%, 4.5 RPG, 3.3 APG), Davon Jefferson (58.3 eFG%, 6.3 RPG, .8 APG), Taj Gibson (58.0 eFG%, 7.8 RPG, 1.3 APG).

Key Losses: None, USC does not have a single senior or player who has declared... yet

Key Additions: Demar Derozan (Rivals: 5/5, #1 SG, #2 Overall), Leonard Washington (Rivals: 3/5, SF)

If, and that's a huge IF, USC returns all of their players, they have the makings of a legitimate national championship contender. O.J. Mayo would be leading a squad that would start 5 players as talented and athletic as any other team in the country. But in order to win, USC's players (especially Jefferson) must develop the skillset to take full advantage of that raw talent.

The Trojans were wildly inconsistent all year. Just three games after holding both Kansas and Memphis to their season lows in regulation play, USC fell to conference foe California 92-82 . Moreover, USC had an excellent defense but could never put plays together consistently on offense. The guards often struggled to get the ball to Gibson in the post and were too hesitant to drive inside and kick it out. Hopefully incoming recruit Demar Derozan can help flesh out this area of SC's game. Also, keep an eye on whether Floyd succeeds or not in developing Leonard Washington. The former 5-star forward has experienced a rapid fall from grace thanks to academic and discipline problems, but Tim Floyd has developed other former delinquent players, including current star Davon Jefferson and the troubled Loderick Stewart.

USC heads into next season just like they came into last season, with a great deal of uncertainty. As long as two of the big three return the Trojans will be a legitimate player in the Pac 10, but if all three go Tim Floyd could be facing a tough season in the shadow of the omnipresent football program. 

Washington [07-08: 8th, 16-17 (7-11)]

Key Returners: Jon Brockman (53.6 eFG%, 11.6 RPG, 1.1 APG), Quincy Pondexter (48.1 eFG%, 4.8 RPG, 1.9 APG).

Key Losses: Ryan Appleby (54.9 eFG%, 1.2 RPG, 1.4 APG)

Key Additions: Tyreese Breshers (Rivals: 4/5, #21 PF, #66 Overall), Isaiah Thomas (Rivals: 4/5, #15 PG, #89 Overall)

It has been a strange couple of years for Washington. Just two years ago the Huskies were competing with UCLA for the Pac 10 championship. That same year Washington advanced to the Sweet 16 (falling in overtime to UConn), and brought in a heralded recruiting class headed by top center Spencer Hawes. Despite this, Washington finished 19-13 with an 8-10 mark in conference.

Things only got worse in 2008 even though Lorenzo Romar brought in another quality recruiting class. I know next to nothing about recruiting high school prospects, but it makes one wonder about the ability of the Huskies' staff to correctly scout talent. Perhaps it is still premature to completely judge these classes, if all this potential talent comes together next season then Washington will be a force to be reckoned with. However, one thing is certain, someone will have to step up and take over Appleby's role as a perimeter shooter, otherwise the team is looking at the bottom of the Pac 10 once again.

Having Tyreese Breshers or Isaiah Thomas come in and produce as freshmen would go along way in validating Romar's recruiting abilities. Washington will wtill get quality play out of big man Jon Brockman, but someone else on the roster needs to show they are a star player. If Washington fails to put together a quality season soon, then recruiting will be the least of the Huskies' problems.

Washington St. [07-08: T-3rd, 26-9 (11-7)]

Key Returners: Taylor Rochestie (56.8 eFG%, 3.2 RPG, 4.7 APG), Aron Baynes (60.0 eFG%, 6.0 RPG, .3 APG), Daven Harmeling (55.0 eFG%, 2.2 RPG, .8 APG).

Key Losses: Kyle Weaver (50.3 eFG%, 5.3 RPG, 4.3 APG), Derrick Low (55.2 eFG%, 1.8 RPG, 1.6 APG), Robbie Cowgill (54.1 eFG%, 5.1 RPG, .7 APG).

Key Additions: Michael Harthun (Rivals: 3/5, #29 SG, #115 Overall)

Washington St. is a bizarre team to say the least. Somehow they developed into a top-ten team without a single heralded recruit or even a particularly well known coach. No offense to Dick Bennett, he did lead 8 seed Wisconsin to the final four in 2000 after all, but nobody could have expected what has happened in WSU Basketball over the last two years.

But can this trend possibly continue? Current coach Tony Bennett returns a solid core of starters; Taylor Rochestie is a deceptively athletic guard who can shoot from the perimeter and create his own shot. In addition, Aron Baynes uses his body to create space in the post better than just about every other center in college basketball. Rounding out the veteran trio is sharpshooting forward Daven Harmeling.  Still, coach Bennett faces the sizeable challenge of replacing the lost offensive production from Weaver, Low, and Cowgill in a system that emphasizes defense and slow tempo. There is no real telling who will replace these players, but then again, there was no real telling that the Cougars were going to be this good in the first place.

Next year will be a pivotal year for Washington St. If Bennett can continue to win with under-recruited talent he will certainly go down as one of the best at developing players in the NCAA despite his young age. Additionally Bennett could establish WSU as a long-term Pac-10 power. However, if they return to mediocrity then the past two seasons will likely be viewed as a statistical anomaly, and Bennett will not have the the number of high quality coaching job offers available. Here's to hoping that he doesn't become a victim of his own success.

Pre-Declaration Pre-Season Pre-dictions (Get it?): 

1.) UCLA 6.) Oregon
2.) Arizona St. 7.) Washington
3.) USC 8.) California
4.) Arizona 9.) Stanford
5.) Washington St. 10.) Oregon St.


Final Thoughts***

- Simply put, the Pac-10 will not be as good top to bottom next season as they were last season 

- The Pac-10 will send no more than five teams to next year's NCAA tournament

- No team will finish conference play undefeated, no team will finish without a win in conference 



* No attempt at predicting who may or may not enter the draft were made. All players who have declared, whether they signed with an agent or not, are assumed to be gone from school.

** All statistics taken from kenpom.com and sportsillustrated.cnn.com

*** I will do a short update after the NBA draft declaration deadline