College Basketball Preview: The Pac-10 Conference
So, how terrible was the Pac-10 last year? It was without a doubt one of the worst seasons for a major conference ever. Only two teams garnered NCAA tournament berths, with Washington making it in mainly because they won the conference tournament. Cal, the regular season champion, was bounced in the second round by Duke, while Washington made it to the Sweet 16 before losing to West Virginia.
UCLA has become a shell of its former self, and Arizona is close to doing the same. These once prestigious and proud programs fell on hard times last year, combining to finish three games below .500. USC, meanwhile, was ineligible to participate in the conference tournament due to NCAA sanctions.
It can't get any worse...can it? Well, maybe. Player of the Year Jerome Randle (California) is gone, as are most of Cal's contributors. Washington lost its best player in Quincy Pondexter as well.
A dozen or so notable freshmen are coming in, a class highlighted by a duo looking to bring UCLA out of obscurity.
What should become apparent is this: The Pac-10's title as the worst major conference is going to go by the way side pretty soon. It just may not be this year.
Last year: 16-15, 10-8 in the Pac-10
Notable Losses: G Nic Wise: 14.4 ppg, 3.3 apg (led team), 88% FT (led team), 33 mpg (led team)
Notable Gains: G Daniel Bejarano (No. 91 in ESPNU top 100)
Strengths: The Wildcats bring back eight of their top nine scorers from last season, led by sophomore forward Derrick Williams, who led the team in scoring (15.7 points per game), rebounding (7.1 rebounds per game), and field goal percentage (57 percent). Before his freshman season, it's amazing hardly anyone had ever heard of him. He's certainly a favorite for conference player of the year now. The backcourt will be led by junior Kyle Fogg, the only other returning double-digit scorer at 11 per game. He will probably take over at point guard. Experience will certainly help this team, since they return eight players who made major contributions last season. The fact that only one of them is a senior, returning forward Jamelle Horne, is certainly a good thing as one would expect the majority of this crew to come back next year.
Weaknesses: Aside from Williams, this is a small (only one other player over 6'7") and poor-shooting (most everyone else shot between 34 and 44 percent from the field) club. In order to become an elite team, the latter will have to change. Turning the ball over will also be a concern with the loss of Wise and the fact that there is no clear cut point guard. No returnee averaged over two assists or had an assist/turnover ratio better than 1.5/1. The frontcourt may be strong, but there may be an issue with actually getting the post players the ball where they want it.
Prediction: With almost the entire team back from a pretty decent team, don't be surprised if Arizona returns to its rightful place at the top of the conference. What's scary is how good this team could be next year assuming everyone returns, as coach Sean Miller already has three very highly regarded recruits committed to the Wildcats for the 2011-12 season.
Arizona State Sun Devils
Last year: 22-11, 12-6 in the Pac-10
Notable Losses: G Derrick Glasser: 10.1 ppg, 4.8 apg (led team), 38% 3PT, 33 mpg (led team), C Eric Boateng: 8.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg (led team), 66% FG (led team)
Notable Gains: G Keala King (No. 43 on ESPNU top 100), seven commits total
Strengths: Top two scorers guards, Ty Abbott (12) and Rihards Kuksiks (12.1), will form one of the better duos in the conference. As 6'6" Kuksiks may see more time up front with the loss of Boateng, but he plays more on the outside. Both players are outstanding shooters from three-point range as they each averaged better than 38 percent and shot more than six threes per game. Point guard to-be Jamelle McMillan had an excellent assist/turnover ratio last year at 2.8/1.1 and will need to maintain that level of decision-making with the loss of Glasser. Highly-touted King should also see some minutes in Coach Herb Sendek's guard-oriented offense.
Weaknesses: While Sendek doesn't often play or rely on big guys, Kuksiks is the biggest returnee who made any contribution last year. The frontcourt will likely be forced to depend on newcomers Ruslan Pateev (seven footer) and Kyle Cain (6'7"). This is not a good thing with the Pac-10 having a good number of skilled big men. Inexperience will be an issue since outside of McMillan, Abott, and Kuksiks, only sophomore guard Trent Lockett played major minutes last season. With seven newcomers, there will certainly be growing pains.
Prediction: Bringing back their top two scorers is crucial to this inexperienced club. Scoring probably will not be an issue, but rebounding and a complete lack of frontcourt experience will be their Achilles heel. Twenty wins seems too high, but an above .500 record and NIT bid is definitely within reach.
California Golden Bears
Last year: 24-11, 13-5 in the Pac-10, lost to Duke in the 2nd round of NCAA Tournament
Notable Losses: G Jerome Randle: 18.6 ppg (led team), 4.3 apg (led team), 93% FT (led team), 40% 3PT (led team), 35 mpg (led team), G Patrick Christopher: 15.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, F Theo Robertson: 14.2 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 50% FG, 45% 3PT (led team) F Jamal Boykin: 11.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg (led team).
Notable Gains: G Allen Crabbe (No. 57 in ESPNU top 100) and G Gary Franklin Jr. (No. 65 in ESPNU top 100), No. 24 class.
Strengths: Size is definitely there for the Bears. Two of their contributors from last season will be some of the biggest players in the country. Max Zhang is only 240 pounds but is over seven feet tall, while Markhuri Sanders-Frison is only 6'7" but weighs in at over 270 pounds. Put those two on the floor at the same time and there is probably no other team that could possibly match that kind of size and girth. Newcomer guards Crabbe and Franklin will get a chance to play from the get-go and could become two of the better newcomers in the country if they're given an opportunity to get major minutes.
Weaknesses: Losing 60 points and 20 rebounds per game is an obstacle more or less impossible to fully overcome, and that's just what the Bears will have to find a way to replace. Guard Jorge Gutierrez is the leading returning scorer at a whopping 5.5 per game. Figuring out who the first offensive option will be, let alone the second or third, will be a major issue this team will need to figure out by the time the season starts. The team is very inexperienced with only four players playing any major minutes from last season's NCAA tournament team. The team is incredibly young with only one senior (Frison).
Prediction: The Bears are in the process of rebuilding, and this season will be a rough go for them. 11-24 is much more likely than 24-11 with so much production now gone. Attempting to play Zhang and Frison together could be interesting, but it's doubtful that many wins will come of it. A .500 record would be a solid accomplishment for this young squad.
Last year: 16-16, 7-11 in the Pac-10
Notable Losses: G Tajuan Porter: 13.1 ppg (led team), 92% FT (led team), G Matthew Humphrey: 5.4 ppg, started four games and appeared in 19.
Notable Gains: None
Strengths: The majority of the roster is back from a .500 team. Rebounding should be a huge strength for this team as their top six rebounders are returning, led by 6'10" Michael Dunigan with five per game. Dunigan is a potential double-double type player who averaged nine points last season. The leading scorer returning is point guard Malcolm Armstead (10.3); he will definitely be the number one option with Porter now gone. Eight players return who played over 15 minutes per game, so the experience is definitely there. The Ducks are filled with experienced juniors that make up most of the roster (eight of twelve). The experience is also balanced as four guards return and four frontcourt players do as well.
Weaknesses: Finding a legitimate scorer will be an issue as Armstead will also have to focus on getting his teammates involved. Losing the best scorer from a team that failed to make a postseason tournament is never good, and this situation is no different even with all the experience coming back. The backcourt's free-throw shooting is also a problem, as no returning guard shot better than 73 percent from the charity stripe. This issue could be magnified late in games and certainly has the ability to cost them a game or two.
Prediction: The amount of experience returning is certainly key early in the season. Expect the Ducks to possibly jump out to an impressive record, though I don't see them continuing their success as much come conference play. An NCAA bid is within reach, but NIT is more likely. The 2011-12 season, when all the juniors become seniors, could be an immensely successful year.
Oregon State Beavers
Last year: 14-18, 8-10 in the Pac-10
Notable Losses: G-F Seth Tarver: 10.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg (led team), 2.2 apg (led team), F-C Roeland Schaftenaar: 9.2 ppg, 4 rpg, G Josh Tarver: 3 ppg, started 18 games.
Notable Gains: F Devon Collier (No. 100 in ESPNU top 100)
Strengths: Backcourt mates from last season, Calvin Haynes (12.5 ppg, 31 mpg) and Jared Cunningham (6.2 ppg) return to form a pretty experienced tandem that could be one of the best in the conference. Haynes, the leading scorer from last season, will be expected to do more than just score this season. As a senior, he should be up for the challenge. Cunningham, a sophomore, should transform from a semi-starter to a reliable shooting guard. Backup guard Lathen Wallace was the team's fifth leading scorer (5.3 per game) while averaging only 14 minutes per game. With the Tarver brothers now gone, expect his playing time to increase, and with it hopefully his scoring. The squad in general is pretty experienced, possessing six guys who had major playing time last season.
Weaknesses: It's pretty crazy for a guy to lead his team in assists with just over two per game. Now that he's gone, who will distribute the ball? None of the returnees have an assist/turnover ratio greater than one which is a massive problem. Finding another double-digit scorer will be key as well. Finding it in the post would be ideal but not likely. Losing three major contributors while not bringing in much help for a sub-.500 team means a subtraction of talent from a team that wasn't even good last year. Not good.
Prediction: A lack of talent will hurt this team. While the backcourt is talented, it can only score, not pass. The former is a good quality, while the latter is debilitating. A .500 record can happen, but anything else would be a major accomplishment.
Last year: 14-18, 7-11 in the Pac-10
Notable Losses: G-F Landry Fields: 22 ppg (led team), 8.8 rpg (led team), 36 mpg (led team), G Drew Shiller: 7.5 ppg, 39% 3PT (led team), G Emmanuel Igbinosa: 4 ppg, G Da'Veed Dildy: 2 ppg, started 5 games.
Notable Gains: No. 18 class, F Dwight Powell (No. 40 on ESPNU top 100) and F Anthony Brown (No. 81 on ESPNU top 100)
Strengths: Four players who started more than 15 games last season return, led by junior guard Jeremy Green (16.6 ppg). The loss of Fields means someone will have to take more shots. Green will probably be that guy. His backcourt teammate Jarrett Mann led the team in assists, and his assist/turnover ratio of 4.2/3.2 should improve with a year to hone his skills. The frontcourt brings back juniors Jack Trotter and Andrew Zimmerman. With four guards now gone, the frontcourt could see an increased focus. Powell and Brown should also help making up for the loss of Fields' rebounding prowess. Powell will play right away and could start.
Weaknesses: Aside from the four, Stanford brings back no one. What does that mean? Major questions on the bench and a lot of basic problems due to their inexperience. This team is super young, with no seniors and only five juniors. Finding a second scorer will be key, as Trotter is second in scoring at a mere 6.8 per game. Should he or Zimmerman develop, this team could be pretty good. Losing Fields, who's now starting for the New York Knicks, was massive. Replacing that kind of production is incredibly difficult, especially from a team that finished below .500.
Prediction: The Cardinal will take their lumps this year but have a ton of promise for next year. Expect Dawkins to work in the highly regarded freshman class should it become apparent that the team cannot make the NCAA's so they're ready for next year. As for record, 15 wins is a good bet, with 20 being possible if the freshmen really step up and/or a reliable second scorer is found.
Last year: 14-18, 8-10 in the Pac-10
Notable Losses: G Michael Roll: 14.1 ppg (led team), 3.6 apg (led team), 42% 3PT (led team), F Nikola Dragovic: 12 ppg, 4.4 rpg, F James Keefe: 2.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg, started 13 games.
Notable Gains: No. 15 class, C Josh Smith (McDonald's All-American, No. 20 on ESPNU top 100) and G Tyler Lamb (No. 28 on ESPNU top 100)
Strengths: Don't be surprised if Smith and Lamb more or less replace the numbers left by the graduating seniors. If Smith is able to stay in shape, he'll be one of the best freshmen in the country. He could be a better version of former Texas forward Dexter Pittman. With a lack of experience in the backcourt, Lamb could start immediately. The frontcourt brings back its top two rebounders in sophomores Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt, and with Smith, will combine to be one of the best frontcourts in the conference.
Weaknesses: Like many of the Pac 10 teams, the Bruins are very young: no seniors and six juniors, with only two of them (guards Malcolm Lee and Jerime Anderson) expected to be major contributors this year. Lee and Anderson are the only returnees in the backcourt, so guard play is a question mark. Lee is the top returning scorer but will need to increase his output of 12 points per game if the Bruins are to be better. Free throw shooting will also be a big problem, as Lee is the only returnee that shot better than 60 percent from the line last year. This could lose them many close games.
Prediction: Youth + talent + poor free throw shooting = promise, but not necessarily good results. Smith and Lamb will be expected to contribute immediately, and the sophomores will have to put up better numbers than last year for the Bruins to be better. Will they be better? Yes. Twenty wins sounds about right, but in the weak conference it won't be good enough to make the NCAAs. The NIT will love to have them, though. Next year, this team will be incredibly dangerous.
Last year: 16-14, 8-10 in the Pac-10
Notable Losses: G Dwight Lewis: 13.8 ppg (led team), F Marcus Johnson: 9.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, G Mike Gerrity: 9.3 ppg, 3.6 apg (led team)
Notable Gains: G Bryce Jones (No. 69 on ESPNU top 100) and G Maurice Jones (No. 89 on ESPNU top 100)
Strengths: The frontcourt returns 6'10" junior Nikola Vucevic (10.7 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 50% FG) and 6'9" senior Alex Stepheson (8.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg). Vucevic is a double-double waiting to happen, and Stepheson certainly has the ability after his first year in Southern California following his transfer from North Carolina a couple years ago. A balanced group of returnees are back with three guards and three post players. The backcourt will be very deep with the three guards plus the Jones (not related) who could contribute immediately if they're called upon. The key to the team will be transfer guard Jio Fontan, who only played five games last season but averaged 15 points and four assists in those five. If he's able to duplicate those numbers for an entire season, this team could be a contender in the conference.
Weaknesses: Losing Lewis means their most consistent scorer is gone. Add the loss of Gerrity, the other starting guard, and the backcourt will be inexperienced, despite being deep. Fontan will be eligible in December, but it could take him awhile to get used to the system and for the team to effectively incorporate him into the offense. Shooting is probably their biggest weakness. From deep, the team put up an average of 22 per game, but no player shot better than 33 percent. At the line, Vucevic is the best returnee at 72 percent.
Prediction: The beginning of the season will be rough in the backcourt. Fontan's arrival in December will be huge but probably not enough to make up for the deficiencies in shooting and lack of scoring. Due to their self-imposed postseason ban, any tournament is out of the question, but 20 wins is a possibility for this squad.
Last year: 26-10, 11-7 in the Pac-10, lost to West Virginia in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament
Notable Losses: F Quincy Pondexter: 19.3 ppg (led team), 7.4 rpg (led team), 32 mpg (led team)
Notable Gains: G Terrence Ross (No. 30 on ESPNU top 100)
Strengths: Returning all but one player from a Sweet 16 appearance is never a bad thing. The backcourt is one of the best in the country—it could be scary good. Top returning scorer Isaiah Thomas (17 ppg), highly-touted sophomore Abdul Gaddy (started 29 games), and Ross (who should contribute immediately) will carry this team. They also have their best three-point shooter coming back in junior Scott Suggs. Gaddy struggled a bit last year but has no business not being the primary player who makes up for Pondexter's 19 points. Ross is probably the best freshman in the conference and is big enough (6'6" 190 lbs) to play small forward.
Weaknesses: Losing one of the conference's best players will hurt no matter how Husky fans look at it. The team is small, with only two players over 6'7" and will have trouble rebounding against the big frontcourts of the Pac 10. The team is pretty young in terms of age with just two seniors. Matthew Bryan-Amaning (8.8 ppg, 6 rpg) will need to increase his numbers in order to prevent the Huskies from being one-dimensional.
Prediction: The only team to make any noise last year in the NCAA's is still the favorite to win the conference. The key will be Gaddy being able to unlock his massive amount of talent and become that reliable second scorer. If he can't do it, Ross may be able to do so. Regardless, the backcourt will take this team to the NCAA's. Their ability to make a run will depend on whether the loss of Pondexter's interior scoring is able to be somewhat negated by the returning frontcourt players.
Washington State Cougars
Last year: 16-15, 6-12 in the Pac-10
Notable Losses: G Nikola Koprivica: 9 ppg, 5 rpg, started 10 games
Notable Gains: None
Strengths: Like their rival Huskies, the Cougars return the vast majority of their squad from last season. This team has one of the best players no one has ever heard of in 6'6" junior small forward Klay Thompson. The star player averaged 19.6 points and 5.1 rebounds last season. He has the ability to be an All-American and is probably the best player in the conference. He struggled a little when conference play came, but that should stop as an experienced upperclassman. Outside of Thompson, the backcourt is the Cougars' biggest strength, led by sophomore guard Reggie Moore. Moore had an outstanding freshman campaign—he was second in scoring at 12.7 per game while leading the team with 4.2 assists. He'll be expected to be the Robin to Thompson's Batman. With all five starters returning, this team is quite experienced and knows what to expect in conference play.
Weaknesses: While their play style doesn't stress it, the frontcourt is a problem. DeAngelo Casto (10.7 ppg, 7 rpg) is the only returning forward who averaged over ten minutes per contest. He will need to make sure foul trouble isn't an issue, as there is a huge drop off after him. Casto's size (6'8 231) is also unique as no returnee is above 6'7" or weighs over 210 pounds. He's the only big body this team has, which is an issue. Another issue could be lack of leadership since there are no seniors on this team.
Prediction: This team will be better. Twenty wins seems very likely, but the NCAA's are a bigger question. Due to the conference's lack of quality teams, 25 wins may be necessary for the Cougars to make the Dance. In order to get there, Thompson will have to be unstoppable and Casto will have to stay on the floor as much as possible. I see the Cougars being very nervous on Selection Sunday. Still, should Thompson not enter the NBA Draft next season, this could be yet another dangerous Pac-10 team in the 2011-12 season.
The Pac-10 will not be a good conference again this season. They lost many of their best players from a conference that was abysmal last year. Yes, they return some of the better talent but not enough to make them better than any of the other big six conferences. They should be better than last year, but not by much. However, this perceived weak conference will soon change as the majority of teams are incredibly young.
Ask me to summarize this conference in one word and it's easy: Youth.
Half the teams have either one or no seniors on their roster. Washington is the clear cut favorite, but after that, it gets tough to predict with all of the youth.
NCAA: Washington, Arizona
Bubble: Washington State, Oregon
NIT: UCLA, Arizona State
Better luck next year: Cal, Oregon State, USC, Stanford
Five players to watch: Klay Thompson (Washington State), Derrick Williams (Arizona), Abdul Gaddy (Washington), Josh Smith (UCLA), and Isaiah Thomas (Washington)
The game everyone must see: Washington at Washington State (Jan. 30) because it's the best player in the conference against the best team in the conference. Oh, and this is just a small rivalry.