Last season was a banner year for the Pac-10, as the conference sent six teams to the NCAA Tournament—with three reaching the Sweet 16 and UCLA reaching the Final Four. The conference was generally considered the toughest in the nation.
With several teams losing established stars, however, look for the conference to step back into the middle of the power conferences this season. There is still a lot of talent on the top teams, but the middle and bottom rungs of the Pac will be significantly weaker than in years past.
Predicted Order of Finish
1. UCLA Bruins
The Bruins are simply loaded with talent, especially in the backcourt. All-American point guard Darren Collison spurned the NBA to return for his senior season, giving the Bruins possibly the top point guard in the country. Senior wing Josh Shipp also is back and in the best shape of his career. Shipp will provide UCLA with steady scoring.
Coach Ben Howland also brought in the nation's top recruiting class, led by combo guard Jrue Holiday, who should step into the shooting guard role and contribute immediately. Forwards James Keefe and Alfred Aboya give the Bruins toughness down low, and freshmen J'Mison Morgan and Drew Gordon provide more muscle.
Coach Howland may be the best in the nation.
The Bruins are extremely young, having lost three starters and their top interior bench player from last season. Freshmen will be required to play huge roles this year, and while they are talented, most of them are still raw.
Kevin Love and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute's departures leave the Bruins with almost zero frontcourt offense. Nearly all the scoring will come from the backcourt. Depth could also be an issue, with only 11 scholarship players (one a former walk-on), including two guys who have struggled with injuries this past summer.
This team has the talent to make a deep run in the tournament. While their inexperience will be a hindrance in the early going, the steady leadership of Collison, Shipp, and Howland will have these young Bruins in position to win a fourth consecutive Pac-10 Championship.
2. Arizona State Sun Devils
The Sun Devils have a tremendous 1-2 punch in sophomore wing James Harden and senior forward Jeff Pendergraph. Along with Collison, Harden's decision to return to the Devils was possibly the biggest development in the Pac-10 offseason. He's a big-time scorer and tenacious defender with deceptive athleticism.
Sophomore Ty Abbott is a deadly three-point shooter, and point guard Derek Glasser is a solid game manager. Coach Herb Sendek is one of the best in the conference.
Other than Pendergraph, the Sun Devils' frontcourt has some glaring weaknesses. Eric Boateng, a transfer from Duke, was inconsistent last year before coming on late in the season. If he can come through, the Sun Devils could go from good to great.
Even if Boateng plays well, there is still a glaring lack of depth in the frontcourt. Luckily for them, UCLA also has some frontcourt weaknesses. Unfortunately, the Devils' problems are bigger.
Arizona State probably has the second-most talent in the conference and possibly its best player in Harden. Look for the Sun Devils to be the biggest challenger to UCLA's throne. They'll make the tournament for the first time since '03 and could potentially make a deep run.
3. USC Trojans
Taj Gibson is an extremely underrated center in the Pac-10. He's slightly undersized but is a beast on the boards and can score in bunches. Guards Daniel Hackett and Dwight Lewis are both big and quick.
Incoming freshman DeMar DeRozan will challenge Jrue Holiday of UCLA for freshman of the year honors. He's an athletic freak that can put up points in bunches.
USC's lack of depth could ultimately be their undoing. They have basically no one behind Gibson at center, and he has the unfortunate knack of getting into foul trouble. Untested Kasey Cunningham will man the power forward position with little to back him up. Thankfully, a lack of frontcourt depth is a trend this year in the conference.
Three-point shooting is also an issue for USC. They lack a pure shooter, and without a big man, that could definitely limit their ability to score.
USC has talent, there's no denying it. The problem is that they don't have the depth behind that talent to make a real run in the conference. They should finish third and easily make the tournament, but don't expect them to challenge UCLA or Arizona State for the top two spots in the conference.
4. Arizona Wildcats
Chase Budinger decided to return for his junior season, giving Arizona an all-conference candidate on the wing. Budinger is a good scorer that can jump out of the gym. Point guard Nic Wise is one of the best in the conference. He's a good floor general with a deadly three-point shot. Junior post Jordan Hill is a solid No. 2 scorer that gives the Wildcats some muscle inside.
Arizona lost its best player from last season, freshman guard Jerryd Bayless. Jawann McClellan was also a reliable scorer that is gone. But Arizona's biggest problem is the sudden loss of coach Lute Olson, who retired due to health issues. No matter who replaces him, Olson was one of the best coaches of all-time and will be missed.
Scoring could be an issue for this team, as Bayless was their leading scorer and no one on the team this year is considered a true scorer.
The Wildcats will be solid as always. They have good leadership in Wise and Budinger, and both guys are good defenders. Arizona should do well on the glass as well. They don't have the talent of most years, but they have plenty to finish in the top half of the conference and make the Big Dance yet again.
5. Washington Huskies
Senior forward Jon Brockman is an absolute monster. He averaged a double-double last year, and look for those numbers to increase this season. He's a physical, tough player that can score inside and hit a jumper. He's also possibly the best rebounder in the Pac-10.
Guard Justin Dentmon is a super-quick defender and good off the dribble. Forward Quincy Pondexter is super athletic and can score off the wing. Coach Lorenzo Romar has a proven track record with the Huskies.
Outside shooting could be a huge problem for the Huskies. Last year's sniper Ryan Appleby graduated, and neither Dentmon nor backcourt mate Venoy Overton can shoot particularly well.
Besides Brockman and Dentmon, the team is extremely young, and that won't help the fact that Washington teams have had issues with focus and concentration the last couple of years.
Washington is definitively good enough to make the tournament this year, and they should do so behind Brockman's leadership. There isn't enough talent to make a run at the Pac-10 crown, but they could get as high as third if they find some decent outside shooting and learn to play disciplined basketball.