Summer School in the Pac-10Posted by Brian Goodman on August 24th, 2010
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and Mountain West Conferences.
Around the Pac-10:
- Down Times: Last season was clearly one of the low points in Pac-10 basketball history. It took a late-season run out of Washington to ensure two NCAA Tournament bids from the conference, with California earning the other after a strong but somewhat disappointing season. The conference had just one player (the Huskies’ Quincy Pondexter) picked in the first round of the NBA Draft, and just two players picked overall (with Stanford’s Landry Fields somewhat surprisingly being drafted by the Knicks, much to the chagrin of New York fans in attendance, with the 39th pick). The two total players drafted were the lowest total for the league since 1986.
- Returning Fire: Despite the lack of players picked in the NBA Draft, just nine of the league’s top 20 scorers from last year return, although Rihard Kuksiks is still uncertain whether he will return for his senior season at Arizona State. Likewise, just 11 of the league’s top 20 rebounders return.
- Fresh Blood: But not to worry, plenty of excellent new talent is headed the Pac-10’s way. Or not. Actually, out of Scout’s Top 100 list, just ten players (and just four out of the top 50) committed to Pac-10 institutions, with the highest ranked player, Washington’s Terrence Ross, checking in at #26. According to ESPNU’s projections, the outlook is slightly rosier, with the Pac-10 accounting for 12 of the top 100 players, five of the top 50, and UCLA’s Josh Smith checking in at #20. Either way, while there is some new talent, it is not of the caliber of the other BCS conferences. There was some intrigue here, however, as Enes Kanter (Scout #3 overall recruit, ESPNU #25) originally verbally committed to Washington before backing out and heading to Kentucky. Additional salt in the wound came when Washington’s top recruit, Terrence Jones (ESPU #9 overall, Scout #8) announced at a press conference that he would be committing to Washington, but then failed to sign a letter of intent and wound up changing his mind and committing to Kentucky as well, giving Husky fans an entirely new Cal to dislike.
- Head Honchos: While a lot of familiar players have moved on, there is consistency in the hot seat for all but one team: Oregon ended the Ernie Kent era and will welcome new head coach Dana Altman, formerly of Creighton. While Altman wasn’t the sexy hire that Pat Kilkenny and Phil Knight wanted to start the new era in Oregon basketball, he is an excellent coach who will likely have the sleeping giant in Eugene back in the thick of things in the Pac-10 very quickly.
- Home Cooking: The coaching change isn’t the only big news in Eugene, as the Ducks will break in a new arena this season, when the brand-new gleaming Matthew Knight Arena (named after Knight’s son who died prematurely in a scuba-diving accident) replaces the venerable old McArthur Court in January. The Ducks had planned to kick off the Pac-10 season in the new venue, but the move-in date has been pushed back for a variety of reasons.
- Washington: The Huskies lose last year’s lone Pac-10 NBA first rounder in Quincy Pondexter, but just about everyone else of consequence returns. Pint-sized point Isaiah Thomas (no, not the suspiciously crazy one who ran the Knicks into the ground) leads the way in a talented backcourt, with energetic pace-setter Venoy Overton back for another season of annoying opposing guards. Also keep your eye on sophomore Abdul Gaddy, who was at one time considered the second-best point guard in the ’09 high school class. He struggled as a 17-year-old freshman, but Lorenzo Romar will certainly give him plenty of chances to earn more playing time this season. Up front, senior Matthew Bryan-Amaning will need to take a big step forward as the frontcourt scoring threat for this squad, with Tyreese Breshers and Darnell Gant doing the dirty work in the paint. Additionally, Romar welcomes three freshmen, including Terrence Ross to add some more talent to the backcourt and 7’0 juco transfer Aziz Ndiaye to add size, if not a polished offensive game, to a relatively small frontcourt. Senior Justin Holliday and junior Scott Suggs will add depth at the wings. The Huskies suffered from lapses in concentration last season, but an additional year of experience for a veteran roster should fix that problem.
- Arizona: The Wildcats are on their way back from their struggles at the end of legend Lute Olson’s regime. But while I’ll nab them as my number two team here, this is not a Wildcat team that is going to make any McKale denizens forget the 1988 or 1997 teams – this ranking is more of an indication of the conference’s weakness. However, sophomore forward Derrick Williams is the conference’s fourth leading returning scorer and second-leading returning rebounder and an absolute beast in the paint. Senior Jamelle Horne will start alongside Williams, and he’ll be called on to improve on the nine points and six rebounds he provided nightly last season. Shooting guard Kyle Fogg displayed some nice offensive punch last season, and he’ll be asked for even more, but the most pressure will be felt by sophomore point Lamont “MoMo” Jones, who will be tasked with taking over for departed fixture Nic Wise. The development of frontcourt sophomores Solomon Hill and Kyryl Natyazhko and incoming freshman guards Daniel Bejarano and Jordin Mayes will be important for team depth. This is still an undersized team, which hurts them a bit on the boards and on defense, two areas where they will need to improve from last season.
- UCLA: While the 2009-10 season was a nightmare for the Bruins, the cupboard is not completely empty in Westwood. There are a lot of unanswered questions here, however, and the biggest one is at the point. Malcolm Lee got plenty of time there last season, but he is more ideally suited to play on the wing, and if all goes well for the Bruins, that’s where he’ll be this season. With the Jerime Anderson era justifiably considered a failure to this point, Ben Howland has brought in juco transfer Lazeric Jones to man the point, with any positive contributions that Anderson might provide just being bonus. Sophomore Tyler Honeycutt is a skilled ball handler and passer at the three, so he’ll be around to add an additional guard when necessary. Up front, Reeves Nelson was perhaps the biggest bright spot for UCLA in his freshman season, when he averaged 11 points and six rebounds a night in just over 20 minutes per game. He’ll need to keep out of foul trouble to gain additional minutes, and he’ll need to improve his horrid free throw shooting as well, but he looks ready for a big leap forward, especially considering he’ll be joined by UCLA’s big (and I do mean big, once listed at 320, now working towards approaching 270) freshman Josh Smith, a skilled and soft-handed center. Freshman wing Tyler Lamb will also get some early run. But the fact is, there is plenty of talent here, and if the Bruins get nothing more than a caretaker at the point, Howland will win games in a weak Pac-10 with this team.
- Cal: The Golden Bears lose their top four scorers to graduation, and their sixth leading scorer, Omondi Amoke, to bad behavior. Their leading returning scorer is Jorge Gutierrez, a nice scrapper who will be called on to take the next step as a legit offensive threat. But in order for Mike Montgomery’s squad to finish this high, they’ll need their five-man recruiting class to make a big impact from the minute they arrive on campus. Leading the way among the freshmen is off-guard Allen Crabbe, the Gatorade Player of the Year in California last season, and a born shooter whose all-around game took a big step forward as a senior. Gary Franklin, Jr., looks to be the heir apparent at point guard, and he’ll fit in perfectly following the Jerome Randle era. Franklin has good size and is an excellent scorer with a deadly shooting stroke. Pure shooting wing Alex Rossi, combo-guard Emerson Murray – a late signee – and Crabbe’s high school teammate Richard Solomon, a skinny power forward, round out the recruiting class. Montgomery will need to rely on veterans to provide most of the minutes up front, with senior Markuri Sanders-Frisson, junior Harper Kamp (coming off a medical redshirt year), 7’2 junior center Max Zhang and raw sophomore power forward Bak Bak leading the way. If the guards are as good as advertised and the frontcourt can take care of the dirty work, this young Bears squad could surprise.
- Washington State: After getting out to a 10-2 start in Ken Bone’s first season in Pullman, the young Cougars limped home to a 6-12 conference record. The team loses just one player, Nikola Koprivica, and his nine points and five rebounds, to graduation, but six other players defected to other schools. Of those six, only point guard Xavier Thames, who played nearly 20 minutes per game as a freshman, is a major loss. What does return for the Cougs is four of their five leading scorers, who among them made up almost 70% of the team’s scoring last season. Leading the way is Klay Thompson, back for his third season on the Palouse, after averaging nearly 20 PPG last season. Thompson cooled down considerably in conference play after going for almost 25 a night in non-conference play while hitting at a 47% clip from three-point range, but he’ll again be the big gun in the offense. Sophomore Reggie Moore is firmly entrenched as the Cougar point guard and his fearless style of play has endeared him to the locals. Up front, DeAngelo Casto is a athletic and hustling big man, capable of a double-double most nights out. Marcus Capers, an athletic forward, and Abe Lodwick, a designated gunner, likely rounding out the starting five. There’s not much depth beyond there, but the Thompson/Moore/Casto combo is about as good a trio as there is in the conference.
- Arizona State: Point guard Derek Glasser, center Eric Boateng and reserve wing Jerren Shipp have all used up their eligibility for the Sun Devils and Demetrius Walker and some other parts are gone via transfer, leaving just five, at most, experienced returnees. Rihard Kuksiks remains a big loose end for the Devils, and it seems he may be leaning towards playing professionally in Europe rather than returning for his senior season. The one area that is settled for the Devils is the backcourt, with Jamelle McMillan and Ty Abbott both back for their senior seasons. McMillan will take over at the point and Abbott will continue his role as a jolt of energy via his three-point bombs and his defense. Sophomore guard Trent Lockett was impressive at times in his first season in Tempe and could step into a starting role this season, but beyond that, the only returnee who got any type of playing time is 6’11 sophomore center Ruslan Pateev, a project who should see an increase in playing time this season, if only because there are few other options. Herb Sendek does have seven newcomers ready to contribute, and a couple of them could play big roles. Keala King is the most highly touted of the five freshmen in the class, and he will likely play from day one. A big wing with some point guard skills, he will be able to score in the Pac-10 from the minute he steps on the court, posting up smaller guards and taking slower forwards off the dribble. Carrick Felix, a juco transfer who chose Arizona State after originally signing with Duke, is another athletic wing who will compete for time at the crowded wing spot. With only Pateev returning up front, Sendek will also need some help from 7’2 freshman Jordan Bachynski and 6’8 freshman Kyle Cain. The Devils will need big help early from their newcomers to compete in the Pac-10, but if they can find some guys to bust their tails on the boards, this team has plenty of offensive talent.
- Oregon: The Ducks are completely starting over. Gone is Ernie Kent. Gone is leading scorer (and defensive liability) Tajuan Porter. Gone are Jamil Wilson, Matthew Humphrey, Drew Wiley and Josh Crittle to transfers. And soon to be gone is even Mac Court. In steps Dana Altman, and after a tumultuous offseason, this edition of the Ducks has little in the way of expectations. But there are at least some interesting parts. Malcolm Armstead will return for his junior season after his on-again/off-again flirtation with a possible transfer this summer. The team’s leading returning scorer and incumbent point guard, getting Armstead to stick around was Altman’s biggest recruiting coup. Junior center Michael Dunigan has been maddeningly inconsistent over his two seasons in Eugene, but if the good Dunigan shows up (you know, the one who nearly averaged 20/10 over a five-game stretch in December and January of last season) more often than not, he’ll be one of the handful of best post-men in the league. And Joevan Catron, a capable scorer and rebounder in the post, returns for his senior season (following last year’s medical redshirt). Guys like Jeremy Jacob, E.J. Singler, Teondre Williams, Garrett Sim and LeKendric Longmire round out the roster, a solid enough group that could surprise people if Dunigan and Armstead show improvement.
- USC: Last year’s season for the Trojans was an odd one. Not much was expected of them at the start of the season, and for the first month of the season, they lived up to those expectations. Then Mike Gerrity became eligible and things turned around for the Trojans long enough to win the Diamond Head Classic, before (now ex-) athletic director Mike Garrett threw the basketball program under the proverbial bus and imposed a ban on postseason play for head coach Kevin O’Neill and his squad for the sins of the previous staff. Now that the program is eligible again for postseason play, most of the worthwhile pieces from last year’s squad are gone. However, there are bright spots, and the brightest of those is junior forward Nikola Vucevic, who almost averaged a double-double last season, coming up a rebound per game shy. Alex Stepheson was the squad’s second leading rebounder, and he makes a nice frontcourt partner for Vucevic. Wing Marcus Simmons and point guard Donte Smith are the only other returnees of note, and both will be asked to step up their contributions, with Smith battling 5’7 freshman Maurice Jones for the starting point on day one. However, like last season, a Division-I transfer eligible at the semester break is expected to step in and change things for the Trojans, as 6’1 point guard Jio Fontan, a high-scoring Fordham refugee, should be ready in early December. The other incoming freshman of note for O’Neill is Bryce Jones, a wiry wing whose defensive intensity should win him playing time immediately. It remains to be seen where the scoring is going to come from on this squad, so these Trojans will have to defend about as well as they did last season (2nd in the nation in defensive efficiency) to have success.
- Oregon State: Let’s go ahead and get the “Craig–Robinson-is-Barack-Obama’s-brother-in-law” reference out of the way. There. Done. Robinson took over a Beaver program that was just dreadful and has built them back up to merely mediocre. The Tarver brothers are gone, as is skilled center Roeland Schaftenaar, so this team clearly belongs to senior guard Calvin Haynes, the leading returning scorer in the balanced Princeton-style offense. Haynes is a versatile guard who is most dangerous on the bounce, but still capable from deep. Joining him in the backcourt will likely be sophomore Jared Cunningham and redshirt freshman Roberto Nelson, Robinson’s big recruit from the 2009 class who sat out last season due to eligibility issues. Up front the Beavers return Omari Johnson, an 6’8 athlete capable of defending the point in the zone, Joe Burton, a 6’7 wide body who should improve in his second season, and Daniel Deane, a 6’8 senior scrapper. But the biggest force in the frontcourt could be incoming freshman Devon Collier, a product of coach Bob Hurley at St. Anthony’s in Jersey City. He had a bumpy high school career, with injury and eligibility issues, but provided he can’t put those problems behind him, he has a bright future. As always in the Robinson era, the Beavers will be well-coached and a tough out, but there isn’t enough talent here for this squad to be a serious threat, even in a down year in the conference.
- Stanford: For the Cardinal, year three of the Johnny Dawkins era begins minus last year’s do-everything forward Landry Fields, who led the team in points, rebounds, steals, blocks and minutes (although just a paltry second in assists). Jeremy Green, the only player besides Fields to average double figures, returns for his junior season, with classmate Jarrett Mann next to him in the backcourt. Mann is not really a true point, and definitely needs to tidy up his numbers in the turnover column, while Green has the reputation of being “just a shooter” although he improved his game off the dribble a bit last season. Still, Green is most effective when he has someone else to create opportunities for him, and with Fields departed, Mann will have to step up that part of his game. Aside from the guards, the rest of the returnees are a mixed bag. Josh Owens returns from a medical redshirt year, and gives the Cardinal an athletic, though raw, talent in the frontcourt, Jack Trotter is a former walk-on that got 25 minutes a game last season, and Andrew Zimmermann’s main contribution is his hustle. But reinforcements do arrive in the form of a pretty solid six-man freshman class, highlighted by 6’10 center Dwight Powell and 6’6 wing Anthony Brown, both of whom look to have a strong chance of starting immediately. This year’s recruiting class is a good starting point, but this roster needs a serious infusion of talent to get back to the type of success the Cardinal were having in the Mike Montgomery years.
- Ignore All of This: Next? Print out these rankings, give them one last look and then rip them up. Shred them. They’re meaningless. Watch Washington struggle through the first couple months of the season. Watch Stanford win a couple road games they have no business winning only to come home and lay an egg or two. Watch UCLA… Errr, actually, based on how eye-bleedingly bad some of their performances were last year, I can’t rightly recommend watching UCLA, regardless of what they might do. Anyway, the point is, while Washington is pretty clearly the pick for the top spot, the rest of the conference is a crapshoot.
- NCAA Tournament Bids: Last year we were deep into February, thinking only Cal had a prayer at an at-large NCAA Tournament bid, before Washington came on strong. This season, I suspect Arizona and UCLA are talented enough to earn an at-large bid, especially given the extra three spots available. And, frankly, I don’t really expect coaches as good as Sean Miller and Ben Howland to miss consecutive tournaments.
- One More Time, With Feeling: It’s the last go-round for the good ol’ Pac-10, once the only BCS conference in the land that played a true home-and-away round robin in basketball (a distinction that will now, hopefully, fall to the Big 12). Starting next season, with the addition of Utah and Colorado, there will be seasons when fans in Washington, for instance, will not get a visit from UCLA and USC, and seasons when fans in Los Angeles will not see the Ducks or the Beavers. Sure, it’s progress. And we’ll likely wind up with a new and better television contract and maybe even our very own Pac-10 network, but is that really worth not crowning a true regular season basketball contract? I guess it’s gonna have to be.