Get To The Point: Pac-12 EditionPosted by zhayes9 on July 22nd, 2011
Throughout the summer RTC contributors Zach Hayes and Brian Otskey will discuss the hot topics — or whatever comes to mind — around each major conference in college basketball. This week, they tackle the expanded Pac-12. For the entire summer series focusing on each of the six power conferences, click here.
Zach: Let’s face it: it hasn’t been smooth sailing for the Pac-10 (now Pac-12) conference since the 2008-09 season when players like Darren Collison, James Harden, Jon Brockman, Chase Budinger and Taj Gibson starred, or even dating back to the year prior when a Kevin Love-led UCLA team edged the Lopez twins, upstart Washington State and O.J. Mayo’s USC Trojans for the title and a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Every conference, even powerhouse leagues like the Big East and ACC, will occasionally suffer through dry spells in talent in today’s early entry era, and this league just happened to hit a lull when notable blue-bloods UCLA and Arizona struggled simultaneously. This even led to discussions regarding whether the Pac-12 could realistically be a one or two bid representative. Sure, there was actually some quality basketball played out West, but fans of this conference secretly hoped for a renaissance sooner than later.
Most had their eye on the 2011-12 season for just that moment. The plan was for UCLA to be rebuilt and reloaded, Arizona competing nationally under Sean Miller, Washington’s Isaiah Thomas entering his senior season and proud programs like Stanford and Oregon back on track. Unfortunately, this road to success has hit some potholes. Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt both decided to remain second round picks rather than continue their UCLA careers. Derrick Williams blossomed from unheralded to underrated to #2 overall pick and understandably bolted from the desert. Klay Thompson saw his stock rise and departed Pullman. In a more controversial move, Stanford’s Jeremy Green did the same. The biggest hit was Isaiah Thomas leaving Washington and ultimately being selected #60 overall. The Pac-12 had a chance to make a significant move up the conference ladder in 2011-12. While improvement is still in the cards, I’m left wondering this summer what could have been.
The debate this offseason will be whether Arizona or UCLA should begin the year as the favorite to take home the conference crown. Arizona lost Williams and their enigmatic but ultra-talented point guard MoMo Jones to a transfer closer to home, but enter the crown jewel of Sean Miller’s top recruiting class since taking the gig in Josiah Turner. Turner is most comfortable in attack mode, penetrating the defense and utilizing his tremendous court vision to find open teammates. Miller is blessed with plenty of ammo both in the backcourt with Kyle Fogg, Kevin Parrom, Jordin Mayes, Brendon Lavender and four star freshman Nick Johnson joining Turner, as well as in the frontcourt with Solomon Hill and Jesse Perry back in the fold joining two more talented newcomers. The issue for Miller won’t be depth, but rather finding that one impact player that can score 17-18 PPG per night and take/make the big shots when the chips are down. Whether it’s Fogg, Parrom, Hill, Perry or another candidate, one of these former secondary cogs must make a significant leap forward or Arizona will be a collection of enviable talent, but one without the singular on-court leadership of Williams. If Arizona can’t do so, UCLA could very well bring the title back to Westwood because I firmly and confidently believe Josh Smith develops into one of the best big men in the college game next season.
Brian: I’ve always held the Pac-12 in high regard but the last few years have certainly been a disappointment to say the least. Even as an east coast resident, staying up late on Thursday nights to watch then Pac-10 basketball on FSN has been almost a ritual for me over the years. From Luke Ridnour to the Lopez twins and Derrick Williams, I’ve enjoyed watching the competition in this league. Despite a major exodus of talent, this season could still be the one where the Pac-12 becomes more competitive when compared with the other power six conferences. Yes, a lot players went their separate ways this off-season but the league has a pair of top 25 contenders and a bunch of schools trying to get a leg up on each other in the middle of the pack.
Even though they lost Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee, I’m still going with UCLA to win the conference. Arizona will likely be right there with them for the better part of the season but I just can’t ignore the strength of the Bruin frontcourt. Reeves Nelson, Josh Smith, David Wear and Travis Wear form one of the better front lines in all of college basketball and I’m also betting on Smith to have a monster season. He already had a terrific freshman campaign and the only thing holding him back is his stamina. If he can shed some pounds you’ll see the ultra-talented Smith on the floor in longer spurts which will enable his team to wear down almost any opponent in the paint. There is no doubt that Honeycutt and Lee are big losses for this team but Ben Howland is a fantastic coach and I have faith in Zeke Jones, Jerime Anderson and Tyler Lamb manning the backcourt along with freshman Norman Powell. I’m a fan of Jones at the point and, as a senior, he should recognize his number one priority on this team is to feed the post and protect the basketball. Turnovers plagued this team last season but another year of experience should help in that regard. UCLA can definitely withstand their personnel losses and finish atop the Pac-12.
Despite losing Derrick Williams and Jamelle Horne, I still like Arizona quite a bit. Sean Miller has this program headed quickly in the right direction with a very balanced group of players returning to go along with a top five recruiting class. It’s quite the heralded group of freshmen headed to Tucson but, as you said, Arizona is going to need someone to step up and fill the leadership void left in Williams’ absence. The supporting cast was solid last year but Williams put this team on his back and carried it all the way to the Elite Eight. Solomon Hill seems to be the most likely candidate from a pure talent perspective but seniors Kyle Fogg, Jesse Perry and Brendon Lavender will be responsible for setting the tone and establishing good chemistry. With so many good players coming in, not everyone is going to get the playing time they desire. It will be very important for Miller and his senior leaders to keep everyone in check. One thing I’ll be looking for is the dynamic at point guard. Will Fogg yield to Turner or will both players compete hard for playing time and create some friction in the process? Fogg played well for the better part of last season but Turner is the type of player who can come in and start from day one. Coaches love to hand the keys to experienced seniors but the chance for an immediate impact at the point from the star freshman may be too good for Miller to pass up.
After the top two teams, it seems to me that the Pac-12 has two teams that will be fighting for third in Washington and California. After that, Stanford, Oregon, USC and Washington State fill up the middle while Colorado, Arizona State, Oregon State and Utah all look like they’re headed towards the basement. Despite losing his top three scorers as well as Venoy Overton, I actually like what Lorenzo Romar has in place in Seattle. Tony Wroten is a terrific replacement for Isaiah Thomas at the point. I don’t think he can put up Thomas-like numbers in his first season but, provided he sticks around, he can do just that in the years to come. Abdul Gaddy returns from a knee injury while Terrence Ross and Scott Suggs round out the guard lineup. Washington does lose Matthew Bryan-Amaning but Darnell Gant and Aziz N’Diaye return up front. Don’t sleep on Desmond Simmons, either. This former four star recruit can make an impact after redshirting last season. Aside from a handful of upperclassmen, the Huskies are a very young but talented team. Washington has been a good team over the past few seasons but quite often this is a program that has always seemed to have left you wanting more. It’s no sure thing that they’ll finish in the top three but the potential certainly is there.
Down the coast in Berkeley, Mike Montgomery’s squad looks like a real sleeper to me. Jorge Gutierrez should have a terrific senior season at the point and everyone knows how primed Allen Crabbe is to break out. What’s your take on the Golden Bears and what do you think is their ceiling?
Zach: If the reports are true that Smith has dropped considerable weight this summer and has the stamina to play extended minutes for the Bruins next spring, Howland has another first round pick and possible conference player of the year on his hands. Where UCLA concerns me, though, is their backcourt, especially compared to Arizona. Turner is a special talent and there’s a number of talented scorers and shooters back for Sean Miller. Howland simply doesn’t have that same type of ammunition, especially considering Anderson, Lamb and Powell are either underwhelming or unproven.
I’d cautiously lean Washington over Cal for third in this league. Washington has long been what ESPN’s Doug Gottlieb has coined an “airport” team. When they walk off the plane and into the terminal in their matching garb and intimidating frames, they look like an NBA squad. Once they step on the floor, especially on the road in recent seasons, the production doesn’t match the potential. You nailed it: they always leave you wanting more. Just when it appears Washington is going to climb up the rankings, they go and lose to Oregon State on the road or something equally puzzling. Despite the departures of Thomas and Bryan-Amaning, the recruiting prowess of Romar has created a situation where there’s still top-25 talent on this roster. How Romar will find the precise concoction with the players on that roster is still a question mark. Abdul Gaddy went from a deer-in-the-headlights freshman to a productive and efficient sophomore, posting solid shooting percentages at 50/82/41 before his devastating knee injury. His assist/turnover ratio was also 3:1 orchestrating the offense. Would Romar risk moving him back to the off-guard in favor of Wroten, who will be a special player in time in Seattle? There’s also a glut of wings on the roster, and although N’Diaye could win Pac-12 DPOY, they lack of a dependable scoring big man in the form of Smith or Nelson. One player who may explode for Romar is Terrence Ross, a former high school teammate of Terrence Jones that was at his best last March, scoring in double figures four of his last five games. C.J. Wilcox also has a chance to emerge as one of the best shooters not only in the conference, but in the nation.
California has by far the most returning of any team in this conference. Anyone who watched the Bears last year realizes Mike Montgomery committed highway robbery luring Allen Crabbe to Berkeley. Crabbe emerged as the Bears go-to offensive weapon when 2011 arrived and never looked back. Normally, freshman struggle shooting the basketball early in their collegiate career. Crabbe bucked the trend, shooting 45/80/40 and placing near the top of the league in effective FG%, easily garnering freshman of the year honors. Montgomery has the luxury of building around Crabbe as his scorer, allowing a player like Gutierrez, an adept defender, passer and team leader, to remain in his comfort zone. Harper Kamp has the skill to play the role of second scorer down low providing Montgomery a delectable inside-outside tandem. If Cal can shore up a defense that struggled mightily forcing turnovers and defending the perimeter in 2011-12, I wouldn’t rule out the Bears seriously surprising some folks. Their most likely outcome is a solid, dependable 8 or 9 seed.
After the top four, all of whom should make the 68-team field, the league takes a considerable dip. The most talent could be found at Stanford where Johnny Dawkins is looking to finish in the upper portion of the conference for the first time since taking the helm. Jeremy Green ranked in the top 100 last season in percentage of shots attempted and dropped 43% of his threes, so his departure is no small footnote. But the much-hyped sophomore tandem of Dwight Powell and Anthony Brown could both make considerable leaps next season. Powell is a legit 6’9 forward with an all-around game to boot. He can contribute scoring, rebounding and blocking shots for the Cardinal, but hit the wall during conference play last season and can’t afford to do so again. His frontcourt mate is Josh Owens, who scored in double figures in 2010-11 in his return from a medical redshirt and saved his best for the biggest opponents: 21/10 at Oklahoma State, 18 points vs. Arizona and an astounding 31 points on 12-15 FG against Oregon. Owens, Powell and Brown will all need to improve their games over the summer to make up for losing Green. Regardless, I just don’t see any of these other teams supplanting Arizona, UCLA, Cal and Washington in the top four.
Brian: I’m with you on your last statement. It’s really hard for me to see any of the other eight teams cracking the top four this season. Stanford would be the most likely to do it but the loss of Jeremy Green is a killer. Had he returned to school, I think the Cardinal could have had a chance to compete with Washington and rival Cal for the third spot. Johnny Dawkins does have everyone (minus Green) back and the team should improve even without Green in the fold as other players step up and embrace larger roles. You mentioned Josh Owens, a guy who shot 58% from the floor last year while averaging just under 12/7 a game. As a senior, his role should increase. With Anthony Brown on the wing and Dwight Powell alongside Owens up front, Stanford can pack a pretty solid offensive punch. Chasson Randle, a highly regarded guard out of the Quad Cities area in Illinois, joins the team this year and could spend the season at the two guard position opposite point guard Jarrett Mann. Once the senior Mann graduates, Randle may slide over to the point provided he improves his ball handling skills. Stanford can be sneaky good this year but I think they’ll ultimately fall short of the NCAA Tournament.
Looking at the rest of the conference, Washington State and Oregon each lose very important players but return a nice core of experienced upperclassmen. Even without Klay Thompson and DeAngelo Casto, the Cougars have enough talented bodies to remain competitive. This will be Faisal Aden’s team as a senior. Despite playing with Thompson, Aden managed to put up almost a third of the team’s shots last season, good for 35th among all individual players throughout the country. Reggie Moore also figures to be a major contributor and I’m expecting Marcus Capers to make a significant improvement in his final go-around. Add in Fresno State transfer Mike Ladd (10.3 PPG) and this is a team capable of surprising some folks who may think they’ll be down without Thompson and Casto around anymore. I believe Ken Bone is a good coach and is the right man for this job. He needs to pick it up on the recruiting trail but I loved the way his team played defense last season. However, Casto in the paint and Thompson’s long arms on the wing were key components of the zone defense. Expect Wazzu to take a step back defensively with a thin front court and a bunch of guards possibly playing out of position.
Dana Altman is going to get the Oregon program back on track, it’s just a matter of time. The Ducks surprised many last year by finishing with seven league wins. This team was even considered by some to be the worst major conference team in the land before the season started but they quickly disproved that theory by coming back and nearly knocking off Missouri in early December and righting the ship over the middle portion of their conference schedule. Their season eventually culminated with E.J. Singler’s game winning bank shot to knock off Altman’s former team, Creighton, in the best of three championship series. While it is only the CBI, last year has to be considered a success for a program that had fallen on hard times under Ernie Kent. The Ducks return the junior Singler along with five seniors this season. In a conference that’s wide open after the top four teams, this experienced lineup could make Oregon a tough out, especially at Matthew Knight Arena. Additionally, five-star recruit Jabari Brown heads to Eugene this fall. Brown will contribute immediately and add plenty of pop from deep. Oregon shot only 33.9% from beyond the arc as a team last year and the addition of Brown to the lineup will help them greatly in that regard.
I’m hoping either Stanford, Wazzu or Oregon can surprise us all and give Cal and Washington a good run for a top four finish. One name-brand team we haven’t talked about yet is USC. The Trojans lose a ton, including Nikola Vucevic, but Jio Fontan and Maurice Jones return in the back court. Kevin O’Neill has leaned heavily on the transfer route in LA with three junior college transfers and Iowa castaway Aaron Fuller joining the squad this season. Let’s not forget Ari Stewart (Wake Forest) and Eric Wise (UC Irvine) coming to the land of Troy in 2012-13. Can this unique mix of players ultimately work?
Zach: Despite his nomadic career, Kevin O’Neill’s teams are almost always going to be competitive defensively. USC ranked second in the country in defensive efficiency in 2010 and only dropped off slightly to 28th in 2011. A healthy chunk of that defensive prowess was due to seven-footer Nikola Vucevic and Carolina transfer Alex Stepheson anchoring the paint, and neither of those cogs return this upcoming season. Although Maurice Jones is a pesky one-on-one defender that can pick your pocket in the blink of an eye, he’s woefully undersized at 5’7 and it’s a difficult proposition playing both Jones and the barely 6-foot Fontan in the backcourt together due to their lack of size. The saving grace for USC must be the O’Neill-hyped junior college transfer Dewayne Dedmon. At 7’0 and 255 pounds, Dedmon is a monster in the paint and O’Neill claims he could be a first round pick in time. Of course, we must throw caution to the wind when O’Neill routinely over-hypes his players, but if his rare combination of size, agility and athleticism translates into production for USC down low, they may surprise after all. I’d be remiss overlooking how crucial Fontan will be to USC’s success in 2011-12. More of a volume than efficient scorer at Fordham, Fontan never totally felt comfortable after breaking in just prior to conference play a year ago. Although his scoring average dipped, his FG% spiked, and O’Neill must have a 17-18 PPG type season out of Fontan if he hopes to contend for an NCAA berth. There’s going to be considerable pressure on both Fuller and incoming freshman Bryon Wesley to chip in on the wings, as well.
One of the real stunning results of last season was Arizona State completely tanking. Say what you want about Herb Sendek only making it to one Sweet 16 or playing a deliberate and uninteresting style of basketball (I’d politely disagree, when executed correctly it can be a pleasure to watch) but not even his most passionate critic can deny he’s produced remarkably consistent teams at both NC State and now Arizona State, which rendered last season’s 12-18 mark especially shocking. The bad vibes truly began when sharpshooter Rihards Kuksiks was wavering on whether to come back to Tempe or play professionally in Latvia before the year. Ty Abbott and Kuksiks both went through miserable shooting slumps, what was once an ultra-efficient offense took a wrong turn somewhere and certain promising prospects like junior college transfer Carrick Felix, who spurned Duke according to some reports, didn’t live to expectations. Sendek hopes the much-improved Trent Lockett leaps into stardom and his best recruit since taking over at Arizona State, 5’11 point guard and Mesa native Jahii Carson, hits the ground running. Still, there just doesn’t appear to be enough depth or frontcourt play to expect anything more than a rebuilding season for Sendek, but he’s surprised with low expectations a number of times in the past.
The one team we haven’t mentioned yet is Oregon State. This could be a job-saving type situation for Craig Robinson, who not too long ago was the toast of college basketball after taking a moribund program to the CBI championship in his first year at the helm. Can he pull another rabbit out of his hat in time?
Brian: Let’s face it, Craig Robinson’s elevated status when he was hired in 2008 had a lot to do with his sister and brother-in-law, the current occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. That’s not to say he isn’t a good coach but he benefited greatly from the press his family was and is still getting. On the recruiting trail, this relationship certainly can’t hurt him. Robinson has recruited nationally (and internationally) at Oregon State as players from Australia to New York, and places in between, line the roster. Unfortunately for the Beavers, they’ve regressed since Robinson took over three full seasons ago. Leading scorer Jared Cunningham returns but Calvin Haynes and Omari Johnson are no longer around. With only one recruit of note coming in, Oregon State looks to be destined for another finish near the bottom of the conference. You may recognize Cunningham because of this dunk from last season but that was one of the very few highlights that came out of this program in 2010-11. Sophomore Devon Collier can be a player who makes a significant jump in production this season. He played his best basketball in conference play last year and is talented enough to become quite a good player in this league. The 6-7 Collier plays exclusively inside the arc and shot 57.8% from the floor for the entire season. Improving his free throw shooting and becoming more aggressive on the glass should be his top priorities. Without much experience or talent on the roster, I can’t see Oregon State finishing better than tenth place. In a similar situation to his brother-in-law, Robinson could very well be in full job-saving mode come 2012.
Rounding out the Pac-12, the league’s newest members, Colorado and Utah, also figure to struggle. The Buffaloes take the biggest hit of any team in the conference as their top four scorers from last year’s NIT Final Four squad have moved on. Alec Burks and Cory Higgins dominated the basketball for the last two seasons but Burks is now in the NBA and Higgins, along with fellow seniors Levi Knutson and Marcus Relphorde, graduated. Andre Roberson is the team’s leading returning scorer but his biggest impact will be on the boards. Roberson is a tenacious rebounder and pulled down 7.8 caroms in an outstanding freshman season, an unbelievable number for a 6-7/195 rookie. The San Antonio native is Tad Boyle’s most intriguing player and should make quite a leap, provided he avoids the dreaded sophomore swoon. Nate Tomlinson and Shannon Sharpe will add some stability in the back court along with Utah transfer Carlon Brown while Austin Dufault and Ben Mills should anchor CU’s front line. Colorado could finish better than expected if Roberson takes control like Burks and Higgins did last year but the supporting cast is lacking compared to 2010-11. Colorado was tenth in the nation in offensive efficiency last year but I think it’s safe to say a lot of that was due to Burks and Higgins as well as Knutson’s marksmanship from deep. Defense is where this team will have to make its mark and a big improvement in that department is going to be essential.
Utah is in an even worse predicament. The Utes have a new head coach, Larry Krystkowiak, lose five of their top six scorers from a year ago, have a weak recruiting class and begin competing in a bigger and better conference. Guard Josh Watkins (14.5 PPG) is back but the real gut punch was Will Clyburn (17 PPG/8 RPG) transferring to Iowa State after the coaching change. Clyburn did it all for last year’s Utah team, including a 40.3% mark from beyond the arc, and will be sorely missed. Despite having Clyburn on the roster, Utah could only manage a 13-18 finish as a member of the Mountain West Conference. Center Jason Washburn and guard Chris Hines have to step up as juniors and share some of the scoring load with Watkins. Hines should be the team’s best three point threat and Utah will need that considering how thin they are in the paint. The competition is a whole lot better from top to bottom in the Pac-12 and any ray of hope seems years away at this point. This sounds harsh but anything better than 12th place should be considered a good season at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City.