RTC Summer Updates: Pac-12 ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on July 25th, 2011
With the the NBA Draft concluded and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. The latest update comes courtesy of our Pac-12 correspondent, Andrew Murawa.
Reader’s Take #1
- The More, The Merrier: The Pac-10 is dead. Long live the Pac-12. The conference welcomes in Colorado and Utah for their first season in the conference, the first expansion in the West Coast’s premier conference since Arizona and Arizona State were added 33 years ago. Along with the new teams comes a new schedule – gone is the full home-and-away round robin. While there won’t be divisions in basketball like there are in football, each team will play an 18-game schedule with home and away games against its traditional rival, with six other rotating home-and-away series and four additional single games against the remaining teams. For instance, Colorado and Utah will only play the Southern California schools and the Washington schools once each, while they will play the remainder of the conference twice. While neither of the new schools are expected to make a big splash immediately in the conference, their arrival, coupled with other changes around the conference, such as the huge new $3 billion TV deal with ESPN and Fox that begins in the fall of 2012, makes it an exciting time to be a Pac-12 fan.
- Is There A Draft In Here?: Last summer, a big story around the conference was the dearth of Pac-10 players picked in the NBA Draft, as just two players from the conference were selected by NBA teams in 2010. After the 21 players that were picked in the conference between the 2008 and 2009 drafts, that was a precipitous fall. And, back before the season started, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of future high draft picks on the horizon. However, the conference had six players picked in the NBA draft, including three first-rounders and two lottery picks. Derrick Williams, the 2010-11 conference player of the year, led the way, getting snapped up by Minnesota with the #2 overall pick. Unfortunately for teams around the conference, 12 seasons of eligibility were left on the table between those six picks and the two early entries who went undrafted: Stanford’s Jeremy Green and Washington State’s DeAngelo Casto. And as a result, what had looked like a potential big-time bounce-back season for the conference now sees somewhat diminished expectations. Perhaps no team was hit harder by early defections than UCLA, who had Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee leave a total of three years of eligibility behind to go get second-round NBA draft picks (and the absence of guaranteed contracts that goes with them) at a time when the NBA labor situation is highly in doubt, but Washington State’s loss of Casto and lottery pick Klay Thompson also leaves the Cougars’ situation fuzzy at best.
- Replacing Production: Between the early entries to the NBA Draft and departed seniors, the Pac-12 loses its top seven scorers from last season, and 11 of its top 20. Likewise, ten of the top 20 rebounders are gone. However, as always, a new batch of youngsters is ready to show up on campuses this fall and begin contributing immediately. While the Pac-10 inked only nine of the ESPNU top 100 recruits, seven of those players are exciting young guards, all ranked in the top 60 on that list. Arizona leads the way, signing point guard Josiah Turner (#14 overall, according to ESPNU) and Nick Johnson (#21), to go with a couple solid frontcourt signees (Angelo Chol and Sidiki Johnson, #60 and #91, respectively). But Washington (Tony Wroten, Jr., #16), Oregon (Jabari Brown, #25), Arizona State (Jahii Carson, #49), UCLA (Norman Powell, #51) and Stanford (Chasson Randle, #59) all have their own big backcourt recruits ready to provide a burst of energy.
The conference seems to be stratified into three distinct tiers of (1) contenders for the conference title, (2) contenders for the NCAA tournament bubble and (3) the rest. There is not one team here without serious question marks that prevents it from being considered as a legitimate contender for the national title, but a case could be made for each of Arizona, California, UCLA and Washington as the preseason favorites. Beyond them, each of Oregon, Stanford and USC look to be teams who could find themselves in the Big Dance come March should their questions get answered early enough, while Arizona State, Colorado, Oregon State, Utah and Washington State each look to be in various stages of the rebuilding process, with the Beavers perhaps the one team out of this group that could jump up to the next level if things happen to break right.
- California – The Bears return four starters, add Minnesota transfer Justin Cobbs to the point guard mix, and hope to get a nice sophomore bump out of wing Allen Crabbe, who averaged 13.4 PPG as a freshman. Seniors Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp each averaged over 14 PPG as juniors, and provide a grittiness that defines the team, but for the Bears to take the next step and win the conference title, they’ll need at least one of their unproven big men, including sophomore Richard Solomon, junior Bak Bak or freshman David Kravish, to be ready to contribute in a big way this season. Solomon seems the likeliest candidate. And given head coach Mike Montgomery’s tradition of scraping everything possible out of his rosters, the Bears could be the favorite over the more talented groups nipping at their heels.
- Washington – The Huskies have been the preseason favorite in the Pac-10 the last two seasons, and both years limped home to third-place finishes. With guards Isaiah Thomas and Venoy Overton and forwards Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Justin Holiday no longer around, there is quite a bit of talent to replace on this roster, but Lorenzo Romar has talent to spare. A six-player freshman class, highlighted by power point guard Tony Wroten, Jr., will give Romar plenty of new toys to play with, but it could be guys like sophomore wings Terrence Ross and C.J. Wilcox who are the key to the Huskies’ success. Also keep an eye on the point guard spot where Wroten, fellow freshman Andrew Andrews and junior Abdul Gaddy (returning from a torn ACL) will compete for minutes.
- UCLA – When the Bruins’ season ended with a third-round NCAA Tournament loss to Florida, UCLA fans were able to take comfort in the idea that their squad in 2011-12 could be the Pac-10 favorite and a preseason Top-10 team, a spot that folks around Westwood got used to in the middle of the last decade. However, when Lee and Honeycutt both declared for and remained in the NBA Draft, things got a whole lot dicier. There is still plenty of talent to go around on this team, with sophomore center Josh Smith, junior forward Reeves Nelson, and North Carolina transfers Travis and David Wear leading the way, but now head coach Ben Howland will need to find some immediate answers at the off-guard and small forward positions. It is likely that one or both of the Wears will need to play at the three (rather than their more natural power forward spots), while sophomore guard Tyler Lamb and freshman guard Norman Powell will be called on for major minutes at the two.
- Arizona – Not only do the Wildcats lose the Conference Player of the Year, an All-American and the #2 pick in the NBA Draft in Derrick Williams, but point guard Momo Jones, who came on strong towards the end of his sophomore season, announced that he would be transferring to Iona. Luckily for head coach Sean Miller, who chose to stay in Tucson after being strongly tied to the open Maryland position in May, he’s got one of the best freshman point guards in the nation headed into his program in Josiah Turner. Coupled with fellow freshman off-guard Nick Johnson, the Wildcats could sport the nation’s youngest backcourt, but with guys like seniors Kyle Fogg and Jesse Perry, juniors Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom and sophomore Jordin Mayes returning from last year’s Elite Eight run, Miller has enough veteran leadership to mix in to make this squad a serious threat atop the conference.
- USC – The 2010-11 Trojan team only played about seven players per game. Four of those players from last year, including center Nikola Vucevic, who led the team in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots, are now gone. And somehow, knowing that head coach Kevin O’Neill is only going to run a handful of players out there, this roster still looks pretty good. The backcourt will be undersized with 6’1″ senior point guard Jio Fontan being joined by 5’7″ sophomore Maurice Jones. The frontcourt is terribly unproven with Iowa transfer Aaron Fuller, former Texas A&M center James Blasczyk and freshman Byron Wesley being the likely starters. And there is little or no depth here, proven by the fact that sophomore forward Garrett Jackson, who struggled to get ten minutes per game last year, is likely the top reserve. But O’Neill will coach this team up, they’ll defend like their lives depend on it, and they’ll fight and scrap to a .500 or so record in the conference.
- Stanford – Last year’s Cardinal squad had six freshmen who played at least eight minutes per game. As could be expected, there were a handful of peaks mixed in with a bucketful of troughs among those minutes, but the 2011-12 Cardinal should be a much better team for having absorbed those freshman bumps. Dwight Powell, Anthony Brown, Aaron Bright, John Gage, Josh Huestis and Stefan Nastic all look poised to play bigger roles as sophomores for head coach Johnny Dawkins, who recently inked a two-year contract extension. And with scoring point guard Chasson Randle ready to begin his own freshman season, Dawkins has assembled the most talent on the Farm since Montgomery was prowling the sidelines. Sure, last year’s leading scorer Jeremy Green left early for the NBA Draft (going undrafted), but if Randle can take the reigns as the team’s go-to scorer from day one, there are quite a few other attractive pieces around him.
- Oregon – Somehow, in Dana Altman’s first year in Eugene, with a roster depleted by transfers and defections, with a 6’5 senior hobbling his way through a season a center and a variety of wings filling in at the power forward spot, the Ducks wound up 21-18 on the year, 7-11 in the conference and won the CBI postseason tournament. It was without a doubt, a testament to Altman’s coaching ability and one of his finest accomplishments. In year two, Altman adds Minnesota transfer Devoe Joseph (who will be eligible in December), Louisiana Tech transfer Olu Ashaolu (who will be eligible immediately), Wake Forest discard Tony Woods, who will provide some much needed size, and a five-man freshman class, highlighted by an electric scoring guard in Jabari Brown. Holdovers from last year like E.J. Singler, Garrett Sim and Tyrone Nared will provide stability in the midst of the big transition for the Ducks, and you can bet Altman will get his team to overachieve once again, meaning that picking this squad to finish this low is probably an awfully dumb thing to do.
- Oregon State – Team Bipolar rides again. The previous vintage of the Beavers was one of the most maddeningly inconsistent collegiate programs in recent history, capable of looking stellar in knocking off Arizona and Washington, while equally capable of looking incompetent in games against Arizona State and California. Junior point guard Jared Cunningham and junior center Joe Burton, stars of the Beavs biggest wins last season, return, as do sophomores Devon Collier, Ahmad Starks and Roberto Nelson. It is Nelson, however, who holds the most potential for Craig Robinson’s team. After sitting out more than a year while working through NCAA eligibility issues, Nelson played in 24 games for the Beavers last year, but never really played up to his ability. If Nelson is able to get his swagger back, this OSU squad could jump up to the next tier in the Pac-12 and, given a little luck, compete for a postseason berth.
- Arizona State – Herb Sendek and the Sun Devils are more or less starting over from scratch. Gone are Rihards Kuksiks, Ty Abbott and Jamelle McMillan, the last links to the teams with James Harden, Jeff Pendergraph and others. Now, there are only two expected contributors on the team who have been in the program as many as three years. But given the way last year’s team fell apart in conference, that may be a good thing. Leading scorer Trent Lockett returns, and freshman point guard Jahii Carson is the program’s biggest recruit since Harden, but beyond that, little is set in stone. Former Iowa State point Chris Colvin, who may wind up on the court at the same time as Carson, enters as a juco transfer. Last year’s big recruit, Keala King was, let’s face it, just awful as a freshman, but Sendek holds out hope that he can be a difference maker in the Pac-12. And sophomore power forward Kyle Cain had his moments in his rookie campaign and should bring an improved body to his second season. The X-factor here may be 7’2″ sophomore center Jordan Bachynski who, though offensively raw, showed good feet, some shot blocking prowess and a surprising ability to run the floor well for a big man in his time as a freshman. If he can continue to develop, ASU could begin inching its way up the Pac-12 rankings.
- Washington State – Had Casto and Thompson both returned for their senior seasons, the Cougs would have been right there with the top tier teams in the conference. Without them, Ken Bone is in a rebuilding mode. And, given that Casto was just about the only power player on the roster, Bone may have some strategic shuffling to do. Point guard Reggie Moore and scoring guard Faisal Aden will be the main offensive building blocks, with senior wing Marcus Capers a glue guy defensively, and the rest is up in the air. Young forwards Brock Motum and Patrick Simon got some run last year, and will be relied on even more this season, but both of them are more finesse frontcourt guys. A pair of ridiculously athletic forwards join the roster in the fall (freshman Greg Sequele and juco transfer D.J. Shelton), and they may be forced into action due to lack of alternatives, but both are works in progress offensively. Since Tony Bennett left the Paloose, the Cougs have steadily upped the tempo every year, and with the lack of established big men, the absence of their main half-court scoring option in Thompson, and the influx of bigs who excel in transition, 2011-12 may be the year Bone goes all in with the running game
- Colorado – Tad Boyle’s first season in Boulder was the Buffaloes’ best season since 2003, its last NCAA Tournament appearance. On Selection Sunday, many thought that the Buffs had done enough to earn an invitation to the Big Dance, but when the brackets were complete, Colorado was missing. Missing this year will be the four leading scorers from that team, meaning in all likelihood, Boyle’s second season, and the Buffs’ first in their new conference, could be a lot rockier. Sophomore forward Andre Roberson is the team’s leading returning scorer (6.7 points in 22 minutes as a freshman), and he’ll get plenty of time in his second campaign, with senior power forward Austin Dufault and senior point guard Nate Tomlinson the other returning contributors. Utah transfer Carlon Brown, an athletic scoring wing, enters and may be the team’s go-to guy immediately. And a couple freshmen guards, Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker, should play big roles for Boyle. The big question, however, is the bigs. Shane Harris-Tunks played limited minutes as a freshman, then tore his ACL and missed all of last season, but Boyle has high hopes for the Aussie. Likewise, sophomore Ben Mills is an unproven big who the coaching staff hopes to see make significant strides in his return engagement. If the two of them can eat up minutes in the post, the Buffs will at least have one less question.
- Utah – New conference. New coach. Might as well make it a new roster while they’re at it, we suppose. Last offseason, the Utah basketball program was rocked by the transfers of four players. This offseason, following the firing of Jim Boylen and the hiring of his replacement, Larry Krystkowiak, the Utes saw five players transfer out, including leading scorer, rebounder and three-point shooter, Will Clyburn. Point guard Josh Watkins returns for his senior season, after averaging 14.5 points and 3.5 assists in his first season in Salt Lake City, but he also averaged 3.4 turnovers to go with those assists. He’ll have competition from freshmen Anthony Odunsi and Kareem Storey, but he’ll likely remain the man at point for his final season. David Foster, a 7’3″ senior center has averaged 2.7 blocks per game in his injury-riddled Utah career, and is the school’s all-time leading shotblocker, but he is limited offensively, as is 6’11″ frontcourt mate Jason Washburn. Aside from that there is junior wing Shawn Glover, who has averaged under five points per game in his time in red, and little else returning. There are six newcomers altogether, highlighted by freshman wing George Matthews, and Krystkowiak will need to get immediate production from them to avoid the Pac-12 cellar.
A Look Ahead
While a few key early departures prevent the Pac-12 from having a stronger profile heading into the 2011-12 season, the conference looks to be deeper this year than in the last couple. Sure, the bottom of the league is unimpressive, but the four teams in the top tier look to be solid middle-of-the-road teams with good upside, and the next handful of teams could step up an snag a spot in the First Four if things break right. While there is a long way to go to regain the talent level the conference had near the end of the last decade, it does appear to be returning from the lows of the last two seasons.
Reader’s Take #2
Allen Crabbe was last season’s Pac-10 freshman of the year, averaging 13.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. But, a closer look at his season shows that he improved as the year went on. In 16 games after the transfer of fellow freshman guard Gary Franklin (and excluding a couple of games when Crabbe was limited by the effects of a concussion), he averaged 19.1 PPG and 5.7 RPG while shooting 48.5% from the field and 47.3% from deep. This summer, Crabbe suffered a broken nose and a concussion during tryouts for the US Under-19 National Team, and had to return home without a spot on the team, but if he can keep away from the injury bug and improve upon last year’s performance, he is capable of bring home the conference player of the year award.
Mark Your Calendar
- Arizona in the Coaches vs. Cancer Tournament (Nov. 17-18, New York City) – The rest of the championship field isn’t all that impressive (Mississippi State, St. John’s, Texas A&M), but we’ll get our first good look at the Wildcat freshmen on a national stage.
- California in the CBE Classic (Nov. 21-22, Kansas City) – The Bears could be on a collision course with Missouri in the final in Kansas City, provided each can get past Georgia and Notre Dame.
- UCLA in the Maui Invitational (Nov. 21-23) – A Maui field loaded with the names of several college basketball bluebloods (Duke, Georgetown, Kansas, Memphis, Michigan, Tennessee) looks to be the highlight of this year’s early season tournaments.
- Washington vs. Marquette (Dec. 6), Washington vs. Duke (Dec. 10) at Madison Square Garden – In the span of five days, the Huskies will play two different big non-conference games in the basketball mecca, the first a part of the Jimmy V Classic, the second a nationally-televised Saturday one-off.