RTC Conference Primers: #6 – Pac-12Posted by Brian Goodman on November 1st, 2011
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-12 and Mountain West conferences as well as a Pac-12 microsite staffer. You can find him on Twitter @AMurawa.
Reader’s Take I
With only two of the ten players named to last year’s All-Pac-10 team returning, the race for the conference player of the year is wide open.
- Twelve Is The New Ten: After 33 seasons, college basketball fans on the west coast are getting used to calling their conference the Pac-12. With Colorado and Utah along for the ride (and currently taking their lumps in football), gone are the days of the home-and-away round-robin schedule on the basketball side of things. But lest the traditionalists complain too much, it could have been much different, as schools from Oklahoma and Texas (obviously the very definition of “Pacific” states) flirted with changing their allegiance for the second consecutive year before heading back to the Big 12.
- Fresh Blood: As mentioned above in our poll question, the conference loses eight of the ten players on last year’s all-Pac-10 team, with just Jorge Gutierrez of Cal and UCLA’s Reeves Nelson returning. In other words, it is time for a new set of players to step up and take the reins of the league. The most likely candidates are a talented group of freshman guards – names like Josiah Turner and Nick Johnson at Arizona, Tony Wroten, Jr. at Washington, Jabari Brown at Oregon, Norman Powell at UCLA and Chasson Randle at Stanford.
- The Carson Show On Hold. A seventh highly-touted freshman guard, however, is stuck in limbo. Arizona State’s Jahii Carson has yet to be cleared for practice while an investigation continues into an online course the 5’10” point guard took this summer at Adams State in Colorado. That school has yet to release his course transcript, and until that happens, Carson is unable to practice with the Sun Devils, making an already difficult situation (being regarded as a savior for a team coming off a 12-19 campaign) even worse.
- Hard Times for Kevin Parrom: Sometimes, just when everything is going well, life conspires to deal you a set of circumstances that just suck. It’s not bad enough that Parrom took a couple of bullets on September 24 during a home invasion, while in the Bronx visiting his sick mother. But on October 16, Parrom’s mom then passed away after a long battle with cancer. While both incidents will have lasting effects on Parrom, the bullet wounds are the biggest obstacle to him getting back on the court, with bullet fragments lodged in his right leg, a boot on his right foot, nerve damage and his left hand currently wrapped up to protect lacerations sustained in the attack. Parrom is rehabilitating his injuries and as of this writing, no hard timetable is set for his return. But if anybody is due for a good break or two, Parrom’s the guy. Get well soon, Kevin.
Predicted Order of Finish
- California (14-4)
- UCLA (13-5)
- Washington (13-5)
- Arizona (13-5)
- Oregon (10-8)
- Stanford (9-9)
- Oregon State (9-9)
- USC (7-11)
- Washington State (7-11)
- Arizona State (6-12)
- Colorado (5-13)
- Utah (2-16)
All-Conference Picks (key stats from last season in parentheses)
- G: Jorge Gutierrez, senior, California (14.6 PPG, 4.5 APG, 3.8 RPG) – The Golden Bears’ emotional leader is a do-everything sort who squeezes every last drop of production out of his talent level. While neither a true point nor a prototypical two-guard, he always seems to be in the right place at the right time on both ends of the court.
- G: Allen Crabbe, sophomore, California (13.3 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.0 APG) – Crabbe came on big in conference play in his rookie campaign, showcasing a versatile offensive game highlighted by 40% shooting from deep. Back for year two, Crabbe will likely be the Bears’ go-to offensive player down the stretch, while pleasing head coach Mike Montgomery with a tough defensive game to match.
- F: Terrence Ross, sophomore, Washington (7.9 PPG, 2.8 RPG) – Ross never consistently earned head coach Lorenzo Romar’s trust in his freshman season, in part due to a stacked Husky roster and his own poor effort defensively, but he showed glimpses of offensive greatness, dropping 25 on Oregon in early January and scoring in double figures in four of his last five outings. If Ross can become more consistent, he’s got the talent to be right there with the best in the Pac-12, if not the country.
- F: Reeves Nelson, junior, UCLA (13.9 PPG, 9.1 RPG) – Nelson built on a promising freshman year made largely on grit and effort and displayed a more skilled and nuanced game as a sophomore. Back for his junior season in Westwood, consistency and maturity need to be the next big goals for the heart and soul of the Bruin squad, because there are few questions about his talent.
- C: Joshua Smith, sophomore, UCLA (10.6 PPG, 6.5 RPG) – While Smith’s 10/6 averages from his first year under Ben Howland look decent, they’re made more compelling when considering that they came in just over 20 minutes a game. However, in order for the big Bruin to be able to register more minutes, he’ll need to keep his weight (generously listed at 305 pounds) in check and refrain from picking up dumb fouls.
6th Man: Trent Lockett, junior, Arizona State (13.4 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.5 APG) – Lockett was the one bright spot in a gloomy Sun Devil season, scoring in double digits in 15 of 23 games. If he can develop his perimeter jumper, the bouncy Minnesotan could give opposing defenders headaches.
Impact Newcomer – Josiah Turner, Arizona – Turner will have to battle sophomore Jordin Mayes for the starting point guard position in the wake of Momo Jones’ transfer this offseason, but the 6’3” kid from Sacramento could become not only the new floor general at Point Guard U, but the go-to scorer in crunch time.
- California (NCAA Seed: #3): There is no clear cut favorite in the Pac-12 this year, but the top four teams look to have separated themselves from the pack a bit. All of the teams have strengths, all of them have weaknesses, and each will need somebody to step up and make a difference in order to nose out the others at the finish line. And yet another thing to consider in the conference for the first time is the unbalanced schedule. For the Golden Bears, they only face the Washington schools once, but have to travel north to do so. Conversely, their only meetings with the Arizona schools will occur in Haas Pavilion. All in all, it is a manageable conference schedule for Mike Montgomery’s squad. With Jorge Gutierrez, the team’s glue guy and leading scorer as well as a returning all-conference performer, and Allen Crabbe, last season’s Pac-10 freshman of the year, the key pieces are in place. The big question for the Bears is finding somebody to step into the open frontcourt position opposite last year’s second leading scorer, Harper Kamp. If some combination of sophomore Richard Solomon, junior Bak Bak and/or freshman David Kravish can provide quality minutes up front, the Bears will indeed be golden. Solomon, an athletic 6’9” power forward whose main weakness is his slight frame, figures to be the best bet in that role, and since the Bears are going to have to deal with UCLA’s rugged front line twice this season, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to prove himself. The other big change for the Bears could be at the point guard position, where Minnesota transfer Justin Cobbs joins incumbent Brandon Smith, who did a solid job last season after Gary Franklin transferred out. Given that Gutierrez is a good secondary ballhandler with an excellent basketball IQ, whoever is manning the point for the Bears will get plenty of help. With Montgomery’s history of getting the most out of his team, Cal has got to be the slight favorite to win its second conference title in three years. As for making an NCAA Tournament run? Well, anything is possible, but this looks to be a good, not great, California squad.
Other NCAA/NIT Teams
- UCLA (NCAA Seed #4): Not only did the Bruins draw the toughest conference schedule of the four main contenders (they have to play Cal, Washington and Arizona twice each), but they’ve got some issues to sort out on the wing, where Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt both made their final questionable decisions as Bruins when they declared early for the NBA Draft. Ready to step into their places are a relatively unaccomplished sophomore (Tyler Lamb), a top-100 freshman recruit (Norman Powell) and a JuCo standout (De’End Parker). Each will have an opportunity to distinguish himself and earn a key role for Ben Howland alongside either of a couple of senior point guards in Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson, who will miss the first couple games of the season after his own latest bad decision at UCLA. Neither player is an electric point, but they’ll need to be steady for the Bruins to succeed. By far the strength of this UCLA squad is up front, where they are talented and deep. Reeves Nelson was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder a season ago, as well as a member of the all-conference team, and he’ll again be the team’s lightning rod. Paired with him up front is center Josh Smith, a massive figure listed at 6’10”, 305 pounds, with massive talent to boot. Poor conditioning and foul trouble plagued him during his freshman season, but he was still a highly effective player in the minutes he did play. Backing them up are returnees Anthony Stover and Brendan Lane, as well as North Carolina-transfers David and Travis Wear. The Wear twins are best suited to playing the four spot, but with UCLA’s limitations on the wing, one or both of them may get some time alongside Nelson and/or Smith. Aside from drawing the short end of the stick in the scheduling department, the Bruins will also be playing all of their games away from the friendly confines of Pauley Pavilion this season, adding a degree of difficulty to this season for Howland’s squad. There is enough talent on this roster to make a big splash in the Pac-12, but he’ll need to patch it together in such a way as to hide the more glaring deficiencies. Bruin fans may be tempted to play the what-if game, wondering how this team would look with Lee and Honeycutt still in the mix, but with a top five national recruiting class due in next season, Bruin fans will be able to temper those thoughts with bigger dreams of 2012-13.
- Washington (NCAA Seed #5) For Lorenzo Romar, 2011-12 is just like starting over again. Gone are all three double-figure scorers from last season, including the heart and soul of the Husky program, mighty-mite point guard Isaiah Thomas and defensive pest Venoy Overton, who has harassed his last west coast point guard. Luckily for Husky fans, the cupboard is far from bare. Along with veteran returnees like Abdul Gaddy, Darnell Gant, Scott Suggs, C.J. Wilcox, Terrence Ross and Aziz N’diaye, Romar brings in a talented six-man recruiting class highlighted by flashy 6’4” point guard Tony Wroten, Jr. Romar did get some bad news before the opening of practice when it was learned that Suggs had a stress fracture in his right foot and would miss 8-12 weeks, likely putting the senior back on the court in time for conference play. The Suggs injury does clear up something of a murky wing picture for the Huskies, clearing more minutes for Wilcox, Ross and Wroten. Gaddy returns for his junior season after last year’s campaign was ended prematurely by a torn ACL, but all indications are that he is back at full strength and ready to take the next step in his development as a facilitating point guard. Wroten is a good complement to Gaddy, more of a scoring point who still has the ability to create for teammates in sometimes spectacular ways. Up front, N’diaye returns for his junior season alongside Gant, forming a wall of talented rebounders and defenders who have yet to display much on the offensive end. That duo will be bolstered by incoming freshmen Jernard Jarreau, Martin Breunig and Shawn Kemp, Jr., as well as redshirt freshman Desmond Simmons, each of whom brings a little bit different style to the front line. But the big key for the Huskies may be Ross, a hyper-talented offensive player who needs to hone his defensive game in order to earn minutes. If he does, watch out, because he is a highlight-reel scorer. Given Washington’s history of struggles on the road in conference play (three straight road losses to Washington State, Oregon and Oregon State brought the preseason conference favorite back to the pack last year) and the reliance on new pieces this season, it is hard to pick the Huskies to win the conference. But they have won two straight Pac-10 Tournaments and should be considered a threat once postseason play begins.
- Arizona (NCAA Seed #5) I have a reason for putting the Wildcats way down here when there seems to be very little difference between this squad and the Golden Bears. Quite simply: freshmen. While there is plenty of returning talent for Arizona, they’ll likely be relying on newcomers a lot, especially in the back court. Oh, and then there’s the fact that not only will they have to replace Derrick Williams, arguably on the short list with Jimmer Fredette and Kemba Walker for the best player in the nation last year, but they’ll also have to replace Momo Jones, who transferred to Iona. Their top two leading scorers from last season… gone. Now, they do return almost everybody else of consequence (Jamelle Horne, the only exception), but no one else on this squad has proven yet that they can be a consistent scorer. They bring in a talented freshman class, highlighted by point guard Josiah Turner and off-guard Nick Johnson, both of whom have the ability to start and to excel right away, but they’ll have to prove their mettle first. If Turner and Johnson don’t get in the starting lineup immediately, it will likely be Jordin Mayes at the one and Kyle Fogg at the two (with Kevin Parrom in the mix on the wing depending on when he is back in basketball shape), with Brendon Lavender a consideration also. Up front, Sean Miller has a couple more highly regarded freshmen to play with, in the form of power forwards Angelo Chol and Sidiki Johnson. Neither is anywhere near a finished product yet, but both will get minutes and could compete for a starting job. Senior Jesse Perry will likely start at the four, alongside Solomon Hill at the three, with senior center Kyryl Natyazhko getting the first crack at starter’s minutes inside. Aside from the youth factor, another concern for the Wildcats could be the fact that their best lineup may feature Perry as a 6’8” center, with Parrom and Hill as 6’6” forwards alongside their guards, an undersized lineup to be sure. Nevertheless, expect Miller to develop his big men in anticipation of getting important minutes from them later in the season, running as many as ten different guys out there on a nightly basis. These Wildcats will be feisty, and may be playing their best ball come March, but some growing pains along the way should be expected.
- Oregon (NCAA Seed #12) Much like the top tier in the conference, the second tier in the conference is tightly bunched together. I see Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford as teams of similar quality, but I’ll give the edge to the Ducks based on little more than Dana Altman’s ability to carve wins almost out of thin air. Throw in the fact that Matthew Knight Arena seems to be picking up where McArthur Court left off (the Ducks are 9-3 in their new digs) and this Duck team could find its way back into the NCAA Tournament after a four-year absence. Back from last year’s squad are starters E.J. Singler and Tyrone Nared, both of whom spent time out of position at power forward or even center last year. Each will spend significantly more time on the wing this year, because Altman has some size on this roster now, highlighted by two transfers who will be eligible right away: 6’7” power forward Olu Ashaolu from Louisiana Tech and 6’11” center Tony Woods from Wake Forest. Ashaolu is a beast on the glass and Woods is, well, a big body who has yet to really produce anything of substance in his college years. Also up front, the Ducks return a solid veteran in Jeremy Jacob and add freshman center Austin Kuemper and juco transfers Carlos Emory and Chris Larson to provide depth. Jonathan Loyd, starter of 16 games at point guard last season, returns and will likely run the point for the first couple months of the season, at least until Minnesota transfer Devoe Joseph becomes eligible at the end of the first semester. Loyd is a pass-first guy that is a decent defender, but Joseph is clearly the superior player and will be the guy come mid-December. The big news in the backcourt for the Ducks is the arrival of freshman guard Jabari Brown, a superb scorer who is the easy favorite to lead the Ducks in scoring, even as a rookie. He should start immediately, pushing Garrett Sim, who started 35 games last year, to a reserve role. A couple other freshman, point guard Bruce Barron and off guard Brett Kingma, may see spot duty, but they’ll likely have to wait a year to get significant run. The upshot of all this is that Altman finally has some players to run out there. Last year there were two scholarship players on the squad listed at 6’7” or better. They often ran a 6’5” center out there (Joevan Catron, a guy who was clearly their best player, mind you) and frequently played a backcourt with two guys under 6’0”. This year they not only have a group that will look like a basketball team even when out of uniform, but they’ve got plenty of talent as well. Throw in the fact that they get to skip the Southern California road trip and don’t have to see Arizona come to Eugene, and the schedule is right too. Breaking into the top four in this league could be a stretch, but knowing Altman’s track record, this Duck team could sneak into the bubble discussion and maybe even dance.
- Stanford (NIT) Last year, the Cardinal took the lumps that normally go with giving six different freshman seven or more minutes per game. Their offensive efficiency numbers were terrible, their defense wasn’t a whole lot better, and Stanford was often a very hard team to watch. But the difficulties that Cardinal fans went through last year should pay dividends in 2011-12. There was one bit of bad news this offseason when last year’s only consistent scoring threat, Jeremy Green, decided to leave school a year early to pursue his professional basketball career. This leaves head coach Johnny Dawkins scrambling to find somebody to pick up the slack. The answer could come in the form of this year’s prized freshman, Chasson Randle, a scoring point who could turn the returning point guards, Jarrett Mann and Aaron Bright, into role players. Likely to slide into the two-guard position is exciting sophomore Anthony Brown, a versatile offensive threat with a sweet three-point stroke. Up front, senior forward Josh Owens is the team’s leading returning scorer (11.6 PPG, 6.5 RPG) and he’ll be paired with 6’10” sophomore Dwight Powell, their brightest returning prospect. Powell was absolutely lost at times as a freshman, but showed enough flashes (such as a 20-point, seven-rebound effort in a home win over Bay Area rival Cal in early January) to let Cardinal fans know that the best is yet to come. The fifth starting spot is wide open and could change on a nightly basis, depending on the opponent, but Dawkins would likely love to see somebody like sophomore center John Gage or sophomore wing Josh Huestis earn that role. While Cardinal fans can likely see the light at the end of the tunnel, replacing Green’s production is going to be a test. If Powell or Brown can take a big step forward, and if Randle is everything he’s cracked up to be, maybe the Cardinal can sneak into the NCAA Tournament. More likely, they take a step forward to the brink of the big dance, and save the actual dancing for the next go-round.
- Oregon State Yay! My favorite schizophrenic team is back! Last year, there were a handful of occasions (one particular Sunday night in January when Arizona visited Gill Coliseum, for instance) when the Beavers looked like a well-coached, up-and-coming team that could play with anybody in the conference. The problem was, those were only a handful of occasions. There were also times when OSU dropped games to teams like Seattle, Texas Southern, Montana and something called Utah Valley State. The good news for Craig Robinson is that most of last year’s squad returns, and there is some good talent there, provided it can be harnessed somehow. Most intriguing is the Beaver backcourt, highlighted by junior Jared Cunningham and sophomore Roberto Nelson. Cunningham was spectacular at times last season, and if he can tighten up his jumper just a bit more, he can become a fearsome offensive player. Nelson was inconsistent, at best, in his long awaited freshman season in Corvallis, but by all reports was much improved on the team’s summer trip to Macedonia. Between the two of them, and 5’9” point Ahmad Starks, OSU’s guards are in good hands. Up front, 6’7” junior center Joe Burton was usually a good barometer for the Beaver team as a whole last year. When Burton was present and active, the OSU offense hummed along; when he was distracted, winded, or otherwise indisposed, they struggled. Unfortunately, the latter was far more common than the former. For the Beavers to compete for a postseason berth, they’ll need Burton to display more consistency, more maturity and better conditioning. The other possible game changer up front is sophomore Devon Collier, an active big man who could possibly replace the departed Omari Johnson as a outstanding defender, rebounder and hustle guy. Anything he can add to the limited offensive game he showed as a freshman would be a bonus. There is some returning depth, especially along the front line in the form of junior Angus Brandt and senior Kevin McShane, while Robinson also welcomes back a couple sophomores who missed most of last year with injuries in Rhys Murphy and Eric Moreland. There are also a couple of freshmen who could see some minutes in center Daniel Gomis and off-guard Challe Barton, but if OSU is going to make any sort of a move up the Pac-12 standings, it is going to be on the backs of the starting five getting the majority of the minutes. It’s a big season for Robinson, with the natives starting to get restless for signs of significant improvement, and the talent is there, but the margin of error for this squad is very, very slim.
- USC: It’s been a rough offseason for Kevin O’Neill and the Trojans. First, last year’s leading scorer and rebounder, Nikola Vucevic, announced that he would forgo his senior season to enter the NBA draft. Then in August, last year’s second leading scorer and leader in assists per game, Jio Fontan, suffered a season-ending torn ACL during a team trip to Brazil, a trip that began with center Curtis Washington tearing his labrum in his left shoulder, likely ending his season before it began. As a capper, sophomore juco transfer Dewayne Dedmon broke his hand in the middle of October and may miss up to four weeks, putting him on pace to return right around the start of the season but possibly missing all or most of the Trojans’ preseason practice. And so, what had already been a team greatly lacking in depth (by the end of 2010-11, O’Neill was largely using just a six-man rotation) is now reduced to returning just one guy, 5’7” sophomore guard Maurice Jones, who averaged more than 11 minutes per game last season. Luckily, O’Neill does have some newcomers ready to make an impact, especially in the frontcourt. Aaron Fuller (9.7 PPG, 6.2 RPG for Iowa in 2009-10) and James Blasczyk (who got some spot duty at Texas A&M two years ago) come in as transfers and could find starting roles waiting for them immediately. When Dedmon comes back, the seven-footer will likely take over in the middle right away, and O’Neill has high hopes for him, calling the inexperienced sophomore who only began playing basketball as a senior in high school, a future first-round pick. Finally up front, there are a couple of returnees: sophomore wing Garrett Jackson, who contributed 3.3 points and 1.7 rebounds in limited minutes last year and sophomore Evan Smith, who redshirted last season after a shoulder injury and but got plenty of minutes in the seven games he played for USC in 2009-10. Both of those players bring good range, but will need to toughen up their games to help out the shorthanded Trojans down low. The backcourt is in similar condition, but at least O’Neill returns Jones (9.9 PPG, 3.2 APG) at the point. He’s a lightning quick ballhandler who was a streaky, at best, shooter in his first year in Los Angeles. It looks like freshman guard Alexis Moore will start alongside Jones the backcourt, in something of a dual point-guard role, with JuCo transfer Greg Allen providing depth. Then there’s 6’4” wing Byron Wesley, who is a strong-bodied defensive-minded freshman who could endear himself to O’Neill right away and become a fixture either at the two or as an undersized three. If the Trojans are going to have any success this year, it is going to be via the type of ball Wesley can play and the type of ball O’Neill has preached before: tough, hard-nosed, defensive-minded grind-a-thons. Keep the score low, annoy the opposition’s guards with gritty pressure and steal an ugly game. Unfortunately for Trojan fans, there may not even be enough bodies here to get that done.
- Washington State: Much like UCLA, the Cougars got absolutely killed by the NBA Draft decisions of a couple of their players last year. First, junior Klay Thompson gave up his final year of eligibility to become the 11th pick in the draft, seemingly a wise decision. Then junior big man DeAngelo Casto gave up his final year of eligibility to sign a professional contract in Turkey in order to support his family, a bit more of a surprise to head coach Ken Bone. And suddenly, a team that would have been right behind the top four teams in this league saw its 2011-12 hopes dwindle. Now that’s not to say that the cupboard is completely bare up on the Paloose. Three starters return, their scoring sixth-man comes back as well and a quartet of athletic newcomers could make these Cougs a team worth watching. Junior point guard Reggie Moore heads the returning starters, after a disappointing sophomore campaign marred by injury and a marijuana arrest. Nevertheless, he is a capable of becoming a team leader and a floor general. Wing Marcus Capers and forward Abe Lodwick also figure to reprise last year’s starting roles, with Capers playing the role of defensive stopper with almost no offensive game while Lodwick is a versatile frontcourt player who has been forced into interior action despite being more comfortable on the perimeter. Then there is senior guard Faisal Aden, an instant-offense burst off the bench last season who may slide into the starting two-guard role this year. Also returning are 6’9” forward Brock Motum, who got almost 20 minutes a game last year as a sophomore, and 6’9” sophomore wing Patrick Simon, a three-point threat who struggled a bit with his shot as a freshman. Of the newcomers, the most exciting prospect is Fresno State-transfer Mike Ladd an athletic and tough defender who can do a little bit of everything and may sneak into the starting lineup himself. There’s also freshman point guard DaVonte Lacy, who’ll immediately be Moore’s backup and maybe even get some time alongside him. And then there’s JuCo transfer D.J. Shelton, a big time athlete up front. All things considered, this is a team that could get out and run and be effective. Moore is at his best in transition, he’s got guys like Aden, Lodwick and Simon who can spot up at the three-point line, there are excellent defenders like Capers and Ladd, and there’s Shelton who can run the floor and rebound with abandon. While most prognosticators don’t see much hope for this version of the Cougs, Bone definitely has some pieces here that could fit together nicely and surprise a lot of people.
- Arizona State Last season was a nightmare for Herb Sendek and the Sun Devils. After an uninspiring but solid 7-4 pre-conference slate, ASU split the conference-opening road trip to Oregon, then proceeded to lose 11 straight conference games. Their trio of seniors was largely ineffective throughout the season, and there were times when the Devils seemingly failed to find anything worthwhile offensively for weeks at a time. To Sendek’s credit, his team didn’t quit on him, and they were able to go 3-3 in their final six conference games. This year was supposed to be a brand new start, especially with freshman point guard Jahii Carson, the eight-best point in the 2011 recruiting class, according to ESPN, ready to spice things up again. However, as we detailed above, Carson’s eligibility remains in doubt, he has yet to be able to participate in an official practice with the team, and there is no current timetable for a decision on his eligibility. Without Carson, Iowa State-transfer Chris Colvin will likely start at the point (he will likely still get minutes alongside Carson if he is ever cleared), with last year’s leading scorer, junior Trent Lockett, his backcourt partner. Up front, sophomore Kyle Cain is the team’s other returning starter and last year’s leading rebounder. Cain needs to get stronger, but should be a fixture in the frontcourt for the Sun Devils for the next three years. Alongside Cain, Sendek has a couple of big options in 6’11” junior Ruslan Pateev and 7’2” sophomore Jordan Bachynski. Neither is a finished product, but both got better as the season went on, and both are capable shotblockers in the middle. Bachynski has the bigger upside, simply because he is the better athlete and has a better feel for the game, but if Sendek can get consistent minutes out of the duo, ASU could be a rugged defensive team. Elsewhere, there are a handful of wings that will get minutes for the Sun Devils: Keala King (who will likely also help out at the point in Carson’s absence), Chase Creekmur (a sharpshooter who came on down the stretch as a freshman), Carrick Felix (an athletic juco transfer who was wild in his first year in the desert) and Jonathan Gillig (a 6’8” freshman recruit from Denmark who could turn into a better version of Rihards Kuksiks). Knowing Sendek’s track record, it is hard to imagine a repeat of 2011-12, but an answer on Carson’s status prior to their November 11 opener against Montana would at least clear things up for ASU.
- Colorado The inaugural season in the Pac-12 for the Buffaloes could be a rough one. Gone are the top four leading scorers from last season, including sophomore Alec Burks to the 12th pick in the NBA draft, and 75% of last year’s offense. The leading returning scorer for head coach Tad Boyle, entering his second season as the lead man in Boulder, is sophomore forward Andre Roberson (6.7 PPG, 7.8 RPG). But the good news is that Roberson is quite a player, and one seemingly primed to take a huge leap forward. Last year, few if any plays were run for Roberson, so everything he got, he got on his own. This year, he’ll be one of the focal points of the offense, and his numbers should rise accordingly. Also returning for the Buffs are a couple of senior returning starters in forward Austin Dufault (who was forced to play a lot of center last year) and guard Nate Tomlinson (a combo guard of sorts who isn’t much of a playmaker but excels at shooting the ball). Sophomore point guard Shannon Sharpe may take over the lead guard duties this season, after making an impact in limited minutes in his freshman campaign, while it would really behoove Boyle is he could get some sort of productions from one of his trio of big men: 6’10” sophomore Shane Harris-Tunks, 7’0” sophomore Ben Mills or 6’9” senior Trey Eckloff. The biggest hope of those three is Harris-Tunks, of whom much was expected last year before he tore an ACL in October. Helping out the returnees are a quartet of newcomers, led by Utah-transfer Carlon Brown, an athletic slashing wing who will have one season of eligibility in Boulder, and who may become an excellent complement to Roberson. Also, there are a couple of freshmen guards, 6’2” point Spencer Dinwiddie and 6’1” two-guard Askia Booker, who will get some time. Then there’s sophomore JuCo transfer Jeremy Adams. There’s not a lot of depth here, and even less proven production, but if Roberson is comfortable being more of a focal point on offense, he and Brown could form a formidable duo. Boyle would probably still need one of the bigs to turn into a solid contributor, but there is at least some reason for hope around Boulder.
- Utah Much like their fellow newcomer to the Pac-12, the Utes are starting almost from scratch. Just one of last year’s six leading scorers returns, and he is Josh Watkins, a much-maligned point guard who turned it over nearly as much as he handed out assists and shot 26.7% from deep. Meanwhile, leading scorer Will Clyburn transferred to Iowa State, while J.J. O’Brien, Chris Kupets, Shawn Glover and Jace Tavita found new homes in which to carry out their remaining eligibility, the second straight year at least six players transferred out of the program. All in all, not a good start to a new job for head coach Larry Krystkowiak. If there is hope for the season, it rests in a pair of big men. David Foster, a 7’3” behemoth in the middle is arguably the best shotblocker in college basketball when healthy, but he hasn’t been healthy enough to contribute more than 21 minutes a game. And, as good as he is on the defensive end, he’s not much help offensively, even on the glass. Chris Washburn the other big man on the squad is a relatively puny 6’10”, and while he’s more polished offensively than Foster, he too has had trouble staying healthy enough to get consistent minutes. Only one other contributor to last year’s 13-18 effort returns, junior Chris Hines, an undersized shooting guard who should see a bump in his run this year if only by default. Aside from that, there are three JuCo transfers and three freshmen who will need to fill in the rest of the available minutes. Freshman George Matthews is the most accomplished of the newcomers, and he should get every opportunity to nail down the small forward spot from the get-go, while fellow freshman Kareem Storey should back up Watkins at the point while Anthony Odunsi provides depth in the backcourt. juco transfer Cedric Martin should also pitch in at the two (and could start there), while fellow juco transfers Javon Dawson (who is coming off an ACL tear last year) and Dijon Farr will help out up front. Krystkowiak did get a couple of other transfers to commit to the program in Eastern Washington’s Glen Dean and LSU’s Aaron Dotson, but both will have to sit out the 2011-12 season, meaning the Utes will take to the court in their first year in the Pac-12 as decided underdogs, a team that could be capable of stringing together quite a run of conference losses. The good news is, it can only get better from here.
Reader’s Take II
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?
Of all the coaches in the conference, it seems that Craig Robinson and Herb Sendek have the most to prove this season. While Sendek has proven his ability in Tempe on more than one occasion, last year’s struggles are fresh in the minds of Sun Devil fans, and a repeat of that ineptitude, a realistic possibility in the wake of Carson’s eligibility issues, could doom his future. Likewise, while Robinson has taken the Beavers from the depths of a 6-25 season just four years ago to a CBI championship and a talented current roster, OSU fans are disappointed in the backwards steps that the Beavs have taken the last couple of seasons.
As the league goes from the Pac-10 to the Pac-12, there is new excitement regarding the expansion of the league footprint and, more importantly, the ensuing expansion of their bank accounts. Nevertheless, the double-edged sword of economic progress also coincides with the loss of the ability of the conference to crown a true regular season champion. In previous years, every conference team played every other conference team both at home and on the road. This year, unbalanced scheduling begins. And with it, when we begin to assess how strong a team is, we not only have to consider who they played out of conference, but who they played (or more importantly didn’t play) in conference. Take, for instance, Oregon. If on March 11, they’re firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble, will the fact that they only got a chance to play Washington and Arizona once during the regular season hurt its strength of schedule and, as a result, their chances of making the NCAA Tournament? Sometimes progress takes things that were really simple and makes them much more difficult.
Spotlight on… Pac-12 Coaching
UCLA coach Ben Howland is just three conference victories away from reaching 100 in his career, while Washington’s Lorenzo Romar needs just five to reach the same mark. When they hit that number, they’ll join Cal coach Mike Montgomery (who has 247 conference victories between his time at Stanford and his time at Cal) among just 20 coaches in history who have reached that mark, and it will be the first time since 1964 when three active coaches all had more than 100 conference wins at the same time. Throw in rising stars like Arizona’s Sean Miller and Oregon’s Dana Altman, along with the perpetually underrated Herb Sendek of Arizona State and Kevin O’Neill at USC, along with a touch of rising star Tad Boyle of Colorado, and you’ve got a recipe for great coaching up and down the conference.
It’s no secret that the Pac-10 has been down the last couple of years. Two years back, when UCLA limped home to a 14-18 record and Arizona finished 16-15, the conference was being left for dead, notwithstanding the conference talent that had littered previous NBA Drafts. But last year, speared on by Arizona’s re-emergence, UCLA’s new life and the consistently strong Washington program, the conference bounced back a little. While key defections in Tucson, Westwood and Pullman this offseason may limit the immediate upside of the league in 2011-12, UCLA and Arizona, as two examples, have already put together some big-time recruiting classes for next season. In short, after a quick dip into near-irrelevance, the conference is on its way back. Aside from the top four teams in the conference, all contenders for the title, both Oregon and Oregon State have given their supporters at least some reason for hope, while Stanford is littered with young talent. The future is bright for the Pac-12 and its basketball teams, and the future begins this year.