One on One: A Pac-12 Preview With Jon Wilner

Posted by Walker Carey on November 7th, 2014

RTC interviews one on one

Rush the Court is back with another edition of One on One: An Interview Series, which we will bring you throughout the preseason with previews of each of the major conferences.

With the college basketball season nearly upon us, we thought it would be a good idea to gather some expert opinions on the nation’s major college basketball conferences. As part of our national preview with the Pac-12, RTC correspondent Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) recently had the pleasure of speaking with a Pac-12 expert in San Jose Mercury News college basketball scribe, Jon Wilner (@wilnerhotline).

Rush the Court: Even with losing Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon from last season’s squad, Arizona is once again loaded. What makes the Wildcats so well rounded, and do you see them as one of the favorites to take home the national title?

Wilner: They certainly have to be in the very top tier of contenders for the national title. I that that their depth again is their biggest strength. They have so many good players that they are not just reliant on one or two guys. I think they are going to have more options to score this year. They should be a little bit better on offense. There might be a slight drop-off on the defensive end of the court, but it will not be enough to really hurt them. They should be right in the mix nationally. Sean Miller does a great job of getting his guys to play hard all the time. They have a huge homecourt advantage and they have a lot of experience of being able to go win on the road. A lot of success comes from the ability to go win on the road and this group has done just that.

Arizona (Casey Sapio, USA Today Sports)

Arizona Brings Back Enough Talent to Win a National Title This Year (Casey Sapio, USA Today Sports)

RTC: Colorado brings back a lot of experience from last season’s NCAA Tournament squad. With key players Josh Scott, Xavier Johnson, and Askia Booker returning for the Buffaloes, can Tad Boyle make it three NCAA Tournaments in three years?

Wilner: I think so. I expect them to be an NCAA Tournament team. I think Colorado is the best bet to finish second behind Arizona in the conference standings. It might be three or four games behind Arizona, but second place is second place. Tad Boyle is a terrific coach. He is as good as there is in the league. I think the fact that they played so much of last season without Spencer Dinwiddie will help them now that he is officially gone. There is not going to be the transition that you would normally find with a team that loses its best player to the NBA because Colorado did not have Dinwiddie for the last couple months of last season.

RTC: Stanford turned some heads nationally last spring with a surprise appearance in the Sweet Sixteen. Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell are gone from last year’s team, but scoring guard Chasson Randle returns for the Cardinal. Will Randle have enough of a supporting cast to help lead Johnny Dawkins’s squad back to the NCAA Tournament?

Wilner: That is the big question facing Stanford. Anthony Brown is a good player on the wing. We will see how effective Stefan Nastic is up front without having Huestis and Powell to help out there and make plays. I think the big thing for Stanford will be how freshman forward Reid Travis plays. They need his scoring and physical presence up front to provide the balance they will need offensively.

RTC: Utah experienced its first winning season since 2009 last year. With star swingman Delon Wright back for the Utes, can Utah finish towards the top of the league and secure an NCAA Tournament bid?

Delon Wright is a Star in Utah (George Frey, AP)

Delon Wright is a Star in Utah (George Frey, AP)

Wilner: Delon Wright is probably the best player in the league if I had to pick one. Larry Krystkowiak is one of the best coaches in the league as well. Utah has a very veteran team and a bunch of their players went to China over the summer with the conference. That kind of experience will help. Utah will be right there with Colorado fighting for second place behind Arizona. If Utah plays the way I think it is going to play, it should have no trouble finding its way back to the NCAA Tournament.

RTC: The biggest news of the offseason for Cal was the retirement of Mike Montgomery and the hiring of Cuonzo Martin away from Tennessee. How do you envision Martin adapting to life in the Pac-12?

Wilner: You know it will be interesting to see what he thinks of the officiating compared to the SEC [laughter]. Cal has some good pieces, but those were pieces hat were recruited to play in Mike Montgomery’s system. How well everything meshes with Cuonzo Martin and his approach is kind of a wait-and-see at this point. I think Cal could finish anywhere from fifth to ninth in the league. Nothing in that range would surprise me. It depends on how they do with health and if they get a few bounces to go its way. If Jabari Bird remains healthy and takes another step forward in his progression, he could be one of the best players in the conference. He is the type of player who could make everyone around him better, and make the plays that you need to make to win games on the road.

RTC: There might not be a team in the country that lost as much talent this offseason as UCLA did. The Bruins do still have some talent, but they are severely lacking in the experience category. Can Steve Alford’s squad overcome that issue and have a successful season?

Wilner: I really do not know. UCLA does have some talent coming with Kevon Looney among others, but a few recruits were unable to get eligible. This team lost a ton from last season. Norman Powell is returning and he is a good player, but it remains to be seen if he has the ability to carry the load. Is Bryce Alford good enough to give them what they need at the point guard spot? I do not know. There are a lot of questions about UCLA. There is no doubt about that. Steve Alford inherited a pretty full cupboard and he is now transitioning to making his way with his guys. I think it is probably going to take him a few years to really get it going. I think for this season, UCLA would be happy about just making it to the NCAA Tournament.

RTC: Washington has one of the best returning backcourts in the league with Nigel Williams-Goss and Andrew Andrews returning to the fold. Do you believe the Huskies will have enough up front to complement the play of their guards?

Wilner: Good question. If you are going to pick a sleeper in the league, it would probably be Washington because that backcourt is so good. Are the Huskies going to be good enough up front though? That is the question. It is going to be interesting to see if they are able to mask their limitations up front. They might use Williams-Goss and Andrews to go back to that frenetic, up-tempo style of past Washington teams. The frontcourt is going to decide where this team finishes in the league. It could finish higher than people expect or it could finish right where people expect.

RTC: Oregon had a mess of an offseason. It lost guys to both graduation and transfer. There was also an ugly legal investigation that led to the dismissal of three players. Dana Altman is a good coach and Joseph Young is a great scorer, but are there any other reasons for optimism in Eugene?

The Offseason Was Not Good to Dana Altman (credit: Alex Brandon)

The Offseason Was Not Good to Dana Altman (credit: Alex Brandon)

Wilner: I do not think there are many. Young is an elite scorer and Altman is a very, very good coach. Altman is excellent at assimilating pieces and mixing and matching them to a whole by the time conference play starts. He is as good as anyone at that. He has his hands full this season though because Oregon does not really have that much talent. It does not have that many bodies and it does not have very much experience. It would not surprise me if Oregon finishes 10th or lower in the league.

RTC: Andy Enfield’s debut season at USC was a bit rough. The Trojans struggled mightily to an 11-22 record overall, and now they are taxed with replacing 71 percent of their scoring from that team. Is there any reason to believe that things will be better in Los Angeles during year two of the Enfield era?

Wilner: Probably not. Maybe a little bit. USC could win a few more games. Losing Byron Wesley to Gonzaga really hurt. It is going to be tough for Enfield again. He does have some good young players. He is going to need UNLV transfer Katin Reinhardt to do a lot this season. I always thought he was a pretty good player. He is going to have to give USC the boost it is going to need. He has experience and he has played in some big games. USC does not have much of that, so it is going to rely on Reinhardt quite a bit. I think Enfield is going to eventually get it turned around and make USC relevant in the Pac-12. I think it is going to take him another year or two though.

RTC: Washington State and Oregon State have new coaches this season with Ernie Kent taking over in Pullman and Wayne Tinkle taking over in Corvallis. What does year one look like for both Kent and Tinkle, and do you think either could achieve some eventual success at their new school?

Kent Will Face an Uphill Battle at Washington State (Rick Bowmer, AP)

Ernie Kent is Back in the Pac (Rick Bowmer, AP)

Wilner: I think this year will go better for Ernie Kent at Washington State. He has DeVonté Lacy there and Lacy is one of the 10 best players in the conference. Kent also has experience in the league through his time at Oregon. He knows the conference and he knows what it takes to win in the league. I do not think Washington State is going to be very good this season, but by year two or year three, I think Kent is going to have the Cougars relevant in the league. Wayne Tinkle has a much tougher job at Oregon State. Unlike Kent, he does not have a player of Lacy’s caliber on his roster. The last time Oregon State was good, Gary Payton was playing there. That tells you all you need to know. Oregon State is a tough, tough job. If Tinkle can get it turned around there, the guy should be sainted.

RTC: Arizona State lost a lot from last season’s NCAA Tournament team. Jahii Carson, Jermaine Marshall and Jordan Bachynski have all moved on. Is there any reason for optimism in Tempe or will the Sun Devils find themselves near the bottom of the league pecking order?

Wilner: Arizona State will probably finish near the bottom of the league. Shaquielle McKissic is a good player and I think Herb Sendek is a very good coach. Sendek’s style does not really lend itself to being super appealing to recruits. The program is in real trouble if it does not get a real good player coming out of Phoenix every couple years. When you look at the roster this year – other than McKissic – you think to yourself that even Herb Sendek is not going to be able to win more than three or four league games with that roster. Sendek has surprised us before, but for Arizona State to finish in the top half of the league would take one of his all-time best coaching jobs.

RTC: Lastly, who do you believe will take home conference player of the year and conference coach of the year when all is said and done in March?

Wilner: I would have to go with a Utah sweep. Larry Krystkowiak for Coach of the Year and Delon Wright for Payer of the Year. If Arizona wins the league by four games, the coaches will probably vote for Sean Miller because that is what coaches do. I think Kystkowiak is as good as anyone in the league and Wright is the league’s best player. If Utah finishes second or third in the league, I imagine that those two will take home the hardware.

WCarey (279 Posts)

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