WYN2K. This is not the same Pac-10 conference as last year, plain and simple. Gone are lottery picks OJ Mayo (USC), Russell Westbrook (UCLA), Kevin Love (UCLA), Brook Lopez (Stanford) and Jerryd Bayless (Arizona). Gone are Robin Lopez (Stanford) and Ryan Anderson (Cal), also first-rounders. Gone are Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (UCLA) and Davon Jefferson (USC), who went in the second round and not at all, respectively. This year’s Pac-10 transition isn’t just limited to players. There are new coaches at Oregon St. (Craig Robinson), Stanford (Johnny Dawkins), Cal (Mike Montgomery) and Arizona (Russ Pennell). It’s safe to say that no other major conference will look as significantly different from last year as the Pac-10 in 2008-09.
Predicted Champion.UCLA (NCAA #1). Perhaps the only consistency in the Pac-10 this year will be he continued dominance of Ben Howland’s UCLA Bruins over the rest of this conference. After three straight Final Fours and another superb recruiting class matriculating in Westwood, Howland has built his program to the enviable point where he can lose two lottery picks and another starter as early entries to the NBA Draft and not expect his program to suffer major slippage. While we don’t believe that this version of UCLA will be as good of a team as the 2007-08 edition, the Bruins’ position relative to the rest of the conference may actually be stronger this time around. He returns an all-american PG, Darren Collison, who has played in three F4s and led the nation in 3FG% last year (.525, min. 80 attempts). More importantly, Collison has a chip on his shoulder after a miserable national semifinal performance against Memphis last year (2 pts, 5 tos, 5 fouls) – when he’s directing his team effectively, there are few teams in America that can overcome their bruising defense and efficient offense. The national #1 recruiting class is headlined by all-world guard Jrue Holiday, who is expected to start from day one. His talent, along with a cadre of perimeter (Malcolm Lee, Jerime Anderson) and inside players (J’Mison Morgan, Drew Gordon), will give Howland numerous lineup options to throw at opponents. Furthermore, UCLA returns a finally-healthy Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya to provide experience and a steady hand at crunch time. As we said before, we don’t believe this UCLA team will be as good as last year’s squad, but it probably doesn’t have to be. The Pac-10 has dropped in talent significantly, and UCLA should be able to roll through to another fantastic record and possible high RPI rating to garner another #1 seed out west. Here’s a pretty good indication of why Darren Collison is so important for this team.
NCAA Teams. We’re not sure that we see more than four NCAA teams in the Pac-10 this year, which sent six to the Big Dance last season and arguably deserved seven (Arizona St.). In the best-case scenario, things come together for certain teams and the league hopes for five on Selection Sunday, but there’s a more realistic chance that there will only be three NCAA selections made on that day.
Arizona St.(NCAA #4) – Herb Sendek’s coaching resume shows that once he gets a program to the 20-win plateau for the first time, it typically stays there. In other words, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that ASU, who is returning its top eight players from a 21-13 NIT quarterfinalist, will regress this season. The key player, of course, is James Harden, a coulda-been-one-and-done, who lit up the conference for 18/5/3 assts, including 41% from behind the arc (and 53% overall). Harden is a future lottery pick in a league where the only other potential such picks are freshmen (DeRozan, Holiday). Pac-10 teams are not going to enjoy their trips to Tempe this year.
USC(NCAA #8) – We struggled in making this selection, but the thing that pushes USC into the top three of the Pac-10 is simply, talent. Other than UCLA, no other program has as much pure talent that it can put on the floor. Undisciplined, maddening talent – sure – but that’s Tim Floyd for ya. Demar DeRozan wll be a highlight reel for his one year in LA, but he has considerable help next to him, assuming they can all learn to share the ball and play together. Daniel Hackett, Taj Gibson and Dwight Lewis are all talented players, and if UNC transfer Alex Stepheson is deemed eligible to play for the Trojans this year, USC has enough talent to make a run at the Pac-10 title. We don’t expect that to happen because Ben Howland is Ben Howland and Tim Floyd is Tim Floyd, but the talent differential excuse doesn’t hold water anymore.
Washington St.(NCAA #10) – We’re taking a bit of a risk with Wazzu at fourth and a bubble team for the NCAAs, but we truly believe that Tony Bennett is a system coach. Like Bo Ryan at Wisconsin, the names on the backs of the jerseys are largely irrelevant to the success of the program. They’re going to run their slower-than-Xmas stuff no matter which faces are running around out there, and in so doing, dare the rest of the Pac-10 to figure it out. Now we’re not saying that the losses of Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver and Robbie Cowgill won’t hurt – after all, that trio was the most decorated group of players in Washington St. history; but with center Aron Baynes returning along with guard Taylor Rochestie and small forward Daven Harmerling, Bennett has more than enough experience to continue confounding skeptics up in Pullman.
Washington (NIT) – This program has seemed to be in a funk ever since Brandon Roy left the dreary environs of Seattle. If the Huskies are going to take advantage of a weaker Pac-10 to make a run at the NCAA Tournament (or the NIT), they’re going to have to get another superb season from PF Jon Brockman (18/12 on 54% FG). But that won’t be enough without improved performances from Quincy Pondexter and Justin Dentmon on the perimeter. Freshman Isaiah Thomas is getting some hype from Husky fans – perhaps he can push them over the top.
California – The story here is obviously Mike Montgomery’s return to college coaching at his former employer’s bitterest rival. Had Cal held onto star player Ryan Anderson, we would have considered the Bears as a bubble NCAA team. We do think Monty will get there eventually, as he did at Long Beach St. and Stanford (not exactly powerhouses when he arrived), but he’s not a quick-fix guy and it will take time to undo the culture of mediocrity left by Ben Braun.
Arizona – On talent alone, with Chase Budinger, Nic Wise and Jordan Hill, the Wildcats should be a top three Pac-10 team. However, with the fiasco that unfolded last month and the eyebrow-raising hire of the fomer Arizona State radio announcerRuss Pennell as the head coach, we’re not sure anyone will actually want to play for UA this season. Putting them seventh was a gift.
Oregon – We still can’t figure out how Ernie Kent got a big contract extension, but we suppose it doesn’t take much to satisfy people in Eugene. At least until Mark Few takes an interest in coaching in the Pac-10. With only one significant player returning, the 5’6 Tajuan Porter, and nine new faces, we just don’t see the Ducks making a return trip to the NCAAs this season.
Stanford – We think Johnny Dawkins is in for a surprise in Palo Alto this season. Nobody has any clue as to how good of a coach he will be, but we can say with a degree of certainty that the only thing keeping the Cardinal afloat last year was the interior presence of the comical Lopez twins. The guardplay was relatively abysmal (39.5% shooting), and oh, well, now the Lopezes are gone. Good luck with that, JD.
Oregon St. – Hey, did you guys hear that new head coach Craig Robinson is Barack Obama’s bro-in-law? Wehadn’teither. Screw Corvallis, with Robinson’s financial resume, he should be in DC helping Barry fix the economy. Seriously though, last year, OSU might have been the worst major conference team we’d ever seen (Indiana has a shot at bettering that this year). Ferguson had success at Brown, though, which is a herculean task in its own right, so maybe he can get a few Ws in Corvallis this season. Three or four would be miraculous.
Washington v. Kansas (11.24.08)
UCLA @ Texas (12.04.08)
USC @ Oklahoma (12.04.08)
Arizona @ Texas A&M (12.05.08)
Gonzaga @ Washington St. (12.10.08)
Arizona v. Gonzaga (12.14.08)
Kansas @ Arizona (12.23.08)
Notre Dame @ UCLA (02.07.09)
UCLA @ USC (01.11.09)
Arizona St. @ UCLA (01.17.09)
USC @ Washington St. (01.24.09)
USC @ UCLA (02.04.09)
USC @ Arizona St. (02.15.09)
Washington @ UCLA (02.19.09)
Arizonan @ Arizona St. (02.22.09)
Neat-O Stat. The Pac-10, with only ten conference members, is the only BCS league that plays a true round-robin schedule of home/away games with every other team. We like this because it gives a true measure of the strength of each team relative to one another in the conference. There are no plans on the horizon to expand the Pac-10 to twelve members (for football reasons, the NCAA requires twelve teams to have a postseason championship game).
65 Team Era. The Pac-10 has traditionally been the weakest of the six major conferences in its NCAA Tournament performance, going 127-96 (.570) over the era. The league simply doesn’t put as many teams into the Tournament as its peers, earning 4.1 bids per year – the next lowest is the Big 12 with 4.8 per year, and the “Super Six” average is 5 bids per year. As might be expected as a correlation to that fact, the Pac-10 is also last among the six conferences in #1 seeds (12), S16s (36) and F4s (9). UCLA can’t do it all, folks!
Final Thoughts. UCLA has led the re-emergence of the Pac-10 conference as a basketball powerhouse the last several seasons, but turmoil among several previously consistent programs (Arizona, Stanford) has put the possibility of UCLA and the Nine Dwarves back into the conversation. One thing that we can be certain of is that Ben Howland will win and win big as long as he’s residing in Westwood. He hasn’t won a national title yet, but it seems a foregone conclusion that one of these years he’ll break through and win the brass ring. The rest of the Pac-10 is going to have to figure out a way to recruit on par with UCLA as well as perform in March before this league will be considered a national power again. We know that Pac-10 schools can attract star talent across the spectrum, but can they be coached up to taste national success?
We don’t put any much stock in Exhibition Games, because, well, they’re exhibitions. But maybe we should – last year, Findlay defeated Ohio St. and Grand Valley St. beat Michigan St., and both of those teams had worse seasons than expected (OSU in particular – NIT). Someone should do a correlation on this. Anyway, here are some exhibition tidbits for the discerning fan…
Syracuse 76, Cal St. LA 55. Jonny Flynn led with 13/6 assts, as Cuse celebrated the returns of Andy Rautins and Eric Devendorf from injuries. Red Flag – SU was 10-26 from the foul line.
Florida 108, Warner 49. Alex Tyus led the way with 16/14, in a game that was a clear mismatch from start to finish.
Shamelessly cribbing from last spring’s very clever NBA catch phrase, we here at RTC will present to you the Thirty Reasons We Love College Basketball as we gear up toward the start of the season a little over a month from now. We’ll be bringing you players to watch for this season and moments to remember from last season, courtesy of the series of dump trucks, wires and effluvia known as YouTube.