Arizona can be a real national power next year if Derrick Williams doesn’t . . . oh never mind.
UCLA just might get back to the level of Ben Howland’s final four squads if Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt don’t . . . really? Both of them?
They lost some great players, but Alec Burks is so good that Colorado is a threat if he decides to . . . ok, so much for that.
Washington St. could be a real sleeper for the conference title behind DeAngelo Casto and Klay Thompson . . . ouch, tough time for Coug fans.
Shall I keep going? I can do this for another three Pac-12 teams or so. Despite generally questionable draft stocks and a very uncertain labor situation, essentially every single Pac-12 player thought to be considering early entry to the NBA draft has decided to forgo their collegiate eligibility for a chance to get paid. And their decisions will have a major impact on Cal’s 2011-12 season, in ways both good and bad.
Derrick Williams (Arizona), Nikola Vucevic (USC), Malcolm Lee (UCLA) Tyler Honeycutt (UCLA), Alec Burks (Colorado), Isaiah Thomas (Washington), Klay Thompson (WSU), and DeAngelo Casto (WSU) have all declared for the NBA draft. Additionally, Malcolm Armstead (Oregon) and Will Clyburn (Utah) transferred out of the conference. Utah also lost a few other players, though Clyburn was the only contributor who has left since former head coach Jim Boylen was fired.
What are the obvious impacts of these departures? For one, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, USC, and Washington St. will not factor in to the conference championship race barring shockingly unforeseen contributions from first year players and/or former backups. Arizona St., Oregon St. and Stanford aren’t generally seen as threats either, though that’s because of a lack of talent rather than unexpected player departures.
The second obvious impact? We’re likely going to have to wait another year before the Pac-12 returns to being an average or above-average power conference. Every single Pac-12 team that played in the post-season at any level in 2011 lost their best player, or multiple starters, or both.
Except for one team. Cal.
Now, Washington returns a number of very talented underclassmen who have shown the ability to play and win in the Pac-12. Arizona returns an underrated supporting caste and has an elite recruiting class coming in. And UCLA will have by far the most talented group of post players in the conference. So there are still talented teams in the conference.
And yet, the attrition has been so shocking that some have suggested that perhaps Cal can be considered favorites to take the conference crown back next season. I’m not ready to go out on that limb, if only because Cal seems likely to have some pretty serious flaws next year. On the other hand, every single team in the conference will have their own flaws. The question will likely become "Who can best hide their imperfections?"
We’ve already had a debate on CGB about weather or not this talent drain is good or bad for Cal. And what it really comes down to is what your focus is on as a fan. If you’re the type that cares mostly about the NCAA tournament, and believe that fans should root for everything that maximizes an NCAA seed, then this is obvious bad news. After all, Cal’s reward for winning the Pac-10 in 2009-10 was an 8 seed across from eventual national champion Duke. Arizona’s reward for winning a marginally better Pac-10 this year was a mediocre 5 seed. The simple fact is that a bad conference puts a ceiling on the seed a team can earn in March.
On the other hand, if your goal is to win the Pac-12 title, this is obviously wonderful news. The conference race should be wide open amongst a few teams, and you could do much worse than putting your faith in Monty to find a way to pull it out.
For my money, I care much more about a conference title than the NCAA tournament. Don’t get me wrong, a deep NCAA tournament run is more entertaining, and these two goals aren’t really mutually exclusive. It’s just that the NCAA tournament is pretty fluky. As entertaining as this year’s final four was, neither of the four teams had a particularly strong case for ‘best team in the country’ prior to March. A conference title, won by surviving an 18 game gauntlet, is a much stronger indication of team accomplishment than the single-elimination NCAA tournament.
So, here are your questions before basketball goes into hibernation until November:
1. Is Cal actually the favorite in the Pac-12? Just one of a handful of teams with a reasonable hope? Or clearly behind a more established program like Arizona or UCLA?
2. If you had to pick, would you prefer a conference championship or a deep NCAA tournament run – let’s say elite 8?
3. If you dare, give us a way-too-early power poll for the Pac-12 in 2011-12.