Starting yesterday (with Arizona’s 9 point victory over Valparaiso) Pac-12 men’s basketball has official begun! Already the dominant storyline is that the conference title race might be the most crowded and competitive in recent memory. Consider: the pre-season Pac-12 poll had 38 voters, and just 17 points separated UCLA, Cal and Arizona at the top. Washington wasn’t far behind in 4th.
But what if you prefer more evidence based forms of prediction? Well, Ken Pomeroy has released his pre-season projections, and the top four of Cal, Arizona, Washington and UCLA (in that order) are separated by a nearly insignificant amount. He does make a note about said clustering:
Right now this results in a lot of conference records bunching up near .500. This will prompt your message board friends to say something like "There’s no way every team in the Pac-12 finishes with between 6 and 12 wins. LOL." Substitute your own conference of choice in the quote. Of course that’s not how the teams will finish, but this is setting an expectation for each team on an individual basis, and not trying to predict the record of the conference champ, whoever that may be.
True – it’s pretty unlikely that three teams will tie atop the conference at 12-6. But the general idea that a few teams at the top all have a similar talent level and that any of them could conceivably win the conference is still true. It’s highly unlikely that one team will run away with the Pac-12 and finish with a record like 15-3. The conference crown may very well be decided by a few points in a few hotly contested games between evenly matched opponents.
After the jump you’ll find my predicted order of finish and a few pre-season all-conference teams. Tell me all the ways I’m wrong in the comments – this is your chance to make predictions to look back on in March!
Key Returners: Josh Smith, Reeves Nelson
Key Losses: Malcolm Lee, Tyler Honeycutt
Impact Transfers: Travis Wear, David Wear, De’End Parker (JC)
Impact Freshmen: Norman Powell
UCLA is your rorschach test as a basketball fan. Do you see four big men that would likely start at nearly any university in the country? Or do you see a backcourt with various underachievers and JC transfers? UCLA combines the deepest position group in the conference with one of the shallower group of guards.
That isn’t to say there isn’t talent in the backcourt. But Jerime Anderson and Lazeric Jones have been merely average players so far and UCLA didn’t pick up any instant impact recruits. If Malcolm Lee had decided to stick around UCLA would easily be the most complete, deepest team in the conference. But when you take away your best offensive and defensive guard out of the mix there are immediate question marks.
If UCLA can get decent production (particularly on defense) out of their guards, look out. But if they don’t this season could be a disappointment. After all, there are only so many spots on the court for 6’10’’, 230 pound monsters.
Cal (NCAA bid)
Key Returners: Jorge Gutierrez, Allen Crabbe, Harper Kamp
Key Losses: Markhuri Sanders-Frison
Impact Transfers: Justin Cobbs
Impact Freshmen: David Kravish
The most complete team in the conference, at least from the perspective of having an impact player in every position group. As has been the case throughout Mike Montgomery’s tenure, the biggest question mark for Cal is depth. Last year Cal practically played just six deep, and injury concerns with some backups and question marks about the freshmen class’s ability to contribute immediately means it might be an issue again.
Cal is easily the team most vulnerable to injury. Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp are both vital to Cal’s success and both have missed time in the past. If they (or any other major rotation member, really) have to miss meaningful time the Bears will be at a serious disadvantage.
Washington (NCAA bid)
Key Returners: CJ Wilcox, Abdul Gaddy, Terrence Ross
Key Losses: Isaiah Thomas, Matthew Bryan-Amaning, Justin Holiday
Impact Freshmen: Tony Wroten
Washington in some ways is the mirror opposite of UCLA. Their collection of guards and wings is impressively deep – Gaddy, Ross, Suggs, Wilcox, Wroten possess length and athleticism to spare and will likely make things difficult for most Pac-12 backcourts. But Aziz N’Diaye and Darnell Gant aren’t likely to set the world on fire, and behind them UW’s bigs are generally young and unproven.
If all things were equal, picking between UCLA and UW would be a choice between what you think makes a team successful – bruising forwards and centers, or dominating guards. But all things aren’t equal. I trust Ben Howland (and Sean Miller, and Mike Montgomery) to maximize his talent much more than I do Lorenzo Romar, who really should have more than one Pac-10 title considering the talent that has gone through Seattle.
Arizona (NCAA bid)
Key Returners: Kyle Fogg, Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom
Key Losses: DERRICK WILLIAMS, other players that are not Derrick Williams, like Momo Jones and Jamelle Horne
Impact Freshmen: Josiah Turner, Nick Johnson, Angelo Chol, Sidiki Johnson
If Arizona didn’t lose the best player in the country they certainly lost the most valuable player. No one person defined his team than Derrick Williams. The fact that many (myself included) are expecting Arizona to continue contending for the conference crown speaks to respect for coach Sean Miller and the recruiting class he brought in, ranked 4th in the nation by rivals.
Turner and (Nick) Johnson are potential one-and-done type talents, and Arizona does return a number of players from a very deep group that rotated around William’s steady presence last year. If Kevin Parrom can return quickly back to full health from a tragic shooting Arizona will be that much better. Still, all of the first place votes strike me more as votes for Sean Miller rather than Arizona’s ability to beat UCLA and Cal
Oregon (NCAA bid)
Key Returners: E.J. Singler, Garrett Sim
Key Losses: Joevan Catron, Malcolm Armstead, Jay-R Strowbridge
Impact Transfers: Devoe Joseph, Tony Woods, Olu Ashaolu
Impact Freshmen: Jabari Brown
Another team that will look radically different from last year thanks to a host of players transferring in and out of the program. Joseph and Ashaolu are both seniors and thus will try to make the best of their one year of eligibility in Oregon. 6’11’’ Tony Woods has all the talent you can ask for from a big man but never made good on that talent at Wake Forest.
Dana Altman has proven himself to be an excellent coach, and if he can take the talent he has collected and mold it into a cohesive unit the Ducks could surprise and Altman could again contend for conference coach of the year. Brown is one of a few contenders for freshman of the year.
Arizona St. (NIT bid)
Key Returners: Trent Lockett, Keala King
Key Losses: Rihard Kuksiks, Ty Abbott
Impact Freshmen: Jahii Carson (maybe?)
Arizona St.’s impressive 2010 recruiting class didn’t immediately set the world on fire, and that meant that the Sun Devils were relegated to the bottom of the conference standings, at one point losing 11 in a row. They were significantly more competitive towards the end of the year however, which might give hope for improvement this year.
Trent Lockett will again likely be the focal point of the offense, but the key player might be Keala King. The 5 star recruit had a disappointing freshman campaign and admitted that he struggled with the transition to college basketball. He needs to start realizing his talent if Arizona St. is to improve meaningfully.
Also keep an eye out for a pair of seven footers in Jordan Bachinski and Ruslan Pateev. Both saw limited action last year, and ASU needs one or both to step forward for a team that was the worst rebounding team in the conference last year.
4 star freshman point guard Jahii Carson has the talent to make an immediately impact but is currently caught in academic eligibility limbo. If he is both eligible and ready to play well it could be the missing ingredient ASU needs to take a big step up from last year's disaster.
Stanford (NIT bid)
Key Returners: Josh Owens, Anthony Brown, Dwight Powell
Key Losses: Jeremy Green
Impact Freshmen: Chasson Randle
It’s Johnny Dawkin’s Show-Me season, and he has the best mix of talent and experience he’s had since his first year at Stanford in 2009. Josh Owens should be one of the better big men in the conference, and Anthony Brown and Dwight Powell will look to build on promising freshmen campaigns.
To make a step forward Stanford will have to improve an iffy offense, and without their leading scorer and best shooter in Jeremy Green. Four star freshman guard Chasson Randle’s ability to step right into the team and provide offense might be the critical factor.
Oregon St. (CBI/CIT bid)
Key Returners: Jared Cunningham, Roberto Nelson
Key Losses: Calvin Haynes, Lathen Wallace
Impact Freshmen: Challe Barton
The question with Oregon State is if Jared Cunningham is enough to scare you all by himself. Cunningham is an ideal player for Craig Robinson’s style of play – an efficient scorer and a dangerous defender at the top of the 1-3-1 zone – but it’s entirely unclear if there’s enough talent around him for the Beavers to surpass last year’s level of play.
A few seniors who played significant minutes are gone, but it’s unclear how much they will actually be missed based on their production last year. Certainly the Beavers are confident – Robinson thinks this is his best team and that he has the athleticism to play more man-to-man defense, a notion I and all Cal fans greet with cries of joy.
Washington St. (CIT/CBI bid)
Key Returners: Reggie Moore, Faisel Aden
Key Losses: Klay Thompson, DeAngelo Casto,
Impact Transfers: Mike Ladd
Impact Freshmen: DaVonte Lacy
If Klay Thompson and DeAngelo Casto had decided to stick around another year Washington State would probably be in the discussion with Cal, Arizona, Washington and UCLA. But when a team lacking depth loses their best two players it’s probably going to be a rebuilding year. As great as Thompson is, a few have argued that Casto is actually the more difficult player to replace because Wazzu doesn’t have anybody to replace his interior scoring and defense.
Washington State’s success hinges on two players who have the talent to do good things but get in their own way. Reggie Moore regressed last year after an impressive freshmen campaign and Faisel Aden just took to many damned shots. If they both play up to their ability and a few other players step up the Cougs should be competitive.
Colorado (CBI/CIT bid)
Key Returners: Andre Roberson, Austin Dufault
Key Losses: Alec Burks, Cory Higgins, Marcus Relphorde, Levi Knutson
Impact Transfers: Carlton Brown, Jeremy Adams (JC)
Impact Freshmen: Spencer Dinwiddie
The Buffs lose their four best players from what should have been a tournament team, which means this season will likely be a rebuilding year as they transition to the Pac-12. There’s lots of confidence in head coach Tad Boyle, and I think the general consensus is that he’ll largely get a pass this season because of the rather extreme roster turnover going on this year. (Similar to how Cal fans were going to give Monty a pass after losing the 5 seniors that won the Pac-10 title. Monty rejects your pass and laughs at your lack of faith!).
Boyle has been recruiting really well for 2012 and Roberson looks like a good young player to build around. Success for Colorado will likely be measured less in wins and losses and more in how much the team improves over the course of the season. Look for Carlton Brown, a transfer from Utah (before the Buffs and Utes knew they’d be conference rivals!) to make an immediate impact.
Key Returners: Maurice Jones
Key Losses: Nikola Vucevic, Alex Stepheson, Donte Smith, Marcus Simmons
Key Injuries: Jio Fontan
Impact Transfers (all JC): James Blasczyk, DeWayne Dedmon, Greg Allen
Impact Freshmen: Alexis Moore, Byron Wesley
Jio Fontan’s injury means that of the seven players that averaged more than 11 minutes a game last season, only ONE will be playing to start the season. The level with which USC has managed to turn over its roster over the past few years is astounding.
Still, USC has managed to remain relatively competitive despite no semblance of continuity over the past few years – largely because head coach Kevin O’Neill gets his team to play spectacular, stifling defense no matter who’s available to play.
To help fill the gaping holes in USC’s roster O’Neill brought in three JC transfers, two of which are 6’11’’ or taller, plus two freshmen guards. All will likely get plenty of playing time on USC’s depleted roster. As much as I expect USC to play their usual solid defense, this team is far too inexperienced and talent starved to pose much of a threat in the Pac-12. Frankly, USC’s instability is one of the many reasons the Pac-12 has been down the last few years.
Key Returners: Josh Watkins
Key Losses: Will Clyburn, Chris Kupets, Shawn Glover, JJ O’Brien
Impact Transfers: Javon Dawson, Dijon Farr, Cedric Martin
Impact Freshmen: Blake Wilkinson, Kareem Storey
Utah wasn’t a very good team last year, and then everybody transferred away. Thus, six new players, including three JC transfers. It’s going to be a rough year for new head coach Larry Krystkowiak. They did manage to retain 2nd leading scorer Josh Watkins, though he wasn’t a great shooter and turned the ball over too much. Beyond him? Three rotation players with limited offensive abilities are back. With so many new players it’s impossible for someone like me who watched zero Utah basketball to have any idea who’s going to play and how much. But the consensus is that Utah is a long way from winning in the Pac-12 and I see no reason to disagree with that consensus.
Pre-Season All Conference Awards
Point Guard: Jorge Gutierrez, Cal
Guard: Terrance Ross, Washington
Guard/Forward: Allen Crabbe, Cal
Forward: Reeves Nelson, UCLA
Forward/Center: Josh Smith, UCLA
A consensus seems to have developed in favor of these five players. Admittedly, Jorge won’t be a true point guard this season, but he gets shoe-horned into a position he’s familiar with in an effort to get the five best players in the conference on the team. It will be interesting to see if the eligibility of the Wear twins takes away minutes and production from Smith and Nelson, thus opening the door for some other less-effective big that gets more minutes and opportunities.
Point Guard: Jared Cunningham, Oregon St.
Guard: E.J. Singler, Oregon
Guard/Forward: C.J. Wilcox, Washington
Forward: Harper Kamp, Cal
Forward/Center: Josh Owens, Stanford
Other players that I considered: Abdul Gaddy (UW), Kevin Parrom (AZ), Trent Lockett (ASU), Andre Roberson (Col) and Josh Watkins. Gaddy and Parrom could both easily make the list but one is returning from a missed season and the other is recovering from a gunshot wound. Lockett and Watkins will both get chances to put up points but neither were greatly efficient last year. Roberson hasn’t had to carry the load yet, but might excel in that role this year.
All Freshman Team
Point Guard: Chasson Randle, Stanford
Guard: Nick Johnson, Arizona
Guard: Tony Wroten, Washington
Guard: Jabari Brown, Oregon
Forward/Center: Angelo Chol, Arizona
Yes, we’re cheating and playing a four guard lineup. The best freshmen in terms of talent are also the players most likely to get an opportunity to play immediately, and those players also happen to be mostly guards. Frankly, I was tempted to insert another guard (Arizona’s Josiah Turner) in place of Angelo Chol.