Colorado, we thank you. Your stern resolve in the face of national ridicule earned our beleaguered conference some semblance of dignity, and only a hell storm of three pointers from an annoying guy who specializes in lame hand symbols prevented you from advancing to the Sweet 16. It's not your fault, but for the first time since 2004 (when #1 seed Stanford bit the dust in the 2nd round) our beloved conference has no representatives in the Sweet 16.
True, there are still five(!) teams from the Pac-12 still alive. Washington and Oregon face off on Tuesday night for a trip to New York City, and if Stanford can get past Illinois St. and Nevada (both games will be at Maples and Stanford will be favored) it could be an epic Pac-12 party at Madison Square Garden. And yes, Oregon St. and Washington St. are both still alive in the CBI, which has been dominated by the Pac-10/12 for years! We're so smrt! Smrt smrt smrt!
But ultimately the NIT and CBI are fun exhibitions that have no particular bearing on anything other than providing a few more weeks of practice for the players and fun diversion for the fans. So besides providing fodder for jokes, I won't be talking about them much. It's time to move on to next year.
Will next year be better? We talked a little about that last week. I'm personally a little pessimistic about things getting significantly better, but it's hard to imagine the Pac-12's reputation falling any further. For now let's focus on the pecking order of the teams compared to each other, without agonizing about how they'll fare nationally. There's plenty of time to freak out about that when everybody releases their non-conference schedule full of RPI-destroying SWAC and MEAC opponents.
What follows is one man's guesses, gut instincts and biases, which will undoubtedly change after the draft deadline, late recruiting, and player transfers mess with everybody's roster before next fall:
Ridiculously early 2012-13 power rankings
But those freshmen will be sophomores next year, and Sean Miller is bringing in another class that's amazing, perhaps even the best in the country. He's just too good a coach to not turn that wealth of talent into on-court results, right?* That plus Solomon Hill and the return of Kevin Parrom might be enough to win what will still be a down conference.
*I may or may not have said the same thing about Ben Howland multiple times over the last three years. You've been warned.
Tad Boyle brought in an extremely young team, allowed them to take some lumps early in the season, then led them on an epic post-season run that almost extended to the Sweet 16. He's got arguably the best player in the conference coming back to anchor the middle of the court, he has an all-freshman guard who looked great towards the end of the season, and he's bringing in five new players, all rated three stars or higher. If he can find a point guard to run the show the trip to Colorado is going to be very painful next season.
3rd place might seem like homerism considering what Cal is losing in Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp. But I'd like to remind you that Monty hasn't finished any lower than 4th in any one season while coaching the Bears. Dude knows how manage a team through the 18 game conference slog, despite pretty massive depth issues every year.
I'm not especially confident that Cal's depth will be miles better next year, but I am confident that Richard Solomon can replace Harper Kamp's production, and that Ricky Kreklow and/or Tyrone Wallace and step in an compliment Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs on the perimeter.
The team most holding their breath as NBA draft declaration deadlines loom. Losing Tony Wroten and Terrance Ross could cripple a team that, believe it or not, currently has zero recruits committed in 2012. Washington will probably find some players in the late signing period - maybe even some immediate impact players. But it's pretty unlikely they'll find players to replace the unique talents that Wroten and Ross bring to the table. If both come back, Washington should perhaps be first on this list. If both leave, they should perhaps be lower. For now I'll slot them in 4th and wait it out.
UCLA's season very much depends on two freshmen. The first is 5 star point guard Kyle Anderson, who will need to replace departed senior Lazeric Jones. The second is Shabazz Muhammad, the consensus #1 recruit in the country who just might pick UCLA. If he does (and if he's eligible) and if Howland can finally successfully integrate his usual crop of uber-prospects, the Bruins could fight for a title.
It says here that UCLA still won't be able to defend well enough to reclaim the conference, but I think it's still too soon to bury Ben Howland, much as I'd like to.
The Beavers are an odd team. In my mind, they clearly have the talent to compete at the top of the conference, and they're not losing a single major contributor from 2012 (unless Jared Cunningham declares for the draft, which strikes me as a long shot). But they can't play defense, and I'm just not convinced that Craig Robinson is a good coach . . . or even an average one. I'd like to see him prove me wrong, and I'd especially like him to stop scheduling unbelievably weak non-conference schedules.
Oregon State has the depth of talent to make the tourney next year, and anything less than that should be considered a major underachievement.
I contemplated putting the Ducks ahead of the Beavers just because Dana Altman is a much better coach. But he's also losing Devoe Joseph, Garrett Sim and Olu Ashaolu - three of his four most important players. Dominic Artis will help a great deal, but I think Jabari Brown's (and Bruce Barron's) decision to transfer has extended Oregon's rebuilding process for another year.
The only big loss is Josh Owens . . . but other than Chasson Randle, was there really a player on the Stanford roster that impressed? Aaron Bright took a small step forward, but Anthony Brown and Dwight Powell both took steps back. I just don't see the pieces that make Stanford a significantly different, better team next year. Perhaps more importantly, Johnny Dawkins hasn't done anything to earn the benefit of the doubt. Anther year fighting to reach .500 on the farm.
Brock Motum is enough to keep the Cougars dangerous (especially in Pullman), but unless Demarquise Johnson really excels as a freshmen or DaVonte Lacy takes a leap forward, I don't think Wazzu has the talent to do significantly better next year.
The Trojans won't have the depth or shear talent to contend, but they should at least be healthy enough to potentially pull a few upsets. It's worth noting that Kevin O'Neill had a .500 record in conference play at USC prior to last year's cursed campaign. True, he won't have a player like Nikola Vucevic, but he has always had a great defense assuming he has more than six scholarship players. Expect USC to be the very scary kind of bad next year.
If Jahii Carson is eligible, and if he plays well, and if everybody stays healthy, then maybe the Sun Devils can surprise. But I doubt it.
The situation in Salt Lake City will require multiple years to recover from, and there's not much in the incoming recruiting class to suggest otherwise.
So, which team am I too optimistic about? Which team will finish higher than my rankings suggest? And which team will have four players transfer out before getting hit by an outbreak of leprosy - but all after the late signing period?