Today is the deadline Pac-12 media members must submit preseason predictions. Washington was the runaway choice last year while receiving 33 of 35 first-place votes, but this time it’s a tougher to call than any in recent memory.
Each of the so-called favorites have significant questions. There’s only two returning first-team all-conference picks from last season and the biggest unknown variable is the effect of the unbalanced 18-game schedule.
So what do you think?
Who wins the Pac-12?
Despite the uncertainty, somebody has to be the preseason favorite and this is what I sent the league office.
The Bruins have a championship front court, but there’s serious concerns about their backcourt and three-point shooting. Up front, UCLA is better than anyone in the conference and it can compete with anyone in the country. Sophomore center Joshua Smith is the most difficult low-post matchup in the league. Reeves Nelson, a first-team all-conference pick, is a smaller version of Jon Brockman. Backup forward Anthony Stover would start for most teams. And the Bruins added David and Travis Wear who transferred from North Carolina. If Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt didn’t declare for the NBA where they were taken in the second round, UCLA would be a Final Four contender. Aside from the on-court concerns, the Bruins must play every game off campus while Pauley Pavilion is being renovated.
The Golden Bears have the least amount of disruption among the Pac-10 teams who qualified for the postseason last season. They lost one starter from a squad that finished fourth in the Pac-10 with a 18-15 (10-8) record. No coach in the conference gets more out of his teams than Mike Montgomery and he’ll rely heavily on the trio of Jorge Gutierrez, Harper Kamp and Allen Crabbe. Gutierrez is a Pac-12 MVP candidate and Crabbe can lead the league in scoring. However, Kamp’s balky knee could be a problem. If he falters, Cal is in trouble because the depth is thin. The Bears must also rebound and figure out who’s going to run the offense: junior Brandon Smith or newcomer Justin Cobbs.
We’ll see if coach Sean Miller has really returned the Wildcats to the lofty Lute Olson levels. Few teams can lose a player taken No. 2 in the NBA draft and not suffer a setback. Derrick Williams was everything for Arizona. Not only was he almost always the best player on the court, he attempted a conference-leading 331 free throws, which was 83 more than the runner-up. Freshman point guard Josiah Turner is believed to be a lottery pick next summer, but freshman shooting guard Nick Johnson may be the best player on the team. The cast of returners is solid, if not spectacular. Several role players including senior guard Kyle Fogg, senior forward Jesse Perry, junior forward Solomon Hill will need to emerge as stars. Arizona should also get a big boost when junior wing Kevin Parrom, a gritty perimeter defender, returns next month after recovering from gunshot wounds.
The Huskies face similar questions as Arizona. It would be a major statement if Washington is able to contend for a conference crown and earn a school-record fourth straight NCAA tournament berth after losing its top three scorers. Coach Lorenzo Romar is working with eight players who have never played a collegiate game. Most of the newcomers are backups, but that type of inexperience among the reserves can be taxing. UW also doesn’t have a proven star or pecking order. Sophomore guard Terrence Ross is one of a handful of players with star potential. Ross and the combination of senior Scott Suggs, junior Abdul Gaddy, sophomore C.J. Wilcox and freshman Tony Wroten Jr. give the Huskies the best backcourt in the conference. Seven-foot junior center Aziz N’Diaye and senior forward Darnell Gant lead an inexperienced group of front court players.
Coach Dana Altman has nine newcomers, but he had 15 days of practice this summer before the team’s trip to Italy. No team improved more than the Ducks did last season. They finished the regular season with a 14-16 record and went 7-2 in the postseason, winning the CBI Tournament title. Keep an eye on Wake Forest transfer Tony Woods, a 6-11 center. It remains to be seen if 5-8 point guard Jonathan Loyd can effectively run the offense and if freshman guard Jabari Brown can carry the scoring load.
It’s not as if coach Johnny Dawkins is on the hot seat – he recently signed a two-year contract extension through the 2015-16 season – but he’s barely over .500 (49-48) in his first three seasons with the Cardinal. Even without star guard Jeremy Green, who left after his junior season, this might be the best squad Dawkins has had. Leading the way is all-conference candidates Josh Owens and Dwight Powell, a pair of 6-8 forwards, and Anthony Brown, a 6-7 wing. The concerns: Does Stanford have enough athleticism in the back court? Newcomer Chasson Randle is expected to give the Cardinal more punch at point guard.
7. Oregon State
Coach Craig Robinson is also feeling some warmth beneath his seat. He begins the fourth year of a reclamation project that began promising until taking a step back last season with an 11-20 (5-13 Pac-10) record. In three years, Robinson is 43-56 at OSU. He’s talking big and gunning for a NCAA tournament berth, which would be OSU’s first since 1990. Robinson plans to scrap OSU’s 1-3-1 defense that ranked last in the conference in points allowed (72.8) last season. Junior guard Jared Cunningham is one of the most athletic players in the conference. The concern: Can OSU win away from home? They were 2-13 on the road last season.
8. Washington State
The good news: The Cougars return three starters (junior guard Reggie Moore, senior guard Marcus Capers and senior forward Abe Lodwick). The bad news: They lost leading scorer Klay Thompson and leading rebounder DeAngelo Casto who left early to play professional basketball in the NBA and Turkey respectively. Presumably 6-4 guard Faisal Aden slides into Thompson’s spot and 6-10 junior Brock Motum takes over for Casto. Still, WSU looks to be one of the shorter teams in the conference and rebounding was an issue last year when it ranked last in the conference. It didn’t help that 6-8 freshman Greg Sequele failed to enroll academically. Keep an eye on Fresno State transfer Mike Ladd, the former Rainier Beach High star and WAC Freshman of the Year, who was voted captain by teammates.
9. Arizona State
There’s four teams that can win the Pac-12 title and there’s also four teams that can finish last. The Sun Devils fell to the bottom of the conference last season with a 12-19 (4-14 Pac-10) record and it’s a good thing the league expanded or else they might bring up the rear once again. Freshman guard Jahii Carson is still not eligible, which leaves junior guard Trent Lockett in control of ASU’s fate. Lockett has NBA potential, but he needs help to carry an offense that ranked last in the conference last season averaging 64.0 points per game. Keep an eye on junior college transfer Chris Colvin who’ll likely guide the offense if/when Carson is cleared.
The Trojans earned a NCAA tournament berth last season, but they’re starting over this season. Coach Kevin O’Neill must find five new starters after the crippling loss of senior guard Jio Fontan. USC will turn to 5-7 shoot-first point guard Maurice Jones, 7-foot junior-college transfer Dewayne Dedmon and 6-6 Purdue transfer Aaron Fuller. But there’s just too many holes and too much inexperience for the Trojans to contend this season.
The Buffaloes return two starters from a team that posted a 24-14 record, advanced to the NIT semifinals and was essentially the last team left out of the 68-field NCAA tournament. They lost four double-digit scorers and only four players return that averaged more than five minutes per game. Colorado will rely heavily on 6-7 guard Andre Roberson, its leading rebounder last season, and Utah transfer Carlon Brown, a 6-5 guard who averaged 12.6 points with the Utes in 2009-10. It will be interesting to see if the old Pac-10 teams struggle playing in Boulder, Colo. because of the high altitude.
The Utes return just four players, they lost four transfers after new coach Larry Krystowiak was hired and 13 of the 17 players are newcomers. Utah is expected to roll out an unusual lineup that features 7-foot centers David Foster and Jason Washburn. Foster, one of two returning starters, is the tallest player in the conference at 7-3. His 3.2 blocks per game last season ranked sixth in the country. Six foot senior guard is the leading scorer and the other returning starter. He’s explosive and adept at getting to the basket, but needs to improve a 26.7 percent three-point percentage.