In our third and final Pac-12 preview installment, we take a look at the four teams picked to finish at the top of the conference.
Here’s a look at Part I and Part II of the series.
Just because UCLA bombed as a preseason favorite last season doesn’t disqualify the Bruins from entering the 2012-13 season as the team most likely to win the title.
Here’s how we think the rest of top four will shake out.
1. UCLA: Last year the Bruins were the prohibitive preseason favorite because of the players they returned on the front line. This year prognosticators will pick UCLA once again, but for entirely different reasons. This time the Bruins’ incoming freshmen backcourt makes them an intriguing choice to win the Pac-12 title. It all starts with Shabazz Muhammad, the 6-6 shooting guard ranked No. 1 nationally at his position by the major recruiting services. One NBA scout said he’s the only high school senior who would be taken in the draft if he were eligible. Muhammad is the most hyped Pac-12 recruit since O.J. Mayo. As good as Muhammad is, Kyle Anderson, a 6-8 point-forward, may have a bigger impact next season. He’s ranked No. 3 nationally. UCLA also signed five-star center Tony Parker and Jordan Adams, a four-star guard. In addition, the Bruins welcome point guard Larry Drew II, the North Carolina transfer who will be a senior next season. That’s a lot of new firepower a team that went 19-14 last season and a considerable upgrade to a backcourt that loses senior guard Lazeric Jones. Sophomore guard Tyler Lamb, who is UCLA’s best perimeter defender, returns. The Bruins are still the biggest team in the conference with forwards David and Travis Wear, and centers Joshua Smith and Anthony Stover. The Bruins return home next season to play in a renovated Pauley Pavilion and coach Ben Howland knows he needs to return to the NCAA tournament to save his job.
2. STANFORD: What’s not to like? The Cardinal is deep and it has fewer questions and disruptions to the rotation than any team in the Pac-12. It won’t be easy replacing forward Josh Owens, who provided a consistent low-post scoring option and a defensive presence beneath the rim. Still there are plenty of candidates. Stanford needs forwards Dwight Powell, Josh Huestis or wing Anthony Brown to emerge into an all-conference performer. At 225 pounds, the 6-9 Powell needs to add a few pounds of muscle to into the center spot full time. His production slipped last season, but could improve with more consistent minutes. Huestis, a 6-7 shot-blocking sophomore and Brown, a 6-6 marksman, are both sophomores who appear on the verge of a breakout season. As good as they may be, freshman guard Chasson Randle, who was selected to the all-conference all-freshman team, and Aaron Bright are the leading returning scorers. Bright epitomizes Stanford’s team-first mentality. He led the Cardinal to a NIT championship and won the tourney MVP award while coming off the bench in all five games and averaging a team-high 16.8 points. Randle led Stanford in scoring with 13.8 points per game, scored a career high 30 and finished with arguable the best freshman season in school history. The Cardinal return seven of its top 10 scorers and adds four-star recruits Rosco Allen, a 6-9 forward and 6-9 center Grant Verhoeven as well as three-star guard Christian Sanders. Coach Johnny Dawkins employed 15 different starting lineups, which is erratic and possibly retards the development of a young front line. Entering his fifth year next season, Dawkins may feel some external pressure to guide Stanford to its first NCAA tournament since 2008. Before his arrival, the Cardinal made three appearances in four years under Trent Johnson and 10 straight trips with Mike Montgomery.
3. COLORADO: Not a bad debut for the Buffaloes. In its first Pac-12 season, Colorado tied the school record with 24 wins, advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003, won the inaugural Pac-12 Tournament title and set school attendance records, averaging 7,804 fans for home games. Wonder what coach Tad Boyle has planned for an encore? He has to replace senior guards Carlon Brown and Nate Tomlinson and forward Austin Dufault. Boyle will likely rebuild the rotation around sophomore 6-7 forward Andre Roberson, who set a single-season school rebounding record, and Spencer Dinwiddie, the other returning starter. Dinwiddie and Askia Booker combined to score more points than any other CU freshman tandem. Booker will likely start while 6-11 sophomore center Shane Harris-Turks and 6-5 sophomore guard Jeremy Adams are leading candidates to fill the holes in the lineup. Boyle brings in a top 25-ranted recruiting class highlighted by 6-9 forward Josh Scott and 6-6 wing Xavier Johnson. It remains to be seen if Pac-12 opponents has learned how to win at Coors Events Center where the Buffs were 8-1 in conference and 14-2 overall.
4. ARIZONA: If the Wildcats land junior point guard Mark Lyons, who is transferring from Xavier, then they move up two spots to No. 2. Until then, it’s difficult to buy the preseason hype. Many college basketball observers believe the Wildcats are ready to return to prominence, but there are too many questions to make them Pac-12 favorite. For starters, there’s no tangible evidence freshman Nick Johnson will be able to move full-time from shooting guard to point guard. He filled in at times last season and did an admirable job. However, Johnson is arguably the most athletic person on the team who appears more comfortable off the ball as a scorer and slasher. Another potential problem is finding a leader. Junior forward Solomon Hill has the experience and talent to be a star, while Jordin Mayes, Brendon Lavender, Angelo Chol and Dondre Wise have yet to establish their roles. The X-factor could be Kevin Parrom. As a sophomore the 2010-11 season, he was a glue-guy who did a little bit of everything. Offseason unrest spoiled the start of his junior year and the season ended early with a foot injury in January. Parrom can also knock down an open three-pointer and if he’s right physically, mentally and emotionally, then he will make a major impact. It will be interesting to see how Hill meshes with five-star recruits PF Brandon Ashley, PF Grant Jerrett and C Kaleb Tarczewski. Most likely Hill will need to move to small forward, which will test his lateral quickness. One or two of the incoming freshmen five-star bigs won’t start, which could be a problem if egos aren’t managed properly. The best of the newbies could be four-star recruit Gabe York, who could find minutes if he’s able to transition from shooting guard to point guard should Johnson struggles. In many ways the lack of a defined pecking order is a good problem and the Wildcats can work on its chemistry during a six-day, two-game exhibition trip to the Bahamas.