Before the season began Friday night, four writers who cover the conference tackled seven questions about the league.
The roster: Bob Clark of the Register-Guard in Eugene (Oregon), Jeff Faraudo of the San Jose Mercury News (California), Doug Haller of the Arizona Republic (Arizona State) and myself.
1. True or false: UCLA is back.
Percy Allen: True and false. The Bruins are better than they were last season and they were 19-14 and tied for fifth in the conference. They’ll contend for a Pac-12 title and advance to the NCAA Tournament or else coach Ben Howland won’t return in 2013. However, it’s premature to say the Bruins are “back” to the level they were in 4-5 years ago when they made consecutive Final Four appearances under Howland.
Bob Clark: If back is contending in the Pac-12, I’d agree. But on a national level It remains to be seen. And then there’s the question of whether it’s a one-year return, because a bunch of these Bruins might be looking at moving on after this season. It will be interesting to see the impact of the redone Pauley Pavilion. That had to be a factor last season, when the Bruins didn’t have a home on campus.
Jeff Faraudo: False, at least until the Bruins show otherwise. If Shabazz Muhammad becomes eligible, the team gets healthy, the newcomers mesh with the returnees and coach Ben Howland gets everyone to play his way (defense), then we’ll get on board. The talent and depth are certainly there.
Doug Haller: False. The Bruins have a lot to sort out. Josh Smith is skilled enough to be in the NBA right now, but he hasn’t dedicated himself to getting into shape. Star freshman Shabazz Muhammad still hasn’t been cleared by the NCAA. Will all the newcomers, including transfer point guard Larry Drew, defend to coach Ben Howland’s liking? Obviously, Howland has a lot of pieces, but I’m still unsure how they’ll all fit together.
2. A coach who needs to win this season to save his job?
Allen: Just one? How about a third of the conference. Let’s start with Howland. Then Arizona State’s Herb Sendek. Washington State’s Ken Bone. USC’s Kevin O’Neill. And there’s two guys I believe need a good season to stay off the hot seat, Oregon State’s Craig Robinson and Utah’s Larry Krystkowiak. They’re not getting fired this season, but their fans will need need to see improvement or else they’ll start thinking about a change.
Clark: Well, UCLA’s Ben Howland had best succeed to some level. Those Final Four appearances are history to most UCLA boosters. But I’d also wonder how patient Arizona State will be if Herb Sendek doesn’t have a team that shows some strides toward the middle of the league. If he didn’t inherit Jeff Pendergraph and recruit James Harden that first year, where would this program be at this point? Under a new head coach.
Faraudo: Possibly Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins. In his fifth season, the one-time Duke star led the Cardinal to the NIT title last year but has not gotten the team to the NCAA Tournament. Dawkins has the talent to get an NCAA bid this season and, with a new athletic director looking over his shoulder, he probably needs to get there.
Haller: I can’t see Howland surviving if UCLA disappoints. The Bruins need to contend in the Pac-12 and probably win an NCAA Tournament game or two.
3. A team everyone’s overlooking?
Allen: I was surprised Pac-12 Tournament champion Colorado was picked to finish sixth in the conference’s preseason media poll. The Buffaloes lost a lot of scoring and leadership, but I’m not certain the league has figured out how to win in Boulder, Colo., where the air is thin and the enthusiasm for basketball is soaring. Also, USC, which was picked ninth, should exceed predictions.
Clark: Washington. The Huskies have size plus a very good and veteran point guard in Abdul Gaddy. And here’s betting some shooters emerge. Yeah, they lost two guys who were first-round picks in the NBA draft, but Washington has the best home-court advantage in the conference, and Lorenzo Romar has been around long enough to know how to contend. And I’d say don’t sleep on Oregon. Dana Altman has shown he can work with a lot of new players, and while the Ducks are young, they’ll be much bigger than they’ve been, and maybe more talented, too.
Faraudo: USC. The Trojans aren’t going to win the Pac-12 — probably will have a hard time finishing higher than fifth. But the media picked them ninth in the conference, largely based on the fact that almost no one who played all season is back. That’s good. They were terrible a year ago. There are substantial reinforcements this season, including three would-be starters who were hurt and six freshmen and transfers.
Haller: USC. At this point, it’s hard to know exactly what Kevin O’Neill will have. Three players with starting experience — point guard Jio Fontan, forward Aaron Fuller and center Dewayne Dedmon — return from injury. Plus, the Trojans welcome in transfers Omar Oraby (Rice), Ari Stewart (Wake Forest), Eric Wise (UC Irvine) and J.T. Terrell, who averaged 11 points at Wake Forest as a freshman before leaving for junior college. If O’Neill can figure it out, he may be the Pac-12’s Coach of the Year.
4. A player everyone’s overlooking?
Allen: It’s easy to overlook a guy who played at tiny Peninsula College way up in Port Angeles, Wash., which might explain why J.T. Terrell has managed to begin the Pac-12 unnoticed. Maybe it’s because he plays for USC, which plays second fiddle to the football team on its campus and gets overlooked in Los Angeles because of UCLA. But Terrell, a 6-3 junior shooting guard, is a beast. If O’Neill gives him control of the offense, he’ll contend for the Pac-12 scoring title. Two years ago, he averaged 11.1 points as a freshman at Wake Forest.
Clark: Andre Roberson, Colorado. Let’s remember, he averaged a double-double last year. The Buffs will be asking more from him this year, and he’s likely to deliver.
Faraudo: Roberson. Not exactly a secret, I still say the Colorado junior is underrated. Roberson is a spectacular rebounder with a fast motor. he had 20 double-doubles and if his offensive game has developed beyond dunks and putbacks, the guy might average 15 and 15.
Haller: Chasson Randle, Stanford. The sophomore guard averaged 13.8 points, shooting 43.8 percent from 3-point range last season. But I really liked how he raised his game in the Pac-12 Tournament. He scored 30 points (on just 11 field-goal attempts) in 28 minutes against Arizona State. In two tournament games, he averaged 24.5 points. I expect him to be an all-conference performer this season.
5. Name the conference’s best shooter.
Allen: It’s a tossup between Washington’s C.J. Wilcox and California’s Allen Crabbe. Both shot at least 40 percent on 3-pointers and 84 percent on free throws last season. Crabbe has been more durable and the former Pac-10 Freshman of the Year has more awards, but Wilcox gets the nod on this one because every time he shoots, I think it’s going in.
Faraudo: Crabbe. The Cal junior had an “off” year shooting from the perimeter last season and still made 40 percent from 3-point range. His stroke is nice, he’s got range and at 6-6, he can shoot it over almost anyone.
Haller: C.J. Wilcox, Washington. California’s Allen Crabbe and Stanford’s Aaron Bright deserve consideration, but Wilcox can’t be left alone. It will be interesting to see what he does this season without Tony Wroten and Terrence Ross.
6. Who could challenge Shabazz Muhammad — if he ever plays — for Pac-12 Freshman of the Year?
Allen: Well, you have to start with freshmen who will start on contending teams, which narrows the list. From there, take a look at the teams that lack veteran scorers and need production from the newcomers. Given those parameters, I pick Colorado’s Josh Scott. He should start. Traditionally, freshmen are poor defenders, but he’ll get minutes because he can rebound. At 6-10, he’s one of the tallest players on the team. Plus he led the Buffaloes with 17.4 points and 7.0 rebounds per game during their European exhibition tour.
Clark: Arizona has possibilities, but I wonder if they’ll be overshadowed by the veterans and transfer Mark Lyons. I’d give a nod to a couple point guards who will be very important to their teams in Jahii Carson of ASU and Dominic Artis of Oregon. The ball will be in their hands, and so may the fate of their teams.
Faraudo: Perhaps one of Arizona’s three young big men. Perhaps Muhammad’s UCLA teammate, Kyle Anderson. More than likely, no one challenges Muhammad for the honor. From all the reports, the only opponent that might be able to put the clamps on Muhammad is the NCAA.
Haller: I’ll give you three names: Arizona State’s Jahii Carson, Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski and Colorado big man Josh Scott. All three are in position to help immediately.
7. Your pick for Pac-12 Player of the Year?
Allen: Adhering to the best player on the best team philosophy, I’ll pick Arizona’s Solomon Hill. But keep a watch out for Colorado’s Andre Roberson, who is perhaps the hardest-working player in the conference.
Clark: Tough question this early. A case could be made for a bunch of guys. I’m usually a strong believer it should go to the best player on a contender, so I’d put Solomon Hill of Arizona near the top of the list, but you could go a lot of ways. Gaddy of Washington, Roberson of Colorado, Crabbe of California. Shoot, if Oregon is in the race, you have to think a major factor in that will be E.J. Singler, but maybe covering him has me appreciating him more than most would.
Faraudo: Mark Lyons. The senior point guard is the key to Arizona’s season, a veteran to pair with Solomon Hill as a complement to the club’s superb freshman class. A transfer from Xavier, Lyons was part of three Sweet 16 teams and hopes to lead the Wildcats to a fourth.
Haller: Solomon Hill, Arizona. It’s easy to forget Hill was the Pac-12’s second-leading rebounder last season. He also averaged 13 points, shooting 50 percent from the field and 38.9 from 3-point range. This season, Arizona has more talent but I think Hill will do whatever needs to be done to lift the Wildcats.