OUTLOOK: There is no more Pac-10 Conference, as the additions of Colorado and Utah have brought about a logical name change to the Pac-12. But don't expect those two newcomers to challenge for league supremacy this season, as it is expected that both will struggle to keep up with the elite teams in the conference.
The two best teams appear to be the California Golden Bears and the UCLA Bruins. Cal returns four starters from a year ago, and there is obvious reason for optimism. As for the Bruins, they are loaded in the frontcourt and just need solid guard play to excel. Arizona lost a superstar, but the program continues to replenish with significant talent. Washington and Stanford are well-coached teams that figure to finish in the upper half of the conference standings, although a title may be just out of reach.
The middle of the Pac-12 pack is composed of the likes of Oregon, Arizona State, Oregon State and Washington State, a group of teams that will be fortunate to finish .500 in league play.
In addition to the two new additions, USC is also expected to struggle, as the Trojans were depleted from both departures and injuries. While only one automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament will be awarded to a Pac-12 team, it is highly possible that four or more conference members will be "dancing" in March.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: WASHINGTON
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. California, 2. UCLA, 3. Arizona, 4. Washington, 5. Stanford, 6. Oregon, 7. Arizona State, 8. Oregon State, 9, Washington State, 10. USC, 11. Colorado, 12. Utah
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
CALIFORNIA: With the return of four starters, Cal has a legitimate chance to win the Pac-12 this season. Mike Montgomery's squad will be led by senior guard Jorge Gutierrez, who paced the team in scoring last season with 14.6 ppg. The 2011 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, Allen Crabbe, figures to be even better as a sophomore. He hit more three-pointers (62) than any freshman in program history and averaged 13.4 ppg. Completing one of the top returning trios in all of college basketball is Harper Kamp, who netted 14.2 ppg on 52.8 percent shooting from the field in 2010-11. The fact that all three players mentioned shoot over 80 percent from the foul line is tremendously impressive. Gutierrez handed out 148 assists and recorded 54 steals as a junior, and he can certainly grab Pac-12 Player of the Year honors if his team plays up to its lofty potential.
UCLA: The strength of this year's UCLA team figures to be its frontcourt, as the duo of Reeves Nelson and Joshua Smith will be difficult to handle. A junior, Nelson led the club in scoring (13.9 ppg) and rebounding (9.1 rpg) a year ago, numbers that were good enough to earn him First-Team All-Pac-10 honors. As for Smith, he was a member of the Pac-10 All-Freshman Team on the strength of his 10.9 ppg and 6.9 rpg. Moving to the backcourt, senior Lazeric Jones figures to be a solid contributor after posting 9.1 ppg last season while leading the squad with 124 assists. Still, Jones shot only 38.6 percent from the field, so he certainly has plenty of room for improvement. At this year's Pac-12 Media Day, UCLA was chosen as the favorite to win the conference, finishing just ahead of both Cal and Arizona.
ARIZONA: Last season, Derrick Williams carried Arizona, as the star forward posted 19.5 ppg and 8.3 rpg en route to being the second pick in the 2011 NBA Draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves. Now that Williams is gone, along with second-leading scorer Lamont Jones (9.7 ppg), coach Sean Miller is eager to see which current member of the 'Cats will emerge as his go-to scorer. The two most obvious candidates are Kyle Fogg and Solomon Hill, as both enter with experience and a track record of contributions. Fogg scored 8.1 ppg last season, an output that would have been higher if not for his disappointing 37.3 percent field goal efficiency. He led the club with 99 assists and will be the catalyst of the offense in 2011-12. As for Hill, he posted 8.0 ppg last season and figures to get more attempts with Williams gone from the front court.
WASHINGTON: The Huskies have made three consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament under the guidance of head coach Lorenzo Romar, and the team is expected to be solid once again in 2011-12, despite some significant departures. Isaiah Thomas is gone, taking with him 16.8 ppg and 6.1 rpg. Washington is also without Matt Bryan-Amaning (15.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg) and Justin Holiday (10.5 ppg), so there isn't a double-digit scorer remaining on the roster. Abdul Gaddy returns 8.5 ppg and 5.2 rpg, but he played in only 13 games a year ago and needs to prove capable of being a go-to guy at the offensive end of the court. Other players such as Darnell Gant, C.J. Wilcox and Terrence Ross are all talented enough to step in as consistent contributors, but fans of Washington can't afford to be anything more than cautiously optimistic.
STANFORD: Jeremy Green is gone, and with him goes 16.7 ppg on the strength of 42.9 percent shooting from three-point range. There is no doubt that Green will be missed, putting added pressure on the broad shoulders of Josh Owens. The F/C scored 11.6 ppg on 58 percent field goal efficiency while also pulling down 6.5 rpg, and he is the lone returning double-digit scorer in the fold. So who figures to step up and help Owens carry the load for Johnny Dawkins' team in 2011-12? Well, Anthony Brown, Dwight Powell and Aaron Bright all figure to be logical candidates. Brown scored 8.7 ppg last season, while Powell (8.1 ppg) wasn't far behind. As for Bright, his output of 5.1 ppg would have been far better if not for his horrendous 34.5 percent shooting from the field. Stanford shot and surrendered the same exact percentage from the field last season (.431), so it isn't surprising that the club finished a game below .500 overall.
OREGON: Dana Altman needs significant talent to win in the Pac-12, and it is fair to say that the coach is still trying to build his program to a level on par with the league's elite. E.J. Singler is the lone returning double-digit scorer for the Ducks, as he brings back 11.7 ppg and 5.6 rpg. The versatile Singler also blocked 29 shots a year ago while compiling 41 steals, but he will need help from what appears to be a modest supporting cast. Garrett Sim started 36 games in 2010-11, but his 8.2 ppg were far from impressive. Very few other returnees of consequence are in place, so Altman will undoubtedly rely on the contributions of four freshmen and some inexperienced sophomores.
ARIZONA STATE: There were three double-digit scorers on the Arizona State roster last season and only one of those returns. Fortunately, the lone holdover of that trio is leading scorer Trent Lockett, who brings back 13.4 ppg to go along with 5.3 rpg and 73 assists. Lockett shot 51.6 percent from the field a season ago and will be even more productive if he can improve his shaky free throw efficiency. Kyle Cain may be able to add some offensive punch, as he shot 54.5 percent from the floor last season and figures to be on the court for many more minutes in 2010-11. Herb Sendek is one of the most well-respected coaches in all of college basketball and always seems to get the most from his roster.
OREGON STATE: The Beavers are excited to have their best player from a year ago back in place, as Jared Cunningham is an All-Pac-12 caliber performer. He scored 14.2 ppg last season to go along with a stellar total of 85 steals, proof that he gets the job done at both ends of the court. Cunningham is a high-flyer who has earned a reputation as one of the most creative dunkers in the league, but his overall production is of greatest interest to head coach Craig Robinson. Ahmad Starks shot just 35.6 percent from the field en route to 7.8 ppg in 2010-11, and better efficiency could lead to a higher output. As for Robert Nelson, who came off the bench in 18 of the 24 games that he played, he netted 7.5 ppg while shooting the ball inefficiently as well. With some solid experience under their belts, Starks and Nelson both figure to be better, at least in regard to shot selection.
WASHINGTON STATE: Ken Bone and his Cougars are prepared for life after Klay Thompson, as the star player was a lottery pick in the most recent NBA Draft. Thompson poured in 21.6 ppg last season and contributed in all other aspects of the game as well, so he will undoubtedly be missed. DeAngelo Casto (12.0 ppg) has moved on as well, leaving players like Faisal Aden and Reggie Moore to pick up the slack. Aden netted 12.7 ppg in 2010-11, and he figures to log more minutes this season, leading to a higher output. As for Moore, he scored just 9.1 ppg last season on 35.2 percent shooting from the field, That effort as a sophomore fell short of Moore's freshman campaign when he netted 12.7 ppg to go along with 4.2 apg. Washington State doesn't have the offensive firepower of a year ago, but the club's strong defense shouldn't change. The Cougars limited foes to 67.4 ppg on 39.9 percent field goal efficiency last season.
USC: Kevin O'Neill certainly has his work cut out for him this season, as a mere 13.1 ppg returns from a year ago. Maurice Jones (9.9 ppg) figures to be the go-to guy at the offensive end of the court, although his 37.2 percent shooting from the field certainly needs to improve significantly. Nikola Vucevic (17.1 ppg, 10.3 rpg) was one of the elite frontcourt players in the nation last season, but he has moved on and will certainly be missed. Jio Fontan (10.5 ppg) was expected to be a standout at point guard, but he figures to miss the season with a torn ACL. Sophomore forward Curtis Washington's labrum injury will likely cost him the season as well, and it remains to be seen while Dewayne Dedmon's fractured hand will be healed. USC relied heavily on its defense to win games a year ago, as it limited foes to 62.7 ppg on 40.9 percent shooting from the field, impressive to say the least. With a complete lack of proven offensive firepower in place, O'Neill's group will have to lock down opponents once again to find any success.
COLORADO: One of two new additions to the conference, Colorado's prospects are rather bleak. Last season, Colorado native Tad Boyle made the most of his "dream job" in his first year as head coach, guiding the Buffaloes to a school-record 24 victories. There were four double-digit scorers on that club, and all of them have moved on, leaving the cupboard nearly void of proven talent. The Buffaloes racked up 79.6 ppg in 2010-11, but approaching that level of output seems impossible. Andre Roberson brings back 6.7 ppg, a modest average for sure, but he didn't start a game and shot 58 percent from the field while ripping down 7.8 rpg. With a full season as the team's go-to guy, Roberson could put up impressive numbers. Austin Dufault tallied 6.6 ppg while connecting on 52.3 percent of his shots, and he will be counted on heavily as well.
UTAH: Change is in the air for Utah. Not only are the Utes entering their first season as a Pac-12 Conference member, they are also under new leadership since Larry Krystkowiak was named head coach of the program. Having led both NCAA and NBA teams, Krystkowiak certainly has the credentials to be successful, and he will depend heavily on the Utes' lone returning double- digit scorer, Josh Watkins. Last season, Watkins poured in 14.5 ppg and handed out 109 assists, but he did turn the ball over 104 times and shot just 26.7 percent from three-point range. Clearly, there is plenty of room for improvement, but considering the fact that no other player on the roster averaged more than 6.0 ppg last season, it appears that Watkins will have every opportunity to improve those numbers. The Utes were chosen by the Pac-12 media to finish dead last in the standings, and it is hard to argue with that assessment.