Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: Just two seasons ago, the Pac-12 Conference sent only two teams to the NCAA Tournament. Things got back to normal recently however, with five squads receiving invites in 2013, and six last March. There should be another large crop this season, although some of the teams may be different, and somewhat surprising.
There is no surprise that Arizona is easily the most talented team in the conference, and that's with the losses of 2014 Pac-12 Player of the Year Nick Marshall and freshmen phenom Aaron Gordon. Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis- Jefferson, T.J. McConnell and Kaleb Tarczewski already made for an enviable core, but the addition of highly-touted recruit Stanley Johnson only further enhances the Wildcats' chances. Another No. 1 overall seed and deep run in the NCAA Tournament are all but guaranteed, especially with the team fueled by the disappointment of falling to Wisconsin in last season's Elite Eight.
So who are the top contenders to knock the Wildcats off their lofty perch? Why none other than Utah and Colorado. You read that right. The Utes are getting the band back together after picking up 21 wins last season, albeit thanks to a weak non-conference schedule. Delon Wright leads five returning starters and is one of the top contenders for Pac-12 Player of the Year honors. Colorado may have been blasted away by Pittsburgh in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, but with Josh Scott and Askia Booker leading the charge, the Buffaloes appear to be set for a shot at redemption.
Although six teams made it to the NCAA Tournament last season, Stanford was one of the few to actually make a run, topping New Mexico and Kansas to get to the Sweet 16. Chasson Randle, another conference Player of the Year candidate, carries more responsibility this season, with frontcourt enforcers Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis cashing checks in the NBA now. UCLA also got to the Sweet 16 in its first season under Steve Alford. The Bruins are replacing a number of key parts, but will get back this season and could go even further if well-regarded freshman Kevon Looney develops quickly.
There is hope in abundance, but questions remain at some of the other stops on the Pac-12 tour. Washington has an excellent point guard in Nigel Williams- Goss and two other returning starters. However, the Huskies went 17-15 last season and need help up front. Tyrone Wallace and David Kravish have consistently improved for California, which needs to find replacements for Justin Cobbs and Jabari Bird to live up to the hype. Meanwhile, Oregon's prospects were dashed by an ugly offseason incident, although potent scorer Joseph Young will continue to keep the Ducks competitive. Arizona State doesn't have Jahii Carson anymore. That alone makes for an expected slide out of the field of 68.
There is a lot less to like about USC, Washington State and Oregon State. The Trojans really struggled after making the splashy hire of Andy Enfield in 2013, finishing 11-21 overall. They are hitting the reset button yet again with a roster filled with unproven commodities. The Cougars and Beavers are each in for growing pains with new head coaches at the helm.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Arizona
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Arizona 2. Utah 3. Colorado 4. Stanford 5. UCLA 6. Washington 7. California 8. Oregon 9. Arizona State 10. USC 11. Washington State 12. Oregon State.
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
ARIZONA: Just a single point separated Arizona from its first Final Four appearance since 2001, as the Wildcats fell, 64-63, to Wisconsin in the West Regional Final last March. Getting over the Elite Eight hump will be priority No. 1 this season. Most teams wouldn't have such high expectations when losing players like Johnson and Gordon, but Sean Miller did an excellent job of reloading rather than rebuilding. Miller brought in Johnson to highlight one of the best recruiting classes in the country. Johnson, a 6-foot-6 swingman, will become a top offensive option immediately. T.J. McConnell (8.4 ppg, 5.3 apg) ranked third in the Pac-12 in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.0) last season, and will continue to be the steady hand that runs the Arizona offense. Gabe York (6.7 ppg) can shoot from the outside and will work into the backcourt rotation. In the frontcourt, Arizona has a wealth of versatile options. Ashley (11.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg) plays all over and was a key player before suffering a season-ending foot injury. Hollis-Jefferson (9.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg) was part of last season's recruiting class and Tarczewski (9.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1 bpg) is a 7-foot behemoth, who will eat up space on the interior. The depth up front should allow the Wildcats to maintain their spot at the top of the Pac-12 in rebounds (38.1 ppg) as well as scoring defense (58.6 ppg), where they ranked sixth nationally.
UTAH: In a world where most teams deal with constant roster turnover due to the one-and-done culture permeating the college game, the 2014-15 Utes are a refreshing change of pace. Wright easily could have gone to the NBA after stuffing the stat sheet all last season for the Utes, but he decided to return. Head coach Larry Krystkowiak will reap the benefits, but not just because Wright is back. Brandon Taylor, Dakarai Tucker and Jordan Loveridge are all returning starters, each of whom helped the Utes post a 21-12 record. Wright is obviously the most important piece. He led the Utes in scoring (15.5 ppg), assists (5.3 apg), steals (2.5 spg) and blocks (1.3 bpg), while ranking second in rebounds (6.8 rpg). Wright also fights for good looks at the basket, as he shot at a 56.1 percent clip. Efficient shooting was a key for the Utes overall, as they ranked 11th nationally in field goal percentage (.488). Loveridge (14.7 ppg, 7 rpg, 2.3 apg) is a 6-foot-6 post player, who can score from most places on the floor, although he could use work on his shooting from long distance. Taylor (10.6 ppg, 3.5 apg) teams with Wright in the backcourt, filling in the gaps in terms of scoring and distributing. Tucker (6.8 ppg) started 22 games last season and, at 6-foot-5, presents matchup problems for opposing backcourts. Dallin Bachynski (6.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg) will round out the starting lineup as a more traditional center.
COLORADO: Tad Boyle has really transformed Colorado basketball. In his four years at the helm, three of which have been in the Pac-12, Boyle has yet to log fewer than 21 wins, while pushing his squad to the NCAA Tournament the last three seasons. Last year's performance in the Big Dance is one Boyle and his team would probably like to forget, unless they want to use it for motivation purposes. The eighth-seed Buffaloes were routed, 77-58, by Pittsburgh. Still, the season was a success considering the Buffs lost leading scorer Spencer Dinwiddie (14.7 ppg) to a torn ACL halfway through. It gave the squad a chance to discover its identity without Dinwiddie, which will be important now that he is playing professionally. Booker (13.7 ppg, 3.3 apg) has never met a shot he didn't like. He still needs to be a more efficient shooter (.389), but he is a proven scorer. Scott (14.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg) is the more exciting player and a constant double-double threat. He is an all- conference candidate this season. Xavier Johnson (12 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Wesley Gordon (5.9 ppg, 6 rpg) are both athletic swingmen, who can play multiple positions. Xavier Talon (4.9 ppg) is another experienced player, while there is a lot of hype surrounding freshman Dominique Collier.
STANFORD: As the adage goes, it's not about how you start, but how you finish. For the Cardinal those words certainly held true, as a surge at the end of last season thrust them into the national spotlight and kept Johnny Dawkins employed. Although there was no guarantee Stanford's head coach would be fired without a NCAA Tournament appearance, the Cardinal's run to the Sweet 16 certainly put a stop to swirling rumors about his job security. With renewed confidence, Dawkins now needs to prove last season was no fluke. Doing so without Powell (14 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and Huestis (11.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg) will be difficult. In recent years, Stanford has been at its best with strong play from the frontcourt, and now Stefan Nastic (7.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg) is the most proven player down low. Nastic did a good job of instilling hope down the stretch, scoring in double figures in all three NCAA Tournament games. Freshman Reid Travis is also expected to be a contributor right away. However, Nastic and Travis' impact on Stanford's season will not be as profound as that of Randle. The 6-foot-2 guard was one of the best scorers in the Pac-12 last season (18.8 ppg), and he constantly had the ball in his hands. He also shot a career-high 47.4 percent from the floor as a junior, bouncing back from an inconsistent sophomore campaign. Anthony Brown (12.3 ppg, 5 rpg) started 35 of 36 games last season and provided plenty of additional firepower.
UCLA: All Alford did in his first season in the Golden State was lead UCLA to its most wins since 2008, which was also the last time the Bruins made it to the Final Four. They didn't match that success, but a Sweet 16 run and a Pac-12 Tournament title certainly made believers of any doubters of Alford's hiring. Of course, Alford had a lot of talent to work with. Do-it-all swingman Kyle Anderson, potent scorer Jordan Adams, athletic specimen Zach LaVine and David and Travis Wear provided a nice foundation. None of those five are back, with Anderson, Adams and LaVine all taking off for the professional ranks. Norman Powell (11.4 ppg) is the top returning scorer for the Bruins, who were once again one of the best offensive teams in the country last season. They ranked 12th nationally in scoring (81.2 ppg), fifth in assists (17.2 apg) and 10th in field goal percentage (.489). Powell was a 53.3 percent shooter, but he was not asked to carry the offense very often. He might not have to do so again this season, that is if Looney makes a smooth transition to the college ranks. The 6-foot-9 forward will likely be on the all-conference freshmen team at season's end, with other honors possible as well. Bryce Alford (8 ppg) and Tony Parker (6.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg) were complementary pieces last season, but will have added responsibilities.
WASHINGTON: From 2008-12, Washington was a mainstay at the top of the Pac-12 and in the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies won the league's regular-season crown for the 2008-09 and 2011-12 campaigns, while fitting two tournament titles in the middle. Lorenzo Romar's program slid backward the last two seasons, finishing with records of 18-16 and 17-15, respectively. Part of the problem last season was a lack of power up front. The Huskies ranked ninth in the Pac-12 in rebounds (34.5 rpg), and that was with Perris Blackwell (10.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg) still around. Shawn Kemp Jr. (4.4 ppg) was diagnosed with Graves' Disease early last season and was slowed because of it. His role remains unclear. Other options include 6-foot-10 sophomore forward Jernard Jarreau, who played a mere two minutes all of last season, and Fresno State transfer Robert Upshaw. The backcourt has much less uncertainty, even with the departure of C.J. Wilcox (18.3 ppg), especially with Williams-Goss running the point. In his first season, the 6-foot-3 guard showed a ton of composure, dishing out 4.4 assists per game to go with 13.4 ppg. He is the top returning scorer and will be relied on even more so this time around. Andrew Andrews (12.3 ppg) figures to be a partner for Williams-Goss in the backcourt, while Mike Anderson (5.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg) rebounds well for a guard.
CALIFORNIA: There is a new head coach in town, as Mike Montgomery decided to retire following a 21-14 finish last season. Cuonzo Martin cashed in his success with Tennessee, which made it to the Sweet 16 last season, and now takes over a California squad that has made four NCAA Tournament appearances in the previous six years. If Martin hopes to make a big splash in his first season, there are a few things he needs to do. The first, is figure out a solution to the problem at point guard. Now that Cobbs is gone, the Golden Bears, who ranked 29th in the country in assists (15.3 apg) in 2013-14, have no true player for the position. Sam Singer, who logged 9.3 minutes per game last season, freshman Brandon Chauca and even Tyrone Wallace (11.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg) are the top candidates to take the job. Perhaps Martin will go with a mixture rather than choosing one consistent point guard. Even if he isn't the main guy at the point, Wallace is going to be a fixture in the backcourt, as one of two returning double-digit scorers. The backcourt could get a real boost if highly-touted 2013 recruit Jabari Bird shakes off an underwhelming freshman season (8.3 ppg). David Kravish (11.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 2.1 bpg) led the team in blocks last season, but he will be without frontcourt battery mate Richard Solomon (11 ppg, 10.2 rpg), who was the first Cal player since Leon Powe in 2005-06 to average a double-double.
OREGON: The Ducks made a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance last season, and appeared poised to make it three in a row this season. However, the dismissals, justified as they were, of Damyean Dotson, Dominic Artis and Brandon Austin, leaves a rather scant roster for Dana Altman to work with. There are currently only 10 players listed on the Oregon roster according to the school's official athletic site. One of the 10 is Young, who was a sensational addition last season after he transferred to Eugene from Houston. Young ranked second in the Pac-12 in scoring (18.9 ppg). He didn't just score a lot, he did so with efficiency, shooting 48 percent from the floor, 41.5 percent from the field and 88.1 percent from the free-throw line. His scoring is the only sure thing for the Ducks, who led the Pac-12 and ranked eighth nationally in points per game (81.9). All the empty roster spots, made more apparent by the traditional departures of Mike Moser (13.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg), Johnathan Loyd (7 ppg) and Jason Calliste (12.7 ppg), make for a lot of opportunities for some relatively-inexperienced players. Elgin Cook (6.7 ppg) could develop into a strong secondary scorer behind Young. Cook, at 6-foot-6, is long and has the ability to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim. Jalil Abdul-Bassit and junior college transfers Dwayne Benjamin and Michael Chandler have to be ready to go right away.
ARIZONA STATE: Too often last season, one in which Arizona State made it to the NCAA Tournament, Carson appeared to be the only player on the floor, particularly on offense. Without him, as well as shot-blocker Jordan Bachynski and dynamic guard Jermaine Marshall, Herb Sendek will need more players on the roster to step up. Shaquille McKissic and Jonathan Gilling are both returning starters. McKissic, a 6-foot-5 forward, is the team's best returning scorer (9 ppg) and rebounder (5.4 rpg). The ball will be thrust into his hands frequently, especially early in the season as the Sun Devils develop their identity on offense. McKissic is a strong defender and the Sun Devils should still be tough to score on, after they limited teams to 69.4 points per game and 41.9 percent shooting last season. Gilling (7.7 ppg) worked best as a complementary player, who could knock down shots from 3-point range. He connected on 43.4 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. It remains to be seen if he can become a go-to scorer with opponents no longer keying in on Carson and Marshall. Replacing Bachynski, who led the country in blocked shots, and his ability to protect the rim will be a tough challenge as well. Eric Jacobsen and Cameron Gilbert are both 6-foot-10, so they certainly have the size. Roosevelt Scott leads a group of junior college transfers who will play immediately.
USC: While Alford was enjoying an excellent debut season across town, Enfield and his Trojans were suffering through a disastrous campaign, which ended with an 11-21 record and a miserable 2-16 conference mark. The Trojans ranked next- to-last in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (75.3 ppg), 10th in both scoring offense (70.6 ppg) and field goal percentage (.439), while turning the ball over more than any of the other 11 teams (14 pg). It definitely wasn't the type of exciting style USC fans expected when Enfield was lured away from high-flying Florida Gulf Coast. Enfield's job isn't about to get easier this season. Byron Wesley, last season's leading scorer (17.8 ppg), decided to transfer to Gonzaga, and Pe'Shon Howard (10.8 ppg), Omar Oraby (8.2 ppg, 6 rpg) and J.T. Terrell (9.7 ppg) are all gone as well. Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic are now the leaders of the squad. Both appeared in all 32 games last season -- the only players besides Oraby to do so. Jacobs, a 6-foot-4 sophomore guard, averaged 6.6 points and 3.6 assists per game last season. He will be expected to improve in both areas. Jovanovic (8 ppg, 4.4 rpg) has excellent size (6-foot-11) and will be a force in the frontcourt. Several new faces, including freshman guard Jordan McLaughlin, will get tested early on.
WASHINGTON STATE: Ernie Kent, who coached Oregon from 1997-2010, makes his return to the Pac-12 this season, filling the spot left by Ken Bone, who was fired after back-to-back years of underachievement. The Cougars had winning records in Bones' first three years on the job, but they went a combined 23-40 the last two. That included a miserable 10-21 finish last season, which was accompanied by a 3-15 record against the rest of the Pac-12. They ranked last in the conference in scoring (62.4 ppg), assists (10.5 apg), rebounds (32.8 rpg) and field goal percentage (.400). The roster is also without D.J. Shelton (10.1 ppg, 9.6 rpg) and Royce Woolridge (7.3 ppg), who transferred to Grand Canyon University. Obviously, Kent has his work cut out for him. He will at least be able to rely on DaVonte Lacy (19.4 ppg) to put points on the board. Lacy played in only 23 games last season, but was a scoring machine when he was on the floor. Que Johnson (9.5 ppg) is the second option in the backcourt. He needs to be a more effective shooter, after falling below 40 percent efficiency last season. Jordan Railey (3 ppg, 2.5 rpg) and Josh Hawkinson (1.3 ppg, 1.7 rpg) have the difficult responsibility of picking up the slack in Shelton's absence.
OREGON STATE: Corvallis is also the home of a new coach this season, as Wayne Tinkle comes over from Montana to replace the departed Craig Robinson. In Robinson's six years in charge the Beavers had a winning record only once. Last season, they fought to an even 16-16 finish, with losses in eight of their last 11 games, including a 96-92 setback against Radford in the first round of the College Basketball Invitational. Tinkle had a down year at Montana last season, leading the Grizzlies to a 17-13 finish, but they had won 25 games and made it to the NCAA Tournament in the two previous years. It may be a while before Tinkle guides the Beavers to the Big Dance, especially if he can't get them to defend better. Last season, OSU ranked last in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (75.6 ppg). Tinkle also is working from scratch essentially, with all five starters gone, including Roberto Nelson, the Pac-12's leading scorer last season (20.7 ppg). That leaves Langston Morris-Walker (4 ppg), Victor Robbins 2.9 ppg), Olaf Schaftenaar (2.2 ppg) and Cheikh N'diaye (0.8 ppg) as the most experienced returning players.