Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: Out west the hardwood has really taken a backseat to the gridiron recently in what is supposed to be one of the power six conferences. Last year however, the Pac-12 bounced back. After having just two NCAA Tournament teams in 2012, the league earned three at-large bids and teams like Oregon and Arizona made runs to the Sweet 16. It is still a little too soon to say that the league is back to the national prominence it once enjoyed, but with a cast of exciting newcomers at a number of prestigious locations (UCLA and Arizona especially) it should at least be boasting another solid class of NCAA Tournament teams.
There should also be a long list of teams that have a realistic chance at hoisting a Pac-12 championship banner. At the lead is Arizona. While Kansas has Andrew Wiggins and Duke has Jabari Parker, the Wildcats have their own blue-chip recruit that is already being heralded as a future NBA star in Aaron Gordon. The freshman phenom will come in with a few other newcomers expected to contribute early to complement a team that was a last-minute 3-pointer away from advancing to the Elite Eight last March.
The Wildcats will certainly have their hands full trying to fend off the rest of the league. Steve Alford moved over after a successful run as the head coach at New Mexico and is now looking to pick up the pieces at UCLA. Those pieces are still plenty talented despite one-and-done Shabazz Muhammad jettisoning to the NBA, as expected, in the spring. That is especially true if Jordan Adams comes back strong from injury. Arizona State quietly won 22 games last season and boasts two of the more talented players in the conference in speedster Jahii Carson and shot-blocker Jordan Bachynski. If there is one team that will make the climb it's the Sun Devils. Colorado has suddenly, and quite surprisingly, turned into one of the premier programs in the Pac-12 with back- to-back entries into the NCAA Tournament. Even though the versatile Andre Roberson is gone, the Buffaloes should be back in the mix.
The second-tier of contenders is no less promising. Like Arizona, Oregon also pushed its way to the Sweet 16 last year and Dana Altman has coached the Ducks to improved win totals in each of the three years he has been on the bench. A wealth of backcourt riches means the Ducks will keep flying. Stanford has four starters back from a 19-win campaign and a few talented recruits that could make noise. California lost Pac-12 Player of the Year Allen Crabbe but Justin Cobbs is next in line, while up in Seattle heralded recruit Nigel Williams-Goss and sharpshooter Chris Wilcox give Washington a chance to be special.
Oregon State has a strong nucleus led by potent scorer Roberto Nelson. However the Beavers have not shown an ability to win consistently. Jordan Loveridge is a really nice building block for Utah, which is hoping to move on to bigger things after posting its highest win total since 2009. USC made a big splash by hiring Andy Enfield, of Florida Gulf Coast fame, but it would be quite an accomplishment if he can get the Trojans into the mix in his first year. Then there is Washington State, which must find someone to turn to with two-time league scoring champ Brock Motum no longer filling the basket in Pullman.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Arizona
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Arizona 2. UCLA 3. Arizona State 4. Colorado 5. Oregon 6. Stanford 7. California 8. Washington 9. Oregon State 10. Utah 11. USC 12 Washington State
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
ARIZONA: The Wildcats have always been a fixture in the NCAA Tournament but the last four seasons have seen just two bids after a run of 25 straight years without missing the field. Worries of a miss this year are minuscule, if they are there at all. Gordon is an explosive athlete that brings a ton of excitement to Tucson. The 6-foot-9 forward will help ease the loss of Solomon Hill. Gordon was a McDonald's All-American and part of the FIBA U19 championship team over the summer. Also helping is the addition of another big-time recruit in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who is a long and strong defending forward. Brandon Ashley (7.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg) was a starting forward last year, as was Kaleb Tarczewski (6.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg) meaning up front the Wildcats may be better stocked than any other squad in the group of 12. Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson, who was also a McDonald's All-American, clearly are the flashiest additions, but the one that might end up being most important is former Duquesne guard T.J. McConnell. The former Dukes' point guard will now fill in the spot left by leading scorer Mark Lyons (15.4 ppg). McConnell (11.4 ppg, 5.5 apg, 2.8 spg) is not as prolific a scorer as Lyons but he doesn't need to be. McConnell's real value will come from his strong skill in finding open shooters and playing disruptive defense. Nick Johnson (11.5 ppg, 3.2 apg) will be another important part of the backcourt after starting last year.
UCLA: Even though the Bruins won the Pac-12 regular season title, led the league in scoring (74.4 ppg) and ended the year in the NCAA Tournament, Ben Howland was still shown the door. Alford should take note as his predecessor went to three Final Fours but some slight stumbles cost him his job. The Bruins should be able to make Alford's first year a success, even though Muhammad and his 17.6 points per game are no longer residing in Los Angeles. Adams (15.3 ppg) was arguably a more important player for the Bruins as he was a multi-dimensional talent contributing at both ends. Teaming in the backcourt with Adams is nightmare matchup and versatile contributor Kyle Anderson (9.7 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 3.5 apg). At 6-9, Anderson is a tough target for any guard in the league to stop and his ability to fill the stat sheet is invaluable. Normal Powell (6.1 ppg) will also work into the backcourt rotation. One of the three or possibly a newcomer needs to take over the point since Larry Drew (7.5 ppg, 7.3 apg) is gone. Travis and David Wear will again be anchors in the frontcourt. Travis (10.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg) is the returning starter and the more talented of the two. That's not to say David (7.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg) isn't more than capable of producing at a high level.
ARIZONA STATE: During the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons the Sun Devils had a combined 22 wins. They were able to match that total during the 2012-13 campaign alone and now have their sights set on making an NCAA Tournament appearance for the first time since a guy named James Harden was handling the ball in Tempe. Carson (18.3 ppg, 5.1 apg) is the premier player now and will be grabbing all-conference honors again this year after being a first-team selection in just his freshman season. Carson is incredibly quick, a skilled shooter and a more than competent passer as he ranked third in the league in points and assists last year. Expectations are high for Carson especially now that he has Penn State transfer Jermaine Marshall to run with in the backcourt. Marshall averaged 15.3 points per game for the Nittany Lions last year and is an upgrade over the departed Evan Gordon (10.1 ppg). Obviously the Sun Devils will miss do-it-all forward Carrick Felix (14.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg). His absence presents the biggest hole for the Sun Devils, who are otherwise strong up front. Jordan Bachynski (9.8 pg, 5.9 rpg, 3.4 bpg) led the league in blocks and even posted a triple-double. However, the 7-foot-2 center still needs to improve as a consistent scorer and rebounder. If he does than the rest of the league better watch out. Jonathan Gilling (9.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg) is a returning starter and a forward that will step back and knock down a few triples every night.
COLORADO: Tad Boyle has done an outstanding job in leading the Buffaloes. The Colorado head coach has orchestrated a real overhaul to a dormant program as the Buffaloes have had at least 20 wins in three straight years, a feat never accomplished in team history. The back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances also mark the first in program history. Now that Roberson is gone this is Spencer Dinwiddie's team. The talented point guard can handle the pressure. Last year Dinwiddie (15.3 ppg, 3.0 apg) led the team in points and assists. At 6-6, Dinwiddie has great length and he is not afraid to use that to his advantage as he constantly slashes to the basket to get buckets. While Boyle can expect consistent and elite production from Dinwiddie, what he will get out of Askia Booker is a bit more of a mystery. Although Booker (12.4 ppg) was a double-digit scorer for the Buffaloes last season, he was far from an effective producer. On the year Booker netted just 36.4 percent of his field goal tries. That is not a number that a team with NCAA Tournament aspirations can live with from its second scoring option. Roberson's ferocious mentality on the boards and defense will be a tough thing to replace. The candidates best equipped to do so are Xavier Johnson (8.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg), who will see more minutes, and redshirt freshman Wesley Gordon. Josh Scott (10.3 ppg 5.7 rpg) is a more traditional post player and was impressive in his freshman year.
OREGON: The rapid ascension of the Ducks has been an impressive one. With 28 wins a year ago, Altman's squad earned a 20-win improvement from the low-point of an 8-23 season in 2009. The team's run to the Sweet 16 also showed just how well Altman has transformed the culture in Eugene. Speaking of culture change, the Ducks are set for a bit of one this year as they will shift to an even larger reliance on the backcourt. Dominic Artis (8.5 ppg 3.2 apg) and Johnathan Loyd (5.0 ppg) each took turns running the point for the Ducks, with each having success. Artis is the more talented of the two and the hope is that he will be able to shake off the injury issues of his freshman year and really blossom as a sophomore. However, he was recently suspended for selling team-issued apparel and will not play to open the year. Loyd will get more time early on, especially if his inconsistent shooting improves. Damyean Dotson (11.4 ppg) is the top returning scorer for the Ducks, who really relied on balance last season with six players averaging at least eight points per game. With four of those players gone, Dotson will be relied on to be even more productive. Just the trio of Dotson, Artis and Loyd would be enough for most teams but the Ducks also got a big boost with the transfer of Houston guard Joseph Young (18.0 ppg), who has already been cleared to play by the NCAA. Unfortunately, the frontcourt presents problems as the four players that left all made their living in the paint. However, former NBA prospect Mike Moser, who comes over from UNLV, could make sure the Ducks remain viable down low.
STANFORD: Coming off of 26 wins and an NIT title the Cardinal really looked like a team that was set to explode last year but it was not to be. Stanford finished at 19-15 but were far from in contention for an NCAA Tournament bid. That marks five years since Stanford has gotten into the Big Dance. Johnny Dawkins took control of the program five years ago and really needs to start getting a bit more out of his Cardinal squad. One of the major reasons Stanford couldn't string a few more wins together was its lack of efficiency on offense. The Cardinal were dead last in field goal percentage (.416) in the league while managing just 12.1 assists per game. Aaron Bright (9.3 ppg, 3.4 apg) could really help the Cardinal in both areas with a bounce back year. Bright was a major piece during the Cardinal's NIT run in 2012 but he shot at just a 34.7 percent clip last year, including 32.1 percent from beyond the arc. Chasson Randle (13.6 ppg) was a strong scorer last season, but like Bright, needs improvement in consistency, as he netted less than 40 percent of his field goal tries. Anthony Brown will add size to the backcourt as he returns from injury. The frontcourt is an area in which Stanford will excel with all-conference forwards Dwight Powell (14.9 ppg, 8.4 rpg) and Josh Huestis (10.5 ppg, 9.0 rpg) patrolling the interior.
CALIFORNIA: Losing a player of Crabbe's stature is not a setback many teams could endure. However, with Cobbs back the Golden Bears may be alright. Cobbs (15.1 ppg, 4.8 apg) was the only other double figure scorer for the Golden Bears last season as well as the man on point, a position he has steadily excelled in. Cobbs will likely be getting the ball to talented recruit Jabari Bird quite often. Bird is a 6-6 wing player that is just as adept at knocking down 3-pointers as he is scoring around the basket. If Bird lives up to his potential the loss of Crabbe may not even be felt. The Golden Bears will also have some depth and flexibility in the backcourt with Tyrone Wallace (7.2 ppg) back in the fold. A pair of returning starters in the frontcourt will also ensure that the Golden Bears remain competitive in the Pac-12. Richard Solomon (8.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and David Kravish (7.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg) were both extremely productive on the boards and able to score effectively when called upon. Thanks in large part to Kravish and Solomon, the Golden Bears were the second- best rebounding team in the league a year ago (37.2 pg). If Bird struggles early on head coach Mike Montgomery may look to get the pair to be a bit more vital parts of the offense. In all, the pieces are there for the Golden Bears to push into the NCAA Tournament for a fifth time in the last six seasons.
WASHINGTON: Fighting to a standstill was the theme of last year's Huskies squad. Washington finished the year a middling 18-16, including a 9-9 mark in conference play, while owning a barely noticeable scoring differential (+0.5 ppg). The drop in scoring was a real disappointment for the Huskies, who had been a rather prolific offensive squad in the previous season when they won 24 games. To end a now two-year drought from the NCAA Tournament some of that offensive flavor has to be recaptured. Who better to make that happen than Williams-Goss. The touted freshman comes in to replace Abdul Gaddy (10.9 ppg, 4.6 apg), who while a solid point guard, never really got enough out of his teammates. Williams-Goss is a faster player at the position and one that will more readily look for his own shot as well as share the ball with the scorers already in place. The No. 1 target for Williams-Goss is going to be 3-point marksman Chris Wilcox. The senior guard nearly decided to enter the NBA Draft in the spring but held off. That is good as Wilcox (16.8 ppg) was the leading scorer for the team last year, while hitting 36.6 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. If he can get back to the 40 percent level he was at in the previous two seasons the Huskies will be even better off. Perris Blackwell will finally be able to play after sitting out for a year in the aftermath of his transfer from San Francisco. Add in the developing Shawn Kemp Jr, who saw increased time down the stretch, and the Huskies have a nucleus to be excited about.
OREGON STATE: It was business as usual in Corvallis last season. After the Beavers earned a 20-win season for the first time since 1990 in 2011-12, they fell back into bad habits en route to a 14-18 finish. It was the third losing season in five years under Craig Robinson, who is still trying to get the Beavers back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since that 1990 squad. Robinson has four players who have been starters back this year and will try to turn that experience into some success on the court. The chief returnee is Roberto Nelson. The 6-4 guard was one of the best scorers in the conference last year, posting 17.8 points per game. Nelson was steadily efficient as well, netting 44.3 percent of his field goal attempts, while also showing durability with a team-best 31.2 minutes per game. Nelson will need to replicate those efforts again, especially if the Beavers hope to be a top shelf offense as they were last year, when they ranked third in the league in scoring (72.0 ppg). Nelson will be without sharpshooter Ahmad Starks (10.4 ppg) and Joe Burton (11.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg). Challe Barton (2.9 ppg) started in 11 games last year and could be a decent replacement for Starks. Up front the Beavers will be better equipped to deal with a lost player as Devon Collier (12.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and Eric Moreland (9.4 ppg, 10.6 rpg) are solid options, although they will miss time due to suspension. Collier will be out for one game, while Moreland will miss 14. In the meantime, Angus Brandt, who missed all but four games last year, can hold the fort down low.
UTAH: Give Larry Krystkowiak credit, as he has put the Utes on an upward trajectory in his first two seasons at the helm. After a miserable 2012 campaign yielded only six wins he was able to push his unit to a 15-18 record in 2013. Though it was the fourth losing season in as many years, the win total was the most for the Utes since their last NCAA Tournament appearance in 2009. This year's version lost a pair of double digit scorers in Jarred DuBois (12.4 ppg) and Jason Washburn (11.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg). Washburn was the biggest name to depart in the backcourt, where the Utes have some serious work to do. Guard play was not a strength last year when the team was last in the conference in scoring (64.2 ppg), so Brandon Taylor (8.4 ppg), who represents the best option on the perimeter, really needs to come of age immediately. Junior college transfer Delon Wright is a sizable guard (6-5) with some explosive tendencies and Dakarai Tucker (3.1 ppg) is a holdover who will see more minutes. The frontcourt is on sturdier ground thanks to Loveridge. The 6-6 forward does not possess elite size, but he is a strong scorer and rebounder nonetheless. He will of course need help down low and Dallin Bachynski (3.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg) and Jeremy Olsen (3.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg) will be some of the first players to be given a try.
USC: Enfield has gone from 'Dunk City' to the City of Angels. Considering he has just two years of head coaching experience, the hiring had some scratching their heads. Still, if Enfield can replicate the exciting style of play he had at FGCU, the Trojans will be fun to watch. Just being fun won't be enough though and Enfield doesn't have a roster full of talented recruits and returning players to count on. One recruit worth keeping an eye on is Roschon Prince, who was a prolific scorer at Long Beach Poly. At 6-6 he has the size to be a real threat in Enfield's system. Price is part of the youth movement for USC as 11 of the players on the roster are either sophomores or freshmen. The leaders of the team come in the backcourt. J.T. Terrell (11.7 ppg) and Byron Wesley (10.2 ppg) provided a solid core for the team last year and they will need to be even better as scorers with the likes of Eric Wise (11.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and Jio Fontan (9.3 ppg, 5.2 apg) gone. Neither will need to take over the point, since Maryland transfer Pe'Shon Howard was cleared to play this year. Howard was never much of a scorer for the Terrapins (4.7 ppg) but he averaged at least three assists per game in all three of his years in College Park. The frontcourt isn't as shored up with Dewayne Dedmon (6.7 ppg, 7.0 rpg) no longer around. Omar Oraby (6.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg) is another seven- footer that will be slotted in Dedmon's place, while Prince and fellow freshman Nikola Jovanovic will also be in the mix.
WASHINGTON STATE: Fans in Pullman haven't seen a NCAA Tournament team since 2008 and that string of futility doesn't look like it is going to end this year. After their worst record in seven seasons (13-19) last year, the Cougars lost their top two scorers in Brock Motum (18.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Mike Ladd (10.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg). Replacing Motum is going to be an extremely difficult task. The top candidates to do so are Jordan Railey and D.J. Shelton. Railey is a transfer from Iowa State, who rarely played for the Cyclones so it remains to be seen how effective he can be. Shelton (6.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg) is a better known commodity but he has never been an overly impressive contributor so the ceiling for him is much lower. Whoever is able to develop as a sturdy inside presence really needs to help the Cougars improve on the boards. Last season the Cougars were last in the Pac-12 in rebounding (33.3 pg). One of the lowest scoring teams in the Pac-12 (64.4 ppg) also needs its more experienced backcourt to produce at a higher rate. Royce Woolridge (11.0 ppg) started in all but one game last season and DaVonte Lacy (10.5 ppg) was another double figure scorer for the Cougars on the perimeter. Both need to improve from long range. There are also a few newcomers like Danny Lawhorn and Ike Iroegbu, who might be able to develop into strong forces, while redshirt freshman Que Johnson is a nice athlete to have on hand.