Pacific 10 Conference
The discussion of the Pac-10 has to begin with UCLA, and their run all the way to the NCAA final game. As with Florida, the Final Four run has given a lot of scouts a good look at what some of the young UCLA stars can do, and it wouldn't be surprising to see some of them leave. Leading scorer Arron Afflalo (15.8 per game) has said that he'll stick around for atleast one more year, although Jordan Farmar is still looking at his options. For now, BasketballPredictions will assume that Farmar stays with Afflalo for one more year. That means that UCLA's only key losses will be Cedric Bozeman (8 ppg, 3 rpg) and Ryan Hollins (7 ppg, 62% shooting) to graduation. With Afflalo, Farmar and the Cameroonian Prince Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (9 ppg, 8 rpg) all back, the Bruins will have a ton of athleticism and scoring ability. They will also try to recover some of their inside losses with 6'8" McDonald's All-American James Keefe (Scouts: 11 PF, Rivals: 16 PF). That said, unless Keefe really stars as a freshman, it's hard to see UCLA being as good on the inside as they were this past year. They'll have enough excellent guard play to be a top-10 team, but it's tough to see them playing as well next year as they did this past year - even if Farmar sticks around.
And that brings us to the chief competitors for UCLA, one being the University of Washington. At first glance, Washington should be devastated by graduations. The Huskies lose their three leading scorers (Brandon Roy, Jamaal Williams and Bobby Jones - a combined 44.4 ppg), with the key being Roy. As has been evident to anyone watching the Huskies over the past year, the Huskies were simply a different team with Roy off the floor. That all said, there is hope for the future. They have a solid young core in Ryan Appleby, Jon Brockman and Justin Dentmon, as well as an excellent recruiting class. Both Scouts.com and Rivals.com rank Washington as having one of the top-10 recruiting classes in the land, led by 6'11" McDonald's All-American center Spencer Hawes (Scouts: 2 C, Rivals: 8). Washington also features three other blue-chip recruits in Quincy Pondexter (Scouts: 7 SF, Rivals: 50), Phil Nelson (Scouts: 13 SF, Rivals: 19 SF) and Adrian Oliver (Scouts: 19 PG, Rivals: 20 PG). The key player there might actually be Oliver, who can allow Appleby (a 42% 3-point shooter) to play shooting guard at all times, since he clearly struggled when handling the point.
Another team that UCLA will need to deal with will be California. The key for the Golden Bears will be the draft status of Leon Powe (21 ppg, 10 rpg). He has, of yet, made no indication yet of whether he'll return for his junior year. Since he has been showing vast improvement, and most experts project him as only a 2nd rounder, it would probably be wise for him to stick around another year - but he wouldn't be the first player to unwisely enter the draft a year early. For now, however, BasketballPredictions will assume that Cal gets another year of Powe, which means that they return almost all of their scoring from last year. The Bears also bring in a blue-chip backcourt in Patrick Christopher (Scouts: 11 SG, Rivals: 38) and Jerome Randle (Scouts: 15 PG, Rivals: 31 PF).
Two more teams with Pac-10 title ambitions, if only for their outstanding recruiting classes, are Stanford and Arizona. Stanford's recruiting class is the most interesting, featuring two McDonald's All-Americans who happen to both be 7'0", who are both from the same school, and who happen to be brothers - Brook (Scouts: 4 PF, Rivals: 4) and Robin Lopez (Scouts: 2 C, Rivals: 3 C). Brook is considered a legitimate NBA talent, and both of them should expect to get a lot of playing time next year, especially with the graduation of the Cardinal's best interior player, Matt Harvasz (16 ppg, 9 rpg). With the Cardinal graduating their top 3 scorers, however, this could be a team building for the future. They might not be quite ready for prime time in 2007. Arizona, on the other hand, will have plenty of talent left next year as long as the NBA sirens don't steal more victims. Mustafa Shakur and Marcus Williams are both considering the draft, but for now BasketballPredictions will assume that both return. If that happens, then the only real loss for the Wildcats will be the scoring of Hassan Adams (18 ppg, 5 rpg). Lute Olsen will also bring in his standard collection of athletic recruits, featuring Chase Budinger (Scouts: 4 SF, Rivals: 10), Nic Wise (Scouts: 22 PG, Rivals: 24 PG) and Jordan Hill (Scouts: 19 PF, Rivals: 27 PF). The Wildcats struggled for much of this past year, but expect them to be back next year. That said, unless they suffer major NBA defections, UCLA simply has the most talent back next year:
1. UCLA - It's hard to say that UCLA will be as good as they were last year, but they'll almost certainly be a Top-10 team in the nation to start the year. The Bruins will be good yet again.
2. Arizona - The Wildcats always have a ton of talent, and will have enough to make a lot of noise if both Shakur and Williams stay for another year. With all of the returning role players, plus a top-tier recruiting class, Lute Olsen is going to have a very deep bench to work with, which is often a key to surviving a long conference schedule.
3. California - This ranking is based solely on the assumption that Leon Powe stays. Along with their good recruiting class, the Bears will have a strong enough backcourt to hang with athletic teams like UCLA and Arizona. They probably don't have enough talent and experience around the board to win the conference, but they're likely to make another trip to the tournament.
4. Washington - The Huskies will be a good young team with a lot of players with potential, but they probably don't have the experience to avoid a few bad losses in conference. This coming year will be a good test of Lorenzo Romar's coaching skills when he has to win without guys like Nate Robinson and Brandon Roy.
5. Stanford - The Cardinal are a team with a ton of potential and youth, but this coming year will be more of a growing experience than anything else. Along with the Lopez brothers, the Cardinal will have a very good frontline, and much of the year will be spent figuring out which of their guards will provide a strong enough backcourt to make a tournament run.
6. USC - Would be returning all five starters if not for the NBA. Unfortunately, many expect leading scorer Nick Young to jump early into the NBA. Top recruit Davon Jefferson will be expected to add some size on the inside, and the Trojans definitely have enough depth and talent to think seriously about making the tournament.
7. Arizona State - The Sun Devils earn a promotion up the standings purely because of the great signing of coach Herb Sendek. His system is geared towards competing against teams with greater talent and athleticism, which is what Arizona State will probably be facing. The Sun Devils do bring back their top five scorers, and have a decent recruiting class by their standards (though, obviously, not on the level of teams like Washington or Stanford). This is a team that should compete for a tournament bid soon, if not in 2007.
8. Oregon - The Ducks return all five scorers and should have enough depth to compete in the Pac-10. The question is whether they'll have the superstars and athletes to hang with the big boys, and the answer is probably a No.
9. Washington State - It's hard to expect a team to improve when they lose a legendary coach (like Dick Bennett), although the system shouldn't change much under Dick's interestingly-named son, Tony. The team also returns its top 8 scorers, so it isn't absurd to expect this team to actually win a game or two more next year.
10. Oregon State - It's going to be a long season for the Beavers, who lose four of the top seven scorers off a team that didn't score too much to begin with. There's no way this team can hang with the high-flying teams at the top of the conference.