Saturday, April 10, 2010

2010-11 Preview: Pac-10

Pacific-10 Conference

A year ago, when previewing the 2009-10 Pac-10 season, I talked a lot about the concept of over-rated and under-rated. I have a rule that I call the Ben Wallace rule, after the NBA player, which is that when enough people call somebody or something underrated then they quickly become overrated. When enough people call somebody or something overrated then they quickly become underrrated. And what I said last year is that more often than not, this describes the Pac-10. We hear all the time about East Coast Bias and how all of the Pac-10 teams are better than we think they are because nobody knows what happens on the west coast. But we all have the internet and satellite televisions now, so it's not like people on the east coast aren't seeing Pac-10 games. ESPN does overhype Big East basketball every year the same way they overhype SEC football every year, but that affects everybody. If there's "east coast bias" then the Big Ten and Big 12 suffer from it as much as the Pac-10 does. And when enough people talk about how "nobody is talking about" how good the Pac-10 is, eventually it's not accurate to say that "nobody is talking about" it. That said, I talked last year about how the Pac-10 ended up actually being underrated last year because of how insane the Big East hype got (the media acted as if it was preposterous to argue against the obvious fact that the 2008-09 Big East was the greatest conference ever, when in reality they were only the third or fourth best conference in the country that season when you take into account that as good as the top six teams were, the bottom six or seven were all downright awful). This year the Pac-10 was particularly affected by bias because of the fact that they had no elite teams, and no teams in the Top 25 at all. Most casual fans (and even most television and newspaper analysts) rarely look beyond the Top 25 to rate how good a conference is, even though 25 is an arbitrary number. The Pac-10 was definitely the worst of the six BCS conferences this past season, but they weren't nearly as bad as people thought they were. In fact, according to Sagarin and Pomeroy the Pac-10 was better than any of the non-BCS conferences, including the A-10 and Mountain West, which a casual fan would never have guessed from the way the media talked about those conferences. By the time the NCAA Tournament rolled around California and Washington were wildly underrated, and I correctly jumped on those bandwagons. But even when taking into account how much better the Pac-10 was than believed, it was still very poor. It was arguably the worst performance by any BCS conference in over a decade, and things have nowhere to go up but up next season. But that all said, I don't think the Pac-10 will be dramatically better, and it could be the weakest BCS conference again.

We can start with Cal and Washington, the two teams that made the NCAA Tournament. Both teams did it with stellar backcourts, and not a whole lot inside. Cal had one of the best backcourts in the nation, with Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher. But both of those players will graduate, along with Theo Robertson and Jamal Boykin. The top returning scorer will be Jorge Gutierrez, who had 5.5 per game. Gutierrez, with a nice shooting stroke, is the best player returning. But no other player returns who has done much of anything in the Pac-10, and they're going to be heavily dependent on their freshmen. They do have an excellent recruiting class, highlighted by Gary Franklin (Rivals: 72, Scout: 16 PG) and Richard Solomon (Rivals: 101, Scout: 21 PF). Washington is in a much better position for this coming season. They lose Quincy Pondexter to graduation, and he was probably their best player, but every other player returns. I thought Abdul Gaddy was a huge disappointment as a freshman considering how much hype he was getting out of high school, when people were debating with a straight face that he was better than John Wall. But some players take time to develop and find their place, and if he can get going then along with Isiah Thomas and Venoy Overton that's going to be a heck of a backcourt. The worry will be inside, where Pondexter was a huge asset with so many Pac-10 teams lacking good post players. Matthew Bryan-Amaning is the best inside man returner, and they'll be looking for a player like Darnell Gant or Tyreese Breshers to step up. Justin Holiday is too skinny to be a post player, but he might be able to play power forward if Washinton goes small and uptempo with those three great guards. Washington went for quality over quantity in their recruiting class this season because there just weren't the scholarships for a big class. They have only one player currently signed, but it's Desmond Simmons (Scout: 25 PF).

Arizona State was the only other team in the Pac-10 that entered March believing that they had a shot at the NCAA Tournament. They lose two key starters to graduation (Derek Glasser and Eric Boateng) as well as two players who earned double-digit minutes per game off the bench (one to graduation, one to transfer). I think Glasser will be particularly difficult to replace because he was such a unique player in the way he understood Herb Sendek's system so well and also just seemed to always find weird ways to score and create offense. Not to say that his talent level was in the same universe, but he reminded me of a poor man's Steve Nash. Jamelle McMillan will be capable ball handler in Glasser's absence, with a very good assist-to-turnover ratio, but he won't bring the same skill set that Glasser had. They do return the excellent inside-outside combo of Ty Abbott and Rihards Kuksiks, but they're going to be heavily dependent on their incoming freshman class for depth. That recruiting class has depth, but the only blue chipper is Keala King (Rivals: 25, Scout: 13 SF). Expect Arizona State to take a step back next season. USC was a team that actually was fairly pesky early in the season, but seemed to lose motivation after it was announced that they would skip the postseason. I thought Kevin O'Neill was as good of a hire as USC was going to get considering the situation they had, and he did a good job with what he was given. They lose three starters to graduation, including leading scorer Dwight Lewis. A big key will be replacing Michael Gerrity, who played so well this past season. They expect to do that with Jio Fontan, a transfer from Fordham.

Arizona had a year that can be viewed in one of two ways. Many Arizona fans are really disappointed that their 25 year streak of NCAA Tournament appearances ended, and that they weren't even invited to the NIT. But at the same time, there was no way the season was going to be any good when you consider how decimated the roster was when Sean Miller came in. I thought Miller was a great hire and he has done a spectacular job of recruiting talented kids back to the school, and he did an excellent job of keeping that team pesky despite the total lack of talent and experience. The team had one senior (Nic Wise) and one junior (Jamelle Horne), and everybody else was a freshman or sophomore. Wise graduates, but unless Derrick Williams goes pro (and I don't think he will) then everybody else returns. Derrick Williams was part of that spectacular freshman class that Miller put together over the past summer, along with Kevin Parrom, Solomon Hill, Lamont Jones and Kyryl Natyazhko. Their incoming recruiting class isn't to that level yet, but it still has talent, highlighted by Daniel Bejarano (Rivals: 57, Scout: 8 SG). Arizona might not get back to the NCAA Tournament next season, but they'll definitely be improved. Yet another team that had a disaster of a season was UCLA. They lost a ton from their 2008-09 roster, and their 2009-10 roster was just completely demoralized. It wasn't that UCLA didn't have a lot of talent, but that their team chemistry and morale was just awful. It was clear that the team wasn't happy playing together and that led to, in addition to awful results, a lot of transfers. Drew Gordon, J'Mison Morgan and Mike Moser are all leaving. With Michael Roll, Nikola Dragovic and James Keefe graduating, the only players left who are any good are Malcolm Lee, Jerime Anderson, Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt. Their top recruit is Josh Smith (Rivals: 19, Scout: 4 C).

If there's one team from the bottom of the conference that could make some noise it's Washington State. Assuming Klay Thompson doesn't go pro they'll return all but one player from their roster. In fact, only one player on the roster was not a freshman or sophomore. Ken Bone uses a very different system than Tony Bennett did, and it makes sense that it wouldn't be a seamless transition between the two of them. I can't recall a case of a conference where even two different teams with great pasts had historically awful "everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong" years. And this past year the Pac-10 had three: Arizona, UCLA and USC. So things can't possibly be worse next season. Here's how I see things ending up:

1. Washington - Hard to see any other team seriously contending against Washington. They were far better than any team other than Cal or Arizona State this past season, and they lose far less to graduation than either of those two teams. If Abdul Gaddy begins to reach his potential then they'll be untouchable in what will again be a relatively weak Pac-10.
2. Arizona State - Derek Glasser is a unique player who won't be easily replaced, but Herb Sendek has proven his entire career that his teams always win games regardless of who is on the floor. Remember that this past year's team was pretty good despite losing both James Harden and Jeff Pendegraph.
3. California - There's no question they won't be as good as they were this past season, but I'm not sure who else to put ahead of them. Their performance will obviously be heavily dependent on how well their freshmen develop.
4. USC - Jio Fontan is an outstanding transfer who will pay big dividends immediately, just like Michael Gerrity did this past season.
5. Arizona - Sean Miller had a very good group of freshmen this past season, but not much else. He'll likely need another year to have a team that is seasoned enough to make a serious NCAA Tournament run.
6. UCLA - It's easy to forget that only 14 months ago UCLA was trying to make its fourth consecutive Final Four. This past year's team was actually talented enough to make the NCAA Tournament if they hadn't had so many internal problems. They actually have some talented young players for Ben Howland to build around.
7. Washington State - They should be improved as long as Klay Thompson doesn't leave.
8. Stanford - Landry Fields graduates, but they have a really good recruiting class in. And Stanford was surprisingly pesky this past season, almost knocking off Kentucky and also beating Arizona State and Virginia.
9. Oregon - With the force of Nike and Phil Knight's new basketball arena behind this team you have to figure they'll get themselves a good coach. The really big names (Tom Izzo, Brad Stevens, etc) have turned them down, but they should get somebody good. But Tajuan Porter was the only quality player on the team and he's gone, so it's going to be a big rebuilding job.
10. Oregon State - They weren't any good this past season, and they lose three seniors to graduation with only a so-so recruiting class coming in. Unless they make some signings between now and next season there's no way they won't be even worse in 2010-11.

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