Sunday, April 10, 2011

2011-12 Preview: Pac-12

Pacific-12 Conference

Yes, that's right, this is the Pac-12 now. It's easy to forget in the no-perspective world we live in, but it's not like the major conferences were carved in stone. After all the, Pac-10 was the Pac-8 until the late 1970s, and every other major conference (save the Big Ten and SEC) has seen major changes over the past two decades. That said, this particular expansion was done for football, and not for basketball. Both Utah and Colorado have more history of success in football than basketball, and the conference also really just wanted to get to 12 teams so that the NCAA would alow them to have a football title game (the same reason the Big Ten expanded to add a 12th team - and the Big Ten also added a program with more football success than basketball success). The good news for the Pac-12 is that Colorado has a really good new coach in Tad Boyle, and should at least be competitive. Utah is more of a question mark since they just fired their coach and hired Larry Krystkowiak, who did have success at Montana before taking the job to be assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Discussion of the conference has to begin with Arizona, since they were the best team in the conference and were a couple of wide open missed threes from making the Final Four. And this is a young team, losing only Jamelle Horne from their regular rotation, though I expect Derrick Williams to eventually declare for the NBA. Sean Miller is one of the best recruiters out there, so he's got more blue chip talent coming in to fill those roster spots. They return their starting backcourt of Lamont Jones and Kyle Fogg, and have one of the best players in the conference in Kevin Parrom. Kyryl Natyazhko, a rising-junior, is an underrated returner as well. For the most part Sean Miller has only been using him to defend against larger opponents, but he's actually an efficient scorer when given the chance, and has good shooting range for a player of his size. Daniel Bejerano didn't play much as a true freshman but should be a key guard off the bench next year. Their most important recruit is Josiah Turner (Scout: 3 PG, Rivals: 10), because they don't really have a true point guard. Nick Johnson, Angelo Chol and Sidiki Johnson are all rated among the Top 75 recruits in the nation by Rivals.

Washington might have been the most talented team in the conference, but they constantly struggled to maintain concentration and ended up a disappointing 11-7 in Pac-10 play before turning it on and winning the Pac-10 tournament and then nearly taking out North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament Round of 32. But they lose Justin Holiday, Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Venoy Overton to graduation, and Isaiah Thomas is expected to go pro. That is going to put the pressure on Abdul Gaddy, who was picked by many as the top point guard nationally in the 2009 class (ahead of John Wall) but struggled both with his play and with his health. If he can't handle the point then they will turn to their top 2011 recruit, Tony Wroten, Jr (Scout: 6 PG, Rivals: 30). Darnell Grant and Aziz N'Diaye will be back and probably will start at the 4 and 5 spots, and they have efficient scorers back in Terrence Ross and Scott Suggs (Suggs was a 45% three-point shooter). The knock on Washington, particularly from their fans, is that Lorenzo Romar can recruit like nobody else they can get to coach there, but he can't coach them well. Well, next year Arizona is actually going to have more talent. Can Lorenzo Romar out-coach Sean Miller?

UCLA was the third NCAA Tournament team from the Pac-10 in 2010-11. They are rapidly becoming North Carolina West, as they've picked up Larry Drew after picking up David and Travis Wear. The Wear twins will be eligible for the 2011-12 season, while obviously Drew will have to sit the season out. UCLA doesn't lose anybody to graduation, but the NBA Draft could do a lot of damage. Tyler Honeycutt, Malcolm Lee and Josh Smith are all looking at potentially going. Right now I think Honeycutt and Lee will go pro but Smith will come back. The core of the team this past season was the inside duo of Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson, and honestly I think that a frontline of Nelson, Josh Smith, David Wear and Travis Wear will be an improvement. The two Wear twins can play on the perimeter if necessary, so they can be on the floor at the same time as Nelson and Honeycutt. Brendan Lane is a backup. In the backcourt, the biggest key is ball handling, since UCLA was last in the Pac-10 in offensive turnover rate in 2010-11. Lazeric Jones, their starting point guard, was a true freshman, so he should lower the turnovers with another year of experience. Jerime Anderson and Tyler Lamb are two other good scoring guards, and their top 2011 recruit is Norman Powell (Scout: 16 SG, Rivals: 59). They should be improved next season, but I'm not sure I'm ready to put them back in the Top 25. The 7 seed they got this year wasn't deserved, and they would need to improve a lot to get to the Top 25.

USC was the fourth and final NCAA Tournament team out of the Pac-10 in 2010-11. I was really bothered by their selection, though not for the reasons that were said commonly in the media. There's no question that down the stretch USC was playing well enough that the "eye test" said that they were one of the 37 best teams up for consideration to earn an at-large bid. What bothered me about that was that the Selection Committee has never picked teams that way. They've always cared most about body of work, and USC's body of work was by far the worst I can ever recall for an at-large team (see here for more on that). If all we're going to do is care about who the best teams are in March, why not just make the non-conference games unofficial scrimmages. How is it not held against USC that they lost to TCU, Bradley and Rider before Jio Fontan became eligible, not to mention a loss to Oregon State and a couple of losses to Oregon after that. But looking toward next year, the fact that USC was playing so well down the stretch does matter. From the starting lineup, though, Alex Stephenson, Donte Smith and Marcus Simmons graduate, and Nikola Vucevic is going pro. Vucevic is actually the toughest loss because he improved dramatically and was the best player on the team in 2010-11 (17.1 ppg, 53.9 eFG%, 10.3 rpg). They also lost Bryce Jones midyear to transfer. Jio Fontan will be back, as will Maurice Jones, but they will be the only returners that earned more than 11 minutes per game this past season. Garrett Jackson is the only other returner to play meaningful minutes at all. Curtis Washington, Byron Wesley and Alexis Moore are prospects. It's hard to see USC not taking a big step back.

I felt Colorado got robbed of an at-large bid in 2010-11. They finished 8-8 in the Big 12 with wins over Texas, Kansas State (three times) and Missouri. They ended up in the NIT, where they made it to Madison Square Garden and lost there by one to Alabama. Cory Higgins, Levi Knutson and Marcus Relphorde all graduate, and I think Alec Burks will eventually go pro. That leaves Andre Robinson and Austin Dufault as key frontcourt returners. They also get back Shane Harris-Tunks, who was pretty good in 2009-10 but missed the 2010-11 season with a torn ACL. In the backcourt, Nate Tomlinson is a pretty good returner, as is Shannon Sharpe, though neither is a point guard. Assuming Burks goes pro they'll need a new point guard. The 2011 class has two good ones (Askia Booker and Spencer Dinwiddie) to choose from.

Washington State was a good team, but they went 2-6 in games against Pac-10 opponents where the margin of victory was five points or less or in overtime, and they weren't good enough to overcome that. Their big offseason worry, though, is Klay Thompson. Washington State had zero seniors on the roster, but Thompson is their two time first team All Pac-10 star (21.6 ppg, 52.5 eFG%, 5.2 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.6 spg). If Thompson goes then they'll need a point guard. Thompson wasn't a point guard, but they ran their offense through him. Davonte Lacey, a 2011 recruit, could take that spot. They'll also need more perimeter scoring spark, since Faisel Aden, Marcus Capers and Reggie Moore were the only reasonably efficient scorers, with Moore being the only returner that shot over 33% behind the arc. In the paint, they've got a really good player in DeAngelo Casto, and Brock Muton is good too.

California and Stanford are two very young teams. California loses only Markhuri Sanders-Frison to graduation. Harper Kamp and Jorge Gutierrez will both be back, while Allen Crabbe and Gary Franklin were both freshmen. Alex Rossi, a shooting guard, had to redshirt the 2010-11 season but should be a big contributor in 2011-12 as well. But so while their offense should be explosive offensively, they were very good offensively this past season, too. It was their awful defense that held them back, and will have to improve during the offseason. Stanford returns every single player from their rotation, led by Jarrett Mann, Jeremy Green and Josh Owens. They had five freshmen that earned 8 minutes per game or more, and have a really good recruit coming in next year in Chasson Randle (Scout: 13 PG, Rivals: 68).

One last team to discuss briefly is Oregon, as Dana Altman took over a really bare cupboard a year ago and has been using the wealth of the program to bring in some big time recruits. They lose Joevan Catron and Jay-R Stonebridge, but their best player (EJ Singler) still has two years of eligibility left. Malcolm Armstrong is a solid point guard as well. Their 2011 recruiting class is led by Jabari Brown (Scout: 5 SG, Rivals: 22), Brett Kingma (Rivals: 125), Bruce Barron (Scout: 22 PG) and Austin Kuemper (Scout: 16 C).

Here's how I see the first ever Pac-12 season playing out:

1. Arizona - Even assuming Derrick Williams goes pro, this is a young team that Sean Miller has been stocking with talent. They could be a dark horse Final Four contender.
2. UCLA - Assuming Josh Smith comes back, with Reeves Nelson and the Wear twins, this will be the best frontcourt in the conference.
3. Washington State - Even assuming Klay Thompson goes pro, Wazzu returns every other player from their rotation. And this team was unlucky this past season. If we were picking the "37 best" available teams for at-large bids (the logic the Selection Committee used on USC), Wazzu would have deserved one.
4. Washington - This is still going to be a talented team, but the past two seasons have had supremely talented Washington teams that barely even snuck into the NCAA Tournament. Can Lorenzo Romar get more out next year's team than he did this past year's team?
5. California - Replacing Markhuri Sanders-Frison in the paint will be important, but other than UCLA, none of the other top Pac-12 teams will have imposing front lines.
6. Stanford - Coach K's coaching tree has gotten a lot of criticism for failing to have success at major schools - Tommy Amaker and Jeff Capel, for example. But Johnny Dawkins is doing a good job at Stanford and has a rapidly improving team that could even go Dancing in 2012.
7. Oregon - With the amount of money Phil Knight is throwing into the Oregon program, and with a competent coach in Dana Altman, it's only a matter of time before Oregon gets back to the NCAA Tournament. I think they could be back as early as 2013.
8. Utah - The bottom of the Pac-10 struggled this past season, and I don't think that's going to change a lot next year. Utah was exceedingly mediocre in 2010-11, but the fact that they return all five starters should make them a borderline Top 100 team, which should earn them a finish around 8th place in the Pac-12.
9. USC - It's going to be a rebuilding year for Kevin O'Neill. Jio Fontan will only have one more year of eligibility, too.
10. Colorado - They'll jump up the standings if Alec Burks comes back, but I don't think he will. They had a very successful season, but every big win came on the back of either Burks or Cory Higgins, and Higgins will be gone next year as well.
11. Arizona State - This team lost nine straight Pac-10 games at one point this past season, and loses three of their four best players. They're in serious contention for last place.
12. Oregon State - If Craig Robinson isn't on the hot seat, he should be. In three seasons at Oregon State he hasn't finished better than 8-10, and they lose three more starters from this past year's team. He just hasn't been able to get the type of recruits that would allow him to seriously compete in this conference.

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