Sunday, April 08, 2012

2012-13 Preview: Pac-12

Pac-12 Conference

The Pac-12 was the most underrated conference in the nation.

Before you tell me I'm an idiot, let me say first that the conference was historically awful both at the top and at the bottom, and was brutally bad in early season non-conference play. By my count the conference finished the regular season 1-32 against non-conference RPI Top 50 opponents. Advanced stats go back more than a decade, and there has never been a team from a power six conference rated outside the Top 300 in that time. Utah not only finished outside the Top 300 in both Pomeroy and the Sagarin PREDICTOR, but they didn't even finish in last in the conference. California was the only team in the conference that deserved an at-large bid, and anybody complaining about Washington's at-large resume didn't compare Washington's at-large resume to the resume of teams like NC State or South Florida. But that all said, Sagarin rated the Pac-12 the 6th best conference in the nation while Pomeroy had them in 7th (in a virtual tie with the Atlantic Ten for 6th). And even before their success in the NIT the conference spent most of the season rated 7th or 8th in the computers, which is no worse than the conference has been in several recent seasons. Yet according to the media and casual fans, the Pac-12 was so historically awful that they were a punch line. Suggesting that the Pac-12 was as good as the Mountain West or Atlantic Ten was a viewpoint that was laughed at.

Why did the computers have so much more respect for the Pac-12 than the media and most fans? Because the media noticed how bad the Pac-12 was at the very top and very bottom. What the media never notices is the depth of a conference. The Pac-12 finished with 9 (nine!) teams rated 88th or higher in Pomeroy. Getting 3/4 of the conference in the Pomeroy Top 100 was a feat only outdone by the Big Ten this past season, and tied with the Big East. It's a higher ratio than either the SEC or Big 12. Four Pac-12 teams got into the NIT: three made the Elite 8, two made the Final Four (the only Elite 8 loser fell to another Pac-12 team), and Stanford won the title. The Pac-12 also produced two of the four semifinalists in the CBI. So while the Pac-12 only had one at-large quality team, they had a whole bunch of teams like Washington, Arizona, Stanford, Oregon and Colorado that were legitimately solid teams.

I'll start previewing next season with last year's best team: California. Cal loses only two players, but they're arguably the two most important players on the roster: Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp. That said, they have young players ready to fill in. Richard Solomon, assuming he comes back from his academic suspension, can replace a lot of Kamp's numbers. 6'9" David Kravish was excellent as a true freshman as well. Allen Crabbe will be back on the wing, and 6'10" Robert Thurman could be a contributor as well. 6'8" Kaileb Rodriguez joins as part of the 2012 recruiting class. In the backcourt, depth is more of a concern. Justin Cobbs is the only reliable perimeter player coming back. A lot will be needed from top 2012 recruit Tyrone Wallace (Scout: 16 PG, Rivals: 78) for Cal to contend for another Pac-12 title.

The Pac-12 regular season champ was Washington. Darnell Gant is the only graduation, but Tony Wroten and Terrence Ross are leaving early for the NBA Draft. They do return point guard Abdul Gaddy, perimeter scorer CJ Wilcox as well as big men Desmond Simmons and 7-footer Aziz N'Diaye. And while their 2012 recruiting class is light (so far only a single Juco transfer signed), they will get back Scott Suggs, who is 6'6" and hit 45% of his threes in 2010-11 before missing the 2011-12 season with an injury. They also have a bunch of 2011 prospects with a lot of talent that simply didn't get a lot of playing time as freshmen. Shawn Kemp, Jr got the most playing time of the bunch, but the one with the highest ceiling might be shooting guard Hikeem Stewart.

Colorado won the Pac-12 tournament and then shocked UNLV in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. It was a great run, though obviously nobody could have seen it coming. They lost three of their final four regular season conference games, including a sweep on a road trip to Oregon. They suffer heavy losses, with three starters graduating. Their best player was Andre Roberson, and he does have two years of eligibility left if he wants them. For this preview I'm going to assume he comes back for his junior season, though he could still choose to go pro. But even though Colorado won't likely be as good next season, there's no question that Tad Boyle has put together a nice young core for the future. Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker both played very well as true freshman and will likely be the starting backcourt next season. 6'6" Damiene Cain is another good prospect. Meanwhile, the 2012 recruiting class is very deep, led by Josh Scott (Scout: 17 C, Rivals: 65), Xavier Johnson (Scout: 15 SF, Rivals: 83) and Wesley Gordon (Scout: 26 C).

For much of the season, Stanford was the clear second best team in the Pac-12. They didn't have a lot of raw talent, but they were well coached and played tough defense. A brutal stretch from late January through early February led to five losses in six games and ruined their at-large chances. They did play better ball toward the end of the regular season and lost a narrow game to California in the Pac-12 tournament before going out and winning the NIT - a nice end to the season for a very young team. They lose Josh Owens and Jarrett Mann to graduation, but five of their top seven minute earners were freshmen or sophomores. The best of the bunch is Chasson Randle, who emerged as their best scorer late in the season despite being a true freshman. Josh Huestis is going to be a good interior player, as is Josh Powell. Aaron Bright is already a capable point guard. 6'9" John Gage is another good prospect. Johnny Dawkins has three excellent recruits: Rosco Allen (Scout: 17 PF, Rivals: 73), Grant Verhoeven (Scout: 21 C, Rivals: 132) and Christian Sanders (Scout: 22 SG). After their NIT title, their Sagarin and Pomeroy ratings both moved into the Top 35 in the nation, and they should be even better next season.

Oregon was solid this past season, but they lose three starters and two key bench players to graduation, so they should take a step backwards. EJ Singler does return for one more season, and they have a nice point guard for the future in Johnathan Loyd. 2011 recruit Brett Kingma did very little as a true freshman, and will need to step up as a scorer on the perimeter. Dana Altman's top 2012 recruit is Dominic Artis (Scout: 8 PG, Rivals: 52). A team more likely to have success next season is Arizona. They lose three regular players to graduation: Kyle Fogg, Jesse Perry and Brendon Lavender, but they do return Solomon Hill and will hope to get Kevin Parrom back to where he was in 2010-11. Sean Miller got a lot of production from his 2011-12 freshman, led by a dynamic backcourt duo: Josiah Turner and Nick Johnson. 6'9" Angelo Choi is another 2011 recruit to keep an eye on for the future. Sean Miller's 2012 recruiting class is also ridiculous: Brandon Ashley (Scout: 1 PF, Rivals: 13), Kaleb Tarczewski (Scout: 4 C, Rivals: 20), Gabe York (Scout: 10 SG, Rivals: 31) and Grant Jerrett (Scout: 7 C, Rivals: 50).

UCLA was probably the most underrated team in the Pac-12. They outscored opponents by +0.10 PPP, just narrowly behind conference leader California's +0.13 PPP. The team played much better after Ben Howland finally booted Reeves Nelson off the team, and only loses Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson to graduation. Josh Smith could go pro, though he's been so underwhelming in his two seasons that he's never going to be one of the most important players on this Bruins team. The Wear twins will anchor the front court next season, and Anthony Stover is a prospect who will play more minutes if Josh Smith does leave. They have two blue chip prospects: Kyle Anderson (Scout: 2 SF, Rivals: 2) and Jordan Adams (Scout: 16 SF, Rivals: 74). In the backcourt, they have scorers in Norman Powell and Tyler Lamb, but they need a point guard and they need depth. If Ben Howland doesn't add another backcourt prospect, they could play Kyle Anderson at shooting guard as part of a very long lineup.

If there's a dark horse team in the Pac-12 it's Oregon State. They were only 7-11 in conference play, but they did get to the Pac-12 tournament semifinals, and then to the semifinals of the CBI. More importantly, they don't have a single graduation among their top eight minute earners. That said, it does look like Jared Cunningham will leave for the NBA Draft. The biggest area where they'll miss Cunningham will be on defense, where Oregon State was putrid this past season (tied for second worst in the Pac-12 with 1.06 PPP allowed in conference play). Their interior defense should be better with more playing time for 6'10" Eric Moreland. They also will get 6'9" Daniel Gomis, who redshirted and has four years of eligibility left. Assuming Jared Cunningham goes pro, Oregon State will only have two backcourt regulars back: Ahmad Starks and Roberto Nelson. That will put a lot of pressure on top 2012 recruit, 6'4" Langston Morris-Walker (Rivals: 146).

1. Stanford - With the NIT title, Stanford finishes the season ranked only narrowly behind California as the second best team in the Pac-12 by both Sagarin and Pomeroy. And if not for a couple of losses that they allowed to snowball in the middle of the conference season (something that will occur from time to time with young teams) they would have ended the season the #1 team in the Pac-12. With five of their top seven minute earners, a deep recruiting class, and a superb rising-sophomore to build around (Chasson Randle), they could be a borderline Top 25 team next season.
2. California - Cal loses arguably their two best players, but I don't think they're going to fall off a cliff. Replacing leadership is difficult, but Mike Montgomery has plenty of talent to replace most of their production. The Cal Bears should contend for another at-large bid.
3. UCLA - I might drop the Bruins a spot or two if Josh Smith goes pro, but I do think that UCLA was a lot better this past season than most other people thought they were. The Wear twins plus Tyler Lamb will form a very good trio, and Ben Howland has a solid recruiting class. Obviously they had some chemistry/off-court issues the past few years, but I don't buy the idea that Ben Howland suddenly forgot how to coach. They played much better after the Reeves Nelson circus left town, and should be better next season.
4. Arizona - Sean Miller has been bringing in blue chip recruiting classes every season. Eventually they're going to have to win some games, or else the University of Arizona needs to get somebody else to coach Miller's recruits.
5. Washington - Losing Tony Wroten, Terrence Ross and Darnell Gant is a big problem, but Washington does still have talents like Abdul Gaddy and CJ Wilcox back, and a 2011 recruiting class that had a lot of raw talent but that just couldn't get a lot of playing time this past season. They'll still have the athletes to look really good for stretches next season.
6. Oregon State - Even if Jared Cunningham goes pro, Oregon State will still return seven of their top eight minute earners, and have a full offseason to figure out their defensive woes.
7. Colorado - Tad Boyle has a talented young core for the future, but it's to imagine them not taking a step back for one year at least with so many players gone, even if Andre Roberson comes back.
8. Washington State - A run to the finals of the CBI should give Ken Bone's squad some confidence heading into next season. They have one more season of Brock Motum, and a nice prospect to build around in rising-sophomore DaVonte Lacey.
9. Oregon - I'm not quite sure what is going on at Oregon. They have oodles of money and a new arena, but Dana Altman seems to be a little too focused at jumping to his next job, even though he really hasn't had much success at Oregon yet.
10. USC - This USC team wasn't particularly good to begin with, and injuries sent them into a tailspin. Getting Jio Fontan (who missed the entire season) and Aaron Fuller back will make a huge difference. Remember how much their 2010-11 season turned around after Jio Fontan became eligible. The offense was horrific (0.82 PPP in conference play - dead last in the Pac-12), and Fontan could play a huge role in turning that around. It's almost impossible for a team that finished near 250th in the computers to get remotely near a postseason appearance in only one season, though.
11. Arizona State - It's been a tough stretch for Herb Sendek at Arizona State, and the hits keep coming. Star Trent Lockett is transferring out with one year of eligibility, and there's still no guarantee that blue chip 2011 recruit Jahii Caron will ever suit up for the Sun Devils. That said, if Carson does play, then with zero graduations and a deep recruiting class, Arizona State should be better than they were this past season.
12. Utah - Being the worst team from any major conference in more than a decade means that things probably can only get better for Utah. Josh Watkins led the team with 15.6 points per game, but he was a volume scorer (a horrible 41.8 eFG%) and was considered a bad apple in the locker room. Utah played better after he was booted from the team. With everybody else back and with a decent and deep recruiting class, it's hard to imagine Larry Krystkowiak not putting a better team on the floor next season. I still don't think it will be enough to pull them out of the cellar, though.

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