Tuesday, April 08, 2014

2014-15 Preview: Pac-12

Pacific-12 Conference

The Pac-12 is a league that has been improving the last two seasons, and was highlighted by an awfully good Arizona team this past season. Arizona was probably the best team in the nation prior to the Brandon Ashley injury, and it was extremely impressive how they didn't even really drop off much after that injury. Heading into the NCAA Tournament, I had them as one of the three best teams in the nation (with Florida and Louisville), in spite of the Ashley injury. And there were plenty of other good teams. It felt like the rest of the league was on the bubble, and that was basically true. UCLA got in safely, but the next six teams in the standings were all fighting for the last few at-large spots. Interestingly, the team Pomeroy rated best of that bunch was Utah, a team that did not get in (more on that in my Utah preview below). Colorado did well to go Dancing despite the Spencer Dinwiddie injury. Oregon seemed the most dangerous of the bunch heading into the Tournament, but lost a classic to Wisconsin in the Round of 32. In the end it was Stanford that went furthest of the non-Arizona/UCLA squads, making it to the Sweet 16.

Let's start with that Arizona team that lost a heartbreaking Elite 8 game by a single point in overtime. This has become a theme for Sean Miller, who is now 0-3 in Elite 8 games in his first ten seasons as a head coach. But remember, narratives built around three game sample sizes are absurd. Going 0-3 in Elite 8 games in your first ten seasons is damn impressive - most coaches don't get to three Elite 8 games in their career. It's only a matter of time until Miller breaks through to a Final Four. Will it be next season? Well, Arizona was actually one of the youngest teams in the nation. None of their top eight minute earners were seniors, and they should get Brandon Ashley back. The question is, what happens with the Draft, where Aaron Gordon, Nick Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Kaleb Tarczewski are all questionable to enter or stay. For the sake of this preview, I'm guessing that Gordon and Johnson leave, while Hollis-Jefferson and Tarczewski return.

If that happens, Arizona will still return three proven front court players, along with Stanley Johnson (Scout; 2 SF, Rivals: 3) and Craig Victor (Scout: 4 PF, Rivals: 28). The question mark will be the backcourt. TJ McConnell will likely be the best point guard in the Pac-12, but neither of their other returners (Gabe York and Elliott Pitts) lit the world on fire this past season. They do add a blue chip backcourt recruit in Parker Jackson-Cartwright (Scout: 12 PG, Rivals: 57). Losing their two best players would be a blow, but Arizona would remain one of the best teams in the nation.

UCLA was the clear second best team in the Pac-12. Unfortunately, they ran into Florida in the Sweet 16, and the Gators have now knocked them out of four of the last nine NCAA Tournaments. They lose the Wear twins, who played so long that I believe they were originally recruited by Bill Guthridge, but the real concern is the NBA Draft, which has already claimed Kyle Anderson and Zach LaVine, and could take Jordan Adams as well. If Adams goes, UCLA gets awfully thin in terms of returners. They'll have Norman Powell back, as well as big man Tony Parker and combo guard Bryce Alford, but that still leaves them in need of a point guard, a post scorer, and depth. They will get back shooting guard Isaac Hamilton, a highly touted 2013 recruit who took a redshirt season. They have a strong 2014 recruiting class, highlighted by Kevon Looney (Scout: 2 PF, Rivals; 13), Thomas Welch (Scout: 6 C, Rivals: 52) and Jonah Bolden (Scout: 6 PF, Rivals: 62). Their big need is definitely point guard.

Stanford might have saved the job of Johnny Dawkins with a strong Pac-12 tournament performance that earned them an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. And they followed that up by upsetting New Mexico and Kansas en route to the Sweet 16. They lose two starters, as well as their top two bench players. That includes leading rebounder Josh Huestis and leading assist man Dwight Powell. Aaron Bright is also transferring out, though he missed most of this past season with injury anyway. They will get back 6'9" Rosco Allen and 6'4" Christian Sanders, who both were on the edge of the rotation in 2012-13 but missed the 2013-14 season with injury (Allen played in one game while Sanders played in none). If Stanford is going to get back to the NCAA Tournament, however, they're going to need significant contributions from a deep and strong 2014 recruiting class consisting of Reid Travis (Scout: 7 PF, Rivals: 40), Michael Humphrey (Scout: 10 C, Rivals: 74), Robert Cartwright (Scout: 13 PG, Rivals: 78) and Dorian Pickens (Rivals: 126).

Oregon had an interesting season, though it was more a funny change in luck in close games than anything else. They started the season 13-0, lost 8 of their next 10, and then won their final 7 games. A lot of #narrative was written about that, but the dominant factor was luck in close games: they were 6-0 in games decided by 7 or less during that 13-0 start, then 0-5 during their losing streak, and 4-0 during their final winning streak. That's why the Pomeroy ratings had them 22nd when they were 13-0, 32nd after their losing streak, and 25th at the end of the regular season. In other words, they were basically a borderline Top 25 team all season long that just had wild drifts in dumb luck. But this was certainly a dangerous Oregon team that only went down in an absolute classic in the Round of 32 against Wisconsin (one of the two or three best games in the entire Tournament). What about next season? They lose three starters, and a pair of key bench pieces, led by Mike Moser, Johnathan Loyd and Jason Calliste. They return Joseph Young, Dominic Artis and Damyeon Dotson on the perimeter, but not much on the interior. 6'8" Ben Carter is probably their best returning big man. Their stud 2014 recruit is JaQuan Lyle (Scout: 4 PG, Rivals: 22).

Colorado was both very lucky and unlucky this past season. Unlucky in losing star Spencer Dinwiddie to injury midway through the season. But lucky in going 10-2 in games decided by six points or less. That's why they earned their 8 seed, but were a massive Vegas underdog against 9 seeded Pittsburgh. In fact, the computers generally had them as the second weakest at-large team in the entire field, ahead of only NC State. So what about next season? It seems like Dinwiddie is likely off to the NBA, but everybody else should be back, led by point guard Askia Booker and big man Josh Scott. And the most talented returner might be 6'9" Wesley Gordon, who led the team in offensive rebounding percentage as a redshirt freshman. One bench player to keep an eye on for next season is 6'7" Tre'Shaun Fletcher, Colorado's highest rated 2013 recruit. Their 2014 recruiting class is highlighted by Dominique Collier (Scout: 21 PG, Rivals: 94). Even if Dinwiddie leaves, Colorado should be significantly improved next season.

The final NCAA Tournament team from the Pac-12 was Arizona State. They are going to lose Jahii Carson to the NBA Draft, as well as Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Jordan Bachynski to graduation, along with Jermaine Marshall. Jonathan Gilling leads the returners, and Shaquielle McKissic could be back as well, though he needs to get approval from the NCAA for one more year of eligibility. But without much else, Herb Sendek is going to be leaning heavily on a big 2014 recruiting class, led by Connor MacDougall (Scout: 17 C, Rivals: 91) and Tra Holder (Scout: 20 PG, Rivals: 109).

I talked above about how good Utah's computer numbers were, yet they weren't even really on the bubble on Selection Sunday, ending up as a 5 seed in the NIT. How was that possible? An awfully unlucky 3-8 record in games decided by six points or less. The good news for the Utes is that their entire starting rotation is back, led by primary playmaker Delon Wright and Jordan Loveridge. One player to look for next season from the bench is 7-footer Dallin Bachynski. Larry Krystkowiak has a strong 2014 recruiting class, led by Brekkott Chapman (Scout: 18 PF, Rivals: 53) and Kyle Kuzma (Scout: 26 PF). Barring any offseason roster losses, Utah should be a Top 25 team next season.

The other Pac-12 bubble team to end up in the NIT was California, who ended up a 2 seed, losing to SMU in the quarterfinals. They're in a bit of flux, though, with Mike Montgomery retiring and the graduations of Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon. They return a strong core of David Kravish, Jordan Mathews and Tyrone Wallace, as well as an up-and-comer in Jabari Bird, their top 2013 recruit, but you never know during these coaching transitions if some players will choose to leave. A solid 2014 recruiting class will also need to be held onto.

Of the four teams at the bottom of the conference, which are the most dangerous for next season? I think it has to be Washington, more than anything because they weren't that bad this past season to begin with, finishing with the same efficiency margin in conference play (-0.02 PPP) as Colorado. They lose CJ Wilcox and leading-rebounder Perris Blackwell to graduation (and lose bench piece Desmond Simmons via transfer), but they return a nice young backcourt duo of Nigel Williams-Goss and Andrew Andrews. They add 6'11" Robert Upshaw, who averaged 4.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg and 1.8 bpg as a freshman at Fresno State, though there are some off-court issues that mean it's not a certainty that he'll take the floor for the Huskies next season. Their 2014 recruiting class is highlighted by Donaven Dorsey (Scout: 24 SF, Rivals: 112).

In the end, here's how I see the Pac-12 playing out next season:

1. Arizona - Assuming that Arizona just loses Gordon and Johnson, they should be fairly heavy favorite to win the Pac-12 again, though they might not be quite as good of a team.
2. Utah - The Utes were arguably the strongest Pac-12 team not named Arizona or UCLA, and they return their entire starting rotation with a strong recruiting class. The media probably won't vote them Top 25 preseason, but I expect them to get there eventually.
3. UCLA - The Bruins need some playmakers, and they aren't going to have a lot of depth, but they probably have more raw talent than any Pac-12 team other than Arizona.
4. Colorado - Even assuming that Dinwiddie leaves for the NBA, Colorado should be significantly stronger next season.
5. Stanford - The Cardinal have a real chance to be improved next season from a team that made the Sweet 16. Don't sleep on them.
6. Oregon - Can't drop the Ducks any lower than this, though there is going to be a lot of pressure on JaQuan Lyle to produce right off the bat.
7. California - If the new coach loses players over the summer, I'll drop the Bears, but if they can keep the full roster together there's no reason they can't make another run at the bubble.
8. Washington - The Huskies definitely need Robert Upshaw to get on the court next season if they're going to make a run at an at-large bid. If they don't, you have to wonder if the seat is going to start getting hot under Lorenzo Romar.
9. Arizona State - There just isn't a lot coming back for Herb Sendek next season, even if Shaquielle McKissic gains another year of eligibility.
10. USC - Andy Enfield has a strong recruiting class coming in, led by Jordan McLaughlin (Scout: 9 PG, Rivals: 43), but he doesn't return much beyond Byron Wesley. At some point, Enfield has to start winning games or the media love is going to fade.
11. Oregon State - I honestly thought Craig Robinson was going to get fired this offseason. There is just no sense of positive momentum for this program.
12. Washington State - It might be a long season for the Cougars, but I like the hire of Ernie Kent. I wouldn't be stunned if they are a feisty team to play at home next season and if they steal a quality win or two.

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