The Pac-10 was outstanding last year, but should take a major dive this year with the loss of so many stars to the NBA. UCLA is the favorite to win the conference once again, which they should be. The rest of the conference is not as clear. I see the 2-3 spots going to Arizona State and USC. 4th place could be a surprise in Washington State, while spots 5 thru 8 could come down to any mix of Washington, Arizona, Cal, and Oregon. Stanford drops quite a bit this year, and Oregon State maintains their position at the bottom.
1. UCLA – Three straight Final Fours and three straight Pac-10 championships. Bruin fans would probably like to see it be four straight, but Ben Howland may have his toughest challenge ahead if that is to be expected. The good news is that Darren Collison returns at point guard. At times he was capable of taking over games last season, hitting big shots and setting up teammates for easy buckets. He will be without Russell Westbrook, but his job has a chance of being easier if the outside shooting gets better around him. That will take place if Josh Shipp has improved his jump shot like he wanted to, and if Michael Roll is effective off the bench as a spot-up shooter after missing last season with a foot injury. The upside in the backcourt will be there if talented freshmen Jrue Holiday, Malcolm Lee, and Jerime Anderson provide scoring options. All that considered, UCLA figures to be much more backcourt oriented this season with the losses of Kevin Love, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and Lorenzo Mata. Alfred Aboya and James Keefe are the returnees up front, but expect to see highly touted freshman J’Mison Morgan as well as freshman Drew Gordon. The Bruins have some important veterans returning, but the key will be the development of the highly touted freshman class.
2. Arizona State – The Sun Devils improved by 7 wins in Pac-10 play last season, and that was only Herb Sendek’s second season with the program. The return of James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph gives a lot of hope for the previously dreadful program. Harden was as good as advertised last season, and he was particularly superb when attacking the basket. Ty Abbott, Derek Glasser, and Jamelle McMillan also return, but they will have to show improvement as consistent offensive threats if they are to lighten the burden on Harden. Pendergraph is used to carrying the load in the frontcourt, as he will likely start all alone in the frontcourt with either Jerren Shipp or Richard Kuksiks starting at the 4-spot, even though that’s not their natural position. Improvement from 6’10” Eric Boateng would go a long way to help out Pendergraph. Still, it is likely that the Sun Devils struggle on the boards again this year. The one thing they have going for them is that this very much a down year for the Pac-10, which creates a prime opportunity for them to move up in the standings.
3. USC – The Trojans only return three regular contributors from last season in Taj Gibson, Daniel Hackett, and Dwight Lewis. Hackett and Lewis will probably start at the two guard positions while highly touted DeMar DeRozan occupies the other wing. DeRozan is a highly skilled and athletic wing with size. He will be counted on to fulfill the scoring void left by OJ Mayo. Taj Gibson returns in the post where he has shown great ability to score, rebound, and defend. He will need to be more aggressive in getting his points this year rather than defer to others. A number of other players will have to emerge. Keith Wilkinson, Mamadou Diarra, and Kasey Cunningham have shown glimpses when they got to see the floor and weren’t hurt. Leonard Washington and Donte Smith are other newcomers to likely see time.
4. Washington State – The dominating school of thought seems to be that the Cougars lost everybody from their two year run of postseason play. In reality, they lost Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver, and Robbie Cowgill. That may seem like everybody, but there are still a few mainstays. Plus, head coach Tony Bennett could once again have Washington State surprising folks this year. Taylor Rochestie returns as starting point guard, and he will be leading a team with more veterans than people realize. Senior Aron Baynes is back at center and will be a bruiser in the paint once again. At 270 pounds, he is a load for anyone to guard. Caleb Forrest is the likely replacement for Cowgill, after he was a regular off the bench last year. Daven Harmeling also returns and should be an even bigger three-point threat since he won’t have to play with a cast on his broken thumb this year. Nikola Koprivica might also be more effective this year as he will have given his knee more time to heal after surgery. The freshman faces we might see are 6’8” DeAngelo Casto whose toughness and athleticism has drawn comparisons to Ivory Clark. 6’8” forward James Watson is skilled for his size, and 6’6” Klay Thompson is the likely replacement for Kyle Weaver.
5. Washington – The Huskies have had their fare share of troubles the last couple of years. This year they will look to rebound on the shoulders of Jon Brockman who was a double-double machine last season. He will need help up front from center Matthew Bryan-Amaning and small forward Quincy Pondexter. Pondexter showed the most potential two seasons ago but regressed last year and was in and out of the lineup. Washington hopes the Tacoma, Washington sensation Isaiah Thomas can provide scoring form the backcourt. Returning point guard Venoy Overton is likely to share the backcourt with Thomas, and the Huskies could elect to go with a three-guard lineup by throwing in Justin Dentmon. If Thomas is as good as advertised, that could take pressure off of Brockman and the Huskies could make a run in the conference.
6. Arizona – It is a good thing I didn’t write this preview a month or two ago. Things can change rather quickly. Lute Olson is done, and Russ Pennell is the head coach. Jeff Withey’s status seems that he will not be playing for Arizona this season. Pennell will have a nice nucleus of players to work with in Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill, and Nic Wise. Jamelle Horne gives the Wildcats length and athleticism and can play either forward position. Fendi Onubon may be asked to contribute more than he has been accustomed to over the last three years. The same goes for a number of younger players. Brendon Lavender is a combo guard that will likely get a chance to play in the backcourt with Wise and Zane Johnson. There is a lot that is yet to be proven about this Wildcat team, and any guess as to how they handle the adversity is as good as mine.
7. California – New head coach Mike Montgomery takes over a Cal program that will be without the big post-men that Montgomery has been used to coaching. The departure of Ryan Anderson and DeVon Hardin leave the frontcourt with some question. Jamal Boykin and Harper Kamp showed promise but are too undersized to handle a team with great bigs. The Bears will have to find something out of 6’10” Tyler Harrison, coming off a knee injury, or Jordan Wilkes who is a slim 7-footer. The backcourt is in much better shape, with point guard Jerome Randle and shooting guard Patrick Christopher returning. Theo Robertson returning from his medical redshirt gives the Bears a scorer and defender at small forward. Freshman DJ Seeley is the most highly touted of the recruiting class and is a 6’4” shooting guard that could provide a nice scoring option.
8. Oregon – The Ducks lost as good of a senior class as any in the Pac-10. Malik Hairston, Maarty Leunen, and Bryce Taylor were big time players during their days in Eugene. Luckily, Tajuan Porter remains to lead the troops with a barrage of three-pointers from any distance. LeKendric Longmire came on strong at the end of the season as a solid defender. Kamyron Brown has starting experience, but could see less time if freshmen wings Matthew Humphrey and Teondre Williams earn playing time. The frontcourt will feature a couple of highly touted freshmen, but probably not right away. Joevan Catron and Frantz Dorsainvil will hold down the frontcourt until Michael Dunigan and Josh Crittle are eased into more playing time. There are some nice pieces for Ernie Kent to work with, but molding it all together will be the task.
9. Stanford – With a gameplan that was so dominated by the Lopez twins, it is no surprise that we should see a dropoff for the Cardinal this year. The frontcourt will have a huge void without Brook or Robin Lopez. Lawrence Hill will have to shoulder much of the scoring load at either forward position. Meanwhile, new head coach Johnny Dawkins will look for either Josh Owens or Will Paul to step up in the frontcourt. The backcourt looks like it is in better shape with Mitch Johnson, Anthony Goods, and Landry Fields returning. Look for depth to come from returnees Kenny Brown, Drew Shiller, and Da’Veed Dildy and even freshmen Jarrett Mann and Jeremy Green.
10. Oregon State – Craig Robinson takes over a program that has been as bad as any over the last few years. He will have to find someone who can lead this team, as no player has really shown much promise, and the leading scorer, Marcel Jones, is gone. The best place for Robinson to look is in the backcourt where Seth and Josh Tarver have occupied for two seasons. Other contributions should come from Lathen Wallace, Calvin Haynes, and Rickey Claitt. The frontcourt may have to rely on 6’8” transfer Daniel Deane from Utah. The rest of the frontcourt of Omari Johnson, Calvin Hampton, and Roeland Schaftenaar is unproven.