When a conference isn’t among the nation’s elite to begin with and then faces a rebuilding year, it portends rough times ahead and that’s the case for the Pac-12. Up and down the conference, quality players are lost. After a year in which the league produced four NCAA Tournament teams, saw UCLA and Arizona advance in the NCAA Tournament and the Arizona run to a regional final, and grab two of the NIT’s Final Four spots in Madison Square Garden, the Pac-12 will be headed for a downturn. That works to the benefit of three of the conference’s better programs, UCLA, Cal and Arizona.
*UCLA had fallen off the map after three straight Final Four appearances from 2006-08, but Ben Howland’s team got it together midway through last year and was able to make the NCAAs and then beat Michigan State. They have two of three frontcourt players back, with Reeves Nelson and Joshua Smith and enough backcourt help to make it back to the Dance this year and be in the conference race all year.
*Cal missed the tournament a year ago, but has a nice trio of players back, in guards Jorge Gutierrez and Allen Crabbe, to with potent scoring power forward Harper Kamp. With Mike Montgomery being one of the league’s best coaches, the Golden Bears will punch their NCAA ticket and be in a battle with UCLA for conference honors.
*Arizona was the league champ and upset Duke as part of its NCAA run last March, but they are also where the rebuilding really starts. Derrick Williams, their All-American forward, left early for the NBA and head coach Sean Miller will have to re-tool his team around a more balanced attack. With off guard Kyle Fogg and swingman Solomon Hill to build around, Miller has a chance at returning his team to the NCAA and making the Pac-12 a three-bid league, and a lot depends on the play of highly touted incoming freshman point guard Josh Turner.
These three teams are the only ones with a realistic chance of being in your office pool bracket come March. Here’s the rundown on the remaining nine teams…
*Washington was another NCAA team last year and won their first game, but the personnel losses are huge, with forwards Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Justin Holiday, along with guard Isaiah Thomas all gone and no one to really build around.
*Colorado was the team most people felt got robbed of an NCAA bid last year as a member of the Big 12, but they’re another program who was completely gutted by graduation and no viable building blocks to start over with.
*Washington State made the semi-finals of the NIT, but lose explosive guard Klay Thompson and a talented forward in DeAngelo Casto. A backcourt trio of Faisal Aiden, Marcus Capers and Reggie Moore should at least give competent play and make a return to the NIT possible for the Cougars.
*Stanford has been at .500 under Johnny Dawkins over the last three years and should make a postseason tournament this year. Had forward Jeremy Green not left early, the Cardinal would have a real shot in joining the upper crust. As it is, the rest of the team is experienced, but not accomplished, so hoping for more than the NIT would not be realistic.
*Utah loses its key player in forward Josh Watkins, along with most else. Guard Josh Watkins will be a lonely talent in the Utes’ first season in the Pac-12.
*USC was a surprise choice for the NCAA Tournament last year, but loses 17 ppg scorer Nikola Vucevic s gone. Like Washington State, the Trojans have the backcourt to be respectable, with the diminutive tandem of 6’0” Jio Fontana and 5’7” Maurice Jones, but respectable in the Pac-12 doesn’t add up to a return to the NCAA.
*Oregon won the CBI Tournament last March, an eight-team consolation prize that plays a best-of-three championship series. The Ducks have a good coach in Dana Altman, who enjoyed success in Creighton and he should be able to keep them afloat around forward E.J. Singler.
*Arizona State’s in a lot of trouble after a terrible year and then losing the only two players who really contributed, in guard Ty Abbot and forward Rihards Kuksi. It’s looking like Herb Sendek’s days on the sideline are numbered in Tempe.
*Oregon State will get production from off-guard Jared Cunningham, and needs some help from post man Joe Burton to be really competitive.