PAC 12 Preview: Cats on Top
Coming off a resurgent year in the conference where they garnered six tournament bids (the most since 2009), there are more questions than answers in the PAC 12. There is one thing that is not up for debate, however. The best team in this conference is Arizona by what looks like a sizable margin. The Wildcats return one of the best combinations of talent and experience in the country. Beyond them, only one other team – the rising Utah Utes – is ranked in the preseason top 25. It remains to be seen whether this conference will take a step back or assert itself as a premier basketball conference.
Perhaps one of the biggest moves in the college basketball offseason was the retirement of Cal Coach Mike Montgomery leading to the eventual hire of rising commodity Cuonzo Martin who had begun to fall out of favor among Volunteer fans before his Sweet 16 run last March.
Washington State fired the much-maligned Ken Bone who was never able to make it to the NCAA’s in his five years in Pullman. The Cougars bring in Ernie Kent who has been away from coaching since 2010 after coaching Oregon for 14 years including two trips to the Elite Eight. Kent was known for his recruiting ability at Oregon and faces a tall task to rebuild a program at Washington State.
The “first brother-in-law” Craig Robinson was relieved of his duties in Corvallis after six seasons produced just one season over .500. He’s been replaced by Montana coach Wayne Tinkle who already has a top 20 class on its way for 2015 including his son Tres (a four star recruit).
Stanley Johnson is by far and away the best Pac 12 recruit and should have an immediate impact on the Wildcats’ rotation this year. Fellow top 100 recruits Craig Victor and Parker Jackson-Cartwright will fight for minutes in a deep rotation. Stanford brings in a highly touted class of recruits including McDonald’s All-American PF Reid Travis who chose the Cardinal over Duke among other offers. Coach Johnny Dawkins also brought in another big in top 100 recruit Michael Humphrey as well as 4-star PG Robert Cartwright and sharpshooter Dorian Pickens. Cartwright could be starting alongside Chasson Randle by the time Pac 12 play starts. Also, it would not surprise me if highly touted freshman forward Kevon Looney leads a rebuilding UCLA squad in scoring.
Hot in here or just me?
Lorenzo Romar enters his thirteenth year on the job hoping to avoid missing the NCAA tournament for the fourth consecutive year. There are warmer seats in the country due to his overall body of work and recruiting ability, but another miss in a wide open Pac 12 and there may be some whispers in Seattle.
This conference is wide open beyond the Wildcats with tournament teams from last year – Colorado, Stanford, Arizona State, UCLA, and Oregon – all facing significant attrition. Second division teams like Washington, Cal, and Utah all appear talented enough to challenge for a top four finish in the league as well. None of these teams behind Arizona appear to be anything close to a tournament lock. The Pac 12 represents something of an enigma this year and it could be fun ride on the bubble depending on how the committee views the strength of this conference.
Arizona – After just missing out on a Final Four berth after an overtime loss at the hands of Wisconsin, Arizona enters the season as a final four favorite. Gone to the NBA are freshman Aaron Gordon and junior guard Nick Johnson. However, Arizona returns an exciting and athletic frontcourt led by Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and seven-footer Kaleb Tarczewski. T.J. McConnell returns at point with highly touted freshman Stanley Johnson as well as sharpshooters Elliott Pitts and Gabe York joining him in the backcourt. This team may not be the defensive juggernaut it was with Aaron Gordon last year, but it will still be a tough team to score against. After three Elite Eight appearances, Coach Sean Miller may be the best coach that hasn’t made a Final Four yet. He has the squad to change that this season.
Stanford – Coming off a surprise Sweet Sixteen run, this team revolves around senior guard Chasson Randle. He may have carry even more of the load after the departures of big men Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis to the NBA. They were the team’s two best rebounders and played solid defense in addition to their double digit point per game contributions. However, Coach Johnny Dawkins has brought in perhaps his best class at Stanford with forwards Reid Travis and Michael Humphrey able to pick up some of the load in the frontcourt alongside returning center Stefan Nastic. Anthony Brown also returns for his senior season looking to improve upon his breakout year in 2013-14. The x-factor for this team is four star freshman PG Robert Cartwright. Already being praised for his leadership by Dawkins, if Cartwright can emerge as a steady presence at PG that would allow Stanford the flexibility of playing Randle off the ball.
Utah– After bursting onto the scene as a JC transfer, Delon Wright returns for his senior season as potentially one of the best guards in the country. Wright pretty much did everything last season averaging 15.8 ppg along with 6.8 rebounds and an impressive 5.3 assists. After finishing last season strong, Utah returns its top six scorers this season. Joining Wright are F Jordan Loveridge and seven-footer Dallin Bachynski. In the backcourt, shooters Dakari Tucker and Brandon Taylor will help space the floor. Also, top 50 recruit Brekkott Chapman, freshman F Kyle Kuzma, and German guard Kenneth Ogbe will add depth. With Wright leading the way and their tendency to defend their home court well, this team could be good enough to make the NCAAs.
Colorado – Colorado lost its star player in Spencer Dinwiddie last January. He’s really the only major loss from last year’s team, although Dinwiddie’s injury killed Sweet Sixteen hopes in 2013-14. There’s hope that it laid the groundwork for the 2014-15 season. Askia Booker will lead the way in the backcourt as he had to last year after Dinwiddie went down, but he’ll have some help in four star freshman playmaker Dominique Collier and shooter Xavier Talton. Center Josh Scott is a double-double machine down low leads an underrated frontcourt alongside junior Xavier Johnson and sophomore Wesley Gordon. Assuming this team has found its identity in wake of Dinwiddie’s departure, they have more than enough talent to make some noise in the Pac 12.
UCLA – No team in the country has lost more than UCLA did when Kyle Anderson, Jordan James, and freshman Zach Lavine all declared for the NBA draft. They also lost the Wear twins to graduation and promising transfer Jon Octeus failed to gain admission to the University. The leading returning scorers are Norman Powell, Tony Parker, and Bryce Alford. This team still has talent including highly touted freshman forward Kevon Looney and freshman center Thomas Welch. However, a backcourt lead by Bryce Alford and a lot of inexperienced question marks may hold this team back.
Cal – The Golden Bears collapsed down the stretch last year after a remarkable upset over then-undefeated Arizona. They enter Cuonzo Martin’s first year in Berkeley trying to replace seniors Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon. Fortunately for Martin, the cupboard is not bare. Wings Tyrone Wallace and former McDonald’s All-American Jabari Bird return and will pick up a majority of the scoring load alongside shooter Jordan Mathews. The returning leading scorer is David Kravish who will anchor the frontcourt. The big question is who replaces Cobb at point guard. The leading candidates are sophomore Sam Singer and freshman Brandon Chauca. The Bears will also need some of their inexperienced depth at frontcourt to step up and add defense and rebounding, but this team may very well play small around Kravish quite a bit.
Washington – Even with the departure of C.J. Wilcox to the NBA draft, Lorenzo Romar may return one of the most experienced and talented backcourts in the conference in Nigel Williams-Goss and Andrew Andrews. This team’s strength is by far and away its backcourt play as wings Mike Anderson and Darin Johnson contributing as well. This team will need something from its frontcourt with Perris Blackwell graduating, however. The leading candidate to fill the void would be Shawn Kemp, Jr. There’s just something right about Shawn Kemp in Seattle. If he can pick up the slack in the frontcourt, this backcourt can cause trouble for almost anyone in the Pac 12.
Oregon– The narrative in Eugene this season will be surrounding what was lost from last season. Between graduation, transfer, and suspensions; the Ducks lost 10 contributors from last season. To add insult to injury, top recruit JaQuan Lyle failed to qualify. The bright side? Leading scorer Joseph Young returns. However, even more of the scoring load will fall onto Young after he averaged over 18 ppg last season. Jahil Abdul-Bassit and Elgin Cook are expected to contribute on the wing with JC transfers Dwayne Benjamin and center Michael Chandler needed to help in the frontcourt. It looks like the Ducks only have nine or ten scholarship players this season so it may be a long year in Eugene if injuries strike.
Arizona State –Another Pac 12 team, more turnover. Arizona State loses its top three scorers from its tournament team last season in Jahii Carson, Jermaine Marshall, and center Jordan Bachynski. Leading returning scorer at 9 ppg is forward Shaq Mckissic. He’ll be joined by shooter Jonathan Gillig in the backcourt, and quite a few new arrivals. Herb Sendek dipped into the JC ranks to supplement his roster turnover. PG Roosevelt Scott and Gerry Barnes may even form the starting backcourt and will certainly be asked to pick up Marshall and Carson’s scoring load. Unless Barnes or Scott can have a Delon Wright-type impact, it seems like too much turnover in Tempe.
USC– Andy Enfield embarks on year two at Dunk City – West hoping for more success than year one. He has a top 20 recruiting class coming in this year and UNLV transfer Katin Reinhardt is eligible after sitting out the 2013-14 season. He or top recruit Jordan McLaughlin should lead the team in scoring. And they’ll have to as leading scorer Byron Wesley took his talents to Gonzaga joining departing seniors to rob Enfield of his top four scorers from a season ago. This is a very young team, but should improve on their two conference wins from a year ago.
Washington State – Ernie Kent takes over a program that had bottomed out under Ken Bone. The good news is DaVonte Lacy returns after leading the team with 19.4 ppg last season. He may be one of the best shot makers in the conference. However, no one else returns having averaged over 10 ppg, and he will need some help to improve upon the three conference wins they achieved in 2013-14.
Oregon State – New coach Wayne Tinkle is going to take some lumps in his first year with the Beavers. The top five scorers have departed for various reasons, and the top returning scorer averaged four point per game last year. Four. Help is on the way in the form of a top 20 recruiting class…in 2015. However, in 2014 the Beavers will likely struggle mightily, but there is hope for the future here.
All PAC 12