Pac-12 Primer: Does Cal have what it takes to beat favorite UCLA?
In a transitional year for the Pac-12 there are several possible league champs. But for POY, go with the skilled big man who could have NBA lottery status hanging in the balance of his sophomore season. There are numerous "ifs" associated with Smith's upside, but if his conditioning is better (questionable at this stage) and if he can stay out of foolish foul trouble (also TBD), he should be able to play more than the 22 minutes per game he logged last season, when his per minute numbers and rates (especially on the offensive glass) were outstanding. With UCLA's backcourt in significant flux, Smith will be relied on heavily.
The hype going into 2010-11 was that Arizona might be a year away with a big recruiting class on tap for this season. Then Derrick Williams blew up and hauled the Wildcats to the Elite Eight. Now the heralded freshmen have arrived and the biggest impact of the bunch should come from Turner, a five-star prospect who will log serious minutes at the point and help lead an up-tempo attack that will have to be more balanced than last season's Williams-fueled Cats. Teammate Nick Johnson should have a say in this race, as should Oregon's Jabari Brown and Washington's Tony Wroten, Jr.
Hoopsheads know how solid Crabbe was as a freshman for the Golden Bears, but this could be the season both Cal and Crabbe emerge on the national scene. The door is open for Mike Mongomery's bunch to make a run at the league title, and Crabbe could lead the Pac-12 in scoring if more of the Bears' possession usage shifts his way. He only used 18 percent of the Bears' possessions last season and was an extremely efficient shooter, both in advanced metrics (58 percent true shooting percentage) and traditional measures (40 percent from the three).
The Pac-12 is doing a reverse Big 12, going from 10 teams to 12 and killing the true double round-robin that had been a staple of Pac-10 play. Now the vagaries of who plays where and who doesn't play whom will help determine the league champ. In a league that hasn't exactly prospered in NCAA at-large consideration lately (USC last season aside), finishing third instead of fifth in what should be a wide-open league may be a significant difference. As much as the selection committee does evaluate schedule strength in league play, there aren't all that many examples of the committee "leapfrogging" teams in league standings.
I have encouraged colleague Seth Davis to abandon his annual Jigsaw Man column this year and work on a UCLA-Florida merger that would create two national title contenders. The Bruins may have made that list solo had Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee not bolted early for the NBA Draft. Now UCLA is left with a loaded frontcourt and a lot of questions in the backcourt. On the plus side, center Josh Smith could have a huge season if he can stay on the floor. Physical forward Reeves Nelson is a great complement and the Bruins have depth to spare with the eligibility of the Wear twins (transfers from North Carolina) and promising sophomore Anthony Stover. How Ben Howland allocates the minutes will be interesting to watch. He could have the same issue in the backcourt, but operating out of necessity, not strength. Jerime Anderson (facing a two-game suspension) and Lazeric Jones have experience, and freshman Norman Powell could provide a lift at the 2. Despite the imbalance, the Bruins have enough talent and size to win the league.
The arrival of Sean Miller's first killer recruiting class in the desert takes some of the sting off Derrick Williams' departure. The Wildcats will be much younger and more balanced this season, but still have a lot of firepower on the roster and have a reasonable chance to win the league. The Wildcats return four players who played 20 minutes per game or more last season (assuming wing Kevin Parrom recovers from gunshot wounds suffered in late September). Senior guard Kyle Fogg and junior forward Solomon Hill each averaged over eight points a game last season. They'll be joined by a quartet of precocious freshmen, led by point guard Josiah Turner and shooting guard Nick Johnson. Angelo Chol and Sidiki Johnson will challenge for heavy frontcourt minutes, as well. This should be a really fun, up-tempo team, with the personnel to give UCLA (and many others) a lot of trouble.
The Golden Bears are a trendy pick in some circles to win the league, and with good reason. The backcourt pairing of senior Jorge Gutierrez and sophomore Allen Crabbe combined to average 28 points per game last season, and they're complemented by undersized forward Harper Kemp, who also averaged more than 14. Brandon Smith got a baptism by fire at the point last season after Gary Franklin transferred midway through the campaign, so he should be more settled from the get-go, and Minnesota transfer Justin Cobb should provide more depth. If Richard Solomon can emerge in his sophomore season to supplement the frontcourt play of Kemp, the Bears are going to be very tough. This is another team that has a clear backcourt advantage (on paper) over UCLA. They just need to be able to hang in the frontcourt.
The Ducks may be the leading dark horse league title candidate in any major conference in the nation. Coming off a CBI championship in Dana Altman's first season in Eugene, the Ducks return five solid rotation players (including 11 ppg scorer E.J. Singler) and introduce a batch of newcomers that could make this team very dangerous. Oregon is completely reloaded up front with the arrivals of Wake Forest transfer Tony Woods and Louisiana Tech postgrad transfer Olu Ashaolu, a perfect replacement for departed forward Joevan Catron. Toss in Minnesota transfer guard Devoe Joseph, who will be eligible in December, and high-profile freshman wing Jabari Brown, and there is a lot more athleticism and depth than last season. It may take the first semester for things to truly come together, but if and when they do, this team could be as good as any in the league.
The Huskies suffered some significant personnel losses (most importantly Mathew Bryan-Amaning inside), but Lorenzo Romar's crew has plenty of talent once again. UW returns six players who played at least 15 minutes a game last season and adds highly touted freshman guard Tony Wroten. Wroten should be a difference-maker from the outset on the latest guard-heavy version of the Huskies and there are some shooters to benefit from his passing. If the frontcourt comes together -- and there are some pieces back like Darnell Gant and Aziz N'Diaye -- then the Huskies are the last of five teams that have enough talent to win the league.
The Cardinal remain a young team, but at least they more experienced. Anthony Brown, Dwight Powell and Aaron Bright will combine with seniors Josh Owens and Jarrett Mann and freshman guard Chasson Randle to push the Cardinal back into the league's upper division. Losing leading scorer Jeremy Green a year early is a blow, but the continuity should help Stanford improve. The Cardinals were poor in a lot of areas last season, but turnover rate and two-point field goal percentage may be the most worrisome. Brown and Powell need to convert better than 50 percent of their shots from inside the arc and Randle may be the best bet at the point given Bright and Mann are limited offensively and didn't protect the ball well enough last season.
Jared Cunningham is a walking highlight and the Beavers have some other decent talent back, including guard Roberto Nelson, but unless they spent the summer learning how to stop someone -- anyone -- they're not making a major move in a league that looks deep at the top. As long as you didn't turn the ball over against them, the Beavers were atrocious defensively, finishing in the nation's bottom 30 in both two-point and three-point field goal percentage defense. Allowing 37.4 percent from the three was compounded by the Beavers' zones causing opponents to take over 41 percent of their shots from the arc. You cannot survive like that, especially when you do a mediocre job on the glass, too. Weirdly, the Beavers were statistically worse on the offensive end because the turnovers they caused masked some of the defensive weakness, but they appear to have more potential on that side of the ball.
The Trojans lost a huge chunk of their frontcourt with the departures of Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson, and then lost a huge chunk of their backcourt when star point guard Jio Fontan tore up his knee (he will miss the season). Kevin O'Neill is left with diminutive guard Maurice Jones and a bunch of unknowns. It will be an enormous boost if Iowa transfer Aaron Fuller and 7-foot juco transfer Dewayne Dedmon hit the ground running. O'Neill has made USC into a team that's consistently difficult to play against, but he has his work cut out for him this season. Maybe by Pac-12 play, the Trojans will have sifted through the many new options and found a lineup that can battle in the conference.
Like Stanford, the Sun Devils are a young team that has a decent amount of experience, but they will have to overcome the loss of Rihards Kuksiks and Ty Abbott as they look to bounce back from a 4-14 league campaign. The introduction of freshman point guard Jahii Carson should be a big boost and the Devils return a crop of players who averaged double-digit minutes last season. Trent Lockett is the best of that bunch and should provide some scoring pop, but the Sun Devils really lack perimeter shooting with the absence of Kuksiks and Abbott. If someone starts knocking down some threes and guys like 7-2 sophomore Jordan Bachynski take the next steps, there are enough winnable games in the league to see the Sun Devils take a decent step toward respectability.
Losing Klay Thompson and DeAngelo Casto will clearly hurt, but the cupboard is not bare in Pullman. Faisel Aden returns to head up a cast of five players who averaged at least 19 minutes a game last season. Reggie Moore should also be improved after being limited some of last season with a wrist injury. Can Marcus Capers and Brock Motum take the next steps? Will a freshman like DaVonté Lacy immediately add some scoring pop? They won't need much on that end if the Cougars can repeat what they accomplished defensively last season. As an up-tempo team, they did extremely well defending the three-pointer and kept people off the free throw line, as well.
The Utes start their maiden Pac-12 voyage with a new coach (Larry Krystkowiak) and a slew of newcomers, with just four returnees from last season's roster after numerous transfers. Incredibly, two of those four are 7-footers, so David Foster and Jason Washburn will provide their new coach with an anchor in the middle. What happens around those two is really anyone's guess. Despite poor shooting numbers, Josh Watkins averaged more than 14 points a game last season, so you'd expect he'd be somewhere centrally in the mix. Beyond that? Someone will have to emerge from the bevy of jucos and freshmen entering the program.
The other Pac-12 newbie enters the league off a hosing from the NCAA selection committee and then losing almost every good player on the roster. Now with Alec Burks, Cory Higgins, Levi Knutson and Marcus Relphorde all gone, Tad Boyle needs to completely rebuild. That could start with Aussie big man Shane Harris-Tunks, who missed last season with injury, and Carlon Brown, a transfer from Utah who led the Utes in scoring two seasons ago. Even with all of that talent on the roster, the Buffs were a train wreck away from home last season. Now they likely will be scratching just to keep their home court relatively secure. Only the presence of several other teams in transition gives hope that the Buffs can avoid the league cellar.