Fresh faces, top talent the key to Pac-12's comeback next season
There is a valid argument to be made that the 2011-2012 Pac-12 was the worst power conference ever.
The league's members had a record of just 1-29 in nonconference play against the RPI top 50 heading into Selection Sunday and the Pac-12 was ranked the 10th best conference according to the RPI, an honor bestowed upon Conference USA one year earlier. The league sent just two teams to the NCAA tournament, with Colorado earning an 11-seed by winning the automatic bid and Cal sneaking into -- and losing -- a play-in game for a 12-seed.
The most glaring indicator of the league's struggles? Washington. Lorenzo Romar's club won the league outright with a 14-4 record but still managed to get banished to the NIT despite the general consensus that this year's bubble was soft. Regular season champions of a power conference don't miss the NCAA tournament. Ever. And the Huskies did. That should tell you all you need to know about this year's Pac-12.
It's hard to imagine that things could end up getting worse in 2012-2013, but that's the way it looked a month ago. Of the league's top five scorers, four were gone -- Jared Cunningham would follow Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten to the NBA draft with eligibility left, while Devoe Joseph finally used up his eligibility during the second half of the season. That list doesn't include the reigning Conference Player of the Year, Jorge Gutierrez of Cal, who graduated this spring. What's more, with Trent Lockett's decision to transfer out of Arizona State, the conference will be heading into next season without 11 of the top 20 and 13 of the top 25 scorers from a year ago.
That's a lot of talent to lose from a league that didn't have all that much talent to begin with. And while it may sound crazy, there is little doubt that the conference will be significantly more relevant next season, particularly at the top, and it's almost entirely due to an impressive influx of talent.
The Pac-12's two most recognizable programs -- Arizona and UCLA -- will find themselves somewhere among the top 15 or 20 when the final preseason polls are released. Both schools bring in recruiting classes talented enough to rival Kentucky's as the best in the country.
The Bruins' class is top heavy, with Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson -- two of the top three players in the Class of 2012 -- both joining Ben Howland's program. Muhammad is a 6-foot-5 wing, an explosive athlete that excels at attacking the rim while slowly developing a consistent perimeter jumper. Anderson is a much more unique player. At 6-9, Anderson will likely end up being UCLA's facilitator offensively. While I hesitate to tab him as the point guard, Anderson will undoubtedly be Howland's most talented playmaker.
Muhammad and Anderson are not alone, either. Howland's hiring of Korey McCray, a former AAU coach in Atlanta, helped him land two native Georgians in Tony Parker, a 6-9 man-child and a top 30 recruit, and Jordan Adams, another 6-5 wing scorer who was a consensus top 75 player. Throw in the addition of Larry Drew II, the former North Carolina point guard who will become eligible this season, and the Bruins have enough talent to feasibly make a run at the Final Four.
The same can be said for Arizona.
The Wildcats bring in arguably the best frontcourt class in the country. Kaleb Tarczewski and Grant Jerrett are both top 10 recruits, while Brandon Ashley falls somewhere in the 15-20 range on most lists. Tarczewski may be the best true center prospect in this class, with the ability to score on the block and run the floor on the break. Jerrett and Ashley are stretch-fours, athletic big men capable of stepping out and hitting a perimeter jumper. Add in Angelo Chol, who proved himself to be a scrappy rebounder and defender, and Sean Miller has a talented crop of bigs at his disposal.
Miller also has a number of perimeter players. Solomon Hill is one of the most versatile players in the conference. Kevin Parrom should finally be healthy and ready to contribute after what turned out to be a disastrous 2011-2012 season. Nick Johnson, Gabe York and Jordin Mayes should provide enough talent off the ball in the backcourt, but the key to Arizona's season may end up being Xavier transfer Mark Lyons. Lyons, who averaged 15.7 points as a junior with the Musketeers, will be eligible immediately for the Wildcats and could be the missing piece at the point guard spot. Thanks to the epic flameout that was Josiah Turner's Arizona career, Miller spent much of last season trying to find an answer at the point. Lyons, who is looking to transition back to the lead guard spot after playing off-the-ball alongside Tu Holloway the last three years, looks to be the answer.
But despite a talented crop of incoming players, neither UCLA nor Arizona is a guarantee to make the Final Four next season. For starters, it's not a secret that this year's recruiting class is not exactly the strongest we've ever seen. In other words, there is some question as to whether the top of this year's class will have the same impact as Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist did last season. Freshmen are, in fact, freshmen, and it's tough to predict precisely how they will make the transition to the college level.
But there's more to be concerned about for both programs. Is Mark Lyons truly the answer for Arizona? He hasn't played the point since high school and spent parts of last season in Chris Mack's doghouse for poor shot selection. Arizona needs him to average six assists and post a 2.5:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. They don't need him taking 15 shots a game.
UCLA also could end up with a point guard problem. As talented as Anderson is with the ball, it doesn't change the fact that he is slow-footed and 6-9. Can he get the ball up the floor when he's being hounded by Pac-12 point guards for 94 feet? Who is he going to defend at the other end of the floor? Will UCLA become a zone team? Will this force Drew into more minutes? Should I mention that UCLA has exactly two guards on their roster, or that Parker's track record in regards to his ability to stay in shape is somewhere between that of J'Mison Morgan and Joshua Smith?
That said, the bottom line for the Pac-12 is that the conference is starting to bring in quite a bit of talent, and it's not just Arizona and UCLA. Stanford not only brings back Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright, they landed top 100 recruits Rosco Allen and Grant Verhoeven. With top 100 recruits Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson joining a young and talented core of Andre Roberson, Askia Booker and Spencer Dinwiddie, Colorado looks primed to make another run at the NCAA tournament over the next couple of seasons. Oregon may have lost Jabari Parker to transfer and Joseph and Garrett Sim to graduation, but it still has a decent core -- E.J. Singler, Tony Woods, Jonathan Loyd and Carlos Emory -- while bringing in some talented youngsters -- Dominic Artis, Ben Carter. The Ducks are still in the mix for Anthony Bennett, as well.
Arizona State is going to struggle next season. Utah probably won't be all that much better. Oregon State, Washington, Cal -- all three are likely going to have down years in 2012-2013.
But on the whole, the Pac-12 is getting better. It's doubtful that landing in the NCAA tournament will be as difficult a task as it was last season.