Pac-10 Primer: Washington is the favorite, but Arizona's dangerous
The dynamic forward averaged 15.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game last season and won the Pac-10's Freshman of the Year award. Expect much more out of him in his sophomore year. A hard-worker, the 6-foot-8, 240-pound Williams has gotten bigger and stronger over the summer. Williams is the reason some observers think Arizona should be favored to win the conference rather than Washington -- which is led by another player of the year candidate in guard Isaiah Thomas.
Crabbe, a 6-6 guard, was California's Gatorade Player of the Year coming out of Price High in Los Angeles. He's already being called an NBA prospect. Cal coach Mike Montgomery usually doesn't like to rely on freshman, but Crabbe's too talented to ignore. He's not the only standout freshman in the young Pac-10. UCLA has McDonald's All-America center Joshua Smith, Stanford will lean on acclaimed forward Dwight Powell, and Arizona State's Keala King should make an impact.
The versatile sophomore forward spent much of last season battling various injuries. But at the end of the season Honeycutt put together four double-double games, providing a glimpse of what could be possible when healthy, which is him becoming the best player in the conference. The 6-8 Honeycutt led the Bruins in rebounds, steals and blocked shots last season and is working on his shooting consistency
That was the record of Pac-10 teams against ranked teams in nonconference play last winter, and it proved to be a barometer of the overall weakness of the conference. By the time the Pac-10 play began, all the teams were struggling and had failed to impress anyone. The conference was a woeful 9-24 against other so-called BCS-conference teams. If the Pac-10 expects to send more than two teams to the NCAA tournament this season, it needs to take care of business early.
Lorenzo Romar's squad is the unanimous pick to win the conference, returning four starters from the team that lost to West Virginia in the Sweet 16. Junior point guard Isaiah Thomas will need to assume the leadership gap left behind by the graduation of Quincy Pondexter. Sharing that job will be senior forward Justin Holiday, an all-conference defender and outside shooter. With three seniors and four juniors, the Huskies have plenty of experience.
The Wildcats didn't make the NCAA tournament for the first time in a quarter century. But second-year coach Sean Miller has four starters returning, including star forward Derrick Williams. Also back are shooting guard Kyle Fogg and sophomore point guard MoMo Jones, who has lost weight and has reportedly made great strides.
The Bruins are coming off a difficult year: They finished 14-18, just their third losing season since 1948. And in June, UCLA basketball lost its patron saint, John Wooden. Last season, Ben Howland felt the impact of early departures and recruits who didn't match their hype. If Tyler Honeycutt can stay healthy and Malcolm Lee continues to lead the team in scoring, expect the Bruins to improve. Point guard is the biggest concern: Howland brought in junior college transfer Lazeric Jones to improve depth at that position.
Herb Sendek earned Pac-10 Coach of the Year honors last season by getting his Sun Devils to surpass expectations, finishing second in the league. Despite a seven-player recruiting class, the Sun Devils also have key experience returning. Three senior starters -- guard Ty Abbott, point guard Jamelle McMillan and Latvian forward Rihards Kuksiks -- are the core of the team.
If coach Ken Bone can get his team to win on the road, the Cougars could be contenders. They return all five starters, including All-Pac-10 guard Klay Thompson, sophomore point guard Reggie Moore and all-defensive-team forward DeAngelo Casto. Thompson worked on improving his all-around game in the offseason.
Some think the Beavers could be the conference's surprise team, now that third-year coach Craig Robinson has stocked the roster with players who buy into his system. Senior guard Calvin Haynes, last season's leading scorer, is back. Perhaps the team's best player, redshirt freshman Roberto Nelson, has been plagued by academic issues but is expected to play.
The Bears won their first Pac-10 championship in 50 years by riding a strong senior class. Those guys -- including Pac-10 Player of the Year Jerome Randle -- are gone. In their place is youth: six freshmen, four sophomores and three juniors. The only returning starter is Jorge Gutierrez. Junior forward Harper Kemp and senior Markhuri Sanders-Frison should anchor the post. In addition to Crabbe, another key newcomer is freshman point guard Gary Franklin.
The Trojans were punched in the gut midway through last season, when then-athletic director Mike Garrett announced self-imposed sanctions on the team. Coach Kevin O'Neill's second season should be less dramatic. He will lean on senior forward Alex Stepheson and junior center Nikola Vucevic, who led the conference in rebounding last season with 9.4 boards per game. Expect to see transfer guard Jio Fontan, who arrived from Fordham last year, to see significant playing time.
Johnny Dawkins' team finished ninth in the conference in each of his first two years and may struggle to break the pattern this year. After all, the team lost Landry Fields, who led the Cardinal in virtually every category and was one of the top 10 scorers in the nation. Stanford will be led by a pair of junior guards, Jarrett Mann and Jeremy Green. And Dawkins will be grooming youngsters: His six-player recruiting class was considered one of the tops in the nation, highlighted by 6-10 forward Dwight Powell.
The biggest question new coach Dana Altman has is whether he'll have enough bodies to field a team. Four players transferred after Ernie Kent was fired, one signed a professional contract, one was lost to academic problems and two are starting the season sidelined with injuries. Junior guard Malcolm Armstead averaged 10.3 points per game last season. Altman, who arrived from Creighton, will only coach a handful of games at intimidating McArthur Court; the Ducks will move into their new arena in January.