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Pac-12 basketball: Who is the conference favorite?

November 8, 2011 | 10:15 am

A group of reporters who cover Pacific 12 Conference schools, including The Times' UCLA beat writer Ben Bolch, recently gathered for a virtual roundtable to discuss pertinent issues as the college basketball season opens this week:

Pac-12 logoTrue or false: The Pac-12 is destined for a disappointing season after losing so much talent to the NBA.

Bolch: True. It's another hodgepodge of mediocrity, with no team poised to earn the national spotlight for a third consecutive season. Even the conference favorites have severe flaws that likely will be exposed during the NCAA Tournament. UCLA and coach Ben Howland have shaky wing players. Cal has a nice starting five but questionable depth. Arizona? Two words: Seattle Pacific.

Percy Allen, Seattle Times: False. I think 2010, when the Pac-10 sent two teams to the NCAA Tournament, was an aberration and won't occur again any time soon. Last season four conference teams made the 68-team tournament. I predict five will receive invitations in March, although four is a safer bet.

Bob Clark, The (Eugene, Ore.) Register-Guard: I'm saying false, on the basis that not much is expected, so with the bar set low, there's a chance for the league to exceed expectations.

Jeff Faraudo, Contra Costa Times: False. I think the league has lots of intrigue this season, partly because traditional powers UCLA, Arizona and Washington saw players defect to the pros. Cal has great experience, Oregon is coming on and there is plenty of young talent. I predict a great conference race, where no team avoids losing at least two or three times.

Doug Haller, Arizona Republic: False. There may not be a Final Four contender among the bunch, but 1-through-8 this conference should be pretty competitive. Outside of the big four, Oregon, Stanford and Oregon State are poised to make an upper-division push, and I wouldn't be surprised if Kevin O'Neill finds a way to keep USC relevant, even without injured point guard Jio Fontan.

Who's the conference favorite?


Bolch: I would say Cal, but it's close. I love Jorge Gutierrez, who has more heart than anyone in the conference, and Allen Crabbe is poised to experience a Derrick Williams-like breakthrough. But the Golden Bears will have trouble matching up with UCLA's front line of Joshua Smith, Reeves Nelson and David Wear. If Cal can't contain the Bruins' bigs, then UCLA might have to hang a Pac-12 title banner at the Sports Arena.

Allen: Each of the contenders has serious flaws, but UCLA appears to be the only team that can go on the road in the conference and consistently give itself a chance to win due to its impressive front line. The Bruins have more size with talent than any other team in the league.

Clark: I like Cal. The experience, the grit of a Mike Montgomery team. I think it will win out with so many other teams counting on freshmen or transfers.

Faraudo: I picked UCLA barely over Cal and Arizona. The Bears have returning talent, Arizona has new talent. The Bruins' backcourt has questions, but no team in the Pac-12 can match the frontcourt depth of Joshua Smith, Reeves Nelson, Anthony Stover, and twins David and Travis Wear. If Ben Howland had a sense of humor, he'd start all five together one night just to get a reaction.

Haller: Joshua Smith may be out of shape, but every coach will tell you he's the toughest matchup in the conference. Add in Reeves Nelson, an all-conference talent, and UCLA has what should be one of the top front lines in college basketball. Despite the questions in the backcourt -- can anyone consistently knock down the 3? -- that's enough to give the Bruins a slight edge over California.

Which team is not getting enough preseason credit?

Oregon. It's not so much that the Ducks have overwhelming talent; they clearly don't. But Dana Altman is the kind of coach who can mold solid players into something special. Look for the Ducks to quack the upper echelon of the conference standings.

Allen: Washington, which was picked fourth in the media preseason poll, is being overlooked and it's understandable considering it lost its top three scorers. Still Lorenzo Romar, the longest tenured coach in the conference who enters his 10th season at UW, has a system in place that's produced three straight NCAA Tournament teams. Also, keep an eye on Stanford and Oregon State.

Clark: How about Washington? There is a lot of talent there, plus some size, and if Abdul Gaddy is back at close to full strength, they have a chance to be really good. Can UCLA's size keep up with the Huskies in a transition game? How do Arizona's freshmen play against those more-experienced Huskies? Even Cal, my favorite, may not have the depth to stay with Washington. And maybe I'm in the minority, but I don't think Romar gets enough credit for bringing players along in their improvement during the course of a career there.

Faraudo: Uh, Seattle Pacific? I'm curious to see how good Oregon can be in Dana Altman's second season. He has a very solid returnee in E.J. Singler, a terrific freshman in Jabari Brown and two excellent frontcourt transfers in Olu Ashaolu (Louisiana Tech) and Tony Woods (Wake Forest.).

Haller: Washington. Romar has a ton of talent. Everyone knows about sophomore Terrence Ross, but C.J. Wilcox might be the Pac-12's top shooter. Freshman Tony Wroten is dazzling, and forward Desmond Simmons seems like the 'glue guy' that every team needs. My concern: Washington has a habit of underperforming during the regular season. Wouldn't surprise me at all if the Huskies finish third in the regular season and end up winning the Pac-12 Tournament ... again.

Who is the frontrunner for Pac-12 Player of the Year?

UCLA's Joshua Smith would be the easy choice here if he had significantly improved his physique in the offseason, but he hasn't. He looks about the same as last year, and his lack of conditioning could prevent him from being the supremely dominant force coach Ben Howland covets. So I'll go with Cal's Allen Crabbe, who should follow up a freshman-of-the-year season with something even more special.

Allen: The race is wide open. Obviously, the best player on the conference champion has the best odds of winning so you have to look at UCLA's Reeves Nelson or Joshua Smith.

Clark: Is there one? I'd give my early vote to Jorge Gutierrez of Cal.

Faraudo: I don't think there is a frontrunner. UCLA's Joshua Smith could become the biggest POY in league history, but I want to see him get his slimmed-down 315 pounds up and down the court for more than 21.7 minutes a game. Washington sophomore Terrence Ross is going to score a lot of points, and Cal's Jorge Gutierrez is the heartbeat of a team that could challenge for the top spot.

Haller: I asked some players this same question at Pac-12 Media Day. The majority went with UCLA's Reeves Nelson. He's certainly worthy, but Cal's Jorge Gutierrez affects the game in so many ways. He scores, defends, creates, gets to the foul line. Perhaps most important, nobody plays harder. As long as Cal contends for the regular-season title, this is his to lose.

What storyline are you most interested to follow?

UCLA's season-long road show. With Pauley Pavilion out of commission until September 2012 because of renovations, the Bruins will be nomads forced to play at the Sports Arena (eww!), Honda Center (yawn) and Citizens Business Bank Arena (huh?) in Ontario. The crumbling Sports Arena has mostly been used for filming projects in recent years, and the Bruins hope their season doesn't devolve into a comedy of errors. UCLA has an awkward "home" date against USC at the Sports Arena, the Trojans' home until 2006. Will there be more red in the stands than powder blue?

Allen: Before league play begins, I'm curious how the Pac-12 will fare against non-conference and ranked teams. Last season, the Pac-10 was 5-13 against ranked teams outside the league. There's several interesting games approaching. Washington plays No. 6 Duke and No. 22 Marquette in New York's Madison Square Garden. No. 17 UCLA goes to the Maui Invitational. No. 16 Arizona travels to No. 8 Florida and faces No. 23 Gonzaga in Seattle.

Clark: What do the transfers and freshmen bring? It looks like quite an infusion of talent at several schools. Let's see how it plays out.

Faraudo: How quickly will all of those blue-chippers at Arizona figure out the college game? At some point this season, they will look like a million bucks and overwhelm someone. In the meantime, the results of their two exhibition games suggest there will be some growing pains.

Haller: I'm interested to see if someone unexpected can break into that upper division. Oregon, Stanford and Oregon State all have interesting parts, enough to challenge for NCAA Tournament bids.

Are any coaches on the hot seat?

Bolch: Oregon State's Craig Robinson has to be feeling some heat after making minimal progress in his three seasons in Corvallis. Being Michelle Obama's brother is only going to take you so far without an NCAA Tournament appearance. His profile on the OSU website touts the program's first victory over a ranked team and first triumph in the Pac-10 Tournament since 2006. That's not enough. Stanford fans also might be feeling a little buyer's remorse over Johnny Dawkins. How would two losing seasons and an appearance in the CBI semifinals go over at Duke?

Allen: Not this season, but few coaches can survive four years of consecutive losing seasons. Oregon State's Craig Robinson begins his fourth season and the Beavers have gotten progressively worse since an 18-18 record his first year. He's talking about the NCAA Tournament, but he'll need to deliver at least an NIT berth this season to stay off the hot seat. The same is true for Stanford's Johnny Dawkins, who also begins year four with the Cardinal and has fallen off the past two seasons after a 20-14 record his first year. Stanford hasn't finished higher than seventh in the conference under Dawkins. Arizona State's Herb Sendek appears safe, but would be wise to avoid another last-place finish. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if USC's Kevin O'Neill and athletic director Pat Haden are on the same page.

Clark: I don't see it being a make-or-break year for anybody. I always wonder if ASU fans will grow weary of Herb Sendek's playing style, if the Sun Devils aren't successful. There's always griping about Ben Howland if the Bruins aren't contending. Certainly Oregon State fans have reason to expect a lot more from Craig Robinson's teams. It would probably do Ken Bone some good to reduce the suspensions at Washington State, and the image of a lack of discipline. But isn't it early to suggest any of them are on any kind of hot seat?

Faraudo: Dawkins got a contract extension at Stanford, but it's probably time for him to start winning more. And Oregon State's Craig Robinson, after promising early returns, needs to coax more from his squad this season. But neither of them is really on the hot seat.

Haller: Not at this point. Stanford, despite its recent struggles, is on its way. Not only does Johnny Dawkins have four starters returning, he has a strong recruiting class lined up for 2012.

What do you expect from the newcomers, Colorado and Utah?

Bolch: Plenty of quips from Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, who openly inquired at Pac-12 media day how many times the conference's last-place team had been correctly picked given that his team was bestowed that dishonor. Utah likely will reside there this season and Colorado won't be too far ahead of the Utes. As reinforcements go, this duo isn't adding much in the immediate future.

Allen: Not much this season. The Buffaloes are expected to sign a highly rated 2012 recruiting class and they'll reload quickly. The Utes may struggle for a while.

Clark: Looks to me like they're both going to struggle. I picked the Buffs 10th and the Utes 12th in a preview ballot, and I'd still stick with that.

Faraudo: Not much. If either of them finishes as high as 10th, count it as a small victory. Colorado lost all of its best players from a year ago, and Utah saw mass personnel defections after changing coaches. Not a warm welcome to the Pac-12 for the Buffs and Utes.

Haller: Media picked Colorado to finish 10th, but I wouldn't be shocked if the Buffaloes finish a spot or two higher. Regardless, they won't be down long. Tad Boyle already is recruiting at a high level. Krystkowiak has a lot of work to do with the Utes. It might take a couple seasons for the them to start climbing.