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October 27, 2011

League preview: Pac-12

We continue with our league breakdowns for the upcoming season; we're working backward from league No. 32 to our top-ranked league.

The breakdowns have become more in-depth as the leagues have become "bigger."

6. PAC-12

By Jeff Eisenberg

In an effort to shed further light on what appears to be a wide-open Pac-12 race, the Tucson Citizen recently asked three Arizona players the team they consider their biggest competition for the conference title.

One said UCLA. Another said California. The third said Washington.

The wide range of responses from the Wildcats only reinforces the fact that the inaugural Pac-12 season features no clear-cut favorite entering the season. Defending champion Arizona and fellow contenders UCLA, Cal and Washington each have enviable strengths and noticeable weaknesses, making it difficult to separate the four of them.

What makes Arizona perhaps the safest bet is its depth and balance. Derrick Williams' departure will force the Wildcats to find new ways to generate points, but there is an abundance of experienced former role players and talented freshmen capable of scoring in double figures, chipping in on the glass and playing solid defense. F Solomon Hill could become an all-league player if he shows more aggressiveness as a scorer, G Kyle Fogg is a lockdown defender and perimeter threat and freshmen Gs Josiah Turner and Nick Johnson are capable of making an immediate impact.

UCLA and Washington are total opposites of one another, which should make for intriguing matchups in Seattle and Los Angeles.

Joshua Smith and Reeves Nelson highlight a deep, versatile UCLA frontcourt, but the Bruins lack proven shooters or scorers in their backcourt as a result of the early departures of Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt. On the other hand, Washington has a wealth of perimeter talent, yet the loss of Matthew Bryan-Amaning leaves the Huskies with no established back-to-the-basket scorer and only one proven big man in foul-prone Aziz N'Diaye.

The most experienced of the top four contenders is Cal, which returns the core of a team that won 18 games last season, including standout wings Jorge Gutierrez and Allen Crabbe. What determines the Bears' fate is whether senior F Harper Kamp's oft-injured knees hold up over the course of the season and whether either returnee Brandon Smith or Minnesota transfer Justin Cobbs provides quality play at point guard.

In the conference's crowded middle tier, Oregon appears the most likely to emerge as a surprise contender. The question will be how quickly coach Dana Altman can blend a handful of key returnees with a talented four-man freshman class and several key Division I transfers.

About the only certainty in the Pac-12 is that the conference's newest members seem likely to struggle. Colorado lost its top four scorers off last season's NIT team, including first-round pick Alec Burks, while undermanned Utah faces a multi-year rebuilding project under new coach Larry Krystkowiak.

C Joshua Smith, UCLA (6-10/305, Soph.)
F Reeves Nelson, UCLA (6-8/235, Jr.)
G Allen Crabbe, Cal (6-6/205, Soph.)
G Jorge Gutierrez, Cal (6-3/195, Sr.)
G/F Terrence Ross, Washington (6-6/195, Soph.)
F Solomon Hill, Arizona (6-6/226, Jr.)
F E.J. Singler, Oregon (6-6/210, Jr.)
G Jared Cunningham, Oregon State (6-4/194, Jr.)
G Trent Lockett, Arizona State (6-4/210, Jr.)
G Josiah Turner, Arizona (6-3/185, Fr.)

Player of the Year: Washington G/F Terrence Ross
Newcomer of the Year: Arizona G Josiah Turner

1. Arizona
2. California
4. Washington
5. Oregon
6. Stanford
7. USC
8. Oregon State
9. Arizona State
10. Colorado
11. Washington State
12. Utah

BEST FRONTCOURT: UCLA. The Bruins have such a glut of frontcourt talent that coach Ben Howland is attempting to figure out ways to get three of his big men on the court at once. Joshua Smith has the best hands and touch around the rim of any big man on the West Coast, Reeves Nelson is a returning all-conference performer and Anthony Stover may be the Pac-12's premier defensive center. And then there are the Wear twins, David and Travis, North Carolina transfers whose effort in practice has drawn rave reviews from Howland.
BEST BACKCOURT: Washington. Even though star Isaiah Thomas entered the NBA draft a year early and defensive stopper Justin Holiday graduated, Washington's backcourt still appears to be the league's deepest and most talented. Expect Terrence Ross to play some power forward so that the Huskies can utilize some four-guard sets with highly touted freshman Tony Wroten and veteran Abdul Gaddy on the floor together.
PROGRAM ON THE RISE: Oregon. In addition to exceeding all reasonable expectations for his debut season by leading short-handed Oregon to 21 wins and a postseason berth a year ago, coach Dana Altman has the Ducks poised for greater future success. Between the return of F E.J. Singler and the arrival of a recruiting class loaded with prep stars, junior college prospects and Division I transfers, Altman could have Oregon back in the NCAA tournament as soon as this season if the talent meshes quickly.
PROGRAM ON THE DECLINE: Washington State. It was only three years ago that Washington State made back-to- back to NCAA tournament appearances under Tony Bennett and finished near the top of what was then a talent-laden Pac-10. Not only have the Cougars failed to finish above .500 in conference play since the 2007-08 season, they've also been beset by off-the-court issues under coach Ken Bone, including a flurry of marijuana-related arrests last season. Bone has made an effort to clean up Washington State's image this offseason, but greater on-court success appears unlikely with Klay Thompson and DeAngelo Casto turning pro.
COACH ON THE RISE: Arizona's Sean Miller. He was one of the most respected young coaches in the nation at Xavier, but the sudden turnaround he has orchestrated at Arizona has elevated his status and his pay grade. In addition to leading the Wildcats to within a errant 3-pointer of the Final Four this past March, Miller has recruited so well that Arizona could be back in the national title hunt by the 2012-13 season.
COACH ON THE HOT SEAT: Washington State's Ken Bone. Although the odds are that every current Pac-12 coach keeps his job for another season, three face pressure to at least make progress. Bone needs his team to be competitive in conference play and avoid further legal troubles. Oregon State coach Craig Robinson would be wise to avoid another flurry of eye-opening non-conference losses and parlay some of his recruiting success into victories. Stanford's Johnny Dawkins also has recruited well the past two years, but the Cardinal need to at least make the postseason this season and prove they're on the verge of an NCAA tournament appearance next season.
MOST OVERRATED PLAYER: Oregon State G Roberto Nelson. It's way too soon to Nelson a bust, but it's fair to say Oregon State's most highly touted recruit in years hasn't lived up to expectations. After sitting out a year and a half to get his academics in order, Nelson averaged a modest 7.5 points per game last season and shot just 38.3 percent from the field. Highlighting his inconsistency was a five-game stretch to close the season in which he erupted for 34 points against Arizona State but managed a total of six points in the other four games combined.
MOST UNDERRATED PLAYER: Washington G/F Terrence Ross. Overshadowed by the likes of established veterans Isaiah Thomas, Justin Holiday and Matthew Bryan-Amaning for much of last season, Ross erupted to average 15.3 points per game in the Pac-10 tournament and scored 19 against North Carolina in the NCAA tournament. Expect more performances like that this season from Ross as the high-scoring wing inherits the role of go-to scorer for the Huskies.

New coaches: Larry Krystkowiak at Utah (had been an assistant with the New Jersey Nets)
Regular-season winner last season: Arizona
Tourney winner last season: Washington
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 7th in 2010-11, 8th in 2009-10, 5th in 2008-09
NCAA bids the past 5 seasons: 24
2012 conference tournament: March 7-10, Los Angeles

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