Wednesday, September 28, 2011

30 In 30: Pac-12

Already with three Final Fours under his belt, Ben Howland could be leading UCLA to a fourth with all the right bounces. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

After twenty-five low and mid-majors had their moments in the sun, "30 In 30" tackles the Bowl Championship Series; and up first is the newly expanded Pac-12. Without any further ado...

1) UCLA - When you look at the Bruins' roster from top to bottom, a well-educated fan will come to the conclusion that this is, on paper, the best team that Ben Howland has ever coached either in Westwood or at Pittsburgh. Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt declared early and were selected in the NBA draft; but Reeves Nelson leads a team of underclassmen into a season where UCLA is the class of the conference. The junior Nelson will be joined up front by sophomore big man Joshua Smith and the Wear twins (David and Travis) now that they are eligible after transferring from North Carolina. Speaking of the Tar Heels, guard Larry Drew also jumped ship to Westwood; and will be eligible come conference season, where he will join seniors Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson in a multifaceted and multitalented backcourt.

2) Arizona - The Wildcats are the trendy pick both for their run in the NCAA Tournament last year, where they came within a basket of the Final Four; and also for the incoming recruiting class brought in by head coach Sean Miller, perhaps the most underrated at his position in the country. However, the fact remains that Arizona no longer has Derrick Williams after he was drafted second overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves; or Momo Jones after he transferred to Iona. Guard Jamelle Horne also graduated this past May. To make matters worse, guard Kevin Parrom was shot in the leg earlier this week, but is expected to make a full recovery. Parrom will be the leader of a young Wildcats squad as he enters his junior campaign, but most of the attention will be focused on nationally acclaimed prep stars Nick Johnson, Sidiki Johnson, (no relation) and Josiah Turner as they transition to the next level.

3) California - When it comes to West Coast basketball, not many are as underrated as Mike Montgomery. The Rick Pitino of the Pacific, Montgomery built a winner at Stanford before leaving for a cup of coffee with the Golden State Warriors; and is doing the same thing for Cal that he did with the Cardinal in the late '90s and early 2000s. In a weaker Pac-12 than years past, the Golden Bears have the most potential among the rest of the pack to separate themselves and add a third entry to the two-horse race at the top between UCLA and Arizona. Four starters return for Cal, led by guards Jorge Gutierrez and Brandon Smith, both of whom can score just as well as they can pass. Sharpshooter Allen Crabbe, who shot 40 percent from three-point range as a freshman, is back as well. Senior forward Harper Kamp will lead the charge up front with a group of reserves such as Richard Solomon who are looking to step it up with a starting spot on the line.

4) Washington - Lorenzo Romar has been in this situation before with the Huskies, and has always come back strong after losing key pieces of his team. This time around, Romar will look to stay relevant without do-it-all guard Isaiah Thomas and leading rebounders Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Justin Holiday. Leading the charge will be junior guard Abdul Gaddy, who returns after missing the second half of last season with a torn ACL. Darnell Gant and seven-footer Aziz N'Diaye will get the first shots to replace Bryan-Amaning and Holiday up front, while incoming freshman Tony Wroten will make an impact early and often. A 6-5 homegrown talent, the shooting guard from Seattle will have fans drawing comparisons to a similarly built guard who has carved out a solid NBA career: Portland Trail Blazers star Brandon Roy, who also played for Romar at Washington.
5) Oregon - In just one year after coming to Eugene from a long and successful tenure at Creighton, Dana Altman took a middle-of-the-road Ducks team and defeated his former Blue Jays squad to win the CBI. This year, the core of Altman's unit comes back to contend for bigger and better; and will be closer to the top given the dropoff in the Pac-12 this season. E.J. Singler, the younger brother of former Duke All-American Kyle, is a carbon copy of the elder Singler; and will enter his junior season as Oregon's team leader. Garrett Sim and big man Tyrone Nared comprise the top half of Singler's supporting cast, and highly regarded freshman guard Jabari Brown should make a name for himself in the green and gold very early on in his young career.

6) Stanford - Former Mike Krzyzewski assistant Johnny Dawkins is starting to make strides in northern California in his attempt to resurrect a Cardinal team that was among the nation's elite just a few years ago when Josh Childress and Chris Hernandez took the court. Leading scorer Jeremy Green is gone, but senior big man Josh Owens will be the focal point for Dawkins' offense despite his 6-8 stature; and will have 6-9 sophomore Dwight Powell to pick him up on the defensive glass. Point guard Jarrett Mann will need for his productivity to match up with his skills as a facilitator for Stanford to truly make a big jump in this conference.

7) Washington State - Ken Bone loses the services of superstar swingman Klay Thompson after he was selected eleventh overall by the Golden State Warriors, as well as top rebounder DeAngelo Casto; but the Cougars are still talented enough to remain among the upper echelon of the Pac-12. Junior guard Reggie Moore returns to run the point in Pullman, with Abe Lodwick and Faisal Aden around once again as well to back him up. Marcus Capers, a 6-4 senior guard, should once again be a better rebounder than his frame suggests.

8) Oregon State - The Beavers were last in the Pac-10 a year ago, but there is enough maturity and talent to go around in Corvallis this season to where head coach Craig Robinson will be known for something other than being the First Brother-in-Law. Regardless of the connection to the White House, Michelle Obama's brother brings back junior guard Jared Cunningham, the team's leading scorer, who also averaged almost three steals per game last year during Oregon State's 11-20 campaign. Roberto Nelson and 5-9 sophomore Ahmad Starks should get the opportunity to contribute more frequently alongside Cunningham in the backcourt while the trio of Joe Burton, Devon Collier and Australian import Angus Brandt form an imposing troika up front.

9) Southern California - The Trojans shocked most of the world by advancing to the NCAA Tournament, where they were subsequently the first victim of VCU's miracle Final Four run after the Rams defeated USC in their First Four game. The biggest part of the success for Kevin O'Neill and the Men of Troy decided to take his talents to the next level after a dominating season, however; and now O'Neill must go about the daunting task of replacing seven-footer Nikola Vucevic after he was drafted sixteenth overall by the Philadelphia 76ers. On top of that, guard Jio Fontan was recently lost for the season with a torn ACL, leaving O'Neill and the Trojans without both of their leading scorers from the previous season. The onus now shifts to 5-7 point guard Maurice Jones to lead the offense during his sophomore campaign in Los Angeles, while an inexperienced group of big men will need to learn the ropes very fast to adequately replace both Vucevic and Alex Stepheson, who graduated this past May.

10) Colorado - The Buffaloes are one of the two newcomers to the league after their divorce from the Big 12, and coach Tad Boyle loses shooting guard Alec Burks from his bubble team that reached the NIT semifinals last season. Senior forward Austin Dufault and Australian point guard Nate Tomlinson are the lone incumbent starters for the Buffs, yet it is senior swingman Andre Roberson who is the team's top returning scorer and rebounder despite not starting a game last season. That will change this year; as Roberson will join Tomlinson in the backcourt, while Shannon Sharpe (no relation to the Hall of Fame tight end) will be more of a factor either as a starter or reserve.

11) Arizona State - Sophomore swingman Kyle Cain is the leading scorer and rebounder from a young team on which he is also the sole returning starter for coach Herb Sendek. Freshman guard Jahii Carson was a highly touted prep star, and the presence of youth on this ASU team will enable him to make an immediate impact right away.

12) Utah - The Utes are the other Pac-12 rookie this season after coming over from the Mountain West; and they will bring a new coach to their new conference as well, with former Montana head man Larry Krystkowiak taking over for the departed Jim Boylen. Senior guard Josh Watkins is the man who makes the motor run for the Utes, but he needs to work on his ball control after a junior season in which he only had five more assists than turnovers. The Utes do have a weapon that no other team in the conference has, and that is 7-3 center David Foster, who averaged over three blocked shots per game last season in the Mountain West.

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