Another college basketball writer called a few weeks back, asked if I had put together an All-Pac-10 team yet.
"Haven't even looked at it," I told him.
His response: "It's impossible."
Then last week I produced a list of the nation's top 40 big forwards and centers, and I got an email from a person with Pac-10 ties who pointed out that I didn't have a single Pac-10 player on the list. The person wasn't writing to complain, mind you. He said I was "probably accurate" and then went on to explain how there aren't many proven players in the league besides guys at Washington and Cal.
So to summarize, yeah, the Pac-10 is down this season.
That's why it ranks as the No. 6 conference.
Here's a look ...
(Schools listed in predicted order of finish)
There might be a better backcourt in the nation, but the Abdul Gaddy/Isaiah Thomas duo will be the most fun to watch; they're the reason the Huskies are getting the slight edge over California here. Gaddy, a McDonald's All-American, will handle the point guard duties (and remind some Pac-10 observers of former Arizona star Mike Bibby), leaving Thomas free to focus on what he does best, which is attack and score at a relentless (and sometimes reckless) pace. Sure, Jon Brockman and Justin Dentmon will be missed; that's more than 29 points per game gone from last season's 26-win team. But Lorenzo Romar still has enough to handle a not-as-great-as-usual league and win his second Pac-10 title in two years.
The Bears are the pick by the Pac-10 media to win the league, meaning I'm in the minority in selecting Washington, and I understand why. Mike Montgomery returns the core of a 22-win team led by All-American candidate Jerome Randle, who averaged 18.3 points and 5.0 assists last season. Patrick Christopher (14.5 ppg) and Theo Robertson (13.1 ppg) are also back. So last season's best 3-point shooting team might be this season's best 3-point shooting team, too. But what I can't get out of my head is how the Bears dropped five of their final seven and looked out of sorts in a double-digit loss to Maryland in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Such is the lasting image. That's why I gave the edge to Washington, but I realize betting against Montgomery probably isn't the wisest move.
Josh Shipp, Darren Collison, Alfred Aboya and Jrue Holiday are all gone, leaving Nikola Dragovic as the Bruins' leading returning scorer at 9.4 points per game. In other words, UCLA is depending on a bunch of guys who have never been depended on == among them sophomore point guard Jerime Anderson, who averaged just 8.6 minutes last season. Making things more complicated is the fact that Anderson has been slowed by a groin injury and sidelined like many of his teammates this preseason. So practicing is difficult, progress stalled. But there's no denying the Bruins are a talented bunch, and they'll find themselves back in the NCAA tournament if they get healthy, stay healthy and play like the heralded recruits they were when Ben Howland offered scholarships.
Sean Miller will start another string of NCAA tournaments at Arizona soon, I assure you. But the assumption here is that the Pac-10 is a three-bid league, and that Arizona will find itself on the wrong side of the bubble come Selection Sunday. Remember, the Wildcats barely made the NCAA tournament last season, and that was with Jordan Hill (18.3 points and 11.0 rebounds per game) and Chase Budinger (18.0 ppg and 6.2 rpg) on the roster. Those guys are now in the NBA, and Miller was brought in to rebuild. Again, he'll do it, and do it well. But even the return of Nic Wise (15.7 ppg) won't keep this season from being a different kind of season for one of the nation's elite programs.
5. Oregon State
There were some questions when he was hired about whether Craig Robinson was a good fit for Oregon State given his lack of West Coast connections. But those questions are now gone, and they've been replaced by this: How long can OSU keep President Obama's brother-in-law? The Beavers' seven Pac-10 wins last season were a surprise, and if they can get freshman Roberto Nelson on the court (he still hasn't been cleared to play) they should finish in the top half of the league, which is noteworthy considering OSU has recorded just two winning seasons (one was last season) since Gary Payton left campus in 1990. Assuming that happens, Robinson will be a hotter commodity than he is already. Then he'll have to decide whether he wants to keep trying to win at a place where winning is difficult or exit for a better job and better salary like Tony Bennett did after three seasons at Washington State.
It would be tough to lose James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph regardless of when it happened, but losing them at the same time is not the type of thing that can be overcome. Harden (drafted third overall by Oklahoma City) and Pendergraph (drafted 31st overall by Sacramento) combined to average 34.5 points and 13.8 rebounds last season. There's nothing on the roster to fill that void, even with three starters returning. Thus, Herb Sendek will have to rely on a strong defense and the senior leadership of Derek Glasser to keep things competitive. A breakout year for Rihardis Kuksiks (10.3 ppg last season) would help, too.
The Ducks finished 2-16 in the Pac-10 last season and had the school ready to remove Ernie Kent if Mark Few could be lured from Gonzaga. He could not, so Kent remained. At his disposal is a talented roster led by Tajuan Porter (15.4 points per game), LeKendric Longmire (9.9 ppg) and Michael Dunigan (8.4 ppg). But it's a roster that developed losing habits last season, and those can be tough to break. If the culture doesn't change, neither will the results, and that's not the type of momentum the program needs as it prepares to open a new arena in 2010-11.
Three of the top four scorers (Taylor Rochestie, Aron Baynes and Caleb Forrest) and the coach (Tony Bennett) are missing from a team that finished seventh in the Pac-10 last season. The only returning player who averaged at least five points is Klay Thompson, a 6-6 wing who got 12.5 points in a slow-tempo offense as a freshman. Thompson is talented, no doubt. But he's not enough to allow Ken Bone to achieve anything of interest in his first year at Washington State. A middle-of-the-pack finish would be a solid season; the Cougars are rebuilding while Bennett does the same at Virginia.
There was a time when it looked like the Trojans could be a serious Final Four threat this season, but that time passed quickly and was flushed down the drain with Tim Floyd's career. Three players (Taj Gibson, DeMar DeRozan and Daniel Hackett) left with eligibility remaining, and the recruiting class fell apart after Floyd's resignation. Add it up, and it's clear Kevin O'Neil inherited a mess, and it'll look very much that way this season as the former Arizona coach merely tries to keep things respectable while waiting for the NCAA to punish his program for alleged rules violations under Floyd. The addition of North Carolina transfer Alex Stepheson will help. But USC needs more help than that.
Stanford was terrible last season. Now the two best players from that team (Anthony Goods and Lawrence Hill) are gone, and it's not like the Cardinal added some great recruiting class to fill the void. Nothing of the sort exists. So Johnny Dawkins will ask Landry Fields to do a lot in his senior season, which could lead to nice Fantasy numbers for the 6-7 forward but not a good win-loss record for the Cardinal. Fields averaged 12.6 points and 6.6 rebounds last season; those statistics will increase to at least 15 and eight per game. But Stanford fans will suffer through another tough campaign, no question, and be left to hope that a top 10 recruiting class highlighted by four-star prospects Dwight Powell and Anthony Brown enrolls next year and returns the Cardinal to the top half of the Pac-10.
|2009-10 Season Preview/Conference Countdown Schedule|
|Monday, Oct. 5||Preseason Top 25 (and one)||Monday, Oct. 26||Coaches on the Hot Seat|
|Wednesday, Oct. 7||Preseason All-America Team||Wednesday, Oct. 28||Ranking the best of the non-BCS|
|Friday, Oct. 9||Impact Freshmen||Friday, Oct. 30||No. 6: Pac-10|
|Monday, Oct. 12||Programs on the Rise||Monday, Nov. 2||No. 5: SEC|
|Wednesday, Oct. 14||Programs on the Decline||Tuesday, Nov. 3||No. 4: Big East|
|Friday, Oct. 16||Midnight Madness | From Kansas||Wednesday, Nov. 4||No. 3: ACC|
|Monday, Oct. 19||Player rankings: Points/Combos||Thursday, Nov. 5||No. 2: Big Ten|
|Wednesday, Oct. 21||Player rankings: Wings||Friday, Nov. 6||No. 1: Big 12|
|Friday, Oct. 23||Player rankings: Big Men||Monday, Nov. 9||Brackets: Parrish | Palm|