by Cub Buenning

–They were arguably last season’s best, but how do things stack up this year out west?

The teams from the Pacific-10 Conference represented the cream of the NCAA crop last year. The brand of basketball was exciting to watch and almost every game was chocked full of not only individual stars but at least one team from the Top 25. UCLA, Stanford, Arizona, USC, and Washington St. were all title contenders, loaded to the gills with talent, while Oregon, Arizona St., California, and Washington all fought season-long for a chance at the NCAA Tournament. (I purposefully did not mention Oregon State, yet…)

Three of the Top 5 picks in this past June’s NBA Draft came from the Pac-10. Look further and find six of the Top 15 also plied their trade in the Pacific Time Zone (well, Arizona sometimes does). With that much change and couple coaching moves to boot, things should look rather different when the first ball is tipped this fall.

Here is a breakdown of the teams (in order of last year’s standings) and a small prediction for this season.

UCLA (31-3 overall, 16-2 conference) Regular season and conference tournament champs
Despite losing some major muscle and minutes to the draft, the Bruins might be even more talented this year, largely aided by Head Coach Ben Howland’s monster recruiting class. Kevin Love, Russelll Westbrook, and Luc Mbah a Moute no longer will be at Howland’s disposal, but the newly minted professionals will be replaced by a quartet that all rank in the national top 40. Jrue Holiday and Drew Gordon are the much publicized recruits, but to also ink Malcom Lee out of Riverside and the 6-11 Darren Collison“Bobo” Morgan speaks to the luxury a university has when it makes three straight Final Four trips.

At the helm again this year will be senior Darren Collison, who made overtures to the NBA, but decided to finish up his career at Westwood. Collison is like an extension of Howland on the court and he should provide an ideal fire to the cool ice of potential running mate, Holiday. How the backcourt minutes are shared between those two and Lee will be interesting. It’s the young frontcourt tandem of Gordon and Morgan, though, that just might make or break the Bruins chance for another conference title.

Stanford (26-7, 13-5)
More than just the twins have left the building. True, both Lopezes are gone to the NBA, and Taj Finger probably has one foot into some high-paying job in finance but with Head Coach Trent Johnson moving on down to the bayou, this team has endured change like no other. Lawrence Hill is a nice piece as a force both inside and out, but he is more of a complimentary player and may struggle with the inside height gone.

Much of the backcourt returns, but someone needs to take a big step for new coach Johnny Dawkins, someone like 6-7 junior Landry Fields, who showed some nice flashes last year. This will surely be a down year for the Cardinal, but getting a guy with the pedigree of Johnny Dawkins for a place like Stanford is genius. Anyone know another set of 7-foot twins? Be sure to give Coach Dawk a call. (As a huge fan of all things, “Stanford” and hopefully a parent of a future graduate, this year will be a bit tough.)

Washington State (24-8, 11-7)
Head Coach Tony Bennett was given the chance to take over at Indiana University. His WSU team was losing the bulk of its offensive output and the opportunity was almost perfect, but he stayed. He stayed devout to what his father had started at WAZZU. Seniors Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver, and Robbie Cowgill are no more and just one year remains for point guard Taylor Rochesite and Aussie big man Aron Baynes. I’ll give Coach Bennett and his system the benefit of the doubt, but my heart and brain tell me that the Cougs are going to take a big step down a year removed from 26 wins and a third-place conference finish.

Bennett was able to lure the spawn of former Laker Mycheal Thompson, Klay Thompson, a lanky 6-7 combo guard who has a nice little game. He is quicker and a better athlete than most think, and I think he is going to have a noteworthy career up in Pullman and his ability to expediently adapt to the college game will be vital for WSU’s competitiveness.

University of Southern California (21-11, 11-7)
You would assume the first bit here would be about O.J. Mayo leaving and becoming the 3rd pick in the draft, but this is about another freshman from last season’s team. Davon Jefferson did this team no favors. He put them in an unnecessary recruiting position when he prematurely signed with agent Arn Tellum. One of last season’s “best unknown” freshmen, Jefferson was a year away from erasing doubts about his attitude and work ethic, but proved them all right by entering the draft and showing up at the Pre-Draft Camp as an overweight, out-of-shape, skinny guy. He wasn’t drafted (despite having lottery potential) and he is gone from SoCal so this isn’t about him, anymore.

What’s left here? The one constant from the past two years has actually been the play of junior forward Taj Gibson. He is one of the nation’s most complete defensive players at 6-9, as he is a presence both on the ball and from the weak side.

Freshman DeMar Derozan would be the natural choice to step into the shoes filled last year by Mayo. Derozan brings a similar swagger, athleticism and game which should fit in nicely with the massive offensive departure from a year ago. To help DD’s transition to the college game will be the returning veteran tandem of Dwight Lewis and Daniel Hackett. Both are veterans of many Pac-10 battles and both can have big nights and/or knock down a late 3-pointer.

Arizona State (19-12, 9-9)
This is an up-and-coming team for me this season in the Pac-10. With the return of uber-freshmen James Harden, the Sun Devils should continue to be a program on the James Hardenrise. Senior forward Jeff Pendergraph has one last year to wow the scouts. As a long, active force inside, Pendergraph still needs to learn how to work his game in cohesion with the offense which is now blatantly centered on Harden. In addition, Pendergraph will be integral on the defensive side of the ball as the team’s last line of defense.

While this team is surely a bit young when you look beyond Pendergraph, the sophomores and juniors on this squad have been playing since they stepped foot in Tempe. Guards Ty Abbot and Derek Glasser (Harden’s teammate in high school) do the little things and make life difficult for opponents while Harden makes plays.

Local freshman product Taylor Rhode might be counted on to add some depth to the frontcourt as a 6-8 Mr. Arizona recipient.

Oregon (18-13, 9-9)
This team is going to be hit hard by the graduation of four-year players Malik Hairston, Marty Luenen (both second-round picks) and Bryce Taylor. This trio provided scoring, rebounding, and leadership which will be sorely missed. The team will return the diminutive Tujuan Porter to run the show for Head Coach Ernie Kent. Despite taking a wee step back last year after an impressive freshmen campaign, the 5-6 Porter is a year wiser and as dangerous as ever whether running the ball up the opponent’s back or knocking down the big 3-ball. As a whole, this team might regress, but Kent and his staff gets props for luring Chicago’s big and physical Mike Dunigan out to Eugene. (Although, if you have ever seen their facilities it’s a wonder they don’t sign everyone. An Oregon basketball player in particular gets the best of both the high-tech world of Nike support and the old-school friendly confines of MacArthur Court, one of the nation’s best places to watch a basketball game. You can quote me on that one, my friends.)

Joevan Catron returns after a year away from the program, bringing his lunch-pail and his undersized (only 6-6) but effective game to the low blocks. Sophomore guards Kamyron Brown and LeKendrick Longmire will be key “veterans” as the Ducks look to deal with a roster that is over 50 percent freshmen.

Arizona (19-14, 8-10)
Chase Budinger was supposed to be in the league; Brandon Jennings was supposed to be the point guard. What an offseason for an Arizona program that was arguably the Chase Budingermost exciting team to watch in all of college ball. While losing out on a talent like Jennings is sure to sting, if even just the one-year temporary kind of pain, it is significant in the scheme of the conference. (Take the Derrick Rose example. John Calipari’s Memphis Tigers played the toughest out-of-conference schedule in the nation last year and lost just twice, once to Tennessee (no. 2 at the time) and in the final to Kansas. Not having Derrick Rose makes them more of a 4-seed type of team.)

Getting Budinger to think against the NBA, though, is like having Christmas a couple months early. He is the most complete offensive player in the college game and is sure to be considerably more aggressive with the bulk of the scoring load placed now firmly on his back. With Jerryd Bayless gone and Jennings in Italy, junior point guard Nic Wise becomes a huge key for Head Coach Lute Olsen, himself back after a year away from the bench. Despite not possessing the offensive ability or even the size of a Bayless or Jennings, Wise can carry the load as a player. He is tough, strong, and not afraid of the spotlight.

Inside, this team will rely heavily on the ever-developing Jordan Hill. The 6-10 center has become more than just a defender/rebounder. His continued progress on the offensive end might make Budinger and Wise a trickier match on the perimeter. Whether the freshmen duo of 7-foot Jeff Withey and 6-4 Brendon Lavender are ready to produce will be key to adding depth and balancing the Wildcats’ attack.

Washington (16-16, 7-11)
This team rests one more year on the extremely broad shoulders of power forward Jon Brockman. For them to contend in the top half of the conference, though, this team will need to get more help from the guard position. With the graduation of Eight is Enough look-alike, Ryan Appleby, Quincy Pondexter has to take on a bigger role with the team to build on his two solid years in Seattle. This move will also give help to senior Justin Dentmon who saw a bit of a dip in his play last year.

Freshmen Elston Turner Jr. and Scott Suggs will be nice backcourt additions to Head Coach Lorenzo Romar and although this group did beat both UCLA and Arizona last year, the Huskies do not look to threaten the aforementioned class of teams.

California (16-15, 6-12)
Arguably the conference’s best frontcourt this side of Palo Alto is departing the East Bay. Devon Hardin and Ryan Anderson both heard their names called during the NBA Draft which will squarely put the bulk of the scoring load on guard Patrick Christopher. Christopher is a nice talent and has an NBA-ready body to along with an advanced 2-guard game, but it is imperative that he becomes consistent from long range. With the added distance on the new three-point line, his career 33 percent 3-point range could be an issue.

To go alongside Christopher, the Bears were able to land one of the west’s top 2-guards in freshman, D.J. Seeley from nearby Stockton. Seeley will be needed immediately, as the Bears have major scoring voids to fill. Cal might struggle.

Oregon State (6-25, 0-18)
This team is still years away from competing in this conference. One year removed for an abysmally winless (0-18) Pac-10 season, the Beavers must learn how to move on with out their top gun from last year, Marcel Jones. (Jones was their only scorer in double figures, just barely topping the 10ppg mark.)

Sophomore guard Lathen Wallace needs to continue his impressive production of a year ago when he got eight points a night on just 14 minutes. Wallace’s development could coincide with a rebirth from junior guard Josh Tarver, who saw a regression in his minutes and production last year.

On the positive side, the Beavers did bring in a new coach in Craig Robinson, who leaves my alma mater after two successful seasons on College Hill. The fact that Robinson is the brother of our future first lady doesn’t hurt either.

Cub Scouts The Pac-10: Although I think there are two teams that are clearly more talented than the rest, I feel this year might be a big one for the ‘Cats from Arizona. Another UCLA conference title would not surprise me, but the Bruins seem to be depending on too many youngsters (albeit ultra-talented ones) while Arizona is bringing back a group of polished juniors. I will include Arizona State, USC, and Washington State (because of my admiration for the coach) as the other tournament teams this year, but I am torn with the Washington Huskies. I want to put them in that group as well, because of their big wins last year, but I can’t. I also can’t believe in a completely re-tooled Oregon team, which will be a year or two away from reemergence. These two Pacific Northwest stalwarts should be tournament teams but overall I don’t think as highly of the Pac-10. It almost goes without saying that the conference’s mass NBA exodus will produce a slight drop in national relevancy. But, just slight, not like it is in football.

Next Week: The continually up-and-coming Big 12 will be put under the Cub Scouts’ microscope. The national champ calls this Midwestern conference, ‘home,’ but with all five starters being named in this past spring’s NBA draft, the national college hoops audience is going to know about a lot more than just the Kansas Jayhawks or Blake Griffin.

Check Cub Buenning’s scouting website for weekly player reports. Many players highlighted in Cub Scouts are thoroughly covered on the site.