Pac-10 Season Preview
One year away.
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
Defending Champion: Washington
Defending Regular Season Champion: Cal
3) Washington State
6) Arizona State
8 ) California
9) Oregon State
Summary: Traditionally one of the elite conferences in the country, the Pac-10 hit rock bottom last season, earning only two NCAA Tournament bids, neither of which was higher than Cal’s 8 seed (though Washington did eventually advance to the Elite 8 as an 11 seed). As a Los Angeles native and Pac-10 fan, I’m honored to finally provide a glimmer of hope to other Pac-10 followers out there because the league has received negative attention and snarky remarks from the media and public for long enough. The message, frustrating as it may be, that most Pac-10 fans need to remember while watching their team this season is, “One year away.”
Every school in the conference, with the exception of clear favorite Washington, could preach this to their fan base. The Pac-10 has started to restock its young talent reserve that was decimated by early entrants to the NBA. Now, once again, exciting freshmen and sophomores will be carrying the league. The only problem for 90 percent of the league’s coaches is that, when there are too many of them on one team, inexperience usually prevails over talent.
Lorenzo Romar’s Washington Huskies have the most returning veteran talent by far in the conference, which is why they are both a top-10 pre-season team and the only Pac-10 school that is receiving any love in the national polls. Despite losing Quincy Pondexter, the Huskies are loaded in the backcourt with Isaiah Thomas, Venoy Overton, Abdul Gaddy and newcomer Terrance Ross. The speed, quickness and overall experience this guard group processes will be a hard match-up for other Pac-10 teams. If the frontcourt is stabilized by Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Justin Holiday’s improvement, and UDub gets off to a faster start than last year, then the Pac-10’s best team could be a national threat as well.
The rest of the league will probably be in a race for 2nd and 3rd in a league that might only get a few bids this season. Arizona might have the best talent outside Washington with standout forward Derrick Williams highlighting a group that has a good chance of getting the Wildcats back to the NCAA Tournament. Mo-mo Jones will be given the starting point guard role now that Nic Wise is gone, and the team will probably go as far as their talented lead man takes them.
Washington State has the greatest potential for improvement in the conference standings (that’s usually what happens when you finish last) because of their standout trio of Klay Thompson, DeAngelo Casto and Reggie Moore and the parity that promises to transpire after Washington in the standings. The end of last season pretty much snowballed on the Cougars (lost 10 of 12). A strong start this year should erase memories of that collapse and propel Ken Bone’s talented team to a surprisingly quick turnaround.
UCLA, USC, Arizona State and Stanford are all talented and improving, but one year away from being a real factor in the league race. I can’t see Ben Howland sitting through another season last like last year’s, where the Bruins suffered embarrassing losses and, aside from the obvious decrease in talent, didn’t look like the same program that made three consecutive Final Fours. Improved backcourt consistency from the talented, yet maddening duo of Jerime Anderson and Malcolm Lee will help Howland. Standout recruits Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb shouldn’t hurt either. If the pieces come together, UCLA could be back on the NCAA bubble. USC, Arizona State and Stanford all bring in standout recruiting classes, but each squad is too young to do too much damage this year. Expect each to lie in the weeds this season and be ready to compete for a tournament berth next year.
Team on the Rise: Normally when an already young team loses its leading scorer (and conference’s scoring champion) and rebounder to the NBA, the next season doesn’t look so bright. But despite losing Landry Fields, Stanford has to be inspired by the talent that is arriving at the Farm this season. Johnny Dawkins will rely on conference three-point leader Jeremy Green to assume an increased role this season, but more importantly, Coach K’s former sidekick signed his best recruiting class since arriving in Palo Alto — 4-man Dwight Powell and versatile wing Anthony Brown stand out in an impressive freshman class. Though a huge improvement in the conference standing might be out of reach, things are looking up at Stanford for the first time since the Lopez twins left school.
Team on the Decline: While Barack Obama was captivating the nation during the 2008 Presidential campaign, his brother-in-law across the country seemed to be on a roll of his own. Craig Robinson was hired at Oregon State and miraculously turned around a dormant Beaver program that went winless in conference play the year before he arrived. Now the President is under fire for failing to right the economy, and while Robinson isn’t nearly under as much pressure as Obama, the first lady’s bro is coming off a year that was considered a disappointment by many. Maybe that’s unfair considering the remarkable job he has already done making Oregon State basketball relevant once again, but last year’s Beavers were supposed to take a step forward, not remain mediocre. So now that the program’s momentum is halted and a couple of key seniors have moved on, Robinson is relying on some impact freshmen (and Roberto Nelson’s impending NCAA eligibility) to help the Beavers move up in the conference standings. Oregon State could finish anywhere from 10th to 4th in conference this season, so now we will truly find out which direction the Beavers are headed.
Underrated Player: Though Venoy Overton is respected throughout the Pac-10, he might not get the same recognition nationally. The Seattle native has become the ultimate 6th man on Lorenzo Romar’s bench. Overton might be overshadowed by the flashier Isaiah Thomas, but the lightning-quick guard’s energy and defensive tenacity off the bench gives Romar a super sub for when the inconsistent Thomas isn’t hitting his shots. And playing both diminutive guards in the backcourt together has proven to be a nightmare for opposing guards.
Keep an eye on: Kevin O’Neill and the USC basketball program’s first year after regaining post-season eligibility. The Trojans were expected to stumble last year after a post-season ban, Tim Floyd’s untimely resignation, and program defections, but the team exceeded expectations. Now, with Alex Stepheson and Nicola Vucecic returning to form one of the Pac-10’s sturdiest frontlines, and with the addition of transfer Jio Fontan in December (he escaped Fordham after averaging 15.3 ppg as a freshman), expect a top-half conference finish for the Trojans. If incoming top 100 freshmen Bryce or Maurice Jones (no relation) adapt to the college game quickly, the Trojans will suddenly have one of the more talented squads in the league.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.