2011-2012 College Basketball Conference Preview: Pac-12

In preparation for the start of the 2011-2012 regular season on November 7, we’re running a preview series here on Busting Brackets. You can check out all of our pieces in the series by clicking here. Our previews continue with a look at the wide open Pac-12.

CONFERENCE STRENGTH

Pac-12 basketball has sort of taken a hit in the past few seasons, in that there really haven’t been teams that have been viewed as national title contenders. There may not be any again this season, but the state of Pac-12 basketball should be better at the top.

There are four teams that could be legitimate Top 25 mainstays depending on how things shake out. Not all of them will be able to be there, but they all the capability to be there. It’s really just a matter of which team(s) become what we think they can be.

The rest of the league won’t be anything to write home about. When it comes to tournament bids, this is probably only a five bid league. After the fifth team, there are probably a few NIT teams, but that’s about it.

HEAD OF THE CLASS

This looks to be a four team race. It’s as simple as that. Arizona, California, UCLA, and Washington are all going to be the in the mix for the Pac-12 crown. And quite honestly, it could be a situation where the last game or two decides who finishes at the top of the standings.

Let’s start with Sean Miller‘s Arizona squad. They lost Derrick Williams and MoMo Jones, but they still have a group that will win a lot of games. Sure, they lost an exhibition game against Seattle Pacific. So what? While it’s not an excuse, this is a team that will rely on freshman like Josiah Turner and Nick Johnson to provide scoring. When you lose a player of Williams’ caliber, there are going to be some question marks early on. But veterans like Kyle Fogg, Solomon Hill, and Kevin Parrom should be able to help get the chemistry flowing.

Next up, Cal. Mike Montgomery has to be excited about the possibilities for this experienced team. Four starters return, and they have three players capable of reaching first team All Pac-12 status. Jorge Gutierrez is the kind of player every coach wants to have, and he’ll once again be the spark plug for this unit. He averaged nearly 15 points per game last season which seems about right in terms of what we can expect this year. Then there’s last year’s best Pac-12 freshman, Allen Crabbe, who will also be a huge scoring threat for the Golden Bears. Oh, and then there’s forward Harper Kamp, who could up his rebounding numbers and be a double-double guy. With the experience and leadership of Gutierrez and Kamp, it’s easy to see why a lot of people are picking them to win the conference.

Moving right along, let’s go to UCLA. The Bruins are an interesting bunch heading into the season. There’s no debating that their frontcourt is the best in the league. Reeves Nelson is going to have some of the best numbers in the conference, especially if he can add a nice away from the basket game to his arsenal. Joshua Smith will be his partner in crime on the inside, and at 300 lbs., he has the potential to completely control the paint as long as his conditioning improves from last season. Also joining them will be the Wear twins, David and Travis, who should provide some help in the depth department considering that they’ll be in the rotation right away. They’ll need someone to step up in the backcourt from the group of Lazeric Jones, Tyler Lamb, De’End Parker, Jerime Anderson, and Norman Powell though. If they can find someone that can knock down the outside shot night in and night out, it will take some of the pressure off the inside. So the potential is there for this team. But the biggest concern might have more to do with where they’ll be playing their home games: the L.A. Sports Arena. Pauley Pavilion is being renovated, and well, the LA Sports Arena is no Pauley Pavilion. That’s for sure.

The last of the big four is Washington. Even though the Huskies lose a lot of scoring from a year ago, they have guys who can step up and fill that void. Specifically Terrence Ross, who is just going to have a monster season. Ross has all the tools to not only be the best player in this conference, but also be one of the best players in the entire country. Their point guard play is going to be outstanding, with Abdul Gaddy back from an ACL injury, and stud freshman Tony Wroten Jr. entering the picture. And when those guys get into the paint, they’ll have a nice pair of shooters on the outside in C.J. Wilcox and Scott Suggs, once he returns from an injury. In the frontcourt, Darnell Gant and Aziz N’Diaye will lead a group that probably won’t need to provide a ton of scoring, but they will need to be very effective on the defensive end of the floor. Lorenzo Romar has a very intriguing group here, especically when you look at the breakout potential of players like Ross, Wroten Jr., and Gaddy.

THE SLEEPER

With all the talk about these top four, there really hasn’t been a whole lot of mention about the team that Dana Altman has assembled at Oregon. He adds an impact freshman in Jabari Brown, plus transfers Devoe Joseph (from Minnesota), Tony Woods (from Wake Forest), and Olu Ashaolu (from Louisiana Tech). Joseph will sit out the first half of the season, but the rest of these guys should make their presence felt from the get-go. Throw in returners like E.J. Singler and Tyler Nared, and this team has quite the potential from a talent standpoint.

But is this a team capable of moving into that top four? It depends. The depth is there. It’s all going to come down to how quickly they gel, considering they have a lot of players who are expected to make an impact weren’t on this roster last season. Four of their first six conference games are on the road, with trips to Washington and Arizona in that stretch. By then though, if things go as planned, we should already know what type of team they are going to be. They might not win the league, but they’re certainly capable of beating any of the top four.

FIRST TEAM ALL-CONFERENCE

  • Terrence Ross (Washington) – He’s flying under the radar on the national level right now. But I think he’ll be the best player in the Pac-12 by season’s end.
  • Reeves Nelson (UCLA) – Part of the best post duo in the Pac-12, and he’ll once again be the go-to-guy for the Bruins this season.
  • Joshua Smith (UCLA) – Could be a double-double year for him depending on how long he can stay in the game.
  • Jorge Gutierrez (California) – Another big year for the senior guard. He makes Cal go.
  • Allen Crabbe (California) – Top freshman a year ago will be one of the top players in the league this season.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

Needless to say, picking how the top four will shake out is pretty much impossible. There just isn’t a whole lot that separates these four teams. So just because one team finishes fourth and another finishes first doesn’t mean that there will be more than a one or two game seperation between the two. It’s gonna be that close, and obviously, this could go in any order. But here’s what I’ll go with:

  • 1. Washington – Call it a hunch or whatever you want. But I just think Lorenzo Romar has something here. I think a lot of people are underestimating how much production Wroten Jr. is gonna bring to the table. And if Ross breaks out as expected, he’ll be one of the best players in the country. Yes, they lost three of their best players. But everyone has that team that they think will exceed expectations. Here’s mine.
  • 2. UCLA – Again, the frontcourt will be the bread and butter of this team. As long as their guards take care of the ball and provide a little scoring, it’s going to be hard for a lot of teams to beat them. But clearly, the Nelson/Smith combination will be what makes them go.
  • 3. California – Montgomery will have his team playing at a high level. We don’t have to worry about that. The biggest concern for this team might be depth. Gutierrez, Crabbe, and Kamp are going to be the main contributors. But who steps up around them?
  • 4. Arizona – This has nothing to do with their play in exhibitions. And it really isn’t even a knock on this team. They’ll be in the NCAA tournament, but I don’t know if they are better as a whole than any of the three teams before them.
  • 5. Oregon – Any other year, this is the kind of team that would be competing for a Pac-12 crown. And maybe they find their way into the race this season. It’s all about chemistry for Altman’s squad.
  • 6. Oregon State – Maybe a little high to some, however, they have the bulk of their starting lineup back. That includes Jared Cunningham, who is due for a big, big year.
  • 7. Stanford – Also a lot of talent returning for Johnny Dawkins‘ team, particularly in the frontcourt with Josh Owens and Dwight Powell.
  • 8. USC – There’s a lot of unknowns with team. But Kevin O’Neill knows how to coach, and he’ll find the right mix.
  • 9. Washington State – Lost a lot of scoring production, but their guards are still pretty good.
  • 10. Arizona State – Another team with a lot of unknowns. It might be a bit of a struggle for the Sun Devils this season.
  • 11. Colorado – Expectations aren’t very high for Tad Boyle‘s team as they enter a new conference. Andre Roberson has good potential though.
  • 12. Utah – It’s hard to see Utah winning many conference games this season as they also transition into a new conference.

Well there you have it. What are your thoughts on the Pac-12 this season?

Who Will Win the Pac-12?

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