Now that the latest exodus of Pac-10 underclassmen to the NBA is well underway, it's a good time to take an early look ahead at how the Pac-12 will stack up, and interestingly, the temperature of the seats the various head coaches are setting on don't completely align with their teams' prospects.
At least a half dozen players are headed for the pros early, and this in a year when the Pac-10 was generally considered to be below average by many.
Arizona's Derrick Williams has joined Washington's Isaiah Thomas, USC's Nikola Vucevic, and a pair of Bruins, UCLA's Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee in declaring for the NBA. Washington St.'s Klay Thompson appears almost certain to declare as well, though he will probably leave his option to return to school open by not hiring a agent, at least immediately. But judging by the assessment by his father, and Fox Sports Radio analyst, Mychal, Thompson is most likely moving on as well. Colorado's Alec Burks has more to look forward to elsewhere as well, and while less likely than Thompson to leave, business is business, and in the end, that probably wins out.California has inherited the front runner's role, by watching all their primary challengers lose key players, while the Golden Bears return four starters, led by do everything Jorge Gutierrez and sharp-shooting Allen Crabbe. Coach Mike Montgomery was already one of the most respected coaches in the conference, so his seat was almost as comfortable as possible.
But circumstances present an extraordinary opportunity, one the experienced Montgomery will capitalize on. Cal could be the best team in the west, never mind the Pac-10.
Washington was looking at second place before all the action started, and though they were leap-frogged, they did stay in the same place. Losing Thomas makes the recovery of Abdul Gaddy from his knee injury essential instead of important. If that happens, Terrance Ross and C.J. Wilcox make the Huskies a good bet to contend for an even better finish, assuming Aziz N'Diaye progresses, and becomes the consistent factor replacing Matthew Bryan-Amaning.
Lorenzo Romar is the most successful coach in the conference lately, and therefore the most secure. Another year where the measure of the season is how far into the NCAA tournament the Huskies go won't change that.
UCLA has about as much returning talent as anyone despite losing two key players, with emerging talent Josh Smith and Anthony Stover to go along with Reeves Nelson, who could have left, but elected not to, forming the most impressive front court in the conference. Add David and Travis Wear, who become eligible after transferring from North Carolina, and the Bruins have the pieces to return to the NCAA tournament as well, with the possibility that it may take some time, and therefore an upset loss or two, to get their guard play up to top speed.
Yet coach Ben Howland is seemingly under continual scrutiny, if not outright criticism, in Bruins Nation. This despite this year's trip to the NCAA tournament, by a coach who has led UCLA to three final fours. It says something about expectations in Westwood, where anything less than a title game is deemed by some as a failed season. Hopping around town for their home games with a less than fully developed perimeter game will cost a game here or there, and keep the heat turned up on Howland.
Arizona would have been looking like the favorite had Williams, not only the Wildcats' best player, but also their spiritual leader, after his tournament heroics, returned. And if Romar is the #1 coach in the conference, then Sean Miller is #1A after a masterful post season, with only a shorter tenure in Tucson holding his rating down. What Miller does about his frontcourt will be crucial to how far Arizona goes, but this is a team that has more prized recruits than available scholarships, even with Williams leaving.
Miller is one of the hottest coaches around, even with the departure of his brother for his own head coaching gig at Dayton. Look for a mis-step some where along the line with a lot of young talent, but not enough to keep the ‘Cats from being a serious contender.
Oregon was the surprise team of the season under first year coach Dana Altman, and Ducks' CBI Championship only cemented Altman's security, at least for a while. Replacing Jovan Catron is the primary order of business for a team that will be as dangerous as any on the perimeter.
E.J. Singler leads an Oregon team that is beginning to live up to the potential former coach Ernie Kent felt they had, but could never bring out. Altman has been able to make the connections, and Oregon's ability to recruit is reaching an unprecedented level.
Oregon St. has the potential to find the consistency that has eluded them under coach Craig Robinson, as a lot of youth matures. Jared Cunningham has progressed from one of the best freshmen in the conference to one of the best young players. Another year should remove all the qualifiers. Ahmad Starks, Devon Collier, and Roberto Nelson are all just getting settled in as well.
The Beavers should be better, but could still be a year away from peaking, as they will have only one senior, Kevin McShane, on the squad. Robinson's seat is starting to warm up, as expectations based on glimpses of what can be haven't been met. Whether it gets hot or comfortable will depend on whether potential turns into results on a more frequent basis.
Stanford brings back their entire roster if Jeremy Green can get his grades back up, but coach Johnny Dawkins' teams have disappointed Cardinal fans, at least as much as indifferent Stanford fans can be disappointed, at key times in recent years. Dawkins would be in trouble already some places, but the leash is much looser in Palo Alto. An NIT run would seem to be in order, as the Cardinal, like the Beavers, find a way to win a few more close ones as their youth matures. Lacking that, Dawkins could finally find that Stanford fans who remember Montgomery's days on their side of the bay have had enough.
Colorado made it clear that their omission from the NCAA Tournament was an oversight with a run to the NIT Title game, but the Buffalos lose three seniors, and for that reason, probably Burks as well, as the move to the Pac-12 will be a rebuilding year at best. But Tad Boyle demonstrated he is a solid coach, and this year's late season run has the heat off in Boulder. If Burks returns, Colorado probably jumps up a couple of spots. But the Buffs aren't going to be a pushover in any case. Another recruiting class could be required to get back to where they were this year though, but the competition in the Big XII has been better than what Colorado may face in their initial Pac-12 campaign.
Washington St. will probably lose DeAngelo Casto as well as Thompson, though Casto's immediate future is probably in either the Developmental League or Europe. But even that sized pay check seems likely to entice the only inside threat the Cougars have. Coach Ken Bone, popular and respected for his long career in the Northwest, is apt to have an even more one dimensional team, and therefore even more of the maddening to Washington St. fans inconsistent outcomes depending on when that one dimension is working on not.
USC loses what has been a very tough to deal with interior game, and coach Kevin O'Neil did little to develop any depth last year. Jio Fontan and Maurice Jones may find themselves with little help, and less ability to overcome zone defenses. O'Neil has seemed like a fish out of water as the Trojans' coach since his arrival, and this could be the year that sends the much traveled coach down the road.
Arizona St. is coming off a last place campaign, and graduated most of their best players. Coach Herb Sendek's seat would be as uncomfortable as watching his system in action can be if the Sun Devils weren't on the verge of being lost in the shuffle in the crowded Phoenix sports market. Then again, the rebranding and new uniforms that the basketball team will be sporting along with the football team signals that a new emphasis will be in place in Tempe. How Arizona St. will live up to it with only Trent Lockett to rely on remains to be determined.
Utah was the one place with a coach really on the hot seat, and a losing season in front of a lot of empty seats sent coach Jim Boylen out of town. New coach Larry Krystkowiak would seem to be given a pass in his first year, but four returning players, including the Ute's top scorer Will Clyburn, have transferred, and three more are considering leaving. All this couldn't have happened at a worse time with the move from the Mt. West conference into the much deeper Pac-12. The Salt Lake Valley, and the Utes fans in particular, have a tradition of appreciating and supporting quality basketball. The opportunity exists for Utah to seize the market, but the task is tall, and there may not be much patience if Krystkowiak can't pull things together.