Our top storylines for Arizona's Sean Miller and others
With Midnight Madness less than two months away, our look at some of the biggest questions in college basketball for 2012-13 continues into its second week.
Like the NCAA Tournament, we’re taking on 17 questions in each of our four regions of the country (South, East, Midwest and West) for our Great 68 Questions. We’ve “seeded” our questions, too, ranking the biggest questions in each region.
Last week we looked at the South Region (SEC, Big 12, Conference USA, Ohio Valley and Sun Belt) and the East Region (ACC, Big East, the CAA and the Ivy League). On Tuesday, we looked at the Midwest Region (Big Ten, Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley).
Today, we examine the top 17 questions in the West Region. Our final region includes the Pac-12, Mountain West, West Coast Conference and the WAC.
West Region No. 1 seed: Will the nation’s top recruiting class right the ship at UCLA?
A subpar signing class or two can be the difference between national prominence and the NIT. After three seasons of barely clinging the college basketball map, UCLA hopes the reverse is true. After going 56-43 in the last thee seasons, the Bruins signed two of the nation’s top five recruits in guard Shabazz Muhammad and forward Kyle Anderson, plus center Tony Parker. UCLA’s makeover is far less certain than the one that took place in Kentucky when the Wildcats signed John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. Muhammad remains in eligibility limbo. The non-freshman core isn’t a sure bet, either: Josh Smith continues to battle weight issues. Larry Drew II is a one-year transfer at point guard, but will he be the same player who lost his job to Kendall Marshall and bolted North Carolina soon after. The Bruins should have the talent to win the Pac-12 and more, but this group also could have the potential to fall flat as other recent Bruins teams.
No. 2: Or will Arizona’s newcomers return the Wildcats to glory?
Like UCLA, Arizona has been in its own funk, though the Wildcats reached the Elite Eight two seasons ago with Derrick Williams leading the way. Like the Bruins, Arizona has brought in a highly ranked signing class to help turn the tide. Coach Sean Miller signed two McDonald’s All-Americans (Grant Jerrett and Brandon Ashley) plus top-10 prospect Kaleb Tarczewski. The Wildcats also solidified their point guard position with the addition of Xavier transfer Mark Lyons, whom Miller recruited to the Musketeers. With veteran forward Solomon Hill (12.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg) holding the mix together, Arizona also has designs of returning to past prominence.
Related: Miller, Howland rank among top coaches in nation
No. 3: Should we be all in with Dave Rice at UNLV?
On paper, Rice’s first season at UNLV wasn’t all that different than the last two under Lon Kruger. The Rebels went 26-9 overall and 9-5 in the Mountain West and finished with a one-and-done appearance in the NCAA Tournament. But hopes are higher for Rice’s second season. UNLV returns All-America contender Mike Moser (14 ppg, 10.5 rpg) and second-team all-conference guard Anthony Marshall. That alone would be enough for UNLV to contend in the Mountain West, but the Rebels add freshmen Anthony Bennett, who was pried away from Kentucky, and Katin Reinhardt, plus transfers Khem Birch (Pittsburgh) and Bryce Dejean-Jones (USC). The newcomers must fit in with the established veterans, but the ceiling is much higher in Vegas.
No. 4: Or will another star freshman at San Diego State keep the Rebels at bay?
After tying for the MWC regular season title, the Aztecs’ top four scorers from a season ago return as juniors and seniors, including Jamaal Franklin (17.4 ppg, 7.9 rpg). Like UNLV, San Diego State will set its sights higher in 2012-13. The Aztecs add versatile wing Winston Shepard, who surpassed NBA first-round draft pick Kawhi Leonard as the highest ranked recruit in school history. Transfers Dwayne Polee II (St. John’s), James Johnson (Virginia) and JJ O’Brien (Utah) also add to San Diego State’s depth. The Aztecs could go out on top in their final season in the MWC before leaving for a traditional one-bid league, the Big West.
No. 5: Does Gonzaga finally have the right mix to advance in the NCAA Tournament?
Even as the West Coast Conference has become more competitive in recent seasons, Gonzaga hasn’t slipped out of the NCAA Tournament picture, earning a bid in 14 consecutive seasons. Advancing, though, has been an issue. After reaching the Sweet 16 in Mark Few’s first two seasons, the Bulldogs have failed to reach the second weekend of the Tourney in nine of the last 11 seasons. In 2012-13, Few has a team that can make shots all over the floor, even from veteran forwards Elias Harris and Sam Dower. The Zags’ freshman backcourt of Kevin Pangos, the team’s leading scorer, and Gary Bell Jr., are a year older, too. With depth, talent and experience, Few has as balanced a team as he’s had in recent years at Gonzaga.
Related: Few tops list of “best of the rest” coaches
No. 6: How much will Cal miss Jorge Gutierrez?
If the Pac-12 has had one positive storyline in these recent lean years, it’s been the improvement at Cal. The Bears have reached the Tournament three times in the last four seasons under Mike Montgomery. Now, they’ll try to keep pace with UCLA and Arizona programs on the rebound. The biggest departure in Berkeley is Jorge Gutierrez, who was the Pac-12 Player of the Year. Cal will look to Allen Crabbe (15.2 ppg) to be the team’s top scorer again, but point guard Justin Cobbs (12.6 ppg) may be the most likely candidate to step into the leadership void left by Gutierrez, while Missouri transfer Ricky Kreklow may bring toughness.
Related: Montgomery leads rankings of Pac-12 coaches
No. 7: Is the heat on Johnny Dawkins at Stanford?
The Cardinal reached the NCAA Tournament in 13 of 14 seasons under Montgomery and his successor, Trent Johnson. That came to halt in four years under Dawkins. Stanford appears to be on the rebound after Dawkins best season in Palo Alto as the Cardinal went 26-11 and won the NIT. The Cardinal was inconsistent last season, starting 5-1 in the Pac-12 and going 5-7 thereafter, but Stanford returns a veteran nucleus of Anthony Brown, Aaron Bright and Dwight Powell in addition to sophomore Chasson Randle, who averaged 17.5 points over the final 10 games of the season. In other words, the pieces are in place for Stanford to end its NCAA drought. If not, Dawkins will feel the pressure.
No. 8: Can Colorado continue to play over its head?
Perhaps Colorado’s season was more of a reflection of the Pac-12 compared to the Big 12, but the Buffaloes will take it. Despite losing Alex Burks and Cory Higgins, Colorado improved from 8-8 in the Big 12 to 11-7 in the Pac-12 a year later. Then, Colorado shocked the league by winning the conference tournament. Coach Tad Boyle loses two seniors, but returns the nation’s third-leading rebounder Andre Roberson, plus two freshmen (Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker) who averaged at least nine points per game last season. Boyle is a proven program-builder, so Colorado should be optimistic for a third consecutive postseason trip.
No. 9: Can Larry Eustachy keep the momentum going at Colorado State?
Tim Miles took Colorado State from 7-25 in his first season to 20-12 and an NCAA Tournament appearance in his fifth before leaving for Nebraska. The Rams have little reason to be heart-broken with his departure, though. First, they hired Larry Eustachy, who similarly took from Southern Miss from the Conference USA cellar to the NCAA Tournament. Second, Eustachy isn’t the only new face. Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson will give the Rams much-needed size to a team that returns four starters. If Colorado State can solve its road woes (3-9 last season), the Rams should be a thorn in the side for UNLV and San Diego State.
Related: Eustachy, Miles among top hires for 2012-13
No. 10: Which big man steps up for Washington?
Washington was an enigma last season, with the talent to produce two NBA draft picks (Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten) and win a Pac-12 regular season title. But the same team stalled in the NIT. In 2012-13, coach Lorenzo Romar likes his backcourt, as usual. C.J. Wilcox and Scott Suggs, who is back after missing last season with a broken foot, should be two of the Pac-12’s best shooters. Abdul Gaddy hasn’t lived up to his lofty status as a recruit, but he’s a senior pass-first point guard who should be able to set up Wilcox and Suggs. The frontcourt, led by defensive stalwart Aziz N’Diaye, is unproven on the offensive end. Washington may be able to compete with a perimeter-oriented team, but if the Huskies are going to contend in the Pac-12, they likely will need balance.
No. 11: Does Matthew Dellavedova have the supporting cast to keep Gonzaga on its toes?
Saint Mary’s has become Gonzaga’s top challenger in the WCC, winning the league’s regular season and tournament titles in 2011-12. Australian point guard Matthew Dellavedova will return to defend his conference player of the year award. The Gaels have four starters back, but they’ll miss Rob Jones, who averaged 15 points and 10.8 rebounds last season. Jones will be replaced by Southern Utah transfer Matt Hodgson, who continues Saint Mary’s Australian pipeline.
No. 12: Will BYU rediscover its 3-point shooting touch?
Without Jimmer Fredette, BYU had its worst 3-point shooting season in seven season under Dave Rose, converting only 34.3 percent its shots beyond the arc. BYU added junior college transfer Raul Delgado, who shot 43.3 percent a year ago, and point guard Matt Carlino is also working to improve his shot. Establishing a perimeter threat to go with Brandon Davies’ production at center could help BYU contend for its first WCC title.
No. 13: Is Brock Motum the best big man you’ve never heard of?
Sure, Motum plays for Washington State, but former Cougars guard Klay Thompson managed to earn some notoriety outside of Pullman. Motum led the Pac-12 at 18 points per game and may be an NBA Draft pick when he leaves school. The 6-10 Australian has an inside-out game that should give Pac-12 opponents trouble for a second consecutive season.
No. 14: Can Oregon State be better without Jared Cunningham?
Jared Cunningham was a rare NBA Draft pick for Oregon State, but his departure doesn’t mean doom for the Beavers. The other four starters are back to a team that won 21 games and led the Pac-12 in scoring. Coach Craig Robinson, who has taken Oregon State to three College Basketball Invitationals, likes his team’s depth in the absence of Cunningham. Will that be enough to lift the Beavers into a better postseason tournament?
No. 15: Has Kevin O’Neill’s bad luck run out?
O’Neill knew taking over at NCAA sanction-limited USC would be difficult, but he’s also run into more setbacks than just a lack of scholarships and no postseason. Two of USC’s top two players -- guard Jio Fontan and forward Aaron Fuller -- suffered season-ending injuries last season, causing USC to fall to 6-25. The Trojans may not finish in the top half of the Pac-12, but improved depth thanks to transfers could at least keep USC more competitive.
No. 16: Is there any hope for Herb Sendek at Arizona State?
A new athletic director and a 10-26 record in the Pac-12 the last two seasons doesn’t spell good news for Sendek. Neither does the transfer of leading scorer Trent Lockett to Marquette. Arizona State’s best hope is dynamic freshman point guard Jahii Carson, but he sat out last season as an academic nonqualifier.
No. 17: OK, who is in the WAC again?
WAC football is done, but this remains a basketball league -- albeit not a strong one. Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii are out. Denver, Seattle, Texas State, UT-Arlington and UTSA are in. Expect Utah State to return to its familiar spot near the top of the standings while Denver tries to make the most of a more geographically logical conference since leaving the Sun Belt. We'll ask this question again next season when Utah State and San Jose State leave for the Mountain West, Louisiana Tech and UTSA for Conference USA, and UT-Arlington and Texas State for the Sun Belt.