Athlon Sports continues its countdown to the start of the 2012-13 basketball season, which begins with the first games on Nov. 9, with a countdown of the nation’s top conferences. We will release one conference preview each day, counting down to the top conference. For profiles of every team in each conference, check out the 2012-13 Athlon Sports College Basketball annual available in the online store.
After three seasons of looking like a mid-major basketball conference rather than one that produces Final Four teams on a regular basis, the Pac-12 is ready to bounce back.
A year ago, even Pac-12 regular season champion Washington was not among the NCAA field with Cal going as an at-large bid and Colorado winning the Pac-12 Tournament. The Pac-12 has garnered only eight NCAA bids the last three seasons, compared to 18 in the three seasons prior.
That looks to change this season. The Pac-12’s best two programs, Arizona and UCLA, have experienced an influx of talent due to transfers and elite freshmen.
Those two programs are securely at the top of the Pac-12, but others will benefit from some coaching stability and the return of key stars. Cal returns Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs, both Athlon All-Pac-12 performers, to go with perhaps the best coach in the league in Mike Montgomery. Colorado returns Andre Roberson along with Tad Boyle, a proven program builder who appears to be doing more of the same in Boulder. Then there’s Stanford, who is poised for its best season under coach Johnny Dawkins after the Cardinal won the NIT a year ago.
PAC-12 FACTS AND FIGURES
2011-12 Regular season champion: Washington
Player of the year: Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA
2012 NCAA Tournament teams: Cal, Colorado*
Best defensive player: Aziz N'Diaye, Washington
New coaches: None
Most underrated player: Aaron Bright, Stanford
Newcomer of the year: Muhammad, UCLA
*Won conference tournament
ATHLON ALL-PAC-12 FIRST TEAM
ALL-PAC-12 SECOND TEAM
ALL-PAC-12 THIRD TEAM
G Allen Crabbe, Cal
G Mark Lyons, Arizona
G Chasson Randle, Stanford
G/F Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA
G Jio Fontan, USC
G Justin Cobbs, Cal
F Brandon Ashley, Arizona
G Kyle Anderson, UCLA
G C.J. Wilcox, Washington
F Andre Roberson, Colorado
F E.J. Singler, Oregon
F Devon Collier, Oregon State
F Brock Motum, Washington State
F Solomon Hill, Arizona
C Joshua Smith, UCLA
2012-13 PAC-12 PREVIEW
1. Arizona (23-12, 12-6)
The Wildcats are ranked No. 7 in our preseason rankings: Full Preview
The basketball environment in Tucson is such that expectations have returned to Lute Olson-era levels. The acquisition of Mark Lyons from Xavier turned Arizona from a possible top-25 team to one that believes it can win a national championship. Meanwhile, the development of four inside players — sophomore Angelo Chol, 7-foot freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski and McDonald’s All-Americans Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett — will determine if this team is good enough for the long haul. But they won’t have to be game-changers with Solomon Hill and Lyons running the show.
Postseason prediction: NCAA Tournament Elite Eight
Related: Mark Lyons, Larry Drew II among key transfers this season
2. UCLA (19-14, 11-7)
The Bruins are ranked No. 12 in our preseason rankings: Full preview
The pieces are in place for a UCLA revival in 2012-13. After escaping the miserable digs of the Los Angeles Sports Arena, they return home to an impatient fan base, frothing at the mouth in anticipation. The talent is in place, recruiting clicking on all cylinders and a pair of freshmen are expected to propel the Bruins back into title contention. They are no longer staring down at the abyss, afraid to make one wrong move. No, they are looking up.
Postseason prediction: NCAA Tournament Sweet 16
3. Cal (24-10, 14-5)
The Golden Bears return plenty of talent and experience. And their depth is even better than a year ago when they finished in a tie for second in the Pac-12. What coach Mike Montgomery isn’t sure about — now that Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp have graduated — are qualities like leadership, toughness and character. Junior wing Allen Crabbe improved his game and will be one of the league’s top scorers, but he’s not a natural born leader. That responsibility could fall to junior point guard Justin Cobbs, a pleasant surprise last season as a first-year transfer from Minnesota. Crabbe, bothered over the summer by a lower abdominal strain, needs to show he can create his own scoring opportunities. He is a strong perimeter shooter, but he doesn’t get to the foul line enough. Cobbs, on the other hand, is an excellent penetrator and gets to the foul line often. He’ll need to prove he can create shots for his teammates. There will be significant pressure on junior post Richard Solomon, who has great potential but was a disappointment in 2011-12. Solomon was suspended early in the season for a violation of team rules then was declared academically ineligible for the second semester. David Kravish, however, exceeded expectations as a true freshman last season after being forced into a bigger role when Solomon was sidelined. Kravish was physically overmatched at times, but he showed a nice shooting touch. These are challenges Montgomery embraces. He doesn’t always have the best players, but his gift is the ability to coax them to play the game he envisions. If the Bears can achieve that, they should find a spot in the Pac-12’s upper division.
Postseason prediction: NCAA Tournament One and Done
4. Stanford (26-11, 10-8)
The Cardinal hopes to build on the momentum of an unexpected run to the postseason NIT title and establish itself as a Pac-12 contender this season. Juniors Aaron Bright, Dwight Powell and Anthony Brown, despite battling injuries, combined to average 37 points during the NIT run. All should be healthier going forward. Bright underwent offseason surgery to repair his shoulder, Powell is better after laboring all year with heel and Achilles issues, and Brown, who also played on a broken foot, had hip surgery in the spring. The team’s best player may be guard Chasson Randle, who averaged 17.5 points over the final 10 games of his freshman season and seems unafraid of the big moment. Those four form a nucleus that boasts experience under fire, and should be ready to lead the Cardinal back into the NCAA Tournament. Johnny Dawkins’ squad is athletic and long and features excellent guards and good depth. The one lingering question is how well the Cardinal will fare in physical matchups without the likes of departed seniors Josh Owens and Andrew Zimmerman. Dawkins believes his team’s ability to survive the midseason slide and finish with a flourish will provide momentum heading into this season. He expects the Cardinal to compete near the top of the league.
Postseason prediction: NCAA Tournament First Four
5. Colorado (24-12, 11-7)
Tad Boyle has an opportunity to do something this season no other coach has done at Colorado. The Buffaloes have never been to the postseason in three consecutive seasons. They have a chance to make history in Boyle’s third year after advancing to the NIT semifinals in ’10-11 and earning a win in the NCAA Tournament last season. Andre Roberson has been a rebounding machine in his first two years. He finished third nationally in rebounding last season (11.1 rpg) and set a single-season school record with 401 boards. He also averaged 11.6 points, but much of his offense comes in transition. Roberson spent the offseason trying to add more perimeter shooting and ball-handling skills to his game in an attempt to make himself into a first-round NBA Draft pick. He could be the second player in three years to leave the program early to turn pro if he continues to progress. Last season’s freshman guards, Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker, are this season’s leaders. Dinwiddie started every game and averaged 10.0 points per game. Booker developed into one of the better sixth men in college basketball providing energy and instant offense off the bench. Dinwiddie might need to look to score more in the early going as the freshmen find their way, but he’s most comfortable when he can be a distributor and pick his spots. That should be his role as the season progresses. Booker will likely be in the starting lineup early. It remains to be seen if it suits him or if coaches will miss the energy he brings off the bench. He’s a solid perimeter shooter and can be a pesky defender.
Postseason prediction: NIT
6. USC (6-26, 1-17)
The basketball gods owe Kevin O’Neill. His USC team was hit so hard by injuries last season that he had only six scholarship players at his disposal at the end of the year. Yet O’Neill somehow coaxed the few athletes he had left to play hard and managed to keep the Trojans in almost every game. Needless to say, he expects both the health and the quality of his team to improve dramatically this season. The backcourt should be the team’s strength. Jio Fontan, who played only half a season two years ago and then missed all of last season, should finally take over as the face of the program. He is a true point guard who can both score and distribute. His best quality, however, is his leadership, which might have been missed most of all a year ago. Mo Jones, a 5-7 combo guard who averaged 13.0 points per game last season, is an option to start alongside Fontan, but the coaches are quietly hoping that J.T. Terrell, a Wake Forest transfer, will win the job. The two starters on the frontline figure to be Dewayne Dedmon and Aaron Fuller, who were the team’s second- and third-leading scorers until injuries shut both of them down at midseason. Dedmon, at 7-0, is still a bit raw, but he has the kind of agility and quickness to be effective in spurts. Fuller, a 6-6 forward who began his career at Iowa, is more fundamentally sound.
Postseason prediction: NIT
7. Washington (24-11, 14-4)
The Huskies had plenty of talent last season, enough to win 24 games and the Pac-12 regular-season title and provide two NBA first-round picks. But they had no discernible chemistry, and it cost them an NCAA Tournament berth. A trip to the NIT semifinals satisfied no one. As always, the strength of the Huskies in 2012-13 lies in their guards, and there is plenty of offense firepower and size to go around. C.J. Wilcox, a 6-5 junior and one of the league’s better marksmen, was the team’s third-leading scorer (14.2 ppg) despite starting only 12 games. Transfer Mark McLaughlin, a 6-6 junior with previous stops at Baylor and the Seattle University, led the nation’s junior college scorers (27.5 ppg) last season at Tacoma (Wash.) Community College. Scott Suggs, a 6-6 senior who sat out last season with a broken foot, was the league’s third-best 3-point shooter in 2010-11 (45.0 percent). It has been suggested that Suggs, who was a team captain when he went down, was the missing component for last year’s maddeningly disjointed team. Everything seems to hinge on the play of 7-0 senior center and returning starter Aziz N’Diaye, a formidable rebounder (7.3 rpg game) and shot-blocker (33) but not much of an offensive threat (7.8 ppg). The Huskies will do what they usually do, which is get out and run, put the ball in the basket in bunches and be practically unbeatable at home. Whether they can be any better than a middle-of-the-pack finisher in the Pac-12 and an NIT team is far from clear.
Postseason prediction: NIT
8. Oregon State (21-15, 7-11)
With all but one starter back and sixth man Roberto Nelson ready to slide into Jared Cunningham’s spot in the lineup, Oregon State could stir up some trouble in the Pac-12 race. Two full-time starters (Angus Brandt and Devon Collier) and two part-timers (Joe Burton Eric Moreland) return up front for the Beavers. Throw redshirt freshman Daniel Gomis and incoming freshmen Victor Robbins and Jarmal Reid into the mix and the Beavers almost look imposing inside. Starting point guard Ahmad Starks returns, which is a good thing for a team that may struggle initially to replace NBA first-round draftee Cunningham and his vast skill set. Starks averaged 12.1 points last season though he shot under 40 percent from the field. He does, however, have a knack for hitting clutch shots — often from long range — late in games. The key to this season could be winning close games. The Beavers were 2–6 in the Pac-12 last year in games that were decided by either five points or fewer or in overtime. Winning a few more tight games could put Oregon State in the discussion for an NCAA Tournament bid.
Postseason prediction: NIT
9. Oregon (24-10, 13-5)
Dana Altman enters his third season at Oregon again looking to build off an encouraging postseason run while dealing with significant roster turnover. Altman will rebuild around junior guard Johnathan Loyd and a senior front line of Carlos Emory, Tony Woods and E.J. Singler. Like Sims a year ago and Joevan Catron before that, they’ll be charged with helping the Ducks remain relevant while breaking in another new-look roster for Altman. Oregon is also waiting on word from the NCAA on the immediate eligibility of Rice transfer Arsalan Kazemi, who was one of the best players in Conference USA and is a possible All-Pac-12 performer now that he’s at Oregon. The heir apparent to Catron and Sims as senior leader will be Singler, once known more for his famous older brother (Kyle) and willingness to take a charge. Now, averaging 13.6 points and 5.6 rebounds as a junior, he’s known for being one of the better frontcourt players in the league. At point guard, Loyd led Oregon with 100 assists in 2011-12 but averaged only 17.3 minutes per game. He figures to have the ball in his hands even more this season, at least as long as he can hold off Artis. Altman won’t call this a rebuilding season, but he’s not naive. “You’ve got six freshmen — any way to put that together quick is probably not going to happen,” Altman says. “It’s just going to take some time.”
10. Washington State (19-18, 7-11)
Washington State has one of the Pac-12’s elite players in Brock Motum, but that may be it. Senior point guard Reggie Moore was dismissed in late September, giving the Cougars major issues in its supporting cast. Moore had an inconsistent career, but he led Wazzu in assists and steals last season and looked like an NBA prospect back in his freshman year. The Cougars also hope to get a lift from Royce Woolridge, a transfer from Kansas and the son of former NBA star Orlando Wooldridge. A better shooter than Moore, Woolridge is also a good ball-handler who can play both guard spots. He was expected to run the point in relief of Moore before his departure. DaVonte Lacy averaged 8.5 points as a freshman last year and should be a double-digit scorer this year. Lacy gives the Cougs another 3-point threat — he shot 34.7 percent from beyond the arc — which will be critical because Washington State, aside from Motum, lacks inside scorers. The 6-10 Motum figures to be an All-Pac-12 first-team candidate this year after averaging 18.0 points and 6.4 rebounds last year. Offensively, the lefty from Australia typically has his way with other big men in the conference, taking them inside and out. His emergence has been a surprise: No one on the Palouse thought he would be a star when he first came to Pullman, and now Motum has a realistic chance at being chosen in the NBA Draft next year.
11. Arizona State (10-21, 6-12)
Not too long ago, coach Herb Sendek was beloved by Arizona State basketball fans. It’s fair to say their ardor has cooled. The Sun Devils have had two straight losing seasons. For various reasons, 12 scholarship players have left the program over the past four years. First-year athletic director Steve Patterson has made it abundantly clear the Sun Devils have to win more games, become more relevant in the community — and do so quickly. That won’t be easy, given ASU is trying to integrate six new scholarship players. It’s not an exaggeration to say that point guard Jahii Carson, who has yet to play in a college game, will be responsible for what happens on the court this season — and off the court after the season, when Sendek will be evaluated by the ASU administration. Carson, a Mesa (Ariz.) graduate who was a non-qualifier last year, is the explosive point guard Sendek never has had in his six seasons at ASU. Carson can shoot, can beat people off the dribble, and he’s a terrific passer. Most important, he makes his teammates better. Carson’s talent isn’t debatable. The question is whether he can quickly adjust to college ball after sitting out a season. There is some promise among ASU’s big men — but just as many questions. The biggest one, both literally and figuratively: Can 7-2 junior Jordan Bachynski build on the second half of his sophomore season, when he turned into one of the Pac-12’s better centers. Bachynski has good hands, he can block shots, and he’s a decent shooter — he shot 57.8 percent from the field last year. But he was a non-factor last year until he started to play more aggressively.
12. Utah (6-25, 3-15)
Second-year coach Larry Krystkowiak pretty much managed to dismiss his 6–25 record, the worst season in the Utes’ modern history, as a symptom of the program he inherited. The bad news for his second season, however, is another year without 7-foot-3 center David Foster, who re-injured his foot and will be out for the year again. In Foster’s absence last season, Jason Washburn developed into a solid player, becoming Utah’s only double-figure scorer with an 11.4-point average. He played well down the stretch, averaging 15.6 points in the final seven games, highlighted by a 26-point outing vs. Oregon. Glen Dean and Aaron Dotson likely were the best players in Utah’s program last season, but they were forced to watch loss after loss while in street clothes on the Utes’ bench. Dean, a point guard, was the Big Sky Freshman of the Year in 2009-10 and again led Eastern Washington in scoring as a sophomore with a 13.3-point average. He shot over 40 percent from 3-point range in both seasons with EWU. Krystkowiak plans to increase the tempo of the offense with Dean running the show. Dean underwent emergency brain surgery in December to repair a congenital blood vessel malformation, but he made a quick recovery. Dotson, a former top recruit out of Seattle, averaged 6.8 points as a sophomore at LSU. He is a shooting guard who struggled with his outside shot in two seasons in Baton Rouge.
More previews for the 2012-13 season can be found in the Athlon Sports College Basketball annual available in the online store
Athlon College Basketball Countdown:
8. Ohio State
10. Michigan State
11. NC State
14. North Carolina
15. San Diego State
19. Notre Dame