The new-look Pac-12 has decided not to expand again for the time being, as it already appears to be positioned for long-term success based upon the maneuverings of Larry Scott.
But the commissioner doesn’t diagram plays or make jump shots.
For the Pac-12 to regain the stature it once had as a basketball conference, programs will have to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Traditional powers Arizona and UCLA have done so on the recruiting trail lately, Washington has been consistently good in recent years, and the rest are looking to establish themselves.
Will an offseason defined by change lead to a more dangerous Pac-12? Here’s a quick peek …
Two newbies: The Pac-12 no longer has its teams playing in the true round-robin format due to the arrival of Colorado and Utah. The Buffaloes are coming off a year in which they won a school-record 24 games, and the Utes bring with them a championship history. For the coming season, though, it’s unclear how either team will do because they’re both in transition.
Colorado loses its top four scorers, including Alec Burks to the NBA draft lottery after the bouncy guard’s sophomore season. The Buffaloes and second-year coach Tad Boyle do add three transfers, including former Utah leading scorer Carlon Brown. The Buffs were able to sign three Southern California recruits in part because of their Pac-12 affiliation, though one of them -- forward Damiene Cain -- has since announced he will not play in order to focus on academics.
After back-to-back losing seasons, Utah hired Larry Krystkowiak to take over for Jim Boylen, and while the former NBA player has recruited well thus far, his first season could be a difficult one while the team rebuilds. The Utes have only four returners as leading scorer Will Clyburn was one of eight players -- yes, eight -- to transfer. Point guard Josh Watkins is a solid senior to have around for this young group, though.
Arizona rising: The Wildcats will be a different team after winning the Pac-10 title and making a run to the Elite Eight. They lose conference player of the year Derrick Williams, the team’s top scorer and rebounder who left school after his sophomore season and became the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft. The team also saw second-leading scorer Lamont Jones unexpectedly transfer to Iona so he could attend school closer to home.
But Arizona can still be considered a favorite to repeat as conference champs after retaining coach Sean Miller, who after considering the Maryland job decided to stay in Tucson and agree to a contract extension. Miller’s return keeps the momentum going. He was able to put the finishing touches on a recruiting class that ESPN ranks seventh in the nation. It includes four top-100 players, with point guard Josiah Turner leading the way. (As for the future, Zona currently has the top recruiting class in the land set up for 2012.)
The Wildcats also have a veteran team with a roster highlighted by five seniors, including returning top assists man Kyle Fogg and rugged big man Jesse Perry. Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom are juniors who are expected to take on larger roles while sophomore Jordin Mayes should compete for point guard minutes.
Turning pro: Last season's all-Pac-10 first team consisted of 10 players, and only Cal’s Jorge Gutierrez and UCLA’s Reeves Nelson return this season. That’s because eight players left school early to turn pro, reinforcing the conference’s reputation of sending players to the NBA while also leaving it without some of its brightest talent.
Williams’ departure was expected because he was one of the top players in the draft, and he became a first-round pick along with Klay Thompson and Nikola Vucevic. Thompson led the Pac-10 in scoring and leaves Washington State in a position where it will have to somehow replace 21.6 points per game. Vucevic led the league in rebounding, and USC will miss his inside presence.
The unexpected departures also will have a major effect on the Pac-12 race. UCLA might have been considered the favorite to win the conference had Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee returned, but they ended up second-round picks and the Bruins are left wondering how much production they can get from the perimeter. Isaiah Thomas became a second-round pick as well after Washington’s leader in points and assists chose to turn pro rather than return to form a talented backcourt with Terrence Ross, talented freshman Tony Wroten and Abdul Gaddy, who is coming off knee surgery.
Left undrafted were Stanford’s Jeremy Green and Washington State’s DeAngelo Casto. Green was a streaky shooter for the Cardinal who led the team in scoring while Casto was a physical presence who led the Cougars in rebounds and blocked shots. Both would have boosted their team's chances this season (although Green's academic eligibility was in question).
New faces: The Pac-12 does welcome a whole host of players who are expected to make a significant impact, whether it’s highly regarded freshmen or transfers becoming eligible.
Highlighting the newcomers to the conference are four of the nation’s top 10 point guard recruits in Arizona’s Turner, Washington’s Wroten, Arizona State’s Jahii Carson and Stanford’s Chasson Randle. Along with USC’s Alexis Moore, who is stepping in for the injured Jio Fontan, these guys are expected to be game-changing freshman point guards who will have plenty of opportunity for early playing time. Also ready for ball-handling duties are a pair of transfers from Minnesota: Justin Cobbs, who is eligible for Cal, and Devoe Joseph, who can be eligible in December for Oregon. Arizona’s Nick Johnson, Oregon’s Jabari Brown and UCLA’s Norman Powell are top-100 freshman shooting guards arriving as well, while Fresno State transfer Mike Ladd is ready to suit up at Wazzu.
The new big men are impressive as well. UCLA has North Carolina twin transfers David and Travis Wear eligible, providing a pair of 6-foot-10 forwards to go alongside behemoth Joshua Smith and top scorer Nelson. Oregon beefed up its frontcourt by adding Louisiana Tech transfer Olu Ashaolu and Wake Forest transfer Tony Woods, who are both eligible immediately. USC adds Iowa transfer Aaron Fuller and junior college transfer Dewayne Dedmon coming off a redshirt season. Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill predicted to Andy Katz that the 7-foot Dedmon will "average a double-double next year and after that who knows."
Preseason performances: During its preseason tour of Brazil, USC suffered a devastating loss when Fontan tore his anterior cruciate ligament and underwent season-ending surgery. It's a crushing blow to the Trojans, but other overseas trips gave Pac-12 teams reason for optimism.
Brown (during Oregon’s trip to Italy) and Randle (during Stanford’s trip to Spain) showed they are immediately ready to contribute by leading their respective teams in scoring. Both guards bring game-changing athleticism and represent the overall talent infusion into the conference.
So does Carson for ASU, as he was one of only two players to make the USA Under-19 team that competed at the World Championships in Latvia, and now he can form a talented Sun Devils backcourt with leading scorer Trent Lockett. Reigning Pac-10 freshman of the year Allen Crabbe didn’t make Team USA after suffering head injuries during the training camp, but he did bounce back during Cal’s European tour and should team up well with Gutierrez.
The lasting offseason image from overseas belongs to Oregon State guard Roberto Nelson, who during a service trip to Macedonia managed to break a backboard while dunking. The shattered glass left him needing some stitches, but it also served as a reminder that the talent level in Corvallis is flying high with players like Nelson and backcourt mate Jared Cunningham.
Key contests: Let's take a look at some juicy early-season matchups involving the Pac-12 ...
UCLA at Maui Invitational, Nov. 21-23: The Bruins will be able to see what they have early on without Honeycutt and Lee. After facing Chaminade in the opening round in Maui, they get their first major test against either Georgetown or Kansas. Guard play will be the question, but Jerime Anderson does return in time for the tournament after an opening-game suspension for an offseason arrest.
Texas at UCLA, Dec. 3: Both teams saw multiple players leave school early for the NBA draft, and the game will show which team is further along in finding its new identity. The Longhorns get to showcase freshman point guard Myck Kabongo, but as the team learned last season when it got upset in Los Angeles by USC, road wins out West aren’t easy to come by.
Washington in New York City, Dec. 6-10: At the Jimmy V Classic in Madison Square Garden, the Huskies will face Marquette in a game between two programs that produced one of the better games of the 2010 NCAA tournament. The Huskies will remain in the Big Apple and four days later will square off with Duke in a showcase of two of the nation’s top freshmen guards in Wroten and Duke’s Austin Rivers.
Arizona at Florida, Dec. 7: Two conference championship-winning programs that fell only a few points short of last season's Final Four will square off in Gainesville. It should be an interesting matchup with the Gators having an experienced backcourt (Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton) and the Wildcats strong inside (Perry and Parrom).
Arizona vs. Gonzaga, Dec. 17: Two Western powers and defending conference champions will battle in Seattle in search of a significant win heading into league play. The point guard play will be intriguing because both teams are inexperienced at the position while featuring strong frontcourts.
Butler at Stanford, Dec. 22: After going to the national championship game for a second straight year, Butler comes to Maples Pavilion to play in one of the most anticipated home games at Stanford in years. The Cardinal was blown out by the Bulldogs at Hinkle Fieldhouse last year, but could gain its revenge if Brad Stevens’ team is not yet far along in its rebuilding process.
Kansas at USC, Dec. 22: The Trojans nearly pulled off a stunner at Allen Fieldhouse last season, and now they’ll try it again with the Jayhawks on their home turf. USC will be without Fontan, but if Kansas is indeed in a slight rebuilding mode with its relatively inexperienced team, a road win at the Galen Center might not be an easy task.
Cal at UNLV, Dec. 23: The Bears have an opportunity to gain momentum heading into the start of Pac-12 play with a test against one of the top teams in the Mountain West. Can they slow down the Rebels’ fast-paced offense at a raucous Thomas & Mack Center?