Writer roundtable: Focus on the West

Originally Published: December 29, 2011
ESPN.com

With the Pac-12 and the WCC starting up conference play this week, our writers focus on the West in this week's roundtable:

1. Pac-12 play is set to begin. Who wins the league and why?

Eamonn Brennan: Cal is probably the favorite right now, but I wouldn't be surprised if Arizona finished atop the table by season's end. The Wildcats' interior toughness (see Solomon Hill) has been a pleasant surprise, and their ability to get wins without star freshman Josiah Turner -- who has shown some recent signs he could turn his disappointing rookie season around -- could portend big things in league play. Really, though, the Pac-12 is wide open. Your guess is as good as any.

[+] EnlargeAllen Crabbe
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireAllen Crabbe has helped lead Cal to a 5-1 start in Pac-12 play.

John Gasaway: Cal, because it is still a good team even though it dropped games away from home to Missouri, San Diego State and UNLV. Minnesota transfer Justin Cobbs is now starting at the point, and Allen Crabbe and Jorge Gutierrez are both shooting 45 percent from outside. The Bears even get a break from the league schedule, playing four games against the struggling likes of Utah and Colorado.

Andy Katz: Arizona. The Wildcats haven't shown a shred of consistency so far this season. But who has in the Pac-12? I wanted to get behind Cal, but the Bears have lost badly in two of their big games (Missouri and UNLV). Zona is young in key spots, but will get better throughout the course of the season. I kept going back and forth on this subject, but now I'm leaning toward the Cats to win the league.

Jason King: I've still got to give the nod to Cal. The 10-3 Golden Bears don't have any great wins, but the losses (to Missouri, UNLV and San Diego State) aren't terrible. Mike Montgomery may be the best coach in the league, and his squad is more experienced than any team in the conference. If any Pac-12 school works its way back into the Top 25, it will be Cal.

Myron Medcalf: A clear-cut favorite doesn't exist in this league. So for me, it's all about identifying a squad that possesses some kind of edge in a murky field. Cal's backcourt -- with Crabbe, Gutierrez and Cobbs -- is what stands out. That's a talented core that can propel the Bears to the league's crown. They've lost some lopsided decisions (Missouri and UNLV), but their three losses came against good teams.

Dana O'Neil: I still think Arizona wins. Why? Besides the fact that someone has to, the Wildcats have the most talent top to bottom. Sean Miller has had his hands full juggling and controlling it all, but at least he has talent to choose from. And unlike most of their league brethren, the Cats' losses haven't been horrific. They've lost to decent teams and played a good schedule, which is rated as the 26th best in the country.

2. How many NCAA bids does the Pac-12 get and who gets them?

Brennan: Whatever the final number is, it won't be many. This conference really struggled in nonconference play; Oregon State's neutral court win over Texas in November is likely the league's best victory. Now, within the walled garden that is league play, it will be ever harder for a large number of Pac-12 teams to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee. Really, how many quality wins are up for grabs? Anyway, I'll say three -- for Cal, Stanford and Arizona.

Gasaway: I know in RPI terms the Pac-12 looks awful right now, but call me a foolish optimist. Come March this league will get three, count 'em, three bids: Cal, Stanford and Arizona (barely).

Katz: Three. Arizona. I wish I could stop there. But I'm going to go out on a limb here and say Oregon State and Cal. One of the latter two has the experience to win the Pac-12 tournament. Please don't book these predictions. This is the most wide-open race the Pac-10/12 has ever had, but it's not for a good reason. There is so much mediocrity.

King: Wouldn't shock me if the Pac-12 only received two bids. Seriously … who from that league has an impressive résumé? Other than Oregon State's victory over Texas, does any league school have an impressive nonconference win? I think Cal gets a bid, with the other one going to either Stanford or Washington.

Medcalf: I'll go with two because so many mid-majors will gobble up a chunk of the available NCAA slots. My picks: Cal and Arizona.

O'Neil: Barring a crazy run in the Pac 12 tournament, I'm going with the automatic bid winner and one other. The league simply isn't good enough and the nonconference losses aren't enough to warrant more, especially when going up against some non-BCS competition from the Missouri Valley, Atlantic 10 and Mountain West.

3. WCC play has begun. Who wins the league and why?

Brennan: It's a close call between Gonzaga and BYU; frankly, I'm not sure you could convincingly argue that either is more or less likely to win this league. They're both good, and of a similar kind. Still, I'll guess at BYU, if only because the emergence of guard Matt Carlino -- a former Indiana recruit and UCLA signee -- has given the Cougars some much-needed backcourt scoring and balance alongside the frontcourt of Brandon Davies and Noah Hartsock. If Carlino is even half as good as he's been in his first few games this season, the Cougars will be a brutal WCC opponent.

[+] EnlargeRobert Sacre
Robert Johnson/Icon SMIRobert Sacre looks to lead Gonzaga to its 12th straight WCC title, but it won't be easy with BYU in the league.

Gasaway: BYU, because they're solid in all aspects. While no WCC team is as good at anything as Gonzaga is at scoring points, the Cougars get it done on both sides of the ball.

Katz: Gonzaga edges out BYU based on experience in the league and a more advantageous late-season schedule. The Zags get BYU and Saint Mary's at home in the second half. BYU has to go to Gonzaga and Santa Clara late.

King: Gonzaga will win its 12th straight league title. The Zags are deeper and more talented than any team in the conference. Elias Harris, Kevin Pangos and Robert Sacre will all contend for first-team All-WCC honors. Mark Few's squad enters conference play as the most battle-tested team in the league. Its only losses came in seven-point setbacks against Illinois and Michigan State.

Medcalf: Gonzaga is the easy pick. But things are about to change in the WCC. BYU has the balance and skill to win the WCC in Year 1. The Cougars played a talented Baylor team as well as any opponent that the Bears had previously faced. Plus, Matt Carlino's midseason entry is a major enhancement for BYU's backcourt. There's no Jimmer, but there will still be a frenzy surrounding BYU basketball.

O'Neil: Most folks have written off Gonzaga, but I still say the Zags are the team to beat in the conference. They've got a great inside-outside combo in Kevin Pangos and Elias Harris and nothing, as usual, to be ashamed of with their nonconference schedule.

4. Three quick reasons why non-West Coasters should stay up late this season:

Brennan: Weber State's Damian Lillard is the best college basketball player you've never heard of; not only does he lead the nation in scoring with 25.4 points per game, but he's accomplishing that without sacrificing efficiency (offensive rating: 132.9). … Dan Monson's Long Beach State team played one of the nation's most insane nonconference schedules, and it has the losses to show for it. The 49ers' record and low-RPI conference (the Big West) might keep them out of at-large contention, but guards Casper Ware and Larry Anderson have proved this team can hang with (or even beat) the big boys. … As alluded to above, the WCC race should be frenetic. The addition of BYU reduces Saint Mary's and (especially) Gonzaga's margin for error against lesser foes, and the BYU-Gonzaga showdowns could be some of the best hoops the West Coast will produce all season.

Gasaway: 1. Damian Lillard. The Weber State star is not only the nation's leading scorer; he's also a highly efficient performer … 2. Josh Watkins. Utah won't be very good this year, but watching Watkins try to do it all (shots, assists, getting to the line, and even very brief suspensions) for the Utes should be fun. … 3. Denver. If you see a Pioneer attempting a shot -- from anywhere -- chances are very good it will go in. Joe Scott's team is making 54 percent of its 2s, 42 percent of its 3s and 81 percent of its free throws.

Katz: The Mountain West will have a more intriguing title race than any of the other leagues, with UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico all capable of winning the conference. All three should be in the NCAAs, and all three could win multiple games in the tournament. … UC Santa Barbara has been a bit of a disappointment this season, but the Gauchos will still challenge Long Beach State for the Big West title. These two have had some great battles the last two seasons (led by UCSB's Orlando Johnson and LBSU's Ware). Can the 49ers finally break through and beat the Gauchos in the Big West tourney? … The WAC should have one of its most competitive seasons in recent memory with Utah State uncharacteristically struggling and Hawaii and Idaho having legit shots to compete for the title, along with New Mexico State and new favorite Nevada.

King: USC's Dewayne Dedmon is an interesting story. His mother forbade him from playing organized basketball until he was 18 because of religious beliefs. He's a 7-foot NBA prospect who is just now learning the game. His progress will be interesting to watch … UNLV may be the best team in the country from a non-BCS league. The Rebels boast nonconference wins over North Carolina and Illinois … Washington is just 6-5, but the Huskies tout a pair of potential first-round draft picks in Tony Wroten and Terrence Ross.

Medcalf: Steve Fisher has put together a formidable program and Mountain West contender at San Diego State … The Pac-12 is so wide open that an Oregon State squad that won 11 games last season is in contention … College basketball fans need to see Long Beach State's talented trio of seniors (Ware, Anderson and T.J. Robinson)

O'Neil: Casper Ware. The electrifying Long Beach State guard could be the best player you never heard of but one that, if the 49ers get into the tournament, you'll want to know to impress your friends and pad your bracket. … What will happen with UCLA? It's sort of like rubbernecking at a car accident, but it will be interesting to see if the Bruins can salvage their horrific start -- they've won five in a row -- after finally parting ways with Reeves Nelson. … Dave Rice is putting the Runnin' back in the Rebels of UNLV, but could have some Mountain West competition from an unexpected source -- the supposedly reorganizing San Diego State.