Pac-10 relies on strong front lines Getty ImagesTaj Gibson needs to build on a solid freshman campaign.
The line of large bodies stretches from the Southwest to the Pacific Northwest, from summer temperatures in the 100s to the 70s, from being coated in SPF 75 to avoiding wet stuff under an umbrella. Along the way, one thing about Pac-10 basketball has become fairly discernible months before another season begins.
Things have become really big really fast.
Look inside. Or outside. Look on the boards. Or on the baseline. The reason many believe at least six Pac-10 teams could make the NCAA Tournament in March is a collection of frontcourt players whose attributes range from traditional skills to versatile ones, freshman to senior, back-to-the-basket to face-up-and-shoot, beefy to slender.
The reason the best conference in America right now is arguably the one with UCLA is a bunch of really talented bigs.
"I think if you look across the nation at who everyone has coming back, I can't imagine there being a league with more quality front lines than ours," USC coach Tim Floyd said. "It's a scary movie, is what it is. Many of our teams have two players on their front lines who could start for anyone in the country.
"When I left the college game in 1998, we had some very good, experienced big men in the Big 12. Bryant Reeves. Scot Pollard. Kelvin Cato. Raef LaFrentz. Greg Ostertag. Guys who took advantage of staying in college and maturing. But I'm not so sure there was the depth even then that we have now in the Pac-10."
A few years ago, the depth of the Pac-10 bigs was that of a shot glass, when you didn't need a sharp pencil to list the number of quality big men, to jot down names such as Ike Diogu and Channing Frye and Leon Powe.
Now, you ask a player like Washington State senior forward Robbie Cowgill to name those players he most expects to make an impact inside this season, and his opinion seems endless.
Jeff Pendergraph at Arizona State. DeVon Hardin and Ryan Anderson at Cal. Maarty Leunen at Oregon. The Lopez twins (Brook and Robin) at Stanford. Kevin Love and Lorenzo Mata and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute at UCLA. Taj Gibson at USC. Jon Brockman at Washington. There is that transfer from Kansas at Oregon State, Cowgill says. And transfers from Duke at ASU and Cal.
"I didn't realize," Cowgill says, "how many there were until I started listing them. There are a lot more than I first imagined. I don't think it's any secret we have been considered a guard-orientated league in the past by everyone from the outside. But now there are all these legitimate forwards and centers."
When Pac-10 coaches and players begin talking about the better front lines in the conference, it takes most several minutes to mention anyone at Arizona. Some don't even reference the Wildcats as part of the debate, essentially believing fifth-year senior Kirk Walters and little-used junior Mohamed Tangara won't add enough to the talented combination of sophomore forwards Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill to make a significant difference.
It's like talking AFC East football and not discussing the Patriots, like mentioning no-talent wannabes and not beginning your chat with Victoria Beckham.
"I'm sure our guys will use it all as motivation," Arizona coach Lute Olson said. "We think our big guys are going to play extremely well. I would agree the collection of big men across [the league] is as good as we have had."
Yet styles are so different from one team to the next.
Love is the UCLA freshman center Olson calls, "The best outlet passer I have seen since Wes Unseld." Hardin is the Cal senior who withdrew from the NBA draft and is one solid season away from perhaps being a high first-round pick. His teammate, sophomore Anderson, is "the best-kept secret in the country," according to Floyd.
There is a premier shot-blocker in Robin Lopez at Stanford. Oregon State will be getting much-needed help Dec. 8 when Kansas transfer center C.J Giles becomes eligible. Sophomore center Eric Boateng is another newcomer, arriving at ASU by way of Krzyzewskiville. Another transplant from Duke, sophomore forward Jamal Boykin, will be eligible at Cal on Dec. 21. Everyone at USC is talking about outstanding freshman guard O.J. Mayo, but the Trojans' postseason dreams just might depend on how improved Gibson is from averaging 12.2 points and 8.7 rebounds last year.
"The one thing I have noticed each year is that the big guys in our league can do more and more things," said Hardin, limited to just 11 games last season because of an injured foot. "You have bangers and athletes, guys not afraid to mix it up inside or step out and shoot. As for the overall talent, it is as good as it has been."
Best in the nation good.
Scary movie good.
-- Ed Graney
Ed Graney is a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Drills WireImage.comCal's DeVon Hardin was limited by injuries last year.
Another way of describing how good the conference could be across its front lines: Of the top 20 rebounders from last season, 14 return. That includes the top five and six of the top seven. In contrast, scoring might be an issue early. The league's top four scorers and five of the top six have departed.
Milestone of note
Milestone of note: Ernie Kent enters his 11th season as Oregon's head coach and needs 20 victories to pass Hall of Famer Howard Hobson (212 wins) as the program's all-time leader.
It's not crazy to think Arizona's 20-year run of winning at least 20 games could be in jeopardy. The Wildcats return just two players who averaged more than 15 minutes, and the schedule includes 16 opponents that made the postseason last year. Something to watch: Arizona, which lost 11 games in 2006-07, has not posted consecutive seasons with double-digit losses since the 1983-84 and 1984-85 seasons.
An RPI in the 80s didn't help Washington when it came time for postseason invitations last season, so the Huskies have bulked up their nonconference schedule (at Oklahoma State and vs. Pittsburgh, to go along with the NIT Season Tip-Off and a return game at LSU) to help make the résumé stronger come March.
No more surprises
Bad news for Washington State: The secret is out. Picked last in the league's preseason poll last year, the Cougars under then-first year head coach Tony Bennett went 26-8 and reached the second round of the NCAAs. Now, they return four starters. "Our strength will be our experience," said Bennett, the consensus national coach of the year last season.
Eight of the league's 10 teams have made the NCAAs over the past two seasons. Those left home from the party: Oregon State and ASU.
For a league many feel could prove the nation's best, imagine if the NBA hadn't lured away so many of the conference's top players. Of those named to the All-Pac 10 team or as honorable-mention picks last season, Arron Afflalo (UCLA), Marcus Williams (Arizona), Nick Young (USC), Spencer Hawes (Washington) and Gabe Pruitt (USC) all left school early.
USC coach Tim Floyd designed this season's nonconference schedule (at South Carolina, vs. Oklahoma in the Pac-10/Big 12 series, vs. Kansas and vs. Memphis in Madison Square Garden) not thinking he would be losing his top three scorers who combined to average 44 points last season. But if you're going to be young, you might as well be young with such a stellar recruiting class. "I feel very comfortable," said Floyd, "saying [guard O.J. Mayo] will start as a freshman."
-- Ed Graney
* NCAA Tournament
Sophomore forward -- and leading returning scorer and rebounder -- Chase Budinger (15.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg) began working on his strength the day after last season's final game and is expected to take a huge leap from his conference Freshman of the Year effort. Jerryd Bayless is the freshman point guard set to replace Mustafa Shakur, who started all but two of 131 career games. Senior guard Jawann McClellan (knee) finally appears healthy, good news for a team that must replace three starters and 55.2 percent of its scoring.
Herb Sendek might have been raised on man-to-man defense, but the second-year ASU coach can't argue with how well that 2-3 zone worked last season. The Sun Devils allowed an average of just 61.8 points, fewer than the likes of national champion Florida, Ohio State, Duke and Pittsburgh. ASU was in 14 games last season decided by five or fewer points, the most by a Sun Devils team in 23 years. Its final seven losses of 2006-07 came by one, three, four (twice), five, six and 10 points.
His front line among the best in the Pac-10, coach Ben Braun must hope to discover consistent backcourt play now that point guard Ayinde Ubaka is gone. It certainly would help if players remained on the court and out of the training room, given the five surgeries that wrecked any chance of Cal's contending last season. As such, center Jordan Wilkes, guard Nikola Knezevic and forward Jamal Boykin were granted medical hardship waivers and will be classified as sophomores. As a freshman, Ryan Anderson led the Bears in scoring (16.3) and rebounding (8.2), but the forward now has a healthy DeVon Hardin to help carry much of the statistical load.
Not every team comes off an Elite Eight appearance with two returning 1,000-point career scorers. That is what senior guards Malik Hairston (1,139) and Bryce Taylor (1,050) give the Ducks. Also returning is sophomore guard Tajuan Porter, who led the conference in 3-pointers (110) last year. The Ducks lose only one starter, but he's a significant one: all-conference point guard Aaron Brooks and his numbers of 17.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists. One major question is whether Oregon still can go small as often as it did last season and find the same kind of success it enjoyed with Brooks running the team.
In a conference that could rank as the nation's best, the Beavers are still struggling to be noticed. Of seven returners, only three have two or more seasons of experience. Kansas transfer center C.J. Giles will be expected to help on the boards, where OSU ranked last among league teams in rebound margin. Coach Jay John says this is the most athletic team he has had in six years at OSU, and it includes senior forward Marcel Jones (who withdrew from the NBA draft) and sophomore guard Josh Tarver, the only players to start all 32 games last season.
If Stanford can forget how last season ended -- dropping eight of its final 12 games, including a 20-point loss to Louisville in the first round of the NCAAs -- the Cardinal have every chance to contend for a Pac-10 title. All five starters return, led by all-conference forward Lawrence Hill (15.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg). … Stanford ranked last among conference teams in turnover margin last season but first in blocks and offensive rebounds. Sophomore twins Brook and Robin Lopez accounted for more blocks (118) than seven Pac-10 teams. Junior Mitch Johnson and senior Fred Washington (a combined 216 assists last season) will again be the ones finding others for baskets.
It won't shock many if the Bruins advance to a third straight Final Four, not by adding McDonald's All-American center Kevin Love to a lineup of four returning starters. All-American Arron Afflalo and his 16.9 average is gone, but it appears scoring guard Josh Shipp should be 100 percent by October after his latest hip surgery. Darren Collison is back for his third season at point guard, but it might be his defense (Collison led the league in steals last season) that best fuels UCLA's ability to win. The Bruins are in obvious need of better results from the free-throw line, where returning players (excluding Shipp and Collison) made just 49.8 percent last season.
How young is young? Of 15 players on the Trojans' roster, seven are freshmen and five are sophomores. Still, the addition of McDonald's All-American guard O.J. Mayo could be enough to secure USC consecutive NCAA Tournament berths for the first time since 2001 and 2002. Taj Gibson was an undersized forward at 212 pounds last season but has added 15 more pounds to his 6-foot-9 frame, meaning the sophomore should hold his own better physically against the league's other top bigs. The biggest question: Which new perimeter players will emerge as consistent outside threats for a team that ranked first in 3-point shooting last season?
Sixth-year coach Lorenzo Romar has been awarded a nice long contract extension. His team this year should be more mature and better defensively than last year. Four returning starters all averaged at least 10 points, a good sign if the Huskies can replace the numbers of departed center Spencer Hawes (14.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg), the 10th pick in the NBA draft. What on paper looks to be a thin bench should be improved with the return of junior forward Joel Smith from a redshirt and the arrival of Stanford transfer guard Tim Morris, who sat out last season. Washington missed the postseason last year for the first time since 2003.
The style certainly won't change. The league's best defensive squad allowed an average of just 59.5 points last season, and the majority of a 26-win team returns, including the backcourt of seniors Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver. WSU had a season-record 155 blocks last year, but 53 came from departed forward Ivory Clark. The Cougars will miss Clark's athleticism, but freshman center Fabian Boeke could help a team that had a guard lead it in rebounding last season. Proof you can win big without a dominant player: No Cougar averaged more than 13.7 points last year, and only two averaged in double figures.
-- Ed Graney
In almost any other year, there would be an argument as to which league in the country is the best top to bottom. This year, there is no argument. In fact, the Pac-10 is the best league by a sizable margin, and it really is from top to bottom.
At the top, UCLA lost Arron Afflalo -- much as the Bruins lost Jordan Farmar the year before -- but returns everyone else, including Darren Collison. And it will add the best freshman big man in the country, Kevin Love. Now, the Bruins might be better than the last two Final Four teams. USC lost two draft picks, but it still has Taj Gibson and adds O.J. Mayo and Davon Jefferson, to give the Trojans a legit shot at their own Final Four. Washington State came out of nowhere last year and nearly won the league. With Derrick Low and the entire team essentially back -- including ever-improving Taylor Rochestie- -- the Cougs are the third head to the three-headed league monster.
There is not much drop-off after those three.
Washington lost frosh stud Spencer Hawes, but the Huskies also return a ton of talent, including Quincy Pondexter, Jon Brockman and Justin Dentmon. UW is nearly unbeatable at home, and with the Huskies having some experience for the first time since their 1-seed three years ago, Lorenzo Romar's bunch might get back to winning road games.
Stanford returns everyone, including the Lopez twins. Cal might have the three best big men no one talks about in DeVon Hardin (who would have been a late first-rounder had he stayed in the NBA draft), Ryan Anderson (a big-time shooting, scoring wing) and Jordan Wilkes (who is returning from injury). And Wilkes might have the biggest upside of them all.
Arizona lost a lot, but that might be a good thing as Jerryd Bayless will team with super soph Chase Budinger. But maybe the biggest addition in the league is Kevin O'Neill returning to the desert as an assistant to help bring back the defense and toughness that has been missing recently.
Arizona State was not on the mat long with Herb Sendek welcoming in star frosh standout James Harden, frosh Pac-10 legacy Jerren Shipp and Duke transfer Eric Boateng. Mark down the Sun Devils as a spoiler right now.
Even Oregon State has a legit pro prospect in Kansas transfer, C.J. Giles, who has a ton of talent to go along with his 6-10 frame.
-- Doug Gottlieb
Is the Pac-10 the toughest conference in the country? According to ESPN's resident bracketologist, expect six of the league's 10 teams to make the NCAA Tournament.
Early 2007-08 Bracketology
-- Joe Lunardi
Ed Graney is a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.