Five Biggest Offseason Questions
1. How will Arizona manage expectations? The Wildcats reached the Sweet 16 a year ago and were within a whisker of knocking off Ohio State while there. Now, Arizona is expected to take the next step. The Cats are the overwhelming favorite to win the Pac-12 and compete for the Final Four. They lost Solomon Hill but have a yet another stellar recruiting class coming to Tucson, led by Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. This edition of the Wildcats doesn't have the longtime veteran player, but the overall talent is as deep as it has been in years. Coach Sean Miller has had the Wildcats back in the national conversation since he arrived and their talents will be on full display early during the NIT Season Tip-Off, where a likely matchup against Duke is on tap at Madison Square Garden.
2. How will new UCLA coach Steve Alford mesh with the returning players? Alford doesn't have any time to go through a rebuilding situation. There is no honeymoon. UCLA is expected to win -- now. The veteran players like Travis and David Wear will need to be an extension of Alford. The Bruins will lean heavily on Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson and Norman Powell and they can't afford to have too many hiccups. Alford has a decision to make at the point. Does he play son Bryce, Anderson or freshman Zach LaVine? Whoever he chooses will have to go through some sort of adjustment period at the position.
3. What are the chances Andy Enfield can institute his style of play at USC with the current personnel? The Trojans are a work in progress with a team that is easily a bottom-third squad based on the talent returning. Enfield had quite a run with Florida Gulf Coast, as Dunk City was one of the biggest topics of the NCAA tournament in March. Enfield gave Gulf Coast the freedom to run and dunk and have a great time because they didn't abuse the privilege. Enfield may not have the players to play this style early on in LA, but he needs to make the Trojans a good watch. The previous staff was criticized for being offensively challenged. USC needs to get people to the Galen Center and Enfield was brought in to ensure there was entertainment.
4. How badly does Oregon need Joseph Young eligible? The Ducks are hopeful Young gets eligible soon. The Houston transfer was a big-time scorer last season (18.0 PPG) and Oregon needs another player who can keep the offense flowing. The Ducks are going through an interior transition and they don't know who they can rely on to score in the post. If UO gets Young eligible for this season, then suddenly it takes pressure off Mike Moser and others up front and the expectation level in Eugene will increase.
5. How long will the suspensions last for Oregon State's Eric Moreland and Devon Collier? Neither is expected to be suspended for the season, but there is no word as to how many games, if any, the OSU forwards would have to sit. The Beavers' chances to survive in the Pac-12 hinges on the availability of these two players -- the team's leading returning scorer (Collier) and rebounder (Moreland). The return of Angus Brandt from an ACL injury will give the Beavers their best inside scorer and Olaf Schaftenaar can be another stretch forward scorer. Daniel Gomis has a chance to pick up significant slack if Moreland and Collier aren't around, but the Beavers would have little depth if they don't return.
Best case: For all its strengths last season, Arizona too often drifted aimlessly through long stretches, which is bound to happen when you combine a bunch of young, raw big men who need distribution to get their points and a point guard (Mark Lyons) who was always primarily interested in getting his shots. Now-eligible Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell is an actual point guard -- a pass-first player who shot 43.2 percent from 3 in his last season at Duquesne -- and while he may not be more talented than Lyons in a vacuum, he is perfectly suited to what the Wildcats need. Throw in another monster recruiting class (including proto-Blake Griffin stud Aaron Gordon) alongside Nick Johnson and the remainders from last year's class, and you've got the most slept-on early national title contender in the country. The sky is the limit.
Worst case: Let's be straight up about it: In the early speculative 2013-14 national title conversation, the Wildcats have been drastically overlooked. Maybe that's just because people are so agog at Kentucky's young talent or Louisville's back-to-back aspirations, but it's not totally unfair. Sean Miller must balance a ton of pieces this season, many of them new. Worst case for this team would be another good but not great (e.g. top 15-ish) season. It is far too talented for just that.
Best case: The Sun Devils appear very much back on the rise thanks in large part to the play of now-sophomore Jahii Carson, who lived up to billing and then some as Herb Sendek's lighting-quick do-everything point guard. If Carson becomes a bit more efficient with all his possessions (28.7 percent usage in 2012-13) and the Sun Devils add some versatility to their combo of Jordan Bachynski's shot-blocking and Jonathan Gilling's stretch shooting (Penn State transfer Jermaine Marshall and his 15.4 PPG should help in that regard), a tournament bid should be the baseline expectation.
Worst case: Folks in Tempe are stoked at the chance to once again be relevant, especially considering the depths they hit just a couple of seasons back. Which is why if ASU doesn't get better -- merely finishes in the middle of the Pac-12 table and only barely claws to a tournament bid, or worse -- the disappointment will be outsized, and rightfully so.
Best case: Had Allen Crabbe returned for his senior season, Cal might have been the most frequent answer to the looming "Who stops Arizona?" question. But even with Crabbe in the NBA, the Bears return much of last year's lineup and will insert No. 2-ranked incoming shooting guard Jabari Bird, who looks capable of getting Crabbe-level buckets right away. Mike Montgomery's team has been steady and solid for years, which is a luxury many programs pine for. But something much more could be in the offing here.
Worst case: If Bird isn't ready to get those buckets right away, we're probably looking at a slightly lessened version of last season's 21-12 group. That's OK; that's still a postseason team. But it won't be very exciting.
Best case: With each year, it's getting harder and harder to remember when Colorado being bad at basketball was a given. That's a testament to the job Tad Boyle has done since replacing Jeff Bzdelik, and it will be the case again in 2013-14. NBA scout favorite Spencer Dinwiddie and backcourt mate Askia Booker are good enough to lead the Buffaloes deep into the NCAA tournament.
Worst case: Andre Roberson never quite reached his massive potential, particularly on the offensive end, before leaving for the NBA this summer. The good news is 6-foot-10 sophomore forward Josh Scott looks capable of working the glass in a similar fashion; the bad news is Scott still has a ways to go before he can be considered the interior threat Dinwiddie and Booker need to take this team to another level.
Best case: Dana Altman did one of the best coaching jobs in the country last season, taking Rice transfer Arsalan Kazemi and a crop of (mostly) unheralded young players and turning them into a top-10 efficiency defense, one good enough to push eventual national champion Louisville in the Sweet 16. The addition of UNLV transfer Mike Moser, freshman Jordan Bell and a pack of junior college transfers alongside a group of promising young remainders (Damyean Dotson, Dominic Artis, eta al) -- plus Altman's coaching -- is the reason to be bullish here.
Worst case: Good coaching or no, fact is Kazemi (the reactor core of Oregon's defensive excellence) and three other key seniors (E.J. Singler, Carlos Emory, Tony Woods) are gone. This signals the second phase of Altman's rebuild -- developing his own crop of program stalwarts to push to the next level, essentially -- but it might also mean a step or two back in the interim.
Best case: No question, this is a pivotal season for coach Craig Robinson. Robinson has been great at times and questionable at others, but this is simultaneously his most talented and experienced team, and even if its best-case scenario is an NCAA tournament bid, that would be a nice (if slow-moving) sign of forward progress.
Worst case: Just last week, Robinson indefinitely suspended forwards Eric Moreland and Devon Collier, though it's tough to know what that means, because both players were allowed to keep working out with the team and attending classes, and in July there's not much else you can suspend players from. In general, though, the suspensions speak to a problem that has seemed to plague Oregon State for years. Call it chemistry or "buy-in" or whatever else, but there has been no shortage of second-guessing, and if it keeps up this program is probably doomed to another forgettable year.
Best case: Robinson isn't the only coach facing high stakes in the Pac-12 this season. Stanford's Johnny Dawkins is right there with him, desperately needing his first NCAA tournament bid to keep an increasingly impatient Cardinal fan base at bay. The good news is pretty much everyone is back from a team that was better than its 19-15 record last season, and if guard Chasson Randle turns in an elevated performance at the point, Stanford could make the tournament worries look silly.
Worst case: Another 19-15 year, or thereabouts. Every year, there are teams that we expect to get better because of veterans, but sometimes teams top out before we realize it. If there's little collective growth here, Dawkins might have bigger problems on his hands.
Best case: The hiring of Steve Alford was botched in pretty much every way, from the underprepared coach's first press conference to the insane buyout to the silly reaction from AD Dan Guerrerro in the wake of run-of-the-mill media criticism. Whether Alford is a long-term solution in Westwood is up for debate, but for now, he can thank Ben Howland for leaving Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams, Tony Parker and a handful of other talented players good enough to be a top-25 team and a Pac-12 contender -- and get UCLA fans off Alford's back.
Worst case: Say what you will about the hire (or about Alford himself), but the man can coach, and it's hard to imagine him not getting at least a tournament appearance out of a group of sophomores this good. If the Bruins whiff on that modest front, it'll be a disaster.
Best case: The Trojans are basically starting from scratch under former Dunk City mastermind Andy Enfield, and any best-case scenario -- at least before UNLV transfer guard Katin Reinhardt is ready to contribute next season -- requires only that USC occasionally be entertaining enough to build some buzz. Everything else is a bonus.
Worst case: That USC is not only not good, but the grinding, bricking, eyeball-gouge-inducing brand of not-good they were for the last few years under Kevin "I Guess People Were Going To Stop Hiring Me Eventually" O'Neill.
Best case: Larry Krystkowiak took over at Utah with almost nothing in the cupboard. In 2011-12 his best player, Josh Watkins, led the nation in usage rate (38.9 percent) and was sixth in shot percentage (36.8) and Krystkowiak kicked him off the team anyway. The process of building from those ashes is ongoing, and right now the best hope is that the Utes builds on the overall improvement they saw last year, when they jumped from No. 303 in Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings to No. 110.
Worst case: Backsliding into the putrid 2011-12 morass seems unlikely; things are definitely moving forward. But that would be the worst-case scenario for the Utes. No one is expecting a tournament bid, but it's not a great time for regression either.
Best case: Lorenzo Romar's program has been perhaps the Pac-12's most consistent in the past decade, which is why last season's 18-16 record felt like such a drastic departure. Romar lost some pieces from that team, but the addition of No. 4-ranked point guard Nigel Williams-Goss is huge -- if he can bring the reliable ballhandling and playmaking he wowed scouts with as a prep star, he could make C.J. Wilcox's life much easier, and get the Huskies back in the tournament mix right away.
Worst case: Sometimes losing three seniors from a medicore team can amount to addition by subtraction, and there may some of that at work here (cough, Abdul Gaddy, cough). But this is nonetheless going to be the Wilcox and Goss show with a host of unproven pieces in supporting roles. Even a modest improvement to 20 wins is not a guarantee.
Best case: Per-possession-wise, Wazzu wasn't terrible last season, but its awful performance in the conference -- 4-14, including a nine-game losing streak -- kind of speaks for itself. Expecting a big jump after losing crucial center Brock Motum seems a bit unrealistic, but if the Cougars can finish a few more games down the stretch and avoid some of the brutal injuries they suffered last season, the optics should improve.
Worst case: A season that is bad at a glance and in the deeper analysis. Losing Motum really hurts, and while Bone is excited about his guys -- he has already compared newly eligible swingman Que Johnson to Klay Thompson -- it's hard to imagine how DaVonte Lacy, Royce Woolridge and Co. are going to improve over last season.
Most Important Player
Arizona: Nick Johnson
The Wildcats will have an influx of talent that places them squarely as favorites in the Pac-12. But Johnson is the top returnee who has to ensure that everyone meshes correctly. He has the ability to wow and can stuff the box score, but he needs to be even more efficient and lead. Sean Miller will lean on Johnson heavily to ensure he is prepared to handle the responsibilities.
Arizona State: Jahii Carson
Carson is the best point guard in the Pac-12 and one of the best in the country. He can change the game with his overall playmaking skills and makes others around him more efficient. But now Carson has to lead the Sun Devils to the NCAA tournament. This is on him. He knows it. So does everyone else.
California: Justin Cobbs
Cobbs is a big-time shot-maker and Cal will need his ability to score in bunches and in a timely fashion. The Bears are a bit of an unknown in the race for the league title. If Cal is going to contend, it will largely fall at Cobbs' feet -- as well as highly touted freshman Jabari Bird. The two must work in concert to ensure this marriage works smoothly. Expect Mike Montgomery to look to Cobbs to lead this team on and off the court.
Colorado: Spencer Dinwiddie
Tad Boyle has had the Buffaloes relevant from the moment he stepped on campus, and Dinwiddie is the latest Colorado player who understands what Boyle expects. The Buffs have had a tremendous amount of success transitioning to the Pac-12, and if it is to continue, Dinwiddie must produce at a similar clip to a season ago. There will be even more responsibility, but he should be ready to handle it.
Oregon: Damyean Dotson
The Ducks have a stable of guards and are potentially adding Houston transfer Joseph Young (trying to get eligible for this season) to go along with UNLV transfer Mike Moser. But Oregon will likely go as Dotson goes next season. He hasn't had the national play he probably deserves, but Dotson should get more pop this season as an all-league type guard.
Oregon State: Angus Brandt
The Beavers need leadership. Brandt can provide. The Beavers have to have an inside presence. Brandt can deliver. The Beavers need a player who will play with passion on every possession. Brandt can answer that call, too. If Brandt is healthy -- he missed all but four games last season with an ACL tear -- then Oregon State has an anchor.
Stanford: Dwight Powell
Stanford is a sneaky-good team that could be a regular in the top 25 by February. Powell would play a large part in that. He led the Cardinal in scoring last season, was a staple on the Canadian World University Games team and could be the leader and example the Cardinal really need to break through to the NCAA tournament.
UCLA: Jordan Adams
If Adams doesn't break his foot, the Bruins probably beat Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament and maybe stick around longer than one game in the NCAA tournament. He may not have been able to save Ben Howland's job, but assuming Adams stays healthy, then Steve Alford gets his best player available. Alford can work everything around Adams. He's that good.
USC: J.T. Terrell
Terrell will be playing for his fourth coach in Division I after starting out at Wake Forest and then playing for Kevin O'Neill and Bob Cantu at USC. Terrell must be on the same page with Andy Enfield. He has to become the go-to player for the Trojans and buy into Enfield's new vision for the program.
Utah: Jordan Loveridge
The Utes won just five games a season ago in the Pac-12. If they're going to raise that number, Loveridge must be even more of a focal point. He put up serious numbers with a dozen points and seven rebounds a game last season. But Utah could really use someone to star at an even higher level. Loveridge will need plenty of help. Larry Krystkowiak has recruited well, and change is coming to Salt Lake City. But Loveridge is the immediate future after such a strong freshman season.
Washington: C.J. Wilcox
Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar has had great success with lead guards. Wilcox could have left early for the NBA draft, but chose to stay and should thrive with Romar's need to hand him the ball. And having Nigel Williams-Goss next to Wilcox gives him the necessary help so he doesn't try to do too much. If the forwards can board well enough, then Wilcox will be a tough matchup for opposing guards in the league. He averaged 16 points a game last season and has the potential for a few more.
Washington State: Royce Woolridge
WSU coach Ken Bone got a reprieve after a rough season and was kept on to continue the fight to keep the Cougars relevant in the Pac-12. Washington State lost its headline players over the past two seasons, but Woolridge has a chance to become one for them in the league. Brock Motum ate up the points last season, and Woolridge will have to produce more to offset his production loss.
Simon: Pac-12 Power Rankings
The Pac-12 really hit a low point a couple of seasons ago when only two teams made the NCAA tournament, and the regular-season conference champion (Washington) was not one of them. However, the league has bounced back, especially last season, when it sent five teams to the Big Dance. This season should be no different, as I expect five teams -- and possibly six -- to participate in March Madness.
The conference is loaded with talent and some of the best coaches in the country. Any one of the teams in the top half of the league could win the conference title (and even teams on the bottom half will be dangerous on any given night). Here are my early projections on how the Pac-12 could play out this season:
1. Arizona Wildcats
Expectations are always high in desert, and this season is no different. Arizona lost two players to the NBA draft -- one unexpectedly in Grant Jerrett -- but Sean Miller has brought in another top-flight recruiting class that is headlined by Aaron Gordon. The 6-foot-8 power forward is a special talent. He had a great summer entering his freshman season, winning MVP of the U-19 world championships for Team USA as it won the gold medal (all while coming off the bench). He has a nonstop motor and is a high-level athlete who also possesses a great feel for the game. Another top newcomer is the very versatile Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (imagine a Stacey Augmon-type forward), who is expected to make a big impact at either forward spot for the Cats.
To see how Simon ranks the rest of the Pac-12, read the rest of his Insider predictions here.
Five Freshmen To Watch
Bryce Alford, UCLA: Steve's son was as prolific a scorer in high school in New Mexico as his dad was coming up in Indiana. Alford can make shots. The question is how much will he be used at the point? He'll at least share some of the load with Kyle Anderson and Zach LaVine, and maybe more than that.
Jabari Bird, Cal: The Bears are a sleeper team in the Pac-12, but whether they actually cause serious damage atop the league will depend on Bird's productivity. Justin Cobbs gives Cal a big-time scorer, but he needs help, and the 6-6 Bird has the potential to provide it. The Pac-12 should have strong perimeters, and to contend this season, Bird has to be up to the challenge.
Aaron Gordon, Arizona: Gordon was MVP of the FIBA U-19 World Championships for the gold-winning Americans. That's all you need to know about his skill level. He's a high-flying power forward who should have as much impact as any freshman entering school -- a game-changer for the Wildcats and a brutal matchup for Pac-12 opponents.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona: Hey look, it's another McDonald's All American forward coming to Tucson. The Wildcats are a title contender because of the depth of the freshmen class, and Hollis-Jefferson gives Arizona another player who can come in and make a major contribution. The Cats needed help after Solomon Hill's departure, and the depth coming in from this class should offset the talent depletion, even if it's not as experienced. Expect UA to have a few members on the all Pac-12 rookie team.
Nigel Williams-Goss, Washington: Williams-Goss was also on the gold-winning U19 team and was immediately hailed as a solid contributor who should have a strong impact in the Pac-12. The Oregon native should be able to answer some of the questions the Huskies have had of late on the perimeter. Washington traditionally has done well with playmaking-type players. Put Williams-Goss next to C.J. Wilcox and look out.
Will Jahii Carson Dance At ASU?
No team taking a foreign trip needs it to be a springboard more than Arizona State.
The Sun Devils travel to China on Thursday, and if this trip works well for them, they may just be a Pac-12 top-four team this season -- one bound for the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009.
Jahii Carson is banking on it.
He came back for a third year of college (he was academically ineligible as a freshman) in order to lead ASU into the NCAAs. The pieces are in place for just that, especially after the Sun Devils picked up an immediately eligible transfer in Penn State's Jermaine Marshall (15.4 PPG).
Carson is done with school after this season, barring some sort of setback. This is it. He has talked to James Harden, the most famous Sun Devil to play under Herb Sendek since he arrived in 2006. Harden led ASU to its only tourney appearance under Sendek, and Carson is desperate for trip No. 2.
"If I don't make it to the NCAA tournament," Carson said, "it would be a killer."
To read the rest of Andy Katz's story on the Sun Devils, click here.