Cal’s football team may have lost the Holiday Bowl to Texas last night, but the Golden Bear faithful—a group that includes probable NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, it’s most famous current alum—have plenty to look forward to in basketball season. Mike Montgomery has his team off to a 10-3 start and they look like the best of the Pac-12.
Montgomery has put together a team that’s deep and hits the board hard. Allen Crabbe, Harper Kamp, Richard Solomon and David Kravish all run 6’6” to 6’10” and they all rebound and score. The backcourt is sound with Justin Cobb and Jorge Guiterrez. The man on the sidelines knows what he’s doing and when you consider that the bar in this conference usually isn’t very high, the Golden Bears have more than enough to win their second league championship in three years.
The remaining 11 teams can fall into three different categories: Last years’ NCAA teams (4), the credible challengers (5) and the bottom feeders (2).
LAST YEARS’ NCAA TEAMS
Arizona: Sean Miller led this program to its big success of the post-Lute Olson era last year, winning the conference, burying Duke in the NCAA Tournament and coming within a basket of the Final Four. After sophomore forward Derrick Williams left early for the NBA, Miller has done a solid job of plugging in the pieces. Solomon Hill is the next budding star in Tucson, leading the team in scoring, rebounding and assists. The issues Arizona has is the lack of a true post player and they have a freshman running the show in Nick Johnson. There’s enough talent to make it back to the Dance, but the ceiling for this season is lower than it is for Cal.
UCLA: The Bruins have had a tough time recapturing the mojo of the teams that went to three straight Final Fours from 2006-08 and the loss of Reeves Nelson, the forward suspended for the rest of the year, didn’t help. UCLA’s dropped understandable games to Kansas, Michigan and Texas and not-so-understandable ones to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee. At least the latter two losses were the ones to start the season. What Ben Howland still has is size up front, with a pair of 6’10” post men in Travis Wear and Joshua Smith, along with Lazaric Jones running things at the point. Howland’s sharp enough that he’ll get an NCAA ticket with that core group.
Washington: It’s been tough sledding for the 6-5 Huskies, although three losses were defensible, coming to Marquette, Duke and a much-improved St. Louis team. The loss of Scott Suggs in the backcourt for the year with a foot injury doesn’t help Lorenzo Romar’s cause, but like Howland, he still has some material to work with. Terrence Ross, a 6’6” sophomore , is leading the way both scoring and rebounding, while the backcourt has good size with both C.J. Wilcox and Tony Wrote going 6’5”. Down low, 7-footer Aziz N’Diaye is getting to the glass. The Huskies will rebound and in a soft league that’ll be enough to scrape into March Madness again.
USC: The Trojans were one of the last teams chosen for the NCAA a year ago, but at 5-8 and no signs of better things on the horizon, there’s no repeat in sight. Kevin O’Neill bought himself some time with that unexpected tournament appearance last year, but the master recruiter needs to get some depth in this program quickly.
Oregon: At 10-2 and coached by Dana Altman, who did a good job at Creighton prior to arriving in Eugene, the Ducks are the best bet to grab the conference a fifth NCAA ticket, and could move higher up the food chain. They took Florida into overtime before losing and with E.J. Singler have one of the top forwards in the league. With a good guard tandem of Devoe Joseph and Garrett Sims it’s going to be the development of an inside game that ultimately tells the tale for the Ducks.
Colorado: The Buffaloes haven’t gotten it going yet, with four pedestrian losses—the best of the four was Maryland, who’s on a down year. But there’s some good individual personnel and they have the potential to get it going in conference play. Success starts around their excellent 6’7” forward Andre Roberson who averages 11 points and 11 rebounds a game and extends to a starting lineup that plays big on the wings to compensate for the lack of a post player. Austin Default, Spencer Dinwiddie and Carlon Brown can all create action, and floor leader Nate Tomlinson makes it all work in tandem. The guess here is that the Buffs make things interesting in Pac-12 play.
Stanford: At 10-2, there’s reason or optimism in Palo Alto, especially with one of the losses being to Syracuse. The Cardinal is built around post man Josh Owens, but how fast the backcourt of freshman Casson Randle and sophomore Aaron Bright come around will decide whether Stanford can compete.
Washington State: The Cougars are another team who needs more depth. Faisal Aden is a good player, averaging 15 ppg, but everyone has one like him. A pair of 6’10” players down low, Brock Moturn and Charlie Enquist have to play big if WSU is to separate itself from this pack.
Oregon State: The 10-2 record doesn’t tell a lot either way, as the Beavers split their two noteworthy games with Vanderbilt and Texas. But this is another team with a lot of capacity to do some serious damage, and Jared Cunningham, a 17 ppg scorer leads the wrecking crew. Devon Collier is a good running mate at forward, while Joe Burton does dirty work down low. The backcourt is competent with Ahmad Starks and Roberto Nelson, and I like coach Craig Robinson, brother-in-law of President Obama, to get this program to the Big Dance, a circumstance that would make Obama’s notoriously chalk-filled NCAA Tourney picks even more interesting.
THE BOTTOM FEEDERS
Arizona State: Herb Sendek’s time in the desert has to be running out, as the N.C. State transplant hasn’t been able to get it done and the Sun Devils have been well below average ever since James Harden left to go play with Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City. This isn’t a bad team in its component parts, but the collective group has lost to Pepperdine, Fairfield and DePaul, among others in a 4-8 start. I don’t know if that’s Sendek’s fault, but at the very least, he hasn’t been part of the solution in Tempe.
Utah: With a 3-9 record and only two decent players in Josh Watkins inside and Jason Washburn outside, it’s going to be a long season for the Utes.
Overall, I think the Pac-12 has more depth than has been the case in years. There’s potentially six NCAA Tournament teams here and I like the size that most of the programs have throughout their lineup, especially on the wings. That’s something that can create matchup problems for opponents in March. Now it’s about seeing who can put it all together.