The Pac-12. After a number of, well, let’s just call it like it was, laughable, years, it’s back on the rise. There are 4-5 legitimate NCAA Tournament teams and definite enough impact players to make this league noticeable on a the national stage again, and they don’t just play for UCLA.
PAC-12 PRESEASON RANKINGS
1.) Stanford – Johnny Dawkins is about to take the Cardinal to the NCAA Tournament. Chasson Randle returns, as does Aaron Bright (11.7 ppg, 3.7 apg) and three of their top four rebounders. Standford made a charge to the NIT championship last season and have a bulk of that team back. Four-star forward Roscoe Allen comes to campus, as does fellow four-star Grant Verhoeven. Dawkins proves he can do more that back up Mike Krzyzewski.
2.) Arizona – The Wildcats have a ton of talent and not any real question marks. Solomon Hill and his 12.9 points and 7.7 rebounds are back, as is Nick Johnson, even if his play was sporadic at times. Their biggest improvement will be in the additions they made. First, the transfer of Mark Lyons from Xavier into the program gives the guard play an instant shot of intensity. Then the freshman recruiting class was a consensus Top 3 for 2012, headlined by three five-stars including 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski. Look for Kevin Parrom to have a big year on the boards, too.
3.) UCLA – This is the make-or-break season for Ben Howland. He’s clearly thrown all his weight into the 2012 recruiting class with Kyle Anderson, Shabazz Muhammad , Tony Parker and Jordan Adams, three five-stars and a four-star, and Muhammad hasn’t been cleared by the NCAA yet. If this class can co-exist with the likes of twins David (10.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Travis Wear (11.5 and 5.9) and Joshua Smith can keep the weight off and improve on his 9.9 points per game last season, this team could be a Final Four team. There’s not going to be a middle ground. Either they thrive or collapse.
4.) Colorado – There’s really only one name you need to know on the Buffaloes roster, Andre Roberson. Everyone else has memorized it. Roberson’s 11.6 points and 11.1 rebounds per game last season could’ve allowed him to take his game pro, but he opted to return for his junior season. He does have a solid cast of role players around him in Spencer Dinwiddie (10 ppg) and Askie Booker (9.1 ppg, 40.2 percent from the field). The big boost is supposedly coming from a six-man recruiting class, lead by three four-star recruits, including the likes of Xavier Johnson and Wesley Gordon. Tad Boyle is aiming for a second-straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
5.) California – Don’t look now, but there’s a stout program in NoCal. The Golden Bears return leading scorer Allen Crabbe (15.2 ppg) as well as top facilitator Justin Cobbs and his 5 assists per game. It’s not beyond the imagination for people to believe that Cal could make a run to the Pac-12 tournament title in March. There’s a lot of talent coming into this program (more on that lower in this post) and there’s something about Mike Montgomery that makes you think he can get the best out of an unexpected situation.
9.) Oregon State
10.) Washington State
11.) Arizona State
Andre Roberson, Colorado – It’s almost an unwritten rule: If you average a double-double and return for another season, you should be on any all-conference team. Roberson is the best player on an improving Buffaloes team that is poised for a big jump in the Pac-12.
Solomon Hill, Arizona – The best rebounder in the Pac-12 resides in Tuscon, and it’s not even close. Hill averaged 12.7 points and 7.7 boards and he might average a double-double if all the new faces within the Wildcats program give him the help he needs this season. The guy just flat makes plays down low and with another solid season he’ll have a legitimate shot at being an NBA lottery pick. He could also improve his already impressive assist numbers (2.6 per game) with the added weapons around him, if he learns to pass out of the post, which can be a lost art.
C.J. Wilcox, Washington – Hard to believe that a guy who averaged 14.2 and 3.4 rebounds per game was just honorable mention all Pac-12, but Wilcox, a rising junior, was. I can’t imagine that happens this season and if everything goes like it should, this will probably be Wilcox’s final season on campus. He’s a 6-5 shooter that looks like a prototypical NBA 2-guard.
Kyle Anderson, UCLA – I also said this in my Impact Freshman post on College Basketball Talk on NBCSports.com, but Anderson will be the most important piece to Ben Howland’s squad this season. He’s a pure passer that loves to facilitate and that’s been a staple of the UCLA team’s that have thrived under Howland — see: Farmar, Jordan or Collison, Darren. Also, if Shabazz Muhammad isn’t eligible? The Bruins will rely on Anderson even more on the perimeter, especially on defense.
Chasson Randle, Stanford – You can’t necessarily blame Randle for not getting any publicity as one of the nation’s best freshman in 2011-12. He played in a down Pac-12 on a team that played in the NIT (albeit an NIT TITLE team). But quietly, the 6-1 Randle averaged 13.8 points per game for the Cardinal, which led the team. The scoring may not spike, but look for the Rock Island, Ill. native’s rebounding and assist numbers to jump as teams will look to key on him as a scorer.
MOST UNDERVALUED TEAM – California
Mike Montgomery somehow makes it happen in Berkeley. Leading scorer Allen Crabbe and his 15.2 points per game return, as does Justin Cobbs (12.6 ppg, 5 apg) and David Kravish and his 5.6 boards per game. Couple that with a three-man recruiting class that includes four-star guard Tyrone Wallace, and the Golden Bears still have the wherewithal to stay at least on the bubble for an NCAA Tournament berth.
MOST OVERRATED TEAM – USC
I’ve just heard too much on this team. I understand they had to deal with injuries like the torn ACL of Jio Fontan and a lot of inexperience, but I can’t imagine that this season, given the amount of transfers they’re bringing in, that they magically jump from conference bottom-feeder to NCAA Tournament team. Orlando Woolridge is immediately eligible from Tennessee and they also get guys like UC-Irvine transfer Eric Wise. Even looking at all that, I can’t see Kevin O’Neill pulling a Fred Hoiberg. A 12-14 win season is a definite possibility, but I’m not putting them on any bracket as of now.
SLEEPER IMPACT PLAYER – Kevin Parrom, Arizona
Parrom isn’t really a sleeper. His story has been well-documented — his grandmother passed, he was shot and his mother passed from cancer all last year — and he’s rebounded incredibly from it. His averages from his junior season were modest — 4.9 points, 2.9 rebounds per game — but he also was battling all those unforeseeable challenges. I see a second-team all-Pac 12 season from the New York native. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see him lead the Wildcats in rebounding, he’s a 6-6 jumper, who averaged 4.2 rebounds as a freshman.
PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR – Andre Roberson, Colorado
I don’t bet against a player who finished with a double-double in a ‘Big 6’ conference and returned for another season, even if it is at Colorado. The Buffaloes got a huge boost when Roberson decided to return. There’s a lot of great players in the Pac-12, but none with the type of skill set Roberson has. Lots of points, lots of rebounds, lots of minutes. He barely edged out Hill for this, mainly because of all he can do for the Buffs.
PAC-12 COACH OF THE YEAR – Johnny Dawkins, Stanford
I don’t think a lot of people saw this coming. Dawkins lead the Cardinal to the NIT title last season and it’s a safe bet that with all the talent coming back, an NCAA Tournament berth is within reach. Some believed that after Dawkins left a long-time assistant job at Duke, it was a huge risk. Not many Coach K disciples have left the Cameron Indoor bench. However, Dawkins has done an outstanding job, despite the fact the Pac-12 has been down. The Cardinal should take a nice leap this season, and Dawkins work and system are a big reason.
PHOTOS: PAC-12 CONFERENCE/COLORADO UNIVERSITY/GOOGLE IMAGES
Since last week it is safe to say that Kansas State, Purdue, Iowa State and Mississippi State are virtual locks to make it into the NCAA Tournament. With just one regular-season game left for most of the power conference teams, who is close to making themselves a lock for the tournament?
Northwestern: They missed their chance, two of them in fact. In the past eight days the Wildcats have dropped two gut-wrenching games to some top Big Ten competition. First came a 67-55 overtime loss to Michigan State last Tuesday, and then tonight they lost a 75-73 heartbreaker to Ohio State. Just one of those losses may have been Northwestern over the top. To make it even worse, both of those games were at home, and the committee won’t give them many excuses for those games. There is still some hope left, however. Their regular-season finale is at Iowa, and that is obviously a must-win. Then they need to win a couple games in the Big Ten tournament, with hopefully one of them being against one of the five ranked Big Ten teams. This is a team everyone wants in the tournament, but at just 7-10 in conference right now, they are about out of chances. Feb. 29 status: Out
Miami: The Hurricanes got lucky. Their starting center Reggie Johnson only had to miss one game after NCAA violations. This puts Miami in a good position. They beat Florida State on Sunday, but a loss to NC State did them no favors. Miami now needs to beat Boston College this weekend, and then not get upset in the ACC Tournament. One upset and they are out. That’s how much Miami is on the bubble right now. Feb. 29 status: In
Connecticut: I definitely can’t figure out the Huskies. At this point I would say their resume doesn’t warrant an at-large bid. After that buzzer-beater win at Villanova, I thought the Huskies had a shot at turning things around. They lost a close one against Syracuse, and came back from that with a loss at Providence. No really, Providence. They have now lost nine out of 12 games, and the committee certainly won’t like that. They play a Pitt team this weekend that is playing better ball than them at the moment. A couple wins in the Big East tournament will be a must, but they don’t have a Kemba Walker to save them this year. Feb. 29 status: Out
Texas: Simply put, the Longhorns are hanging on by a thread. They continue to beat the teams they should beat (Texas Tech and Oklahoma most recently). A win at Kansas this weekend will make them a lock, but that will be a tough one. Assuming they lose that one, they will be 19-9 with a similar situation as Miami — right on the edge. There will be no room for error in the Big 12 tournament. A loss early on and there bubble will be burst. Feb. 29 status: In
South Florida: Their win over Louisville tonight may have put them over the top. Now they need to just not lose early on in the Big East tournament. But even with a first or second round loss, it will be hard for the committee to not give the fifth place team in the Big East an at-large bid. They have played arguably the easiest schedule in conference, but with wins over tourney teams Cinci and Louisville within the past three days, they seem to be in good shape. Feb. 29 Status: In
Colorado and Oregon: These two teams play each other tomorrow in what may be the biggest Pac-12 game of the year. Both teams look to be out at the moment, so whichever team loses will likely not have a shot at the NCAA’s. The winner may just be able to position itself as one of the last teams in to make it. The Pac-12 should get four times in the tournament — California, Arizona and Washington all seem like good bets to make it. No chance this conference gets five teams in, so that’s why the Colorado-Oregon game tomorrow is a must-win on both sides.
Xavier: The Musketeers have not played up to potential all year, going just 9-6 in the Atlantic-10. Non-conference wins against Vanderbilt, Purdue and Cincinatti are all solid, but they are 0-3 against the top two teams in the conference (Temple and Saint Louis). They have swapped between wins and losses there last 8 games, but those non-conference wins still hold. As long as they don’t lose early in the conference tournament they should be in a position to grab one of the last at-larges. Feb. 29 Status: In
St Joseph’s: I’m not sure if both the Hawks and Musketeers can both make it in. St. Joes had a big win vs. Temple over the weekend, but still will need a little help to get in. Their biggest non-conference win of the year game against Creighton. They lost their only game of the year to Xavier, and a 9-7 conference record won’t go well with the committee. If they run into Xavier in the A-10 tournament, that could be a win-and-you’re-in game. Feb. 29 Status: Out