Pac-12 basketball preview

For all of the wonderful things that Larry Scott has done in such a short amount of time to make the Pac-12 one of the nation's elite athletic conferences, there is nothing he can do to save the 2011-12 Pac-12 basketball season.

With underwhelming frontrunners leading the charge to embarrassing losses from the league's cellar dwellers, it's safe to say the non-conference portion of the schedule left much to be desired from all 12 teams involved.

As we take this journey through all 12 programs together, remember that there are still 18 games to be played and a lot of things can change.

Let's do this in order of projected finish. We will talk about what has gone right so far for each program, what has gone wrong and which player(s) need to step up as conference play begins.

1) Arizona

Good News: Despite losing Derrick Williams to the NBA, the Wildcats return a strong core led by Kyle Fogg and Solomon Hill to go along with a loaded freshman class. The Cats have played a tough non-conference slate. They have the best combination of experience and raw talent in the league to go along with one of best coaches in the country in Sean Miller.

Bad News: This team has 12 guys that can score 12ppg but no one that can put up 30. Arizona leaned on Williams last year when they needed big buckets and they haven't discovered who will take those types of shots this year.

Player to Watch: Daniel Bejarano. Just kidding. Jesse Perry; a bit of an unknown as a JUCO transfer last season, Perry was a key cog in the machine for Miller last season and has seen a more central role this season. If he can start getting more creative with the ball in the post and getting more scoring opportunities, the Wildcats will be all that more dangerous.

2) Cal

Good News: Another team with a lot of returning firepower, Cal has a real chance to take over this league. Allen Crabbe is a sensational scorer and Jorge Gutierrez is about as good as a defender you will see at the college level. Minnesota transfer Justin Cobbs has been excellent running the show and Mesa native, Harper Kamp is a strong inside presence along with Richard Solomon. In terms of starting five, Cal might have the best balance.

Bad News: As I just mentioned, the starting five is great but the depth is a real concern. There is a big drop-off in the backcourt when Gutierrez or Cobbs takes a seat and the inside presence loses a lot if Kamp or Solomon find foul trouble. Key reserves like David Kravish, Bak Bak and Brandon Smith will need to take their games up another notch in conference play to make Cal a real threat.

Player to Watch: Allen Crabbe; a real dynamic scorer with a great inside-outside type game that will give any defense fits. A good rebounder for his size and a great shooter from the outside (45% 3PT), Crabbe is a leading candidate for Pac-12 POTY.

3) UCLA

Good News: First and foremost, no more Reeves Nelson. Addition by subtraction to say the least, the Bruins have won five straight games since letting the enigmatic star go. Another bit of good news is that Ben Howland is the most successful coach in the Pac-12 having taken UCLA to a couple Final Fours in the past and his team has underachieved so far but they are starting click at the right time.

Bad News: Pauley Pavilion is undergoing a much needed renovation but the Bruins will be playing all across Southern California in neutral "home" games while their home gym is being fixed up. When there is no home-court advantage that can make a big difference in close games when your home crowd is supposed to pump you up.

Player to Watch: Josh Smith; an enormous presence in the middle of the lane, Smith is a very good rebounder and has a soft touch around the basket but the big question mark is his conditioning – if a team gets out and runs, Smith becomes a non-factor and a lot of teams will try to push the tempo against UCLA to negate his impact. When UCLA controls the momentum and plays their game, Smith is a dangerous weapon and can change the game.

4) Washington

Good News: Tony Wroten is all that and a bag of chips. The highly touted freshman is already the leading scorer (16.0ppg) and been a great complement in the backcourt to Abdul Gaddy. The Huskies are also a great shooting team led by C.J. Wilcox hitting 44% of his treys.

Bad News: As good as Lorenzo Romar is and as talented as the Huskies are, they have been wildly inconsistent. In their five losses, they hung really tough with both Marquette and Duke, two top flight programs but they have also been run out of the gym by Saint Louis (on the road) and South Dakota State (at home). For Washington to win the Pac-12, they need to learn how to stay consistent and close out tough games.

Player to Watch: Aziz N'Diaye; a strong force in the paint, N'Diaye is Washington's purest big man in league with a lot of teams that have trouble defending bigger teams. If N'Diaye can average close to a double-double and stay out of foul trouble, Washington can run a more athletic/guard oriented lineup on the floor and not worry about getting out-muscled.

5) Stanford

Good News: Freshman Chasson Randle is the real deal and Josh Owens continues to improve. The Cardinal have a well balanced attack that doesn't wow you in one particular area but they do every little thing well. It turns out that Johnny Dawkins learned a thing or two from his time at Duke.

Bad News: Where have you gone, Dwight Powell? For the last couple seasons, Powell was emerging as one of the better big men in the league but his play this year has been poor at best. Having scored in double-digits only once, his playing time has dipped as his ineffectiveness mounts. Stanford had a soft non-conference slate but the league games will be a truer test of just how good this team is. For Stanford to be as good as it can be, guys like Dwight Powell need to step up in a big way.

Player to Watch: Aaron Bright; a diminutive PG who can score and dish at ease has played well in Stanford's three biggest games against OK State, Syracuse and Butler. That is a blessing for Dawkins to have his floor general to take his game to another level when facing elite competition.

6) Oregon State

Good News: Craig Robinson has developed a lot of talent in Corvallis by recruiting very well and changing the culture. It shows with talented guys like Jared Cunningham, Devon Collier and Roberto Nelson and it also shows with gritty players like Joe Burton and Eric Moreland. It's a good story with the presidential ties but also the fact that Oregon State is often forgotten in the conversation and they could very well be on the verge of a breakout.

Bad News: It's not so much bad news but more of a question mark. Here is a team that beat Texas in overtime, lost a nail biter to Vanderbilt but then lost by two touchdowns at home against Idaho. There have been some signature moments in Robinson's tenure in Beaver land but also some bad, bad losses. For OSU to make the jump in a bad league, they need to learn to close. With a very soft non-conference slate aside from UT and Vandy, the Beavers only won one close game and blew out lesser competition. In league play, the games are tightly contested and Oregon State needs to be able to finish.

Player to Watch: Jared Cunningham; it's always tough to watch this guy succeed after he was bound to be a Sun Devil before some extenuating circumstances landed him in Corvallis. He's an all-league type player that can change games on both ends of the court. If OSU keeps winning, Cunningham will be a known name around the country before too long.

7) Oregon

Good News: Dana Altman is doing his magic and has gotten the most out of a squad that doesn't as much raw talent as the other teams in the league. Another Minnesota transfer, Devoe Joseph has been a difference-maker since joining the rotation. Garrett Sim and E.J. Singler, two veterans, have been solid on both ends and their basketball IQ provides solid leadership for an otherwise young team.

Bad News: Jabari Brown, one of the biggest recruits to ever to play at Oregon left after just two games and has transferred to Missouri. Brown was expected to help take the Ducks to the next level but for reasons unbeknownst to the general public, the situation just didn't work out. While Oregon will still be a very competitive squad, the loss of Brown is an enormous blow to Altman and the Ducks.

Player to Watch: Olu Ashaolu; a transfer from Louisiana Tech where he was one of the best big men in the WAC, Ashaolu has come along a little slower than expected and his disappeared for stretches at a time. If the Ducks can get more out of him, look for a top half finish from Oregon.

8) Washington State

Good News: The Cougars have beaten every team they were supposed to beat up until this point and that is a good reflection on Ken Bone and his staff. After losing Klay Thompson and Ivory Clark to the pros, Bone had a tough job in front of him but the Cougars have played well and Faisel Aden is a star. Aussie Brock Motum is really developing nicely and the return of Abe Lodwick in recent weeks will only help.

Bad News: There isn't a lot of depth on this Wazzu squad and after the Aden/Motum combo, there is not a lot of offense to be found. Bone is a stark contrast to his predecessor, Tony Bennett, as the new regime under Bone loves to push the ball and light up the scoreboard but that might be tough with this squad unless guys like DaVonte Lacy and Marcus Capers start producing more buckets.

Player to Watch: Reggie Moore; one of the better floor generals on the West Coast, Moore is a guy who really does a good job leading the Cougars on both offense and defense and plays very well to his strengths. Moore doesn't do a whole lot of scoring and isn't the most dangerous shooter but he can hurt you in so many ways that he is almost always a key factor when the Cougars win.

9) USC

Good News: Matt Barkley is returning for his senior season. Mesa native, Aaron Fuller transferred from Iowa and has been a double-double threat every night out and Maurice Jones, the pint-size guard, is the best offensive option for the Trojans even though he's never met a shot he didn't like.

Bad News: Jio Fontan is out for the year after getting injured in Brazil on a preseason trip. Hyped JUCO recruit Dwayne Dedmon hasn't been the force he was supposed to be. In essence, the Trojans couldn't score if you locked the gym and no one was guarding them.

Player to Watch: Alexis Moore; a true freshman, Moore was thrown into the fire right away and struggled to find his confidence. After spending a couple weeks seeing his minutes dwindle, he has earned his way right back into the thick of the rotation and has shown flashes of turning into a solid scoring option.

10) Colorado

Good News: The newcomers to the Pac-12 are better at basketball than they are at football so that's nice. The Buffs are a well balanced squad that can hurt you in a lot of different ways. Carlon Brown and Andre Roberson are big guards that lead the attack. Austin Dufault, a big man that almost signed with ASU has improved and is an above-average big man.

Bad News: Just because they are better at basketball than they are at football really isn't saying much. Tad Boyle and his staff have recruited very well and they have a loaded class coming in next season but that doesn't help in the present. This is another team with little depth and little explosiveness. Brown and Roberson will get some points but they aren't going to torch anyone for 30 points anytime soon. For Colorado to surprise some folks, some of their newcomers like Spencer Dinwiddie and Damiene Cain need to develop quickly.

Player to Watch: Spencer Dinwiddie; A nice recruit out of LA, this freshman has averaged almost 16ppg in his last six games since being inserted into the starting lineup. While the competition was a little lighter, this kid can shoot the ball and gaining a little bit of confidence heading into league play can only help.

11) Arizona State

Good News: Keala King is a lot better. Carrick Felix is a lot better. Ruslan Pateev has improved. This a team that beat Wake Forest by 28 points and won on the road at Tulsa. The new uniforms aren't bad. James Harden is doing well for the Thunder.

Bad News: Jahii Carson didn't qualify. That's the biggie. After that, it's just been sloppy all around. Trent Lockett is talented and experienced enough to take over games against these weak opponents and he just hasn't. Chris Colvin is a little out of control from time to time and Jordan Bachynski has seemingly played his way right out of rotation on a team starved for inside production. The Wake Forest and Tulsa wins are nothing compared to the losses against Pepperdine, NAU, Southern Miss and Fresno State – all at home.

Player to Watch: Keala King; here is a guy that couldn't hit the ocean if he shot out of a boat a season ago, King has emerged as a star on this team and if he could just get a little help from the guys around him, I bet he would put up at least one triple-double this season. He's fun to watch and if ASU was for some reason start winning games, King would garner a lot more attention.

12) Utah

Good News: For the Utes, the best news is that their worst team in ages comes in a year where they aren't too far behind the rest of the Pac-12. If there was ever a season to lose Cal-State Fullerton and Weber State by 30 points apiece, this is the year. Josh Watkins is their best player and if the Utes pull off any upsets (and even beating ASU would be an upset), he'll be the guy leading the charge.

Bad News: Did I mention that Cal-State Fullerton came into Salt Lake and left with a 31-point win? That's absurd. This is Pac-12 basketball and it's been an ugly first couple months but this is the worst loss of them all. Utah needs a lot of help this season and it may not come. This is a down year for them and the more losses that pile up; one wonders if Utah will stay focused to remain at least competitive.

Player to Watch: Cedric Martin; not a big part of the rotation early on, Martin has started to get more opportunities and cashed in with some solid scoring efforts in recent weeks. If Utah wants to compete, Watkins will need help and Martin could be the guy.

Awards:

Player of the Year

Allen Crabbe, Cal

Freshman of the Year

Tony Wroten, Washington

All-Pac-12 Team

G – Jared Cunningham, Oregon State

G – Keala King, Arizona State

G – Allen Crabbe, Cal

F – Josh Smith, UCLA

F – Solomon Hill, Arizona


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