As we begin to turn our attention to the gridiron and the boys of autumn, any real hoops fan knows that it's never too early to start thinking about November and the beginning of the College Basketball season. Here are ten things (plus one) for the Pac-10 fan to ponder while reclining in front of the television on Saturday afternoon:
0: Will it be another banner year for the Pac-10 on the national scene? Sending four of five tournament teams to the sweet 16 and three to the elite eight has given the Pac-10 and West Coast hoops some credibility and needed attention from the primarily eastern sports media. But don't think that a weak or even an average performance in March won't relegate the college game west of the Mississippi to the back burner for another year. It will be an interesting challenge for a conference whose top two teams over the last few years are looking at rebuilding campaigns. The newly reinstated Pac-10 tournament should only help in garnering some headlines in early March.
1: Will Arizona State ever put it together? After enduring another season plagued with problems – and losses – the Sun Devils are looking for better times next season. ASU could be set up for another disappointing season. If the Devils fail to put together a winning record, will Rob Evans' job be in jeopardy? If Evans can't bring success, can anyone? The Sun Devils look to be a sentimental favorite, especially with the return of sophomore Justin Allen from Hodgkin's disease.
2: Will it take another crisis at UCLA for the Bruins to play well? It may be difficult for the Bruins to live up to their preseason expectations. Historically, it's been experienced guard play that's put the boys from Westwood over the top. With the graduation of Earl Watson, all hopes will be placed squarely on freshman point guard Cedric Bozeman's shoulders. Look for UCLA to have some disappointing losses early in the season. But once the harpies in the L.A. media pounce on Steve Lavin, you can rest assured that UCLA will put it together and make a healthy Pac-10 and NCAA tournament run.
3: Will USC put together a defense and be competitive in the Pac? Much of their scoring returns, but it wasn't the Trojans' offense that lost ten games in 2000-01; it was their opponents' offense. Henry Bibby's team showed that they could play "D" in the tournament, but it will take a consistent defensive effort to make the Trojans a factor in the Pac-10. Expect another strong showing as Southern Cal takes advantage of its depth of experience while developing its young talent to carry the torch for the next few years.
4: Will Julian Sensley be eligible to play this year for California? Sensley is easily the most touted recruit Cal – and maybe the Pac-10 – has seen since Shareef Abdur-Rahim. The freshman hopeful out of Hawaii, via Connecticut, could be the difference between Cal making a deep run in the Pac-10 tournament, or dropping to the bottom half of the conference without Sean Lampley's presence and leadership. The only thing that's known at this point is that Sensley is perceived as a difference maker.
5: Can Oregon shoulder their way past Cal or USC? Things are getting desperate for the Ducks. After moderate success in the Pac the last few years, time is running out to reserve their place as a consistent conference top five and Tournament bound team. The NCAA Selection Committee has shown that they are unwilling to allow a sixth spot in the Tournament for a Pac-10 team – deserving or not. With the recent rise of the Bears and Trojans in the conference, the Ducks are faced with being shoved to the lower division by default. Ernie Kent has demonstrated that he has the commitment and ability to coach a top-tier team in the Pac-10, but he may need a few more recruiting coups to push his program over the hump.
6: Will Washington and Oregon State be even worse than last year? After a season in which the Huskies and Beavers tied for last in the Pac-10, both teams lost a healthy portion of their production. Things aren't looking good for these Pacific Northwest teams. Expect OSU to benefit from some new blood, while UW might have a steeper climb in making up for the loss of the majority of their scoring and rebounding.
7: Can Arizona sustain its early season intensity and hit the ground running in the Pac-10 in late December? If a brief study of Lute Olson's Wildcat's recent history in November and December is any indication, look for the Wildcats to surprise many by winning some early games against top-notch competition. Assuming that a maturing Arizona squad finishes strong in conference play, its performance in the late preseason and early conference schedule could mean the difference between a top five seed in the tournament and being a bubble team.
8: Will Oregon sophomore Luke Ridnour pan out as the great college point guard everyone thought he would be? Perhaps the better question isn't if, but when Ridnour will take his place among the elite point guards in the Pac-10. Few disagree that he will benefit from developing in the relatively sheltered environment of Eugene, especially under the tutelage of Kent. But will Ridnour begin his bid for prominence this year, or will he wait for the departure of his senior backcourt mates?
9: Will Arizona choose to go with a smaller, more athletic front or will it opt to go with bulk and size? It's hard to say if Olson will decide to go with size and strength to literally fill the lane, or if he'll choose a slimmer and faster frontcourt to compliment the speed and depth of Arizona's young guards. It will likely come down to rebounding. If Olson and his staff feel that a faster lineup can hold its own on the boards, you'll see a lot of junior Ricky Anderson, coming off of a redshirt season, freshman Dennis Latimore and even freshman Channing Frye.
10: Can Stanford flourish playing with a faster and more athletic lineup after so many years of dominant, plodding frontcourts? There's no question that Stanford will have more backcourt talent and athleticism than ever, but can Mike Montgomery adapt his coaching style to take advantage and shift emphasis to the backcourt? Stanford has a chance to be as good as any team can rightfully expect after losing four starters. Junior Casey Jacobsen and freshman Josh Childress should be absolutely brutal on the wings. The departure of Michael McDonald would loom large if Julius Barnes weren't waiting in the wings. Barnes will bring as much athleticism to the point position as the Cardinal have seen since Montgomery has driven his program to its place of national prominence. Will the Cardinal find continued success with its strong and athletic backcourt? Ironically, it may come down to junior center Curtis Borchardt and his ability to stay healthy, as the Cardinal's depth is more suspect in its frontcourt.
Get Ready: It may only be September but Midnight Madness is just around the corner.