Arizona is going to be the second-most-interesting team in the conference to watch in 2012-2013. They have the potential to be very good, just need a few elements to develop and come through.
The known element is senior Solomon Hill, the all-conference small forward who was truly one of the best players in the conference last season, averaging 12.9 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, and presenting match-up nightmares for opponents.
After that it gets a little uncertain, but again, there is a great amount of talent and potential.
The biggest hole to fill is at point guard, with Josiah Turner transferring out of the program. Mark Lyons, a transfer from Xavier, will step in and have immediate eligibility as a senior, and he'll be intriguing to watch. He averaged 15 points per game last year, and is a very good scorer, but he played off the ball at Xavier and wants to play point guard, and it's one of the reasons he opted for Arizona for one year. He also has had some off-the-court issues in the past.
Almost certainly slotting into the starting shooting guard spot will be sophomore Nick Johnson. Johnson showed good form on his jumper, even though he averaged just 33% from three, but you can expect that to improve next season. His on-ball defense is a question.
The last two starting spots -- in the frontcourt -- are completely up in the air. Among the candidates are sophomore post Angelo Chol, who had a bumpy learning experience as a freshman last season, and then three very talented freshmen in Grant Jerrett, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski. Jerrett is the most developed skill-wise, but Ashley and Tarc might have the more upside. All three are literally future pros. We could see the Wildcats starting off initially with Chol and Jerrett as the starting frontcourt but Tarc overtaking Chol during the season, and Ashley being a wildcard in it all.
Arizona should have a good bench, with back-up junior point guard Jordin Mayes, senior wing Kevin Parrom and freshman shooting guard Gabe York, to go along with the depth in the frontcourt.
It will be a completely different Arizona team from last season, going from being very small to very big. A big question is how will Hill make the transition to small forward; it was quite clear he enjoyed exploiting mis-matches at power forward last season, and it will be interesting to see if he'll be as effective at small forward playing against guys more his size. We suspect he will, and with some other pieces falling into place for the Wildcats they have a chance to be very good.
After a truly dismal season in 2011-2012, one in which the Sun Devils went 10-21 overall and 6-12 in the conference (finishing in 10th), it feels like the program under Herb Sendek is on its last legs.
The departure of the program's best player, Trent Lockett, which just happened earlier this month, is another big blow. Lockett, who led the team in scoring (13 PPG) and rebounding (5.8) last season, is transferring to Marquette to be closer to his mother, who has cancer.
Sendek, too, had to dismiss his second-most-talented player, Keala King, early in the season for attitude issues. He also lost role players Kyle Cain and Chanse Creekmur.
That just doesn't leave much in the cupboard.
But Sendek isn't going down without a fight. He returns everyone else from his roster last season -- the team not having one senior in 2011 (being only one of nine teams in the country without one). But that's now only five players.
He'll then have Jahii Carson, the point guard who had to sit out last season as a freshman to become eligible, and Carson will immediately become the team's most talented player.
Sendek will also add two transfers, Bo Barnes from Hawaii, and Evan Gordon from Liberty.
But it's still not much.
Carrick Felix, the senior small forward 10.5 PPG, 32% from three), will be the team's leader, but Felix is a limited, spot-up shooter. The 7-1 Jordan Bachynski proved to be a pretty good inside presence last season, even though he's very limited offensively and wasn't seemingly able to stay on the court for too long. Jonathan Gilling, the 6-7 sophomore, showed some of the most talent on the team last season as a freshman, with good athleticism and an ability to take defenders off the dribble while also shooting 41% from three. He's clearly the best bet as the player who will emerge as a star on this team (besides Carson).
That probably leaves an opening in the starting lineup at guard. Chris Colvin, the 6-2 senior guard who has been used primarily as a back-up point, has some talent and can put points on the board, but can also be out of control. It's difficult to know what to expect from Barnes and Gordon, who are both guards.
ASU will then plug in freshmen combo guard Calaen Robinson, and two posts, 6-9 Kenny Martin and 6-10 Eric Jacobsen. We think both Robinson and Martin will be able to come in and immediately contribute, not only because the ASU roster is pretty thin but they're both good prospects. Robinson is very athletic and the lefty can really put the ball in the basket, while also being a good defender. Martin is a very good shooting, high-motor power-forward type. Jacobsen is a space-eater, with limited athleticism, but has some potential down the line. He might be limited in his playing time next season because ASU does already have a big, bulky back-up center in Rusian Pateev.
So much of ASU's season is going to ride on how Carson does. It could be a tough, or at least strange, transition for him. Carson is a jet-quick, play-fast kind of point guard, and it will be interesting to see how he fits in to Sendek's slower, half-court offense and the zone defense.
There are just too many random and disjointed pieces -- and many of them just not very talented -- to project anything more than a bottom third finish in the conference. In fact, ASU could be destined for the Pac-12 cellar in 2012-2013.
With a new AD at ASU, it's not a stretch to surmise that Sendek is on the extreme hot seat.
The Ducks had a season in 2011-2012 that they're fairly pleased with, finishing 24-10 and 13-5, good enough for third place in the Pac-12, and then they went on to the quarterfinals of the NIT (where they lost to Washington).
That would lead many prognosticators to think they're starting to build something and are on their way up.
But it might be a matter of one step up (2011-2012) and one step back (2012-2013).
We just don't see where Oregon is going to have the talent to compete in the top third of the conference. The Ducks lose five key seniors, including three starters, their best player, Devoe Joseph, their glue guy, Garrett Sim, and starting post Olu Ashaolu. And there just isn't much talent to replace them, much less experienced talent.
The Ducks might not have felt the impact that much of the early transfer last season of big-time prospect Jabari Brown, but they'll probably feel it more this season when they're looking for players to step in after the departure of those seniors. While that transfer took much of the spotlight, it's also signficant that another freshman from last season, point guard Bruce Barron, left.
E.J. Singler will return as a senior, after a season where he averaged 13.6 points and 5.6 boards. Without Joseph, he's going to be the go-to guy.
The 6-11 senior center Tony Woods was a solid defensive presence inside, blocking 1.5 shots per game, but will have to improve his rebounding production (3.5 PG).
Carlos Emory, the 6-6, 225-pound, hard-working power forward, will almost certainly step in as the starter.
There are only three other returnees: small but quick point guard Jonathan Loyd; Brett Kingma, a seldom-used 6-1 guard, and Austin Kuemper, a 6-9, 240-pound center who redshirted last season as a freshman and has some talent but is limited athletically.
Oregon will have a six-man recruiting class, with some talent in there. There is Dominic Artis, the #6-ranked point guard in the national class of 2012 who originally was verbally committed to UCLA. Ben Carter, a 6-9 skilled post who is a bit under-rated, will immediately compete for playing time. Oregon then has commitments from some pretty unknown guys -- point guard Willie Moore, wing Dameyon Dotson, JC shooting guard Devon Branch, and wing Fred Richardson. They added Moore, Branch and Richardson just recently.
Artis is a talented player, one who will almost certainly come in and start. We could envision Oregon going small at times, with 5-9 Loyd and the 5-11 Artis playing alongside each other in the backcourt.
The Ducks, though, after Loyd, Artis, Singler, Woods, and Emory, will have to find wings and a bench. We'll bet that Carter is one of the first subs, with Kuemper backing up at center and Kingma in the rotation at guard. Then it's a crap shoot after that, with the Oregon coaches trying to find some more contributors from the four other new players.
While Coach Dana Altman has to get a good deal of credit for turning the 2011-2012 Ducks into a winner, and clearly doing a good job in his Xs-and-Os coaching, there is some talk that he's difficult to play for, which contributed to the transfers. It will be interesting to see how it all works in 2012-2013, when the Ducks could be challenged to put a winning team on the floor.
It was an up-and-down season in 2011-2012 for the Beavers. They started out 10-2 and ended up 20-14, with a 7-11 record in the Pac-12. It's a bit of a condemnation that they did so poorly in such a bad conference, but also a testament to how a cupcake non-conference schedule can mislead and set you up for a conference fall, even in the Pac-12. But then the Beavers ended the season making a decent run in the CBI Tournament, losing in the semi-final to Washington State. And in Beaver basketball land, a 20-win season is considered a success.
We've been writing about how just about every team has suffered a blow for next season, and the Beavers have tolerated one of the worst -- losing all-conference guard Jared Cunningham early to the pros.
With Cunningham, we would have projected OSU to compete for one of the top three spots in the conference, with all of its key personnel returning. But a team like Oregon State that is made up of mostly strong, experienced role players, can't lose its star and expect to do that without him.
It's really a particular blow because, unlike Washington's Tony Wroten and Terrence Ross, Cunningham probably made a poor decision, projected to go in the NBA draft's second round. It doesn't help that the new NCAA rules don't really allow a player to "test the waters" and work out with NBA teams while still having the option to return to school.
The Beavs will return six other players that averaged over 20 minutes per game. At guard and wing are 6-7 forward Devon Collier (13.1, 5.2); junior lead guard Ahmad Starks (12.1 PPG, 37% from three) and junior shooting guard Roberto Nelson (9.3 PPG). Inside is one of the best frontcourts in the conference with 6-10 senior Angus Brandt; 6-7, 280-pound senior Joe Burton and one of the most promising freshmen in the league from last season, the 6-10 Eric Moreland.
They'll build a bench from last year's role players -- sophomore guard Charlie Barton, junior 6-7 forward Rhys Murphy and a player that they're really anticipating will make an impact, the 6-9 Daniel Gomis. He's an elite high-major athlete who redshirted last season after breaking his leg.
There will also be four incoming freshmen to pick from -- 6-5 small forward Victor Robbins, 6-3 guard Langston Morris-Walker, 6-6 small forward Jarmal Reid and 6-10 center Maika Ostling. Morris-Walker and Robbins might have the best chance to contribute immediately, with Morris-Walker a solid athlete and Robbins a scorer.
The Beavers aren't a team with many question marks at different positions. They do have one big question mark, however: Will they be able to compete in the upper echelon of the conference with an experienced and solid but -- without Cunningham -- just a nominally talented team?
Oregon State is another Pac-12 team that will benefit from a pre-season trip, to either Spain or France.