The Pac-10 held its annual meet the press day at Staples Center on Wednesday, and it proved quite interesting in certain respects. The highlights:
Arizona: Arizona Coach Lute Olson was particularly downbeat about his team's prospects for the upcoming season, though the Wildcats' difficult non-conference schedule perhaps has something to do with that. Naturally, you'd expect Coach Olson to put on a public front of lowered expectations given the huge personnel losses suffered by the team from last year. However, he seemed genuinely concerned and distressed. When he was told that the Pac-10 beat writers had picked the Wildcats to finish 4th in the conference this season, he grimaced and said, "That is a compliment to our program, I suppose. But that's all it is." When a reporter remarked that UCLA was not a unanimous pick to win the Pac-10 and that Arizona had received two first place votes, Olson commented: "I guess someone decided to be out of step with reality."
Olson indicated that Jason Gardner will start at the point and that Ricky Anderson and Luke Walton will start at the forwards. After that, "we don't know what we have, except that the players like each other." When asked about his team's prospects, his response was "We have no clue at all, practices have been so up and down, the players have been so up and down, we don't have any idea of what is going to happen." When asked what his goals were for the season, he replied, "To survive from day to day, and hope we don't lose our confidence from too many big losses early in the season." He indicated that freshmen Will Bynum, Salim Stoudamire, Channing Frye and Dennis Latimore have all shown that "they can play at this level somewhere down the road." Former Santa Monica Crossroads High star Isaiah Fox is slim and trim at 6-9 and 267 and has emerged as the favorite to start at center "because he is getting every rebound, but you have to remember the competition." Olson complimented Fox's mental approach to the game and how quickly he's picked up the offense and defense. Olson was also very complimentary of Gardner and Luke Walton's leadership.
It might just be an act, but I think Olson genuinely believes the Wildcats will struggle to finish as high as 5th in the conference and over .500 overall this season (the team has one of the country's toughest non-conference schedules and many of those tough games are road games). I suspect he would be surprised if his team made the NCAA Tournament. He bravely stated his continued opposition to the Pac-10 Tournament, even with Pac-10 Commissioner Tom Hansen looking on.
Stanford: Stanford's Mike Montgomery also expressed his disapproval of the Pac-10 Tournament. Like Olson, Montgomery took a lowered expectations approach, but he obviously believes that the Cardinal can also be very strong this year if their post play develops. Both Curtis Borchardt and Justin Davis are healthy, but Montgomery points out that they simply lack the bulk, skills and experience of the Collins twins, and this represents a significant downgrading of the Cardinal's arsenal. In Montgomery's words, "The key concept here is patience. I just have to be very patient with this team and remember that I can't expect these players to execute like the veterans we lost." He was referring to the loss of Ryan Mendez and Mike McDonald as well as the twins. It appears that Tony Giovacchini and Julius Barnes will open the season as the starting guards, with Casey Jacobsen starting at the wing. Giovacchini played very well this summer overseas and has very much solidified his role in the lineup.
Montgomery expects freshman Josh Childress to see significant minutes off the bench and praised his athleticism, skills, intelligence and work ethic, and Montgomery also expressed "pleasant surprise" at the play of 6-9, 265 freshman center Robert Little, calling him "an unorthodox player who is hard to move out of position, he has great hands and a soft touch." The team's lack of depth inside has forced the staff to move slender 6-6 swingman Nick Robinson into the post. Freshman Chris Hernandez will see some time at the point, but "Tony and Chris can't break people down like Mike McDonald and won't be as consistent; they have to rely on their fundamentals more to be effective." Matt Lottich has been a very good outside shooter in practice.
Montgomery says that Casey Jacobsen has really improved as a player and athlete, and has emerged as a real leader for the Cardinal. Borchardt's versatility, combined with a lack of a real power game, will mean that on offense, we are more likely to see him outside, with Justin Davis posting up inside. Montgomery pointed out that Borchardt has missed more than half of his possible games over the last two years, that he and Davis have relatively little game experience and have been struggling to learn the offense. "Inside, we're very concerned." Basically, the whole team, apart from Casey, has been very inconsistent in practice, at least by Montgomery's exacting standards. Despite his cautionary notes, it's clear that Montgomery expects the Cardinal to be very competitive in a Pac-10 race which "other than UCLA will be very balanced."
UCLA: UCLA's Steve Lavin was asked by one reporter if Spencer Gloger's outside shooting would be a big asset for the Bruins this year. Lavin took the question in stride. Lavin's public support for the Pac-10 Tournament (his private views might be different) stands in stark contrast to the views of Olson and Montgomery: "Having the national media spotlight on the Pac-10 at that time of year, in Staples Center, should be a big boost in recruiting and recognition for the whole conference." Lavin is perhaps pleased that the Pac-10 Tournament is taking place in Los Angeles, but he's not letting on. Insofar as UCLA will be in finals the week of the Pac-10 Tourney, the players will take their tests in the morning and then play their games in the night. Assuming Cal is on the same schedule, the Bears' players might not have that luxury.
Lavin indicated that the team's maturity level, deriving from the presence of five seniors and one two-time all-conference junior, was "already apparent in practice" and is the great strength of the team (all of the Pac-10 coaches, especially Olson and Montgomery, stressed that returning a solid nucleus of veterans was by far the most important factor in deciding any team's potential for a high level of success, in and out of conference). Lavin also indicated that another obvious difference between last year and this year is the quality and quantity of depth that the team has, especially on the frontline. He believes that Dan Gadzuric is much improved and "has a chance to be as dominant as any post player in the country." He attributes Dan's improvement from last season to maturity and "patience … he's slowed things down, doesn't seem as anxious or in as much of a hurry, and that's really allowed him to step up his skill level and production. He's playing within himself for the first time."
Lavin again confirmed his commitment to the full court press for 40 minutes per game: "We will use our overall team depth to make the press work, and the press will enable us to control the tempo of games and wear down our opponents." When asked if Cedric Bozeman could replace Earl Watson, Lavin praised Watson and said that he could never be replaced, but then cited Bozeman's "poise, composure, disposition and unusual skills set for a player of his size" as evidence that Bozeman will be a very effective point guard for UCLA right away. Lavin also talked about Bozeman's "high basketball I.Q." and his ability to learn quickly, and stated that "certain players just stand out from the first moment you see them on the court and Cedric was one of those special players."
Lavin was asked how he felt about the Bruins being the favorite to win the Pac-10 this year. His answer revealed that he might be getting tired of giving the same stock answers to the same stock questions that the same stock reporters keep throwing at him: "Getting picked to win is a sign of respect. It's good from the recruiting standpoint. Of course, our goal is to win the conference every year, and it isn't where you are at the start the season, it's where you are at the finish … and you can go ahead and throw in all the rest of those corny phrases, you know them as well as I do. Any more questions?"
USC: When USC's Henry Bibby faces the press it's always an interesting ordeal since the hostility between him and the media is palpable. Bibby said his starters would be Brandon Granville, Desmon Farmer, Sam Clancy, David Bluthenthal and Kostas Charissis (one assumes this is when Charissis is eligible). He expects Farmer and Errick Craven to make a big impact at the offensive end of the floor and he expressed praise for Errick and his brother Derrick Craven as well: "They are physical, they get after you, they are winners." He's very happy with all of his newcomers and indicated he will use a deeper bench this season than he has in the past. He likened transfer Jerry DuPree to "Jeff Trepagnier when Jeff was a freshman," which doesn't sound good for Jerry at this stage (message: Jerry may not play much right away). When a reporter mentioned that Sam Clancy, who was in attendance, had said in an interview that Bibby wasn't emphasizing conditioning as much this year, Bibby replied, "He said that? That's good to know. I'm keeping the freshmen off-balance. I don't want them to see the real Henry Bibby this early. Believe me, the real Henry Bibby will surface and then ask Sam about conditioning." When asked if Clancy would be the team leader this year, Bibby was typically blunt: ‘No. Sam is a laid-back guy. Brandon Granville will be our leader." Sam Clancy was still in the audience at the time.
Oregon: Anthony Norwood has changed his name to Anthony Lever. His biological father is/was Lafayette "Fats" Lever. Oregon has hired a new coach to teach the team defense. Ernie Kent admitted that his team badly needed to learn how to play defense. He expects Fred Jones to have a POY type of season. Chris Christofferson is 7-3 and 300 and much, much improved, and Kent believes he's now one of the top centers in the country.
Cal: The team has no "go-to" guy, but a lot of depth and experience, and Ben Braun seems pretty confident that his team will be very strong and in the upper half of the conference. ShanTay Legans is expected to be the leader of the team and Braun has told him to become more aggressive as a scorer. Jamal Sampson is making very good progress from off-season surgery and is expected to make a big impact this year, more likely after January 1 than before because Jamal is just starting to practice full-time. Freshman Erik Bond has also played well, but has been hampered by an injury.
ASU: Rob Evans seems very confident. He has depth and experience and a lot more quickness in the backcourt. Tanner Shell is shooting the ball well, Curtis Millage will play a lot at both guard spots and Tommie Smith will be one of the best players in the conference if he can stay out of foul trouble. It's clear that Evans feels this is the year where the Sun Devils are going to make a big move.
WSU: Mike Bush will definitely rejoin the team after football season is over. Marcus Moore has improved his jumper by using an innovative type of shooting machine. Jay Locklier will get more rest this year. Because of the scheduling of Pac-10 games for late December, Coach Paul Graham has decreed that none of the WSU players will get to go home for Christmas this year. I hope the Pac-10 is satisfied…
Washington: 6-7 freshman Errol Knight was looking great in practice, but needs to get a knee scoped and will miss at least 3 weeks. Doug Wrenn is listed at 6-8 in the Washington Media Guide and according to Bob Bender is playing like he will be the star of the team. David Dixon weighs only 270; if true, he could be an NBA player, I think David has played at about 330 his whole career at UDub so far. Bender also said that freshman guard Will Conroy has been a pleasant surprise in practice and is pushing Curtis Allen for the starting point guard spot. JC transfer Josh Bernard will see a lot of action as the team's top 3-point threat.
OSU: Ritchie McKay says that his first season taught him that "you can't just come into the Pac-10 and expect to win the league right away." Well, I could have told him that. Philip Ricci is healthy and McKay expects him to be an excellent player right away: "He will draw double teams, he has a versatile game and he will make a big impact". McKay admits that Brian Jackson has a lot of talent, but doesn't seem convinced he will actually use it.