HOOPS: Forecasting the Cougs & rest of Pac-12

THE START OF the Pac-12 basketball season is five months away, but it's already clear that several teams -- including Washington State -- seem poised to improve over last season. After being hammered by the national media last season for going 1-25 against Top 40 RPI opponents in nonconference play, the once-mighty Pac appears to be on the way back in a hurry.

The combination of stellar recruiting and a battle-tested group of returnees should prove image-altering for the conference this year.

Scout.com ranks UCLA's incoming recruiting class second only to that of defending national champion Kentucky, while Arizona's is pegged at No. 3 and defending Pac-12 champ Colorado's No. 22. Scout.com's ranking only go to 27, so relative rankings aren't available for the rest of the league.

The league was young last year, left wounded yet again by star players such as Klay Thompson and Derrick Williams leaving early for the NBA. The changing of the guard led to non-seniors leading the conference in 12 of the 13 individual statistics compiled by the Pac-12 office.

League leaders returning next season include WSU's Brock Motum (18 points per game) and Reggie Moore (5.2 assists), Colorado's Andre Roberson (11.1 rebounds) and Oregon State's Eric Moreland (1.9 blocked shots).

More optimism about the Pac-12's immediate future was created when the league posted a 17-9 record in the post-season. That tied the conference record for post-season victories and tied the Big Ten and Big East for the most post-season wins of any conference last season.

Also encouraging was the fact that Stanford won the National Invitation Tournament after finishing seventh in the league, and Washington State reached the College Basketball Invitational finals after tying for eighth place. The Cougars might have knocked off Pittsburgh for the CBI title if Motum had not been sidelined for all three games in the finals with a sprained ankle.

Following is a quick look at each Pac-12 team, with our predictions on the final standings at the end.


Motum and Moore give the Cougars a solid one-two punch, and WSU might be able to emerge from the middle of the pack if outside gunner Demarquise Johnson (a.k.a. Que) is academically cleared by the NCAA. Scout.com ranks Johnson 28th among small forward recruits in the incoming recruiting class. A Michigan native who shot to prominence at Westwind Academy prep school in Phoenix, the 6-5 Johnson is believed to have Thompson-esque shooting skills. He recently nailed a qualifying SAT score.

The Cougars have holes to fill with the graduation of unselfish team leaders Marcus Capers and Abe Lodwick. Guard DaVonte Lacy had good stretches as a freshman starter, but needs to improve his ballhandling and 3-point shooting. Combo guard Royce Woolridge, a Kansas transfer, drew considerable praise from coach Ken Bone while redshirting last season. Off-guard Mike Ladd, injured for parts of last season, could become a consistent presence if he remains healthy. Australian big man James Hunter, a junior college transfer, may prove to be a valuable last-minute "get" to replace high school recruit Richard Peters, who failed to qualify academically. He'll shore up a thin Cougar post that was manned last season by Motum and first-year Cougar D.J. Shelton (6-10, 228), both of whom are more natural forwards.

The Huskies lost all-leaguers Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten to the pros, but prolific junior college scorer Mark McLaughlin (whose serpentine career was once briefly pointed toward WSU) should make up for some of the missing offense. C.J. Wilcox, banged up much of last season, is a deadly outside shooter when he's healthy. Point guard Abdul Gaddy (8.1 points and 5.2 assists per game) also returns for his senior season.

The Bruins are the consensus favorites to win the Pac-12 after reeling in a star-studded recruiting class headed by small forward Shabazz Muhammad and power forward Kyle Anderson. An August tour of China will give the newcomers extra time to mesh with the veterans. Because of UCLA's basketball pedigree, the Pac-12's national profile gains immeasurably when the Bruins do well. A good showing in the Legends Classic, an early season tournament that will bring such teams as Indiana and Georgetown to Brooklyn's flashy new NBA arena, would help put Pac-12 hoops back on the map.

The Trojans can't possibly suffer more injuries than last season, but USC faces a major rebuilding project. The return of senior point guard Jio Fontan, who missed last season due to knee surgery, will help. Also, senior forward Eric Wise becomes eligible after averaging 16.3 ppg two years ago at UC Irvine.

The Utes signed eight recruits after a second straight year of massive player defections, but none of the recruits are regarded as blue chippers. Coach Larry Krystkowiak, coming off a 6-25 debut season at Utah, will count heavily on transfer guards Glen Dean (Eastern Washington) and Jarred DuBois (Loyola Marymount).

The academic demands of Stanford can make recruiting tricky. The Cardinal take pride in finding hidden gems like guard Aaron Bright. Lightly regarded out of Bellevue High, Bright was the NIT's Most Outstanding Player as a sophomore this year. The Card also return, among others, guard Chasson Randle, who led the team in scoring with 13.8 points per game last season.

The Ducks received a huge boost last season from senior transfers Devoe Joseph and Olu Ashaolu, but they won't be so fortunate next season. The recruiting class is headed by sixth-ranked point guard Dominic Artis. The Ducks' top recruit last year, fifth-ranked shooting guard Jabari Brown, was an absolute disaster before he quickly left the team and transferred to Missouri.

The loss of Pac-12 steals leader Jared Cunningham to the pros figures to be a crippling blow for the Beavers. Cunningham averaged 2.5 steals and 17.9 points as a junior last season. And OSU's recruiting class appears to be quite ordinary.

The Bears and Pac-12 Player of the Year Jorge Gutierrez (a senior guard) faded late last season, handed the regular-season title to Washington and lost to South Florida in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The demanding ways of veteran coach Mike Montgomery scares off some recruits, but the Bears are bringing in 6-4 Tyrone Wallace, a coveted point guard, to get the ball to lights-out shooter Allen Crabbe.

The Buffaloes have plenty of holes to fill, but rivals must be careful not to underestimate CU. Picked to tie WSU for 10th place in the preseason media poll, the Buffs tied for fifth, won four games in four days to win the Pac-12 tournament, then knocked off UNLV in the NCAA tournament. Highly respected coach Tad Boyle landed three four-star recruits.

The long list of transfers out of ASU continued with the loss of leading scorer Trent Lockett to Marquette. Exciting little point guard Jahii Carson, a former Phoenix prep star who sat out last season due to academic ineligibility, could bring some life and maybe even some decent crowds to stodgy Wells Fargo Arena.

Heralded incoming power forward Brandon Ashley and 7-foot recruit Kaleb Tarczewski join returning all-conference player Solomon Hill up front, and senior transfer Mark Lyons averaged 15.1 points for Xavier last season. His Xavier degree makes Lyons immediately eligible.

2. Arizona
3. California
4. Washington State
5. Washington
6. Stanford
7. Colorado
8. Oregon
9. USC
10. Oregon State
11. Arizona State
12. Utah


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