I'm going with the Golden Bears because I'd take their trio of guards (Jerome Randle, Patrick Christopher and Theo Robertson) vs. ANY in the country. Of all the match-ups that I've faced over the past few years, Christopher is the most underrated. He's explosive and a nightmare to guard. And get this -- the guy is actually humble. Imagine that!
What makes Cal's guards great is this: they're all lights-out shooters who can play off the bounce, get to the rim, and stroke it from mid-range. To me, the mark of a great guard is ability on mid-range/floaters a la O.J. Mayo. Anytime you can put three guards on the floor who can catch and shoot, score off the dribble, and get to the rim, it makes for a long night for opposing defenses.
JAMAL BOYKIN (left) BATTLES LEONARD WASHINGTON
My take on the rest of the league follows below. Be mindful that teams aren't listed in any particular order. Picking Cal as the conference champ is as bold as I'm going to be – picking Nos. 2 through 10 presents too much risk of credibility loss by the time all is said and done.
Second-year coach Johnny Dawkins has his work cut out for him. A lot of people are throwing around Landry Fields' name as an all-conference candidate. Although he's certainly a fine player, I have doubts over whether he has enough fire power to win games for the Cardinal. He is going to need a lot of help from sophomore Jeremy Green, who is likely to have a break-out season. But the guy that jumped out to me last year is forward Josh Owens. He is good enough to double his averages from last year (6.9 points, 3.6 rebounds), and I wouldn't be shocked to see a 20- and-10 game out of the junior forward.
We all know UCLA has been the breeding grounds for NBA draft picks: Farmar, Hollins, Afflalo, Collison, Mbah-a-Moute, Westbrook, Love, Holiday, etc. But I would argue that their talent is item 1B in terms of what has led them to three Final Fours in four years. Item 1A? Head coach Ben Howland. With all due respect to other great coaches in the country, Howland is the best there is. What makes him the best? His teams always come prepared and they always play with passion. But the most important thing is detail. Howland preaches minute detail that most coaches overlook. And when Howland preaches detail, his players listen and respond. Talent obviously helps, but I believe no other coach in the country could have taken those UCLA teams to three-straight Final Fours. And for that reason, I purposely am not even mentioning any current players' names in this article. Because for me, UCLA is all about Howland. And while they don't have the talent in my mind to compete for the Pac-10 title this season, they do have Howland. If I were a betting man -- which I am -- I would never bet against Howland to exceed expectations.
The losses of James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph are going to be devastating for the Sun Devils. However, Herb Sendek is a fabulous coach -- I'd rank him No. 2 behind Howland in the Pac-10. The moment he arrived from N.C. State, ASU became a tough game (though the Cougs have been able to escape in several close contests). Guard Derek Glasser isn't flashy, but he understands what he can and can't do. And one thing he does know how to do is run a team. Probably the headiest PG in the league. I've always been a fan of Ty Abbott's game -- even though he spurned WSU in favor of ASU. I remember watching him play on his recruiting trip to Pullman and thinking, "this guy would REALLY help our team if he came here." Complete player, uses both hands very well. Rihards Kuksiks, a 6-6 guard, is as good as they come at stretching defenses and burying 3-point shots. I can remember prepping for ASU and we always emphasized not letting Kuksiks get any looks to get him going. This team is relatively thin on talent, but their zone can cause headaches and Sendek alone will be able to win them some games.
If anyone doesn't believe that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, take a peek at Oregon the past few years. Tajuan Porter is only 5-6 but he's an absolute nightmare to defend. Joevan Catron is the craftiest, wiliest, and smoothest power forward in the league. Center Michael Dunnigan is a beast with a huge upside. But for whatever reason, it just seems like the Ducks haven't been able to put it together. I know people have been saying this for years now, but I truly believe this is the make or break year for coach Ernie Kent. He has enough pieces to be successful in the conference this year. And to be honest, they really should. But I suppose I'll believe it when I see it. I wouldn't be surprised to see sophomore Matthew Humphrey emerge as a perimeter threat for the Ducks, who have no excuses not to rack up some wins against so-so competition. If Howland had this team, I would expect great things.
I hate to say it. But you know what I'm thinking. They're decent. Okay, fine, they're pretty dang good. I haven't seen the much-touted Abdul Gaddy play, but their guards are tough, scrappy, and talented. Their bigs, led by Quincy Pondexter, are very capable, even with the loss of Jon Brockman. Having said that, I still have questions about how they are going to replace Brockman -- and I'm not even talking about his production. Jon was a voice of reason on a chaotic team. Considering the state of the Pac-10, the Huskies have enough talent to defend their crown, but the loss of Brockman's presence/leadership/savvy could ultimately prevent them from reaching their potential.
It doesn't take a genius to know that coach Craig Robinson has turned the Beaver ship in the right direction. With their nucleus returning, it's hard to imagine they won't be successful this year. OSU is a tough team to prepare for because they play a very unorthodox style. Personnel wise, I really like guard Calvin Haynes. He is an electric player who can get them going when they're stuck -- hence him coming off the bench last year. Unless he requests to stay there, I see him starting and putting up solid numbers. Roland Schaftenaar (6-11) is tailor made for running their offense through the high post. Another guy I'm high on is Daniel Dean. Even though he's not the most talented, I love how physical he is and how hard he plays. Lathen Wallace could knock down 60 tres this year and hover around 40% from behind the arc.
When I think about U of A, all I can think about is Nic Wise. He is a game-changer who plays with confidence and gets everone around him going. Jamelle Horne has insane athleticism -- and if you don't box him out he will own the glass all game long. Now that I think about it, even if you do box him out, you might end up just giving him a piggy-back as he rattles the rim on a put-back dunk. Sophomore Josh Fogg had a solid freshman year, but he will have to make huge strides if the Wildcats plan on keeping their tournament streak alive. It will be interesting to see if/when Sean Miller can turn U of A back into a title contender.
I'll be honest: I had to go to the USC home page to see who is actually on the roster these days. But I do know they have two guys who can really hoop: Dwight Lewis and Marcus Johnson. Lewis is a complete guard who can score in a variety of ways. He will certainly have to shoulder much of the scoring responsibilities with the departure of Demar DeRozan and so many other great players. Outside of Cal's Patrick Christopher, I think Johnson is the most underrated player in the league. Watching film on him last year before our game against the Trojans, I think I had to ask 3 or 4 times: "Wait -- so Johnson seriously isn't starting?" If he's given ample opportunity to play this year -- and I can't think of any reason he won't -- he should come out of nowhere to shock everybody his senior year.
My take on the Cougs can be found in these recent Cougfan.com stories:
* Sizing up WSU's freshmen.
* Assessing WSU's veterans.