We continue with our league breakdowns for the upcoming season; we'll work backward from league No. 32 to our top-ranked league.
By David Fox
The struggles of the Pac-10 have been detailed a number of ways, but here's a new one: Colorado, which had a losing record and went 6-10 in the Big 12 last season, had a better RPI than half the teams in the conference it will join in 2011. Utah, which went 14-17 and 7-9 in the Mountain West, had a better RPI than three Pac-10 teams.
For the first time since 1988, the Pac-10 received fewer than three bids to the NCAA tournament.
The good news is the NCAA field is expanding this season and the Pac-10 can't be much worse this season than it was last season.
The conference has been decimated by early departures to the NBA draft, departures that haven't been replaced by five-star recruits and McDonald's All-Americans. The drain of elite talent in the Pac-10 may continue this season with no conference program landing a top-15 signing class.
But several teams have their fair share of experience, which could at least help the Pac-10 avoid the embarrassing losses it endured early last season.
Washington, a feel-good story by the end of the season, won the league tournament and reached the Sweet 16 as a No. 11 seed. The Huskies lose leading scorer and rebounder Quincy Pondexter, but they will look to Isaiah Thomas, Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Venoy Overton to keep things going. There's little reason to think Washington won't be able to build on its momentum.
California was the regular-season champion, but the Bears will be lucky to play in the postseason this season. Guard Jorge Gutierrez is the only key player returning. He's a top-notch defender, but he averaged only 5.5 points last season.
UCLA will be looking for a reversal of fortune after missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since Ben Howland's first season in 2004. Tyler Honeycutt is a budding star, but the Bruins are desperate for a point guard.
Arizona State continues to defy expectations under Herb Sendek. Ty Abbott, Rihards Kuksiks and Derek Glasser were role players when James Harden played in Tempe in 2008-09, but those three led Arizona State to its third consecutive 20-win season (first time since 1960-63) and the NIT last season. The Sun Devils never have had four consecutive 20-win seasons.
Arizona's streak of 25 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances ended, but the Wildcats will contend to start another streak. Forward Derrick Williams was a revelation as a freshman. If Sean Miller can develop some of Williams' classmates in his second season in Tucson, Arizona could be in the postseason. The key will be finding a point guard now that Nic Wise is gone.
The Pac-10 beyond those teams (and maybe including a couple of discussed above) appears to have a handful of programs that will hover around .500 in Oregon State, USC and Stanford. Oregon finally tired of riding the Ernie Kent roller coaster and brought in Creighton's Dana Altman after a bungled coaching search. Altman is a steady hand, but the Ducks will open their new arena with the worst team in the league and perhaps one of the worst teams in a major conference.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: UCLA C Josh Smith (6-10/305, freshman)
MAKING A LIST Best frontcourt: USC. Nikola Vucevic was the most improved player in the conference last season for a team that finished second in rebounding margin and blocked shots. The Trojans will be short on depth, so they need Alex Stepheson to contribute throughout the course of the year. He had three consecutive double-doubles in December, including one against Tennessee, before his play leveled off in the conference season.
Best backcourt: Washington. This unit has plenty of depth. Every contributor does at least one thing well. Isaiah Thomas is the scorer, Abdul Gaddy is a passer with NBA potential and Venoy Overton and Justin Holiday are elite defenders. The Huskies lost Elston Turner to a transfer to Texas A&M, but they did add top-50 freshman Terrence Ross.
Program on the rise: UCLA. It's strange to see UCLA as a program "on the rise," as the Bruins are usually at or near the top of the Pac-10. But the Bruins struggled mightily last season, especially in the non-conference portion when they lost to Cal State Fullerton, Portland and Long Beach State. Since the start of last season, UCLA shed some malcontents and Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson showed flashes of potential. If the Bruins can find some guards, they could return to the postseason.
Program on the decline: California. An obvious choice considering Cal is losing every full-time starter and anyone who averaged more than 5.5 points. A solid freshman class, led by four-star guards Allen Crabbe and Gary Franklin, arrives, but there will be major growing pains for the defending conference champion. Mike Montgomery is too good a coach let Cal slip from first to worst, though.
Coach on the rise: Stanford's Johnny Dawkins. The Pac-10 has handful of proven, if underrated, coaches (see: Herb Sendek). Dawkins is one of the few looking to build his reputation. So far, it hasn't been pretty as Stanford has gone 13-23 in the Pac-10 under the former Duke assistant. But he did land the top-ranked class in the Pac-10, led by Dwight Powell and Anthony Brown.
Coach on the hot seat: None. A Pac-10 coach certainly could be on the hot seat going into 2011-12, but for now, there's not a coach in the league who is feeling the pressure. The longest-tenured coaches (UCLA's Ben Howland, Washington's Lorenzo Romar and Sendek) aren't going anywhere, and the seven other Pac-10 coaches have completed two or fewer seasons at their current stops.
Most underrated player: Washington G Justin Holiday (6-6/185, Sr.). Moving Holiday to the starting lineup in January was one of the moves that solidified the Huskies' season. It allowed Venoy Overton to move to his familiar spot bringing energy off the bench. And with Holiday in the lineup, Washington doesn't lose much defensively. Teammates have touted him as a "glue guy." He averaged 5.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists.
FACTS AND FIGURES New coach: Dana Altman at Oregon (had been coach at Creighton)
Regular-season winner last season: California
Tourney winner last season: Washington
League RPI rank in each of past three seasons: 8th in 2009-10, 5th in 2008-09, 2nd in 2007-08
2011 conference tournament: March 9-12, Los Angeles