Cal might be preseason favorite in weaker Pac-10
Pac-10 basketball has gone from great to good to, possibly, being in the dumps.
Looks like new Arizona coach Sean Miller picked a good time to join the league.
Miller has had a whirlwind first couple of weeks, signing two key players in what was otherwise looking like a lost recruiting class. He added big man Kyryl Natyazhko and wing Solomon Hill, both four-star prospects (out of five) as rated by Rivals.com.
Now, if only point guard Nic Wise comes back for his senior season after testing his NBA draft status.
Arizona, without early-entry draft prospects Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger, can’t be as good as it was last season, when the Wildcats summoned 21 victories and a run to the Sweet 16.
But the rest of the league won’t be as good either. With Wise on board – plus any other recruiting magic Miller can conjure – Arizona doesn’t appear to be worse than a midlevel Pac-10 team in 2009.
Combine that with a couple of key nonconference victories – the basic formula from last season – and there’s hope that the school’s NCAA Tournament streak could reach 26.
Interim coaches have kept that streak going at Arizona in the past two seasons.
Not that anyone is shedding any tears for him, but Kevin O’Neill got the worst of it two seasons ago, taking the Wildcats – amid the uncertainty of Lute Olson’s then-unexplained leave of absence – against arguably the best Pac-10 in history.
A talent drain weakened the conference last season, leaving the league with several good teams with low ceilings. No Pac-10 team really deserved to make the Sweet 16.
No Pac-10 team did, other than Arizona, helped by a favorable tournament path and the nurturing of interim coach Russ Pennell.
Now, the league will be without Arizona State guard James Harden, Hill, Budinger, and USC point guard Daniel Hackett, all of whom are leaving early.
Several key seniors are done – Washington big man Jon Brockman, UCLA point guard Darren Collison, UCLA wing Josh Shipp, ASU forward Jeff Pendergraph, Washington guard Justin Dentmon, Stanford guard Anthony Goods, Stanford forward Lawrence Hill and Washington State guard Taylor Rochestie.
USC freshman DeMar DeRozan put his name into the NBA draft, and is expected to stay there.
USC forward Taj Gibson and UCLA guard Jrue Holiday entered the draft, but they haven’t hired an agent, allowing them to return to school.
Let’s assume the worst and that everyone who is thinking about going pro – including Wise – does. That would leave the Pac-10 with only six of its top 20 scorers and four of its top 14 rebounders from last season.
The leading returning rebounder would be Stanford wing Landry Fields at 6.6 per game.
Your preseason favorite just might be Cal, which could have the two best returning players in the league – point guard Justin Randle and guard Patrick Christopher. The Bears’ top five scorers return, including Theo Robertson.
Defending league champ Washington, with one-time UA recruit Abdul Gaddy joining a backcourt with Isaiah Thomas, will be good. USC, depending on who comes back, could also have Top 25 dreams.
UCLA won’t fall off the map, even without Holiday.
Then . . . Arizona?
Miller, who at 40 years old is the youngest head coach in the league, is still fishing for talent for next season, although junior college center Jarrid Famous picked South Florida over the Wildcats and others Monday.
Still, there is a buzz around Miller and his young coaching staff, filled with top-flight recruiters. All that, coupled with the Arizona brand, gives Miller more recruiting clout than he has ever had.
Arizona still will be picking from the elite of the elite.
As the athletic department’s coaching search meandered after the season, some of the national pundits suggested the Wildcats faced a three-year rebuilding job. Or more.
But with Miller off to a fast start, and the Pac-10 likely fading, that demise was greatly exaggerated.
Next year’s Wildcats could struggle, especially offensively, especially without Wise, but it would be a recession lasting no more than one season.
Anthony Gimino’s e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Pac-10 players who declared early for the NBA draft:
HAVE AGENTS (CAN’T RETURN)
James Harden G ASU
Jordan Hill F-C Arizona
Chase Budinger F Arizona
Daniel Hackett PG USC
NO AGENTS (CAN RETURN)
DeMar DeRozan G USC
Taj Gibson F USC
Jrue Holiday G UCLA
Nic Wise G Arizona