October 27, 2009

League preview: Pacific-10

Today, we continue our conference countdown. We're working backward, from our No. 31 league to the top league in the nation.

We started with the low-major leagues, unveiling three per day, and the mid-major leagues, unveiling two per day. Each of the top 12 leagues gets a day to itself.

First team
C Roeland Schaftenaar, 6-11/240, Sr., Oregon State
F Quincy Pondexter, 6-6/215, Sr., Washington
G Jerome Randle, 5-10/172, Sr., California
G Isaiah Thomas, 5-8/180, Soph., Washington
G Nic Wise, 5-10/177, Sr., Arizona
Second team
F DeAngelo Casto, 6-8/229, Soph., Washington State
F/G Landry Fields, 6-7/210, Sr., Stanford
F/G Theo Robertson, 6-6/230, Sr., California
G Patrick Christopher, 6-5/220, Sr., California
G Klay Thompson, 6-6/187, Soph., Washington State
G Jerome Randle, 5-10/172, Sr., California
G Abdul Gaddy, 6-3/170, Fr., Washington
Regular-season winner last season: Washington
Tournament winner last season: USC (lost in second round of NCAA tournament to Michigan State as a No. 10 seed)
2010 conference tournament: March 10-13. Staples Center, Los Angeles.
New coaches: Sean Miller, Arizona, Kevin O'Neill, USC and Ken Bone, Washington State
Best frontcourt: Washington
Best backcourt: California
Coach on the rise: Craig Robinson, Oregon State
Last NCAA title team: Arizona, 1997
Last NCAA runner-up: UCLA, 2006
Last Final Four appearance: UCLA, 2008
Last time league received multiple NCAA bids: 2009
The Pac-10 might be so upside down this season, California could win its first conference title in 50 years.

For sure, the times are changing. Arizona finally put the Lute Olson era behind it by hiring Xavier coach Sean Miller, who replaced interim coach Russ Pennell, who was preceded by interim coach Kevin O'Neill.

Speaking of O'Neill, the intense, defense-minded coach landed at another Pac-10 program at the end of an era. Tim Floyd brought success to USC, but he also brought an NCAA investigation. He stepped down, and O'Neill filled the breach.

Even UCLA, a model of consistency, will undergo some changes. Final Four veterans Darren Collison, Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya are gone, leaving Ben Howland to rebuild UCLA around a new nucleus of top recruits.

That leaves defending champion Washington and Cal as the preseason Pac-10 favorites. Washington ended its conference-title drought last season, winning its first outright title since 1953. Cal is position to do the same this season after going without a conference title since the legendary Pete Newell retired in 1960.

TEAM ON THE RISE Oregon State: When Oregon State hired former Brown coach Craig Robinson, the move was met with its share of skepticism. But the hiring of Robinson, the brother-in-law to President Barack Obama, gave the moribund program a jolt. By winning the College Basketball Invitational postseason tournament, the Beavers finished 18-18, only their second non-losing season since 1990-91. The top four scorers return, and the Beavers signed the nation's No. 23 recruiting class. The Beavers will expect more than just a CBI appearance in Robinson's second season.

TEAM ON THE DECLINE USC: The Trojans enjoyed some time in the spotlight with three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and several high-profile recruits. That success evidently came at a price, though, as coach Tim Floyd resigned among allegations of recruiting violations. Floyd wasn't the only one to leave: Taj Gibson, DeMar DeRozan and Daniel Hackett declared early for the NBA draft, and most of USC's signing class went elsewhere. That leaves Kevin O'Neill to build a roster around leading scorer Dwight Lewis, past backups and transfers. O'Neill brings Pac-10 experience and Xs-and-Os credibility to the bench, but he probably won't bring wins.

COACH ON THE HOT SEAT Oregon's Ernie Kent. Oregon is coming off its worst season in Kent's up-and-down, 12-season tenure and its worst overall since 1991-92. Though Kent received a contract extension through 2012-13 before last season, his job security is in question. He has taken the Ducks to two NCAA regional finals; he also has coached six teams that finished with a losing record in Pac-10 play, including last season's 2-16 debacle. Kent brought in a highly touted signing class in 2008, two of whom were freshman starters last season. With a little luck, Kent could be off the hot seat once again.

BIGGEST SNEAKERS TO FILL Guard James Harden, Arizona State: What will happen to the Sun Devils without Harden? The No. 3 pick in the NBA draft led Arizona State to 46 wins in the past two seasons, only one game fewer than Arizona State won from 2003-07. Arizona State won't sink back to those levels, but contending for a Pac-10 title is too much to ask. Three-point specialist Rihards Kuksiks, pass-first point guard Derek Glasser and four-star freshman guard Trent Lockett are the guys on the spot.

MOST OVERRATED PLAYER Guard Nic Wise, Arizona: Wise's return to the Wildcats is a major boost for first-year coach Sean Miller. But Wise alone isn't going to return Arizona to glory. This season, Wise will have to adjust from being the No. 3 offensive option behind Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger to being the Wildcats' go-to player. To do so, Wise also will have to improve his ball security -- he was one of three players in the Pac-10 to turn the ball over 100 times, along with Harden and Hackett.

MOST UNDERRATED PLAYER Forward Quincy Pondexter, Washington: On the high-scoring Huskies, Pondexter was merely the fourth-leading scorer, at 12.1 points per game. But after losing forward Jon Brockman and guard Justin Dentmon, Washington needs Pondexter to continue to improve. There's no reason to think he won't do that. After all, he's been the team's most improved player in each of the past two seasons. At 6 feet 6 and 215 pounds, he's an undersized forward, but the Pac-10 has few established big men.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.


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