Multiple preseason publications have pegged UCLA to win the national title. But the Bruins are far from a lock to win their conference title.
Many of the Pac-10's top players are back, including a handful who are future first-round picks. With the resurgence of Oregon and shocking emergence of Washington State, the league looks deeper than ever before. Will someone emerge from the pack and knock off the Bruins?
We explore that question, along with others on the coming obstacles for prize Memphis recruit Derrick Rose, the best coach and the team to beat in the Missouri Valley Conference and the promise of Georgia Tech guards Anthony Morrow and Lewis Clinch in this week's mailbag.
Place your bets
If you were given the choice of UCLA or the field for Pac-10 champion, who would you take?
-- Sam from San Diego -----
Interesting question. My first instinct was to take the field. After all, I've spent much of the offseason hearing about how deep the Pac-10 is going to be. Eight of the league's teams were ranked in the top 35 of Rivals.com's preseason top 64. Take away UCLA, and I've still got seven teams that likely will fall somewhere between the NCAA Tournament bubble and the top 10. Out of that group, there's a good chance that at least one will surprise and finish ahead of the Bruins, right?
But after taking a closer look at what UCLA has managed under Ben Howland, I have to say "no." Consider that Howland has led the Bruins to the past two Pac-10 regular-season titles without an inside scoring threat. The arrival of freshman Kevin Love, Rivals.com's top-ranked center in the class of 2007, changes that. The 6-foot-9, 260-pound Love is a bruising, physical force. He has great hands and a great nose for the ball and will be an instant double-double threat.
Love is joining a team that could have made the Final Four without him. The Bruins have one of the nation's elite backcourts with the return of juniors Darren Collison and Josh Shipp. Junior forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is one of the league's most versatile players. Senior Lorenzo Mata-Real and junior Alfred Aboya bring valuable size and frontcourt depth. Every player I just mentioned has played in the Final Four. Actually, everyone but Shipp has played in two Final Fours.
The Pac-10 is deeper, but the truth is the gap between the Bruins and everyone else has widened. Check out the other top teams. Each has at least one question mark. Most have a couple.
Washington State returns every starter from last season's second-place team, but lost their only big man (Ivory Clark) who could block shots. Oregon brings back four starters from a team that went to the Elite Eight, but lost their best player (Aaron Brooks). USC added two five-star recruits (O.J. Mayo and Davon Jefferson) but lost three double-digit scorers (Gabe Pruitt, Nick Young and Lodrick Stewart).
Arizona must replace three double-digit scorers (Marcus Williams, Mustafa Shakur and Ivan Radenovic). Stanford must deal with the academic suspension of rising star Brook Lopez, who will miss the first nine games. Washington lost a lottery pick (Spencer Hawes), and Cal lost its best guard (Ayinde Ubaka).
UCLA has the most talent, the best coach, the most experience and now they have most balance in the league thanks to Love. I'll take those odds against everyone else.
Wondering about Rose
There has been a lot of hype surrounding Derrick Rose of Memphis. What is the biggest challenge a freshman point guard faces?
-- Thomas from Roanoke, Va. -----
Strangely enough, I think 3-point shooting often is the biggest problem for freshman point guards in college. Guys often are so used to beating defenders easily off the dribble in high school that they haven't put in the necessary work on their outside shot. Plus, they normally aren't the first or second offensive option anymore, so it's tougher to get enough shot attempts to get into a rhythm.
Remember how ugly Raymond Felton's shooting form was when he first got to North Carolina? Felton shot 35.8 percent from 3-point range as a freshman. That number dipped to 32.1 the following year. After some adjustments (mainly moving his elbow further in) and diligent practice (Felton hoisted up 500-plus jumpers a day that offseason), he led the ACC with a 44 percent mark as a junior and helped the Tar Heels to the 2005 national title.
Check out Virginia's Sean Singletary, currently the best point guard in the ACC. Singletary was a subpar shooter as a freshman, shooting 31.2 percent from beyond the arc. That number climbed to 34.1 during his sophomore campaign, then jumped to a solid 38.9 last season
UCLA's Darren Collison had a reputation as a poor shooter entering last season. Collison made 32.8 percent of his 3-point attempts as a freshman. That number rose to 44.7 percent in 2006-07.
Even Ohio State's Mike Conley Jr., who enjoyed one of the smoothest transitions we have seen for a freshman point guard from high school to college, shied away from shooting 3-pointers. Conley, the No. 4 pick in the NBA draft, took just 63 3-pointers last season and made 19 (30.2 percent).
Decision-making and learning how to control the tempo certainly are difficult for freshmen point guards to master, as well. But for point guards, especially elite-level guys like Rose, it's tougher to consistently knock down 3-pointers. Rose has an incredible first step and is a great finisher around the basket, so defenses will sag off him and force him to shoot the ball. His ability to prove he can do that may be what it takes for a loaded Memphis team to win it all.
The Missouri Valley Conference has really gained respect in recent years. In your opinion, who is the top coach in the MVC? Who is the team to beat in the league this year? Also, how will Wichita State handle the loss of coach Mark Turgeon? Hopefully, we can open it up a little on offense?
-- Horrace Greenstein from Taiban, N.M. -----
If given the choice of every coach in the MVC, I'd take Creighton's Dana Altman every time. There was a reason he was Arkansas' first choice to replace Stan Heath (Altman took the job, then returned to Creighton one day later). Altman has been selected coach of the year in three leagues: in 1990 in the Southern Conference with Marshall, in 1993 in the old Big Eight at Kansas State and in 2001 and 2002 in the MVC while in the midst of his current 13-year run at Creighton.
Altman is an X's and O's wiz, and his teams always play tough defense. When faced with an opponent with superior athleticism, he seems to always put together a game plan that keeps his team competitive.
My second choice would be Southern Illinois' Chris Lowery, who has the team to beat in the league once again. The Salukis lost their best player (Jamal Tatum), but bring back three starters from a 29-win team that battled Kansas down to the final minute in the Sweet 16.
Nobody else in the league has the talent or experience to contend with the Salukis. That goes for the Shockers, who should consider finishing in the middle-of-the-pack a success. Four of their top five scorers are gone, and new coach Gregg Marshall had difficulty putting together a solid recruiting class in the wake of Turgeon's quick departure (Turgeon didn't help, taking the Shockers' best recruit with him to Texas A&M). Marshall is a great coach and will be a great fit, but he is facing a rebuilding season.
Yellow Jackets deserve a look
How do you feel about Georgia Tech's wings, Anthony Morrow and Lewis Clinch? How do they rate against others in the nation? I feel they are the most underrated tandem out there.
-- Emory in Charlotte
If I was making a list of the nation's most underrated tandems, Morrow and Clinch certainly would be near the top.
Morrow accepted a lesser role last season with the additions of eventual first-round picks Thaddeus Young and Javaris Crittenton, but he has shown he can be a major scoring threat. Morrow led the Jackets with a 16.0 scoring average two seasons ago and shot 42.9 percent (78-of-182) from 3-point range.
Clinch has the potential to be a go-to scorer. A terrific outside shooter, Clinch scored in double figures in each of the first 10 games last season. He was averaging 13.2 ppg when he was suspended for academic reasons after the 14th game. That was more than Young or Crittenton at the time.
With Morrow and Clinch on the court together, the Jackets will be a much better shooting team. If the Jackets can find a steady point guard – their biggest preseason issue – neither will remain underrated for long.