Tuesday , Nov , 09 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Pac-10 Conference

*** College Basketball Preview – Pac-10 Conference ***

The Sports Network

By Scott Haynes, College Basketball Senior Editor

OUTLOOK: For the first time since 1999, no team from the Pac-10 advanced
farther then the second round in the NCAA Tournament in 2004 and only three
teams made it to the Big Dance at all. So, has the Pac-10 taken a step back in
terms of conference toughness? Perhaps, but this year may be more of a
barometer in terms of where exactly this conference is headed. Lute Olson’s
Arizona Wildcats are always picked to be at the top of the conference and with
great depth, this season will be no different. An unusual team emerged last
year as a true contender in Washington and the Huskies are out to prove that
they are more than one-year wonders. Stanford has long been a force in the
Pac-10, but the Cardinal lost an All-American with eligibility remaining, not
to mention one of college basketball’s top coaches in Mike Montgomery and that
may be more than the team can currently overcome this season. The Oregon Ducks
finished the year with a .500 mark in conference play and that simply isn’t
what coach Ernie Kent is used to in Eugene. With a talented nucleus and one of
the nation’s top prospects in the fold, improved play is expected right away.
Coach Ben Howland is in his second season at UCLA and must immediately
improve on a subpar inaugural campaign. Ike Diogu may be the Pac-10’s POY, but
there is little else at Arizona State to prevent a lower tier finish in the
conference standings. USC lost one of the conference’s most prolific scorers
and that will put coach Henry Bibby in a tough situation this year. The Golden
Bears will also feel the sting of missing a top player, but their’s may return
for league play. Washington State and Oregon State may once again battle to
stay out of the league cellar, but both teams could also see vast improvement
this season, making for a wild ride in the Pac-10 in 2004-05.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Arizona

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Arizona, 2. Washington, 3. Stanford, 4. Oregon,
5. UCLA, 6. USC, 7. Arizona State, 8. Oregon State 9. Washington State,
10. California

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

ARIZONA – Depth has always been the key in Tucson and this year will be no
different for Lute Olson’s Wildcats. Arizona won 20 games last season, but
slept through their conference slate, finishing a disappointing third at 11-7.
With four of the team’s five starters returning, the Wildcats are the favorite
to win the league title. Senior guard Salim Stoudamire is one of the top
backcourt performers in the nation, with the ability to score at will (16.3
ppg last year), with his great range (.415 from three-point range). Mustafa
Shakur had a solid freshman campaign (9.4 ppg, 4.5 apg) and that success
should blossom even more this time around. The frontcourt is loaded as well,
with swingman Hassan Adams, who can both score and rebound (17.2 ppg, 7.3
rpg). Senior center Channing Frye (15.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg) is one of the top pivots
in the Pac-10 and should have little problem with most of the conference’s
big men. Junior forward Isaiah Fox (8.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg) will use his big frame
(6-9, 270) to move bodies around in the paint and take the pressure off Frye,
especially at the defensive end of the court. With superb role players like
junior guard Chris Rodgers ( 8.6 ppg) and sophomore forward Ivan Radenovic
(5.8 ppg), as well as yet another top-notch recruiting class, Arizona is
clearly the cream of the crop in the Pac-10 to start the season.

WASHINGTON – Some would say that Washington’s run at the end of last season
was a fluke and there is no way the Huskies could repeat their play for an
entire season. However, Lorenzo Romar is not one of those people, as the
third-year coach believes his squad can certainly improve on its 19-12 record
from last season. The team made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament and that
experience can only help it in the future. There is star power in the
backcourt for Washington in the form of juniors Nate Robinson (13.2 ppg) and
Brandon Roy (12.9 ppg) as well as senior Will Conroy (12.3 ppg). With them
returning to the fold, this is a team that will once again get out and run.
New Mexico transfer Jamaal Williams is expected to make an impact in the
frontcourt for UW and along with the improved play of forwards Bobby Jones
(11.2 ppg) and Mike Jensen (7.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg), could determine just how far
these Huskies can go this year.

STANFORD – The Cardinal lost their top player in Josh Childress, their coach
in Mike Montgomery and their home floor, which is in the midst of being
replaced. Trent Johnson comes over from Nevada, after leading the Wolf Pack to
the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 a year ago. His resume seems to be solid, but it
remains to be seen if he can continue the high standards set by Montgomery
over the years. The Cardinal won 30 games, as well as the Pac-10 regular
season title a year ago, but expecting similar results is not realistic.
Childress is not the only productive player no longer in the mix, as Matt
Lottich and Justin Davis are also gone. There is still enough of a talent base
in Palo Alto to expect a solid season. Junior guard Chris Hernandez is the top
returning scorer (10.0 ppg) and will take a more active role in the scoring
column this season, but his toughness is what makes him one of the top floor
generals in the league. He will be aided by frontcourt brutes Rob Little
(6-10, 265) and Matt Haryasz (6-10, 225). Both players have the ability to
score inside, with Haryasz showing more scoring prowess, while Little provides
the muscle in the middle.

OREGON – Ernie Kent’s squad won 18 games last season and finished in fourth
place in the Pac-10 at 9-9, but even duplicating those numbers may be hard to
do in 2004-05. The Ducks lost a trio that accounted for almost 45 points per
game, led by the outstanding play of All-American swingman Luke Jackson, who
put up half of that (21.2 ppg). Gone also are guards Andre Joseph and James
Davis, so where exactly will Oregon find its scoring punch? Well, Kent is
hoping that freshman Malik Hairston (6-6, 200) is everything advertised and
delivers in a big way in his first season in Eugene. While it is no secret
that Hairston is one of the nation’s top incoming players, he will certainly
not be able to lead this team to new heights all by himself. Junior forward
Ian Crosswhite (12.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg) really came into his own last season, but
how much of that was a result of Jackson’s ability to shoulder the burden
offensively? The frontcourt will also rely heavily on a couple of youngsters
in sophomore Mitch Platt (6-10, 270) and freshman Ray Schafer (7-0, 230).
Backcourt help will hopefully come in the form of sophomore Aaron Brooks (7.0
ppg) and freshman Bryce Taylor. If the new faces in Eugene are able to make
immediate impacts, the Ducks have a chance for a successful campaign.

UCLA – The first year under Ben Howland wasn’t exactly one to cherish if you
are a UCLA fan, perhaps because Howland was left with the mess left by Steve
Lavin. The team certainly underachieved, finishing six games under .500
(11-17) and a distant 7-11 in league play (tied for seventh). Despite the
early departure of Trevor Ariza, as well as the loss of forward T.J.
Cummings, this year’s Bruins could surprise a lot of teams. Howland had a
great recruiting class and that youth has a chance to mesh with the veterans
onboard to create a highly entertaining group. Senior swingman Dijon Thompson
is the top returning player and his 14.4 ppg last season could be eclipsed
this time around. Senior guards Brian Morrison (8.5 ppg) will provide
stability in the backcourt, but the team did lose depth recently with point
guard Cedric Bozeman (7.5 ppg, 5.5 apg) lost for the season with a knee
injury. The loss will make way for incoming freshmen Arron Afflalo and Jordan
Farmar. Afflalo is a big strong shooter, with great range, while Farmar is
the quintessential point guard, with uncanny instincts for the position.
Seven-footer Ryan Hollins (6.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg) will be given every opportunity
to provide balance with his play in the middle, while 6-9 freshman Lorenzo
Mata will provide the team with a rebounding force from day one. Last season
saw a great deal of inconsistency at UCLA, but the second year of Howland’s
tenure could see this team make a move back to respectability.

USC – The Trojans finished in the middle of the pack in the conference last
year (sixth place at 8-10) and there is little reason to think that will
change this year. It is all in the family for Henry Bibby this season, as a
pair of twins, Errick and Derrick Craven and Lodrick and Rodrick Stewart will
lead USC into battle. Errick Craven is one of the top returning scorers this
year, averaging 11.1 points per game last season. Lodrick Stewart will help in
the backcourt with his 8.7 ppg, while both brothers will provide further
support. Juco transfer Dwayne Shackleford could take minutes away from both,
as he has shown a penchant for both scoring and distributing. Despite the
depth in the backcourt, replacing the offensive production by the departed
Desmon Farmer (19.4 ppg) won’t be easy. Senior forward Jeff McMillan is a
tough competitor in the paint, showing the ability to score (11.1 ppg) and
rebound (8.6 rpg) last season. Senior center Rory O’Neil (8.3 ppg) has shown
flashes, but will need to be a consistent producer this year, to help provide
a balanced attack for the Trojans.

ARIZONA STATE – The Sun Devils finished in last place in the Pac-10 in
2003-04, winning just four conference games all season. Conventional wisdom
would suggest that a similar season is in the cards for ASU, but head coach
Rob Evans may not survive another horrific season. This is a squad with one
superstar and a bunch of question marks. The team boasts of one of the best
frontcourt players in the country in junior Ike Diogu (6-8, 250). The best low
post player in the Pac-10, Diogu can score (22.8 ppg) and rebound (8.9 rpg)
despite constant double and triple teams. However, a one-man team will not be
enough to drag the Sun Devils out of the conference basement. Others will have
to step up and help Diogu out. Those likely candidates include seniors Stevie
Moore (12.7 ppg) and Jason Braxton (7.1 ppg). Speaking of stepping up and
producing, a lot is expected of juco transfer Tyrone Jackson, who averaged
nearly 24 points per game last year with Fresno City College. If he continue
the solid production in the Pac-10, this team has a chance of clawing its way
out of the conference cellar.

OREGON STATE – Senior forward David Lucas came out of nowhere to earn all-
league honors as one of the conference’s best stories. A former walk-on, Lucas
led the Beavers to a 12-win season when little was expected. In his third year
at the helm, Jay John may be ready to lead his team to a winning season. Lucas
will be a big part of that after averaging a solid 17.2 points and 6.9
rebounds per game last season. Opposing teams will put a bullseye on Lucas,
but he is not the only offensive option in Corvallis, with junior guard Chris
Stephens (15.8 ppg) showing great perimeter scoring prowess. Senior guard J.S.
Nash (10.5 ppg) has also shown the ability to make shots. Oregon State was
tough at home last year, but failed to carry that strong play on the road. A
better showing away from Gill Coliseum will be needed for the maturation
process to continue this season.

WASHINGTON STATE – There was improved play in Pullman last season under the
direction of first-year coach Dick Bennett, resulting in a 13-16 overall
record. There isn’t a whole lot of offensive firepower in Bennett’s second
season, but Bennett has always preached defense first and these Cougars are
starting to believe in the gameplan. The team loses top scorer Marcus Moore,
but that isn’t a bad thing since Moore wasn’t really a defensive-minded
player. Senior guard Thomas Kelati is a talented scorer (11.1 ppg), who will
improve with an increase in opportunities. Although he will provide leadership
on the floor, the offense will run through a freshman in Derrick Low. The 6-1
youngster is a solid distributor and will be given every chance to make this
team his to run. The glaring need for these Cougars is a presence inside and
there may not be a player on the roster to fit the bill. Seniors Shami Gill
(6-7, 225) and Jeff Varem (6-6, 240) may be asked to give quality minutes
inside, but neither is a dominant interior force. This is a team that will
have matchup problems with the bigger teams in the league, but tenacious
defense will keep the Cougars in most contests.

CALIFORNIA – The Golden Bears finished two games under .500 a year ago (13-15)
and that number may look inviting this year. While the team is loaded with
young talent, that talent pool took a huge hit with the knee surgery of Leon
Powe. One of the conference’s top young low post players, Powe will miss the
first half of the season after having surgery this fall to repair his
damaged knee. Replacing his 15.1 points and 9.5 rebounds per game will be
impossible, but there is a chance he will return to the lineup for the start
of conference play. Junior forward Ron Benson will need to step up in Powe’s
absence and showed signs of improved play last year. Junior guard Richard
Midgley (10.6 ppg) and sophomore swingman Marquise Kately (10.5 ppg) will need
to provide the offense with Powe out of the lineup. Freshman forward Eric
Vierneisel is a three-point threat, while fellow freshman Kevin Langford
(brother of Kansas’ Keith Langford) could also provide a boost for the team.
With Powe in the lineup, Cal is just average. Without him, the Bears may dig
themselves into a hole they will be unable to get out of.