We're not proposing that the Trojans need to be a national contender, but they ought to be an upper-tier Pac-10 team on a regular basis.
If new head coach Tim Floyd can bring the Trojans up toward that level at the same time UCLA is back as an NCAA team, there is a chance Los Angeles could have the competitive rivalry the league desperately desires.
We know this isn't and won't be Duke-North Carolina. But if basketball in L.A. is hot at the college level, the conference will benefit greatly.
"USC-UCLA can bring an apathetic media in Los Angeles into our league," Oregon State coach Jay John said. "We struggle with the lateness of our games, but if you're behind those teams in L.A., then it heightens the visibility. The league has gone through a period of four or five times when there was apathy with UCLA and USC, but we don't have that now."
The league office isn't naive about the possibility, either.
"It would be very, very important to us," Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen said of having both USC and UCLA at a high competitive level within the league. "The conference tournament is at the Staples Center, and when the two of them are going well we've got a chance to sell. A few years ago, USC was into the final and Oregon needed a Luke Ridnour shot to beat UCLA. The building was already building toward a USC-UCLA championship game and the excitement was palpable."
Why are we even suggesting this could occur this soon? Because Floyd's hire is one of the most significant changes in the conference heading into next season. And it comes at a time when UCLA coach Ben Howland has a young, entertaining team fresh off an NCAA berth ready to ratchet up the rivalry in Westwood.
Sure, the Trojans took a bit of a detour when Rick Majerus accepted the job in December and then resigned less than a week later, but the Trojans still nailed the hire when they grabbed Floyd.
Floyd will get players, much like he did at Iowa State. And he can coach, more like he did with the New Orleans Hornets than the Chicago Bulls. Floyd's hire comes at a time when the Trojans are constructing a new on-campus arena that's supposed to be one of the finest in the West when it opens in the summer of 2006.
To be fair to Henry Bibby, the Trojans were in the Elite Eight in 2001 and made the NCAAs in 2002. But they followed that up with consecutive 13-win seasons before Bibby unexpectedly was sacked four games into the 2004-05 season.
During an odd year, led by interim coach Jim Saia, the Trojans finished last in the league. UCLA, meanwhile, surprisingly finished tied for third and earned an NCAA bid.
"They're going to work very hard, and Tim is a good coach and a proven winner," Howland said. "They've got a new facility coming, but we're headed in the right direction, too."
UCLA has one of the top backcourts in the country with three rising sophomores: point Jordan Farmar (13.2 ppg, 5.3 apg), Aaron Afflalo (10.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg) and Josh Shipp (9.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg). The buzz about the Bruins is certainly coming back.
Getting USC on board at the same time would be tremendous. There is hope, with the Trojans' returning the top three scorers from last season: rising sophomores Gabriel Pruitt (12.3 ppg) and Nick Young (11.1 ppg) and junior Lodrick Stewart (12.1 ppg).
The Trojans could be adding as many as eight newcomers, according to scout.com.
"We did well considering the situation," Floyd said of the recruiting time frame from when he got the job in December to signing players in the spring. Floyd said he felt there were three top big men available in the spring, and the Trojans nailed two of them 6-8 Jeremy Barr of Westbury Christian in Houston and 6-9 RouSean Cromwell out of the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
Oregon coach Ernie Kent said Floyd should be able to tap his resources in the South as he makes USC a player in L.A. There are so many players in the Southern California area that more than one school can mine the area, which is to USC's advantage as it tries to increase its foothold in the region. With the new arena coming, the commitment to winning now is firmly in place.
"There's no excuses for this program not fulfilling the potential they've always equated with this job," Floyd said. "We've got the opportunity to build something special. When the new facility comes, then we'll have as much to work with as any job at the college level. The one thing that separates this job is the talent in the area. There's so much for us to draw from."
George Raveling made the L.A. Sports Arena work while he was the head coach, getting to the NCAAs in 1991 and '92. The Trojans had a name player in Harold Miner at the time, too. But it's been cyclical for the Trojans, certainly not enough for the Pac-10 to bank on a city rivalry that has regional and national appeal.
The Trojans aren't close yet, but the anticipation is real and so is the hope that UCLA and USC are that much closer to a real L.A. rivalry.
Joe's early (early, early) look at the 2006 bracket sees five of the 10 Pac-10 teams making it to the field of 65.
"That's the good news," Arizona head coach Lute Olson said. "The bad news is that it's those two guys [who are gone]. They'll be missed."
"Those two guys" refers to second-team All-American Salim Stoudamire, the most prolific shooter in Pac-10 history, and honorable mention All-American Channing Frye, a four-year starter.
Here's how their replacements stack up (stats from 2004-05):
|Missing their marks(man)|
Even though Walters and McClellan didn't see heavy minutes last season, Olson is optimistic they can fill the shoes of the departed seniors, having practiced against them almost daily last season.
"Kirk Walters may be one of the biggest surprises in the league next year," Olson said. "And players generally make the biggest strides between their freshman and sophomore season," referring to McClellan.
Coach, you have 741 career wins and know your team better than anyone else, so please forgive me for the skepticism, but let's rewind to 2003.
Arizona was one shot away from going to the Final Four. Heading into the 2003-04 season, the Wildcats lost their best guard and best big man. And while trying to replace seniors Jason Gardner and Luke Walton, a UA team loaded with talent fell considerably short of expectations, losing to Seton Hall in the first round of the 2004 NCAA Tournament.
The 2005-06 version of the Wildcats has less talent than that group. Could Arizona fall in the first round again? Or even miss the tournament for the first time in 22 seasons (the longest active streak in the country)?
"On paper, it may look like that," Olson said. "But we'll be fine. This team certainly has the potential to win the Pac-10 title."
The same can't be said for Washington State, which lost three key players from last season, but don't overlook the impact Dick Bennett is having in Pullman.
After masterful building jobs at Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Wisconsin-Green Bay and Wisconsin (including the 2000 Final Four), he's slowly building Wazzu into a Pac-10 irritant.
In his first two seasons in Pullman, Bennett has 25 wins as many as the school had in the three seasons prior to his arrival. He has 14 total conference wins, five more than in the previous four seasons combined. He broke WSU's 27-game road losing streak. He broke the Cougars' 22-game Pac-10 losing streak. And he did what no other WSU coach in the 46-year history of the UCLA-WSU rivalry had done win in Westwood.
Here's a look at Bennett's impact so far on the Cougars:
(Bennett's two seasons in bold)
On Tuesday, Diogu elected to stay in the NBA draft. His decision came one day after Powe pasted some poor sap in a San Francisco Pro-Am summer league with 35 points.
"He's gone now, so I get to hold the fort," Powe told ESPN.com Thursday night.
Powe was the Pac-10 freshman of the year in 2003-04 after leading the Bears in scoring (15.1 ppg) and was tops in the Pac-10 in rebounding (9.5 rpg). He was the first freshman to lead the Pac-10 in rebounding.
But then Powe's left knee gave out and he needed to get it fixed. The two-step procedure started in April 2004 and continued in September. Powe said he's actually had three surgeries on his left knee but is encouraged by his recent exploits.
"Things are looking good," Powe said of finally playing competitive basketball after being cleared to participate on May 26.
Powe and Diogu are similar. The 6-8 Diogu averaged 22.6 points and 9.8 rebounds last season, earning him Pac-10 player of the year honors as a junior. Powe, who is also 6-8, should be just as dominant for the Bears.
"He got double-teamed just as much as me," Powe said of Diogu. "We both have a similar power game. We can both step out and hit the jumper and hit the 3."
The Sun Devils were on the verge of making the 2005 NCAA Tournament. Likewise, Cal should be right there next season after missing the postseason this year all because of Powe.
"He was one of the best players in the league when he was a freshman," Arizona State coach Rob Evans said of Powe. "He'll take Cal to another level. He's a high-profile kid once he comes back, and before he got hurt he was an awfully talented player and the second-best inside player in the league next to Ike."
The injuries have helped Powe mature. Cal coach Ben Braun said the stronger Powe feels, the healthier his spirit. Throughout his rehab, he worked on his ballhandling and on extending his shooting. Braun will let him face the basket more often, allowing him to be a three/four at times in the offense.
Powe will continue to play once a week until the Bears head to Europe for a summer trip in August. The trip will allow Powe to be reunited with big man Rod Benson and get used to Kansas transfer Omar Wilkes inside.
"I'm going over there to get some run, get back in the flow of things and most of all be with my teammates," Powe said. "We can compete with every team out there in the country. Our expectations are to get to the tournament. I just have to take care of business in the preseason and make sure my knee is right."
The Bears should be fine up front and at the point with Richard Midgley. Now that Ayinde Ubaka is staying, the Bears have a starting five that can compete with any team in the Pac-10. Teams will have to double on Powe, and if the perimeter players can make shots, Powe's presence will be even more powerful.
We know Washington State lost three of its best players in Jeff Varem, Thomas Kelati and Chris Schlatter, but don't think for a second that the Cougars, with Dick Bennett's methodical system, won't be a spoiler. Wazzu took down Arizona in Tucson and Stanford in Palo Alto last season and should have beaten the Wildcats in Pullman and UCLA at Pauley.
Cal is expecting Kansas transfer Omar Wilkes to have a huge impact on the squad. The Bears are confident that Wilkes will be one of the top newcomers in the league.
USC may have found two sleepers in recruiting: College of Southern Idaho's Abdoulaye Ndiaye and Baton Rouge point guard Ryan Francis. Tim Floyd expects both players to have an impact on the squad in its climb out of the cellar.
Chris Hernandez's return means forward Matt Haryasz and wing Dan Grunfeld have a shot to be the leading scorers at their positions in the Pac-10. Hernandez is that critical to Stanford's chances of winning the league.
Oregon State won't challenge for an upper spot in the league until it learns to win on the road. Going 0-9 in league play away from home last season is the reason the Beavers weren't a serious player for an NCAA bid after an 10-3 start to the season.
UCLA's season will be determined more by the production of Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins than of the stellar backcourt. Ben Howland is banking on the guards to carry the squad, but if the centers can produce the Bruins have a shot for the title.
Now that Channing Frye is gone, Arizona must have a banner season from Kirk Walters if the Wildcats are going to have inside balance. The Wildcats also expect Hassan Adams to improve his mid-range and 3-point shot.
Arizona State will lean heavily on rising junior Serge Angounou to replace Ike Diogu's scoring. But the Sun Devils will change their offense and not rely as much on scoring in the post.
Oregon's Malik Hairston went to the Ducks because he wanted to get out and run. He also chose the Ducks because he expected to be playing in the postseason. Well, he better make that happen in 2006 after the Ducks failed to make the Pac-10 tournament last season.
Brandon Roy's role will increase dramatically for Washington not just because the Huskies lost Nate Robinson but because of signee Martell Webster's decision to stay in the draft.
But, sadly, we must examine the facts, and the facts show that, recently, the Pac-10 has been, let's just say, disappointing. With only three teams in the NCAA Tournament two years ago and only four teams this past year, the Pac-10, numerically at least, has been down. Plus, the last two Pac-10 teams to get No. 1 seeds have failed to reach the Elite Eight. Yes, I know the conference had a high RPI last year, but did anyone really consider it an elite conference?
So, given that landscape, what exactly is left for the 2005-06 season? Gone are hopes for a national title in Seattle, with Nate Robinson, Martell Webster, Will Conroy and Tre Simmons all in the draft. Arizona might have 11 of 13 scholarship players back, but Channing Frye and Salim Stoudamire were the meat of the Wildcats' offense. Cal continues to look good, on paper, but Richard Midgley is a bit of an enigma and Leon Powe is coming off another knee surgery.
How about Stanford? The Cardinal have the best point guard in the league, Chris Hernandez, but a lack of athletic bigs leaves them wishing the Lopez twins (future stars from the high school class of '06) were arriving a year early. Arizona State loses Ike Diogu. Need I say more?
USC has its fourth head coach in under a year, four scholarship players and, well, a whole lot of hope. With a new arena on the horizon, Tim Floyd's Trojans are like that long-sought-after on-campus facility ... a year away. Washington State is possibly the best-coached team in America. Oh yeah, it plays the least-watchable style in America, too, pushing fans to choose watching the Cougs' score on the ticker, not on TV.
Oregon State might be on the verge of something special, but then again, with the loss of David Lucas to graduation, maybe not. Oregon seems loaded for another run, but weren't we all here last year, on the same bandwagon with Aaron Brooks and Malik Hairston? Something seems to be missing with this crew.
Lastly, there actually is hope in Westwood that the Bruins can regain their glory. The terrific threesome of Jordan Farmar, Aaron Afflalo and Josh Shipp might make Ben Howland look like the genius we all thought he was when he left Pitt. We should keep in mind, though, that Dijon Thompson is gone and so too is any inside presence.
So as the true SoCal/Pac-10 homer I want to be, I'm left to relying on hope. I hope Cal stays healthy. I hope that Arizona finds a jump shot for Hassan Adams and Mustafa Shakur. I hope that Oregon finds the desire to defend and share the ball, that UCLA will grind defensively and run offensively, that Chris Hernandez actually stays healthy.
I hope that Tim Floyd finds a way to drag more than 5,000 football fans to the Sports Arena, that Washington State scores 50 points (assuring the Cougars a victory) and that Oregon State finally gets over that hump and wins a game outside of Corvallis.
So there you go, Pac-10 fans an honest perspective from someone who loves this conference but understands where it lines up nationally. There are many questions about the league this season and only time will provide the answers.
Oregon coach Ernie Kent on the Ducks' apparent weakness in the paint with rising sophomores Marty Leunen and Ray Schafer
The Ducks are projected by ESPN.com to be in the mix for the NCAAs next season, led by guards Aaron Brooks, Malik Hairston and Bryce Taylor.
|Team||League record||Overall record|
# -- NIT participant
|Leading returning scorers|
|Player (Team)||2004-05 PPG|
|Dan Grunfeld (Stanford)||17.9|
|Chris Hernandez (Stanford)||15.2|
|Aaron Brooks (Oregon)||14.7|
|Nick DeWitz (Oregon St.)||15.5|
|Rod Benson (Cal)||15.3|
These five are not the only talented returnees. In fact, the Pac-10 overall had a very low player turnover from last season. Here are the expected returnee rates for each team in the league:
|Back for more|
|Wash. St.||69% (9/13)|
|Arizona St.||69% (11/16)|
|Oregon St.||69% (11/16)|
The bigger story than who is returning this season, though, is who is coming back.
Stanford's Dan Grunfeld is recovering from a season-ending ACL tear while Chris Hernandez, whom Lute Olson thinks is one of the nation's most underrated players, is back from a flirtation with the NBA draft and should be healthier this season after gutting out most of last year with a bum ankle and back spasms.
Throw in the return of Cal's Powe, the Pac-10 freshman of the year two seasons ago, from a knee problem and you have some serious star power returning.
Here's a look at what the league is getting back at the top:
* Stats from 2003-04 season
People on The Farm are especially excited about these returns, with good reason. Throw in fellow senior Matt Haryasz (12.5 ppg and 9.1 rpg) in the middle, and year two of the Trent Johnson era could be quite special. Still, the Cardinal know it won't be easy to be the likely preseason favorite.
"Behind our seniors, we lack experience," Stanford assistant coach L.J. Hepp said. "The Pac-10 will be extraordinarily strong, top to bottom. For us to compete, the seniors must stay healthy and draw out the best from their younger teammates in productivity and consistency."
Andy Glockner/Peter Newmann
Next Friday's sessions: ACC, Patriot, Ivy and MEAC.
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