Pac-10 ShootAround: Talent drain or potential refill in 2008-09?

Updated: August 22, 2008

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Three Pac-10 freshmen took their games to the NBA after one season.

Talent goes, talent comes

It's not hard to quantify how good Pac-10 basketball was last season. The 2008 NBA draft did exactly that.

Seven of the top 21 picks were Pac-10 players, two more than the conference had produced during any previous first round. Five more conference players went in the second round. Those 12 were spread among seven teams, so the majority of the conference teams used NBA-worthy players in 2007-08, and three -- UCLA (two lottery picks, one second-rounder), Stanford (two first-rounders) and California (one first-rounder, one second-rounder) -- took multiple hits.

That's as good an explanation as any why six Pac-10 teams were selected for the NCAA tournament, and many felt a seventh -- Arizona State -- got snubbed.

All this is impressive and nice, but it contains an inherent problem: The 2007-08 season is in the past.

That celebrated group is gone. Now what will the conference do for an encore? Will the quality of play slide because of the void left by this talent drain, or will the pool be replenished?

"We had great players in our league last year," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "Last year is probably the best the league's ever been. I think the Pac-10 is going to be very competitive this year, with a lot of parity."

Parity is not UCLA's thing, though. It has won three consecutive Pac-10 titles and reached three consecutive Final Fours.

The Bruins again are solid favorites to win the conference, even with the losses of lottery picks Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love (fourth and fifth overall, respectively) and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (No. 37).

That's because Howland simply restocked his roster with two McDonald's All-Americans, guards Jrue Holiday and Malcolm Lee, a pair who became the centerpieces of Scouts Inc.'s No. 1 recruiting class.

The talent drain and need to refill didn't apply to only the Bruins, though.

Michael Dunigan

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Oregon got a gem in McDonald's All-American Michael Dunigan, just one of the many highly touted newcomers to the Pac-10.

USC lost a lottery pick, O.J. Mayo, and gained a McDonald's All-American, Demar DeRozan, who's projected to become a lottery pick himself, probably in 2009.

Oregon lost nearly 60 percent of its scoring, but some of that will be replaced by McDonald's All-American Michael Dunigan, who headlined a class ranked 15th in the nation.

Arizona and Washington also signed touted classes, and Washington State's haul has been noted as sneaky good for Tony Bennett's system.

So what the NBA taketh from the Pac-10, the high schools giveth.

It's not all about an injection of talented youth, though. Arizona State seems a lock to go dancing this time around with all five starters back, topped by guard James Harden, the only returning first-team All-Pac-10 player, and forward Jeff Pendergraph.

Still, the conference as a whole doesn't appear as rugged from top to bottom as it was last season. Even with UCLA, there are questions.

Holiday and Lee will fortify the Bruins' already-strong backcourt, which includes Darren Collison and wing Josh Shipp, but the Bruins probably will need more help from their frontcourt recruits. UCLA must replace its top four rebounders, so getting production from Drew Gordon and 6-foot-10 J'Mison Morgan is critical.

"Those two big guys for sure have to contribute, because we're short handed in terms of numbers of bodies inside," Howland said.

So while the Pac-10 was widely acknowledged as the nation's best conference heading into 2007-08, it's got work to do to reclaim that unofficial title this winter.

"It's going to be, top to bottom, very difficult," Howland said. "Will we have seven of the top 21 picks in this year's draft? Probably not, but we're going to have a lot of really good players again."

Ted Miller covers college sports for ESPN.com.

Five Things To Watch in '08-09

The new looks familiar
New coaches are, er, nothing new. The stakes are high, and guys get fired -- or leap into more prominent jobs. But the offseason Pac-10 coaching carousel -- and the soap opera that accompanied it -- was just nuts.

Lute Olson

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After a rocky season away from the team, Arizona's Lute Olson is back on the Wildcats' bench.

Start with the Lute Olson-Kevin O'Neill saga at Arizona, which ended up damaging Olson's reputation when O'Neill was unceremoniously dispatched. Then there's Mike Montgomery, formerly Stanford's coach, taking over at -- wait for it -- hated rival California. Trent Johnson led Stanford to the Sweet 16, but despite that, he sensed he was unloved by Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby and bolted for LSU. Bowlsby then hired former Duke standout Johnny Dawkins. As if that wasn't enough, Oregon State handed its woeful program off to Craig Robinson, who's the brother-in-law of some guy name Barack Obama.

Is all of this change something we can believe in? Check back in March.

Will anyone challenge UCLA?
One would think losing a pair of lottery picks would make a team vulnerable, but it's hard to imagine any team other than UCLA beginning the season as the Pac-10 favorite. The Bruins, much like their cross-town rival's football team, will remain on top of the conference hill in terms of both perception and reality until someone knocks them off. Speaking of that cross-town rival, though, USC might be a candidate to threaten UCLA, despite the Trojans' own personnel hits with the NBA draft departures of Mayo and Davon "What was he thinking?" Jefferson. DeRozan leads a strong recruiting class, and forward Taj Gibson and an experienced backcourt make a school-record third consecutive NCAA tournament extremely likely. Arizona State, with Harden and Pendergraph, also could be a threat, but the Sun Devils won't be a scrappy little surprise squad this go-around. After that, the pickings are slim. In the end, the safest answer to who could be UCLA's foil is: Nobody.

Is Washington's Lorenzo Romar on the hot seat?
Romar hit all the right buttons his first four years at Washington, but two consecutive mediocre seasons (which ended with the Huskies failing to earn NCAA tournament berths) and losing seven straight to rival Washington State have left a small but growing minority of fans wondering whether the magic is gone. The Huskies, despite Romar's touted recruiting prowess, have become the state's third-best team, behind the Cougars and Gonzaga. Romar might have the right mix of experience and youth this season to get the critics off his back, although this squad is hardly a shoe-in for an invitation to the Big Dance.

The player of the year is …
It could be a veteran point guard, UCLA's Darren Collison, who's trying to showcase his NBA bona fides. It could be Arizona State's sophomore guard Harden, the top returning scorer in the conference and the only returning member of the All-Pac-10 first team. Or perhaps Mr. Double-Double, Washington's Jon Brockman, will lead a Huskies resurgence and earn accolades for his distinguished career numbers. Or maybe it will be Chase Budinger leading a resurgence at Arizona and making Lute Olson naysayers eat crow. Considering Love earned top honors as a freshman last season, the POY field also needs to include DeRozan, because the world loves spectacular dunks and the Compton, Calif., product apparently doesn't mind scoring fancy. UCLA's Holiday probably should get a mention, too, although he might not take the lead role a POY winner needs.

Are there another six NCAA bids in the conference?
Maybe, but don't take that number to Vegas. The swing team probably is Washington, where Romar needs an invitation after missing the tourney in consecutive seasons. Five teams is more realistic, with UCLA, Arizona State and USC looking like sure things, and Arizona and Washington State possibly among the nation's top 64 teams. Stanford, California and Oregon probably lost too much to make runs, while it's an iron-clad lock that Oregon State will not be invited.

2007-08 Pac-10 Standings

Overall record Pac-10 record
UCLA* 35-4 16-2
Stanford* 28-8 13-5
Washington State* 26-9 11-7
USC* 21-12 11-7
Arizona State^ 21-13 9-9
Oregon* 18-14 9-9
Arizona* 19-15 8-10
Washington# 16-17 7-11
Cal^ 17-16 6-12
Oregon State 6-25 0-18
*NCAA tournament
^NIT
#CBI

For all the Pac-10 news and notes, check out the conference page.

Top Returning Scorers

Player PPG
James Harden, Arizona State, Soph. 17.8
Jon Brockman, Washington, Sr. 17.8
Chase Budinger, Arizona, Jr. 17.1
Patrick Christopher, Cal, Jr. 15.2
Darren Collison, UCLA, Sr. 14.5

Top Returning Rebounders

Player RPG
Jon Brockman, Washington, Sr. 11.6
Jordan Hill, Arizona, Jr. 7.9
Taj Gibson, USC, Jr. 7.8
Jeff Pendergraph, Arizona State, Sr. 6.4
Aron Baynes, Washington State, Sr. 6.0

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2008-09 Team Capsules

By Ted Miller
ESPN.com

Pac-10
ArizonaArizona
Lute Olson is back, but it remains to be seen whether that's a good thing or whether Arizona is heading for a Joe Paterno situation, in which a legendary coach doesn't know when he should gracefully exit (there was nothing graceful about last season's mess). What's certain is the return of Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill means the Wildcats figure to push toward the top half of the conference. Not so good was super-recruit Brandon Jennings' decision to bolt for Europe.

ASUArizona State
Guard James Harden and forward Jeff Pendergraph are a good start -- it's always nice to welcome back a pair of guys who can score and play defense -- but nearly all the scoring production is back, with all five starters returning. Center Eric Boateng should benefit from the departure of post talent from the conference. So what will the team that tied for the nation's biggest turnaround (13 games) do for an encore? Maybe become more confident on the road, after going 4-6 in 2007-08.

CalCal
Coach Mike Montgomery is back in the conference, only now he's wearing blue, which figures to make the Cal-Stanford tilts even more spicy. Junior wing Patrick Christopher is an underrated player, but the Bears have issues in the frontcourt. Who's going to replace Ryan Anderson's huge production? No returning player averaged more than 3.8 rebounds per game. A lot will be expected of freshman guard D.J. Seeley.

OregonOregon
Is Oregon's Ernie Kent safe after the announcement of his contract "extension" this offseason? He might not feel secure with the team he has coming back, considering the Ducks must replace most of their scoring and rebounding as well as their often-lethal perimeter game, even with guard Tajuan Porter back. The frontcourt is thin, although the arrival of 6-10 McDonalds All-American Michael Dunigan, who headlined a strong recruiting haul, should help. Of course, marquee recruits haven't always yielded immediate returns for Kent.

Oregon StateOregon State
Welcome Craig Robinson to the Pac-10, penthouse of college basketball! Now, let us show you your living quarters in the basement. At least the Tarver brothers, Josh and Seth, who combined for 16.3 points a game, and six other returning players won't be inexperienced. Only their experience has been losing.

StanfordStanford
Hey, buddy, can you spare 14 feet of scoring and dominance? Of course, new coach Johnny Dawkins won't know what he's missing after the departures of the Lopez Twin Towers, Robin and Brook. It's nice to have a veteran point guard in the steady if unspectacular Mitch Johnson, but it will be a huge adjustment not seeing the big guys inside. The frontcourt concerns are augmented by the fact that the returning players combined to shoot just 37.5 percent from the field last season.

UCLAUCLA
A fourth consecutive Final Four? Why not? The Bruins, despite providing the NBA with a pair of lottery picks and a second-round selection, continue to look like the class of the conference. And who's going to doubt taskmaster Ben Howland? He supplemented his roster with a pair of McDonalds All-American guards, Jrue Holiday and Malcolm Lee. Darren Collison and Josh Shipp both are back for their senior seasons, likely hoping to improve on inconsistent junior campaigns. The frontcourt, particularly in the area of rebounding, is a little iffy, although James Keefe looked solid during the NCAA tournament.

USCUSC
It's clear USC isn't backing away from making L.A. a two-team town, although the O.J. Mayo investigation might turn things sour. The Trojans lost Mayo and Davon Jefferson, but if McDonalds All-American wing Demar DeRozan lives up to his hype -- he's likely another one-and-done recruit -- he and Taj Gibson, Daniel Hackett and Dwight Lewis will give the Trojans a nice nucleus of players who should keep them in the top half of the conference. Also, Leonard Washington's winding academic saga is over, so he is eligible and likely will help on the boards. USC could get a big boost if UNC transfer Alex Stepheson is declared eligible immediately.

WashingtonWashington
Workhorse Jon Brockman leads a Huskies program that will be hungry to climb back into the top half of the conference after two mediocre seasons and NCAA tournament misses. The big question is whether the addition of touted recruit Isaiah Thomas means the point guard problems of the past two seasons are solved. If wing Quincy Pondexter makes his long-anticipated -- and presently doubted -- breakthrough, the Huskies could make some noise. Of course, they're going to have to learn to shoot free throws (58.6 percent -- yuck), play consistent defense and replace 3-point specialist Ryan Appleby.

Washington State
Only two starters and five letter winners are back, and the departed took with them most of the scoring, passing and stealing. It looks like a transitional season, and this might test the mettle of the Cougars as to whether their run within the top third of the conference will continue. Returning are senior center Aron Baynes (who upped his game in the NCAA tournament), resourceful guard Taylor Rochestie and sixth man Daven Harmeling. With nine freshmen on the roster -- a sneaky-good incoming class -- it's clear the Cougs are heading into a youth movement.

Pac-10's best

By Doug Gottlieb
ESPN

Doug Gottlieb counts down the best teams in the Pac-10 for the upcoming season:

1. UCLA: Loaded again. Darren Collison, Mike Roll and Josh Shipp welcome in an incredibly athletic group to change the perception of UCLA offensively. J'Mison "BoBo" Morgan is a freak inside and Jrue Holiday might be the most talented Howland recruit yet, while Jerime Anderson and Malcolm Lee give Howland six legit guards to push the limits of UCLA's fast break. With the rest of the league down compared to 2007-08, UCLA is more athletic than ever.

2. Washington: Jon Brockman plays with the same toughness and agility as Tyler Hansbrough. But he needs consistent help from Quincy Pondexter to get UW to the Big Dance. Tiny Isaiah Thomas, who will add offensive punch to the veteran backcourt of Justin Dentmon and Venoy Overton, is similar to former Dawg Nate Robinson in terms of offensive talent.

3. Arizona State: James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph need Ty Abbott and Derek Glasser to be more consistent. Look out for incoming freshman Johnny Coy to steal some wing minutes opposite Harden. Herb Sendek will not be on the bubble this season.

4. USC: Out with O.J., in with Demar DeRozan. DeRozan is a big-time athlete who can score off the dribble and the catch. There are questions for the Trojans. Will Taj Gibson find his freshman form? Will Mamadou Diarra give the men of Troy the inside grit they need? Can Daniel Hackett emerge as a star? And finally, what does the NCAA do regarding the O.J. Mayo payment allegations?

5. Arizona: Lute Olson, Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill and Nic Wise are back from the Arizona program that flamed out in the NCAA tournament first round. The season could rest on talented, but sometimes soft, freshman Jeff Withey.

6. Cal: The Bears lost the league's leading scorer, Ryan Anderson (first-round pick), and the most athletic big man in the league, DeVon Hardin (second-round pick). Their coach was fired, and their top recruit (Garrett Sim) now is headed to Oregon. But Mike Montgomery and a number of players returning from injury should be huge factors in the Bears' reemergence in the Pac-10.

7. Washington State: Klay Thompson (son of former NBA player Michael Thompson) will be a star, and with Aron Baynes and Taylor Rochestie back, the Cougs might grind their way into the Dance again. Look for more up-tempo play out of the Palouse.

8. Oregon: Tajuan Porter, Joevan Catron and a bevy of young, talented Ducks will be fun to watch but might be a season away from dancing. Michael Dunigan is a beast. Will they defend?

9. Stanford: Anthony Goods and Lawrence Hill are fine, but they will have to rediscover their offensive touch and redo their defensive philosophy without the Lopez twins to handle the opposition. Johnny Dawkins let his top recruit (Miles Plumlee) go to Duke and traveled with the U.S. Olympic team instead of grinding late in the recruiting period, two decisions that might prove costly.

10. Oregon State: This could take a while.

If I were the Pac-10 commish …

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

I definitely would relax the television contract with FSN. Every Pac-10 coach wants more exposure on other platforms. Opening up the Pac-10 to more viewers, just like the other high-profile conferences that have multiple network deals with CBS and ESPN, will only help the conference.

Also, the conference tournament needs more exposure, beyond only the final on network television. I like keeping the tourney in Los Angeles. The Thursday-through-Saturday format and the traditional round robin make the Pac-10 the best conference in the country for scheduling. The only blemish seems to be the television exposure.

Top Returning Assist Leaders

Player APG
Mitch Johnson, Stanford, Sr. 5.2
Taylor Rochestie, Washington State, Sr. 4.7
Nic Wise, Arizona, Jr. 4.4
Derek Glasser, Arizona State, Jr. 3.9
Darren Collison, UCLA, Sr. 3.8

Final Shots

• UCLA has the most national championships, but since the 1984-85 season, the Bruins aren't the No. 1 program. Where did UCLA and the rest of the Pac-10 rank in ESPN.com's Prestige Rankings? Prestige Rankings

• The Pac-10 was arguably the toughest conference last season, but with the loss of a lot of stars, how many top-25 teams will the conference have this season? Andy Katz's Top 25

• UCLA has made three straight Final Fours. If the Bruins want to make it to Detroit, they'll have to do it with a No. 2 seed. Bracketology

• Missed the other conference breakdowns? Click here to check out the ShootAround archive.