Pac-12 Primer: Does Cal have what it takes to beat favorite UCLA?
Arizona freshman Josiah Turner is likely to make a big impact, log serious minutes
A loaded frontcourt could help balance out UCLA's questions in the backcourt
Cal has emerged as the trendy pick to beat out UCLA, Arizona for the league title
The first season of the expanded 12-team league should be wild. Any of five teams can realistically win the title and how a number of young players and transfers develop will have a large say in who eventually take the crown. It's tempting to say there's no elite team in the league this season, but most would have said that last year, too, before Derrick Williams exploded.
Josh Smith, UCLA
In a transitional year for the Pac-12 there are several possible league champs. But for POY, go with the skilled big man who could have NBA lottery status hanging in the balance of his sophomore season. There are numerous "ifs" associated with Smith's upside, but if his conditioning is better (questionable at this stage) and if he can stay out of foolish foul trouble (also TBD), he should be able to play more than the 22 minutes per game he logged last season, when his per minute numbers and rates (especially on the offensive glass) were outstanding. With UCLA's backcourt in significant flux, Smith will be relied on heavily.
Josiah Turner, Arizona
The hype going into 2010-11 was that Arizona might be a year away with a big recruiting class on tap for this season. Then Derrick Williams blew up and hauled the Wildcats to the Elite Eight. Now the heralded freshmen have arrived and the biggest impact of the bunch should come from Turner, a five-star prospect who will log serious minutes at the point and help lead an up-tempo attack that will have to be more balanced than last season's Williams-fueled Cats. Teammate Nick Johnson should have a say in this race, as should Oregon's Jabari Brown and Washington's Tony Wroten, Jr.
Allen Crabbe, Cal
Hoopsheads know how solid Crabbe was as a freshman for the Golden Bears, but this could be the season both Cal and Crabbe emerge on the national scene. The door is open for Mike Mongomery's bunch to make a run at the league title, and Crabbe could lead the Pac-12 in scoring if more of the Bears' possession usage shifts his way. He only used 18 percent of the Bears' possessions last season and was an extremely efficient shooter, both in advanced metrics (58 percent true shooting percentage) and traditional measures (40 percent from the three).
The Pac-12 is doing a reverse Big 12, going from 10 teams to 12 and killing the true double round-robin that had been a staple of Pac-10 play. Now the vagaries of who plays where and who doesn't play whom will help determine the league champ. In a league that hasn't exactly prospered in NCAA at-large consideration lately (USC last season aside), finishing third instead of fifth in what should be a wide-open league may be a significant difference. As much as the selection committee does evaluate schedule strength in league play, there aren't all that many examples of the committee "leapfrogging" teams in league standings.
I have encouraged colleague Seth Davis to abandon his annual Jigsaw Man column this year and work on a UCLA-Florida merger that would create two national title contenders. The Bruins may have made that list solo had Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee not bolted early for the NBA Draft. Now UCLA is left with a loaded frontcourt and a lot of questions in the backcourt. On the plus side, center Josh Smith could have a huge season if he can stay on the floor. Physical forward Reeves Nelson is a great complement and the Bruins have depth to spare with the eligibility of the Wear twins (transfers from North Carolina) and promising sophomore Anthony Stover. How Ben Howland allocates the minutes will be interesting to watch. He could have the same issue in the backcourt, but operating out of necessity, not strength. Jerime Anderson (facing a two-game suspension) and Lazeric Jones have experience, and freshman Norman Powell could provide a lift at the 2. Despite the imbalance, the Bruins have enough talent and size to win the league.
The arrival of Sean Miller's first killer recruiting class in the desert takes some of the sting off Derrick Williams' departure. The Wildcats will be much younger and more balanced this season, but still have a lot of firepower on the roster and have a reasonable chance to win the league. The Wildcats return four players who played 20 minutes per game or more last season (assuming wing Kevin Parrom recovers from gunshot wounds suffered in late September). Senior guard Kyle Fogg and junior forward Solomon Hill each averaged over eight points a game last season. They'll be joined by a quartet of precocious freshmen, led by point guard Josiah Turner and shooting guard Nick Johnson. Angelo Chol and Sidiki Johnson will challenge for heavy frontcourt minutes, as well. This should be a really fun, up-tempo team, with the personnel to give UCLA (and many others) a lot of trouble.
The Golden Bears are a trendy pick in some circles to win the league, and with good reason. The backcourt pairing of senior Jorge Gutierrez and sophomore Allen Crabbe combined to average 28 points per game last season, and they're complemented by undersized forward Harper Kemp, who also averaged more than 14. Brandon Smith got a baptism by fire at the point last season after Gary Franklin transferred midway through the campaign, so he should be more settled from the get-go, and Minnesota transfer Justin Cobb should provide more depth. If Richard Solomon can emerge in his sophomore season to supplement the frontcourt play of Kemp, the Bears are going to be very tough. This is another team that has a clear backcourt advantage (on paper) over UCLA. They just need to be able to hang in the frontcourt.