This will be the last year of the Pac-10 as you know it. The tradition-rich (albeit often overlooked) West Coast staple is expanding, adding Colorado and Utah to the mix. The Utes will join in the 2011-12 academic year, while the Buffaloes will complete the “Pac-12″ the following year.
In the meantime, the Pac-10 is looking to rebound from what was at best a down year in basketball, and at worst an all-out disaster. Only one team (California) was considered Top-25 caliber throughout the season, and only two teams (Cal, Washington) made it to the NCAA Tournament — half as many as the Mountain West Conference. Then in June, only two Pac-10 players were picked in the NBA Draft. The University of Nevada alone had that many.
Can the conference bounce back? I’m not sure. Three schools (UCLA, Stanford, Cal) are bringing in recruiting classes ranked in Scout.com’s Top 25, but at the same time, last season’s Pac-10 Player of the Year, Defensive P.O.Y., leading scorer, and six members of the 10-man All-Conference First Team are not returning. That said, here are the returning players most important to their team’s success:
Derrick Williams (Arizona) — In what was a rebuilding year for AZ, Williams quickly established himself as a cornerstone for the future, averaging 15.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Now that “future” may not be very long. While the 6-7 forward didn’t crack most Top-100 recruiting lists coming out of high school, Williams is projected to go in next year’s NBA Draft Lottery.
Jamelle McMillan (Arizona State) — In college basketball, having an experienced senior point guard is like getting two paychecks on the 1st of the month. Jamelle (son of Nate) averaged a modest 6.6 points and 2.8 assists last season splitting time with then-senior Derek Glasser, but now he’s running the show solo. McMillan’s game mirrors that of his dad: He’s a tenacious long-armed defender who won’t wow you with Derrick Rose-like highlights, but is solid and steady all around.
Jorge Gutierrez (California) — Early departures and one-and-dones have been murder for the Pac-10: O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love, Brook Lopez, DeMar DeRozan and James Harden are some of the recent losses. But Cal is rebuilding this year due to good old-fashioned graduation. The top four scorers from last year’s team — Jerome Randle, Pat Christopher, Theo Robertson and Jamal Boykin — were all seniors. That leaves Gutierrez, a rising junior guard who comes from the noted Findlay College Prep factory. He averaged just 5.5 points last year, but started in Cal’s two NCAA Tournament games, scoring 7 apiece against Louisville and Duke.
Jeremy Green (Stanford) — Last year it was all about Landry Fields, the buckets machine who led the Pac-10 in scoring and has since gone pro. Now it’s Green’s time to blow up. The 6-4 guard scored 16.6 points per game last year, including a 30-point effort against UCLA, and a 25-point night at Arizona. Green loves taking the three: In 17 of Stanford’s games he took at least eight triples.
Alex Stephenson (USC) — Stephenson started off last season strong, recording four double-doubles in his first seven games with the Trojans, including a 19-point, 15-board destruction of Tennessee in an upset win. But he slowed down as the season wore on, finishing the campaign averaging just 8.4 points and 7.2 boards. Stephenson, a 6-9 transfer from North Carolina, should be USC’s go-to guy in the paint and could have a monster year in a conference that doesn’t have many elite big men.
Malcolm Lee (UCLA) — The entire Bruins program is under a microscope, having gone 14-18 last season and losing several frustrated players via transfer or dismissal. Lee (12.1 ppg, 3.1 apg) is the guy that can hold everything together. At 6-4, the junior can play up to three positions and be a pest on defense. From the much-hyped UCLA recruiting class of 2008 (Jrue Holiday, J’Mison Morgan, Drew Gordon, Lee, Jerime Anderson), the only two left standing are Lee and Anderson.
Isaiah Thomas (Washington) — Big man Matthew Bryan-Amaning will be crucial for the guard-heavy Huskies, and high school All-American point guard Abdul Gaddy can be the difference-maker after a disappointing freshman campaign, but Isaiah (16.9 ppg) is the heart and soul of the Huskies.
Klay Thompson (Washington State) — One of the best pure shooters in the country, Thompson is proving he can be a threat all over the court in second-year coach Ken Bone’s system. Thompson scored 19.6 points per game and hit 36 percent of his threes last year, but added 5.1 rebounds and 1.4 steals a night as well. The 6-6 guard is the son of former Lakers and Blazers center Mychael Thompson.
Michael Dunigan (Oregon) — When he came to Oregon as a high school All-American, Dunigan was expected to be an instant star. So far he hasn’t lived up to the hype, but has shown flashes. Last year Dunigan had a stretch where he averaged 22.6 points and 10.3 boards in three games against Washington, Washington State and Arkansas Pine-Bluff, but otherwise his sophomore year was considered a letdown similar to his freshman year. Dunigan is a load at 6-10, 255 pounds, but going into his junior year, he has to have learned that he can’t just get by on size and strength anymore.
Calvin Haynes (Oregon State) — Beavers coach Craig Robinson will inevitably get more media attention than any of his players because he is Michelle Obama’s brother. But Haynes deserves some spotlight. He led OSU in scoring last season at 12.5 ppg, which included four games of 20-plus points. The 6-2 guard is an explosive athlete who will put somebody on a poster this year.