Los Angeles -- Looking at the rosters and listening to the comments from the assembled coaches at Friday's Pac-12 Media Day, it is apparent that the competition for this year’s Pac-12 championship is going to be UCLA versus everybody else.
With a large and experienced frontcourt led by Joshua Smith, Player-of-the-Year candidate Reeves Nelson, and North Carolina transfers David and Travis Wear, the Bruins have a sizeable talent gap up front compared to the other teams.
But the key here for UCLA is senior point guard Lazeric Jones, who must be able to excel in his leadership role. In terms of national rankings and Final Four potential, the Bruins must show progress, namely by exerting their frontcourt force more methodically, while trying not to play too fast or committing turnovers.
The two or three candidates just below UCLA are the Arizona Wildcats, California Bears, and Washington Huskies. All three have a few things to prove.
California has the best chance because of their three experienced players: Jorge Gutierrez, Allen Crabbe, and Harper Kamp. Kamp needs to stay healthy for the duration of the season.
Health is also an issue on the bench, as this will be a trying season for head coach Mike Montgomery while he deals with treatments for his bladder cancer. But with an experienced squad, Cal probably will not have a problem staying focused.
Arizona, who reached the Elite Eight last year, will have vastly different personnel with eight newcomers on the roster. The two new backcourt players, Josiah Turner and Nick Johnson, will have to adjust fast for them to win any close games early in the season.
Washington has many good pieces, especially in the backcourt with Terrence Ross, Tony Wroten, and Abdul Gaddy. If they are able to put together a fast and turnover free offensive flow, they may be the most likely team to overthrow the Bruins. The frontcourt, however, has to pick it up, especially Darnell Gant. He has to be able to shore up the defensive glass.
The two surprise teams are likely to be the Stanford Cardinal and Oregon State. Stanford returns Josh Owens and Dwight Powell in the frontcourt, which should lead to points in the paint. Even more interesting is Chasson Randle, an incoming point guard from Illinois. Randle is a leader and looks like the perfect fit for a disciplined Stanford team that just needed an added dimension of speed and flair.
After a few years of incremental improvements, it looks like Oregon State is ready to show that they can climb up the standings thanks to the experience they have in Jared Cunningham and Roberto Nelson. They do, however, need to build on positive momentum early in the season to carry them through the Pac-12 league schedule.
In addition, Oregon should be able to place in the top half of the draw as well, with a mix of experience -- Olu Ashaolu and E.J. Singler -- and new talent, specifically Jabari Brown. Brown led the team in scoring during preseason games. For Brown, it is just a matter of defense and fitting in with the team concept, in order for his talent to show. He is the leading candidate for the freshman of the year in Pac-12.
Brown, along with Arizona’s Josiah Turner and Nick Johnson, Stanford's Chasson Randle, and Washington’s Tony Wroten, all have a chance at the All-Newcomers team, although all of these players play in the backcourt.
Rounding out the league are USC, Arizona State, and Washington State, along with the two new schools, Utah and Colorado, none of whom are expected to contend for the championship.
By Christian Siagian
Contributing Writer for The Daily Sports Herald