Pac-10 conference in transition

When a short highlights video played to kick off Pac-10 Basketball Media Day, the conference representatives were in a celebratory mood. After all, the Pac-10 produced seven teams that won 20 or more games last year, and the league had nine players drafted in the NBA Draft. Yet the probability of a down year in Pac-10 basketball quickly became apparent as coaches and players began to speak. And the reality check the league is facing is not pretty.
While three new coaches came into the conference, the exodus of players due to graduation or professional basketball became readily apparent. Just two teams, California and Washington are ranked in the AP Top 25, and in the conference preseason media poll, California was picked to finish first largely because the Golden Bears returned more of their team from last year than almost anyone else.
"I think for most of us in this league, it is somewhat cyclical," California coach Mike Montgomery said. "It's very difficult for us to maintain and sustain a certain level year after year after year. If you're not careful, you get a kid that goes early in the draft or you get a key injury or you miss on a kid in recruiting then you could be right down at the bottom of the league."
And that provides for great parity.
"There's a lot of balance and parity in the conference, so anybody can beat anybody on a given night in the Pac-10," UCLA coach Ben Howland said.
For schools such as USC, UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State that did lose significant portions of their rosters, the holes they have are merely opportunities for others to step up. Some coaches even believe those that were drafted will actually enhance the conference down the road rather than hurt it.
"It only helps," USC coach Kevin O'Neill [said. "The more players leave, the more people want to play in the league. Anytime you have a first round draft pick helps. (Recruits) want to hear about the NBA, about the best route there. Guys aren't picking schools because of the science programs."
"The most pros drafted in the last three years overall and first rounders and lottery picks come from the Pac-10," Howland said. "We don't hear about it enough, it's not a big enough story nationally like it should be."
For the upcoming season, the Pac-10 will hope that same script plays out. If nothing else, everyone beating everyone will make for some drama for the coaches, players and fans in addition to the scouts.
USC Picked Ninth
USC was picked to finish ninth in the preseason media poll with only one returning starter. The Trojans' coach dismissed the poll completely, noting that it would not be posted in the locker room for motivation.
"They really don't mean much," O'Neill said. "That's why they play the games. If we need that motivation to play hard, then we've got the wrong players this year."
As if being picked ninth was hard on the Trojans expectations, Arizona was picked to finish forth. In the wake of Tim Floyd's departure, several high profile recruits ended up switching allegiances to the Wildcats and their first-year head coach Sean Miller had high praise for three of the former commitments. Miller said Derrick Williams was the one of the highlights of the preseason, Lamont Jones will be in the rotation at guard, and Solomon Hill has slimmed down and matured 'beyond his years.'
Cal was picked to win the conference, followed closely by Washington. UCLA, Arizona, Oregon State, Oregon, Arizona State and Washington State, USC and Stanford completed the poll in order.
Donte Smith (ankle), Alex Stephenson (soreness), Marcus Simmons (shoulder) and Nikola Vucevic (calf) have all missed practices due to varying injuries.
O'Neill said the biggest surprise of the season so far has been the play of Kasey Cunningham. After missing the past three seasons with knee injuries, O'Neill declared Cunningham fully healthy.
"He has size, he rebounds, he runs the floor, he plays hard," O'Neill said.
Recruiting is always the biggest concern of any coach and O'Neill said it was even more so for him due to essentially losing an entire class. The Trojans have five verbal commitments in the class of 2010 and O'Neill said he is recruiting for both 2010 and 2011 because two good years would help right the ship.
Dwight Lewis will be the Trojan's top scoring threat as one of the few returnees to the team but O'Neill said plainly he doesn't know who else will be able to step up and provide scoring. Despite opposing defenses' focus on Lewis, O'Neill will still run the offense through him.
"Dwight knew that (he was a marked man) anyway, being the only returning starter with minutes," O'Neill said. "Hopefully our inside guys are productive enough and we'll run a lot of set plays for him."
Lewis said he didn't think to hard about leaving school last year because he wanted to finish his economics degree. He has just two classes this semester and will try out for the NBA after the season.