With NBA defections decimating the conference’s talent, last season was supposed to be a down season for the Pac-10, and it was.
Only one team, No. 21 Washington, finished in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Top-25 poll, and not one squad received even one vote in the final AP Top-25 poll.
But it was supposed to be an aberration, a momentary dip that was sure to be followed by a quick return to national prominence.
Not so fast.
With only five teams returning even a single senior starter – the lasting effects of several NBA early entries in 2007-08 and 2008-09 – once more the conference is getting little recognition.
“A team that loses four or five seniors, is that program down, or do they just have to rebuild? I think that’s where we’re at,” said Washington coach Lorenzo Romar at Pac-10 Media Day on Thursday at L.A. Live’s Nokia Theatre. “We lost a lot of talent to the NBA in a short period of time, and it was difficult to recover in one year. The whole conference was judged in a couple of losses in non-conference, when a lot of teams didn’t have their full complement of guys.”
Washington, to its credit, remains on top, as league media picked the Huskies first in the preseason media poll with 348 points and 33-of-35 first-place votes.
Though they lost All-Pac-10 first-team forward Quincy Pondexter, the Huskies return four starters, including the conference’s current career points leader, point guard Isaiah Thomas, who joined Pondexter on the all-conference first team after averaging 16.9 points per game as a sophomore.
Arizona, which also returns four starters, including 2009-10 Freshman of the Year Derrick Williams, was picked second with 296 points (one first-place), while UCLA was picked third with 281 points and the remaining first-place vote.
The Wildcats and Bruins are in similar, and unenviable positions.
Arizona, which fell to 16-15 last season, missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in XX years while UCLA, two years removed from three-straight Final Four appearances, collapsed to 14-18.
Opponents aren’t expecting them to be down for long.
“Those two programs, of all the teams in the league, are the two that have the most emphasis and support for basketball,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. “They’ve been the standards. Yeah, I’d expect that you wouldn’t see them stay down for too long.”
The Bruins could be the league wild-card, as the chemistry issues that plagued the team throughout last season seem to have disappeared. Head coach Ben Howland shook up the roster – in the process adding junior college point guard Lazeric Jones and freshman center Joshua Smith and guard/forward Tyler Lamb – and though the team does not have a senior on the roster, he believes they have the necessary leadership to right the ship quickly.
“We expect to be much better than we were a year ago,” Howland said. “Having some guys who had some experience, even though it was a tough experience, I like that nucleus. I like our team. The big key for us is to stay healthy, and that’s something we have to work to do.”
UCLA is followed in the poll by Arizona State (215 points), Washington State (191), USC (178), Cal (151), Oregon State (120), Stanford (98) and Oregon (47).
The common consensus amongst league coaches on Thursday, though, was that with such tremendous youth in the conference, the entire league is up for grabs.
Pac-10 coaches will learn quickly, though, that their players have to learn quickly.
“We had a very young team a couple of years ago, and certain things would happen on the road – you’re up 10 with two minutes to go and you lose – and I remember coaches around the country calling me, and it wasn’t funny to me,” Romar said. “They’re calling me laughing. ‘Man, I saw your game, coach. You’re gonna be fine, but doggone, those young guys are somethin’ aren’t they?'”