With the NBA Draft looming and March Madness just behind us, it's a bit early to start thinking about next season's hoops. That being said, now that the NBA Draft is upon us, the strength (well, really, various levels of weakness) are better assessed knowing which guys will be sticking around for another shot at March glory.
Back in April, San Jose Mercury News' Jon Wilner projected the Bruins to finish at the top of a fairly mediocre, pedestrian Pac-12. Despite the losses of Honeycutt and Lee, the widely-expected departure of Derrick Williams significantly damaged the Mildcats' aspirations for the inaugural Pac-12 crown:
Derrick Williams’ decision Wednesday to enter the NBA Draft changed the dynamic of the 2011-12 league race.
He joins Washington’s Isaiah Thomas, USC’s Nikola Vucevic and UCLA’s Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt to form the league’s biggest talent drain since 2008. (There hasn’t been much talent to drain the past couple years.)
Had Williams stayed in school, Arizona would be the heavy favorite and the league’s first elite team in several years.
Without him, the Wildcats are one of a handful of teams — along with Washington, UCLA and Cal — on the muddled, and mediocre, top tier.
1. UCLA: The Bruins have holes on the perimeter caused by the departures of Lee and Honeycutt, but they should be solid at the point with Lazeric Jones and absolutely loaded up front. Centers Josh Smith and Anthony Stover, power forward Reeves Nelson and David and Travis Wear, who are eligible after transferring from North Carolina, form the league’s best frontline. The key will be how quickly the young wings like Tyler Lamb and Norman Powell develop.
But, as the Bay Area writer noted, Cal was not far behind:
2. Cal. Thought long and hard about slotting the Bears in the 1-hole — not because they are oozing talent but because they return four starters, possess the best wing tandem in the league (Jorge Gutierrez and Allen Crabbe) and have the league’s best coach on a year-in, year-out basis. The Bears were four games back in 2010-11 and should be much improved relative to the teams that finished ahead of them.
A month later and with NBA Draft participants finalized (i.e. no hope for the return of Malcolm Lee for his senior year in Westwood), Wilner re-evaluated his projections, sliding the Bruins down to the two spot:
2. UCLA (1). The Bruins will have the best frontcourt in the conference with Joshua Smith, Reeves Nelson, Anthony Stover and the Wear twins. And they’re good enough at the point (Lazeric Jones) to win a mediocre conference — if they generate a reasonable amount of perimeter scoring.
Not necessarily due to Lee's departure, which Wilner assumed in his initial projection, but because Cal returns so many components from last year:
1. Cal (2). Admittedly, this is an unconventional pick. Arizona and UCLA are the favorites in most early projections, and I had the Bears slotted for second place in April. What changed? I’ve have time to contemplate the advantage Cal has over the other contenders in that its three best players — Jorge Gutierrez, Allen Crabbe and Harper Kamp — are returning. (They combined for nearly 50 ppg in league play; no other trio comes close.) There will be far less transition in Berkeley … less redefining of roles … than in Tucson, Seattle or Westwood. And it’s not like Mike Montgomery’s teams ever underachieve.
As we saw last year, Jorge can just flat-out go off on a team. Plus retaining Crabbe is a huge coup for Montgomery and a major boost to the Bears' chances for next season. Finally, the rather wise Wilner couldn't help but channel BN, noting that perhaps, many of these Pac-10 guys should have stuck around another year (read: Honeycutt and Lee):
Including seniors, the league lost its top-seven scorers and eight of the 10 first-team all-conference selections — this, from a league that wasn’t very good in the first place.
Every player who seriously considered leaving school … who, at minimum, tested the waters … ended up staying in the draft.
Nobody pulled a Harrison Barnes, which seems odd when you consider that only Arizona’s Derrick Williams (of the Pac-10 players) projects for the Lottery.
Most of them are headed for the second round, if they get picked at all.
Makes one wonder why kids seem so desperate to escape Westwood at the first opportunity, especially when that opportunity is either in the second round or outside the U.S.