If you were a conference commissioner and were solely concerned about the prestige of your conference, would you rather have two very good teams or two very bad ones?
For most of the 2007 season, the Pac-10 featured two very bad teams in conference play. Oregon State and Arizona State finished the season with a combined 3-29 record against the other teams in the conference. Just based on that, it's not clear whether the top eight teams in the league were really good, or that the Terrible Two were actually bad. It really doesn't matter, though. In an era in which people are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with admitting teams to the NCAA Tournament that have a losing conference record, it's good business for a power conference to have four easy wins on the schedule.
This is important because in 2008, the Pac-10 figures to become the most dominant conference since Naismith drafted his 13 Original Rules, or so the story goes. Seven teams in the conference return at least 70% of their minutes, and the conference adds the two most sought after recruits in the high school class of '07, USC's O.J. Mayo and UCLA's Kevin Love. For good measure, the conference may also have a claim on the transfer with the most talent, Oregon State center C.J. Giles, who played a little over two seasons at Kansas. This is a conference that sent 60% of its membership to the NCAA Tournament last season.
However, it shouldn't be forgotten that the conference's sixth-place team, Stanford, had a 10-8 conference record. That's much less likely to happen this season. For one thing, it would be a shock if Arizona State didn't improve on its two-win total of a season ago. They were severely unlucky to have such a poor record last season, and there's every reason to believe they will better this season. Oregon State isn't exactly a program on the rise, but with Giles on the floor, they should get more chances to win games, especially in Corvallis.
In addition, both Washington and Cal, the seventh- and eighth-place teams in the conference, expect to be better in '08 as well. Wins are finite within a conference, and the bottom of the conference winning more often in '08 means that the top of the conference must win less. The team most likely to exempt themselves from such a predicament is UCLA. The Bruins will attempt to make it three consecutive trips to the Final Four, and they suffer only the loss of shooting guard and defensive stalwart Arron Afflalo from last year's team. However, in adding the big-man Love, they add offensive presence to a front line that over the past two seasons has had very little.
The remaining five teams are feeling pretty good about a return to the postseason, but chances are at least one of them won't make it back to the NCAA's big party, if only because a seventh-place finish in the conference could mean a 7-11 conference record, which doesn't look good in the committee's eyes. With the Huskies and Bears looking to jump into the top six, it's more than possible that one team could be surprisingly headed to the NIT in March.
Among those five, USC loses the most talent, including three starters, but gains the most in O.J. Mayo, who most experts believe will be the first pick in the 2008 NBA Draft. Washington State won 13 conference games last season, their most since 1983, so regressing to the mean, their mean, might be an issue. But there's little to suggest that the Cougars' season was a fluke. Stanford, too, was a surprise last season, thanks to the arrival of the Lopez twins and the stunning improvement of Lawrence Hill. Arizona made the tournament despite a tumultuous season. Like USC, they lose three starters, but they may have the best offensive weapon in the conference in sophomore Chase Budinger. Finally, Oregon loses only one starter off of last season's Eilte Eight squad, but that player, point guard Aaron Brooks, was far and away their most valuable.
For those who like to rank conferences, there will be plenty of reason to place the Pac-10 atop the list. Not to be overlooked is the stability of the league. There were no coaching changes in the offseason, and save for Oregon State, each team is feeling good about its future.
The top and bottom of the Pac-10 are pretty well etched in stone. UCLA should win the league and Oregon State should be at the bottom. How the other eight teams line up is going to be fun to watch. If a team is going to challenge UCLA at the top, it will be Stanford, who returns more of its roster than any other team with both Hill and the Lopez twins among that group.
2007 Pythag % Returning 2008
Team Wins Minutes Prediction
UCLA 14.4 81.4 14-4
Stanford 10.3 82.0 12-6
Washington St. 12.9 80.5 11-7
Arizona 11.4 48.9 10-8
USC 11.3 48.4 9-9
Washington 7.9 71.1 9-9
California 5.7 79.5 8-10
Oregon 9.5 77.4 8-10
Arizona State 4.4 78.8 6-12
Oregon State 2.8 46.2 3-13
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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