As we get ready for the start of the college basketball season, for the first time in a very long time there is optimism in the West with the prospect of a return to past greatness.
Shabazz Muhammad and others will give UCLA an instant boost in the talent department.
Last college basketball season was a black eye to the West Coast. Four teams were picked in the preseason Top 25 and none finished there. UCLA was in turmoil with Ben Howland on the hot seat despite his three Final Four appearances. Arizona battled internally with a toxic chemistry mix that saw prized recruits leave Tucson. California was blown out in the NCAA opening round by South Florida and was inconsistent all season long. Washington, one of only seven schools with multiple NBA first round picks, collapsed at the end of the season and had the dubious distinction of being the only one to not make the tournament.
Talk about an ouch.
This season promises to be a different story. Five of the top nine players in the 2012 recruiting class headed West for college and along with them a dozen other Top 100 recruits on the 247Sports rankings followed suit.
UCLA landed four all-world recruits that complement a talented nucleus of former North Carolina transfers Larry Drew and the Wear twins - David and Travis - to go along with promising talents Tyler Lamb and Josh Smith. The NCAA is currently debating the eligibility of McDonald’s All-Americans Shabazz Muhammed and Kyle Anderson which could add even more talent at the Pavillion. Those in the know, expect both to be cleared at some point this season.
UCLA is preseason No. 13 in the country however don’t be surprised if everyone is eligible and chemistry clicks that this isn’t one of the top five teams in the nation before it’s all done.
Arizona’s trio of top 50 recruits (Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski) are every bit as good as anyone’s in the country but the “newcomer” people are talking the most about is Mark Lyons , the senior transfer who graduated from Xavier. Lyons brings with him proven NCAA tournament success and East Coast toughness that was overly displayed in the brawl versus Cincinnati. The surprise gem of last season, Nick Johnson returns along with senior Solomon Hill to provide scoring punch. With a versatile bench, Arizona is the pre-season No. 11 and should have the form to find its way back to the Final Eight for the second time in three years.
That’s not a guarantee but they have that kind of talent.
The rest of the Pac-12 has emerging talents with teams that could surely be dancing come March. Stanford, California, Washington, Colorado, Oregon State and possibly USC will all warrant serious consideration from the NCAA Tournament committee on “Selection Sunday.”
There are exciting players throughout the league, get to know: Jahii Carson, Allen Crabbe, Andre Roberson, Chasson Randle, EJ Singler, Jio Fontan, CJ Wilcox, DeWayne Dedmon and Brock Motum. What these talents bring is depth and the ability to make plays, something the Pac-12 lacked last year. There is a resurgence in the conference after such a down year with the above players coming of age over the summer and looking likely to step into major roles this winter.
The West is now much more than the Pac-12 with the ascension of the West Coast Conference and the Mountain West (which will be making its last hurrah before San Diego State departs for the Big West).
UNLV is back as a basketball power. Preseason conference selections Mike Moser and Anthony Marshall will be complemented with a jackpot of talented newcomers with Khem Birch, Anthony Bennett , Savon Goodman, Bryce Jones and Katin Reinhardt.
After winning 60 games the past two seasons at San Diego State, Steve Fisher has to be smiling going into this season with 80 percent of his scoring, assists and steals returning. This team is deep with talent especially on the perimeter with all-conference guards Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley. St John’s transfer, Dwayne Polee II as well as J.J. O’Brien and the versatile Winston Shepard will be big contributors to another deep Aztec run through the post season. This team can and should push many of the big powers. A Final Four team? I wouldn’t be surprised.
Defensive minded New Mexico will be a force again with the quartet of guards Williams-Fenton-Greenwood and Demetrius Walker. If they get rebounding and production from the frontcourt they could go deep in “the Dance” again. Colorado State and Nevada will also be in the picture.
Gonzaga has been the model of consistency with 13 straight NCAA tournament appearances under Mark Few and Mount St. Mary’s also returns four starters including the reigning WCC player of the year, Matt Dellavedova. BYU could also turn some heads faster than you can say “Jimmer.” The conference is on an upswing with San Diego, Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara more competitive than ever all targeting postseason play.
The pride in Westwood is back and for the first time in a while, teams in the West will be national factors. A successful season will go a long way into securing the next crop of top recruits and chip away on the South and Midwest’s strangle hold on talent.
Leigh Klein is the owner of Five-Star Basketball Camps and formerly on staff at Texas and Rhode Island. He will be providing insight for college basketball and recruiting to 247Sports.com. Follow Five-Star Basketball’s Leigh Klein on Twitter @leighalanklein and let him know what you think about the column!