2012 Pac-12 basketball preview [part 2]: Rocky Mountain highs (and lows)

Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

Colorado hopes to continue its ascent to the top of the conference, while Utah will struggle to stay out of the cellar

The first season of Pac-12 basketball proved a tale of opposites for the conference newcomers in the Rocky Mountains. For the Colorado Buffaloes, it proved a season to remember. Despite losing their best player to the NBA, Colorado improved dramatically in their first Pac-12 campaign, being the only school in the conference to win an NCAA Tournament game, and doing so around a collection of young talent that has analysts believing that the Buffaloes can be a factor in their new conference well into the future.

For CU's fellow newcomer, the Utah Utes, it was a season to forget. Utah limped to a 6-25 record last season, outscored by an average of 14.2 points per game. It was a team void of talent after a coaching change, and the best compliment that can be paid is that they somehow avoided the league cellar when nearly the entirety of USC's roster suffered season-ending injuries. Utah is a historical power--and eleven new players suggest a massive talent upgrade in Salt Lake City this season. Its a team that hopes to take a step forward, but has little hope to compete.

Colorado:

The success of the Buffaloes in their first Pac-12 season was perhaps the only bright spot in the awful year that befell the conference. Tad Boyle has won 48 games in his first two years in Boulder, the best two year stretch in Colorado history. That said, this was a team that was a ways on the wrong side of the bubble headed into the Pac-12 Tournament last season, and played its way in by winning the title in Los Angeles. The question for the Buffaloes is whether they are ready to sustain the level of play that they maintained for the last few weeks of last season, or whether the team that finished fifth in the conference last year is a more accurate representation of the squad.

The team did lose three starters from a season ago. Carlon Brown was the best bulk scorer on the team at 12.6 ppg, Austin Dufault was a good compliment in the post for Andre Roberson, as he be a stretch forward and hit mid-range jumpers allowing Roberson the room to bang down low, and Nate Tomlinson was the veteran point guard that kept the team steady and made several clutch plays. However, in Roberson and Spencer Dinwiddie, the Buffaloes return the two most important starters on the roster, and an impressive group of returnees along with what is being dubbed the best recruiting class in school history should make for a more talented group overall than last season.

Andre Roberson is obviously the rock, and has to be the early favorite for Pac-12 Player of the Year. Roberson is a double double machine (11.1 rebounds and 11.6 points last season). At only 6'7", he is the best rebounder in the conference, and is also a load offensively both in the post and in transition. The question mark about Roberson is the mid-range game, and is something that he supposedly worked on over the summer. If Roberson has to be respected from mid-range, it adds a lot of flexibility as it would enable Roberson to be on the floor more with 6'11" center Shane Harris-Tunks and 6'10" freshman Josh Scott, who was a scoring machine in high school. Three freshmen, Xavier Johnson, Chris Jenkins, and Wesley Gordon, will compete for time at small forward, and all go 6'6"-6'8" and have the size and athleticism to play at the Pac-12 level.

Even with the losses of Brown and Tomlinson, the backcourt looks to be in good shape. Askia Booker steps into the starting point guard role. Booker played big minutes for a freshman last season, was occasionally explosive, and was a very dangerous three-point shooter (37%). Booker has the potential to be a better scorer than Brown and better passer than Tomlinson. Sophomore Spencer Dinwiddie is an excellent two-guard who is a superb three-point shooter (43.8%), and good rebounder for the position. He needs to improve on his ability to finish at the rim, but he could be a future star in the conference. The question is who will back up Booker and Dinwiddie, and there are a myriad of options, including holdovers Sabatino Chen and Jeremy Adams, as well as a couple of incoming freshmen.

The challenge for this team isn't so much on the offensive end. They return plenty of capable offensive talent, and didn't really win games on the offensive end last season (9th in the conference in scoring). The big question is whether a myriad of new players will buy into Tad Boyle's defense. The non-conference schedule isn't a barnburner, but they have potential matchups with Baylor, Murray State, and/or St. John's at the Charleston Classic, and a matchup with Kansas in Lawrence. One or more wins in those games would provide early confidence, as well as a significant scalp to flaunt come Selection Sunday. The Buffaloes also have a significant home court advantage by playing in the altitude.

Colorado doesn't have the talent of UCLA or Arizona, and isn't ready to compete for a conference title in what should be an improved conference. But this is a talented, balanced squad with an excellent coach. I like Colorado for a fourth place finish, which should be good enough for a return trip to the NCAAs.

Utah:

This team was a disaster in every sense of the word last season. They finished 10th or worse in every significant offensive or defensive category and, as was mentioned before, were outscored by an average of 14.2 points per game on the season. Oregon fans will remember that the Ducks were up 34-2 at one point in the Utes' regular season finale.

Head coach Larry Krystkowiak cleaned house in the offseason: despite having only one senior on the roster, a total of eight players from last season are no longer with the team. Joining the five returnees--two of whom missed last season with injuries--are 11 new players, including six eligible transfers and five freshman, one of whom is returning from a two year Mormon mission.

Its a roster largely consisting of spare parts, with the transfers from such hotbeds as Simon Fraser, Southern Utah, and Eastern Washington. The center position is set, as senior Jason Washburn was the one bright spot for the Utes last season, averaging 11 points and six rebounds per game, and upping that to nearly 16ppg over the last half of league play. He joins former starter David Foster, who, at 7'3", gives Utah a formidable duo in the middle. But pretty much every other position is a question mark. The only forwards on the roster are three freshmen, a transfer from Simon Frazier (Alexander Ricketts) and a transfer from Brazil (Renan Lenz). With no track record on any of these guys, its difficult to tell who may be able to contribute this season.

G Cedric Martin is the only other returning starter and, while he averaged 7.4 ppg last season, he did so on a very inefficient 35% shooting. The Utes have a number of transfer guards coming in with experience. Eastern Washington transfer Glen Dean was a proficient scorer at EWU and should take over at point guard. Aaron Dotson (LSU) and Jarred DuBois (Loyola Marymount) were starters at their respective former schools. There is talent and the potential for depth there, but it will be interesting to see how it all comes together.

This is a roster of spare parts and a few incoming freshmen, and there are significant holes. Both centers are seniors. All the forwards are freshmen. The guards have experience, but its almost all from elsewhere and none of them looked like potential stars at their previous stops. Even if this team can start to play well by the end of the season, the centers both leaving will greatly change the dynamic heading into 2013-14.

This is a team that knows its not coming into the season with postseason aspirations. In the non-conference schedule, only the annual game BYU features an opponent with a pulse. The rest of the schedule is complete fluff, designed to teach the players how to win before taking lumps in conference play. The goal is to simply be more competitive, not be outscored by 14 points per game, and hope that you get enough development to build a solid foundation for the future. Unless a team is just decimated with injury like USC was last season, staying out of the conference cellar would be considered a major achievement by this team.

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