Here is Part IV of the mega-preview, featuring the LA schools.
Head Coach: Ben Howland (7th year, 152-54 at UCLA)
You know what you're getting with a Ben Howland team - tough defense and patient offense. Howland must be burning that his team failed to reach the Final Four last year. He doesn't appear to have the players to go that deep into the tournament this year, but you can never count UCLA out.
Darren Collison, Josh Shipp, Alfred Aboya, Jrue Holiday
Nikola Dragovic (SR, 9.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.4 apg, .451 FG, .382 3PT)
Nikola Dragovic is the leading returning scorer, and we all remember how much he torched us last year. He nailed 60 three pointers and could absolutely catch fire at times. Don't leave him open guys! Howland says "he's good defensively for a guy who didn't know much about defense coming from Serbia." That's not necessarily a high standard, and it is very possible that UCLA won't have the lockdown post defense that has been a hallmark for them in years past.
Malcolm Lee (SO, 3.2 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 0.6 apg, .500 FG)
Lee shot 50% last season, but didn't really shoot that often. He will likely be a starter this year so he'll need to stay consistent while playing hugely increased minutes. However, this guy is already excellent on the defensive end. Howland says he's "right up there with [Arron] Afflalo, [Russell] Westbrook and [Luc Richard] Mbah a Moute." Well, that's scary.
Jerime Anderson (SO, 2.3 ppg, 1.2 apg) figures to be the starting point guard with the thankless job of replacing Darren Collison. He played well in his limited (about 8 per game) minutes last season, and showed flashes of potential. He's already a pretty good defender, though we'll see how he steps up to the full time job of guarding the other team's point guard. Look for him to be more of a distributor and a reluctant shooter this year, but if UCLA is going to go far he'll need to become an offensive catalyst.
Mike Moser (FR, 26.0 ppg, 14.0 rpg, 4.0 bpg, Grant HS/Portland, Ore.) was Mr. Basketball in Oregon. He's got a crazy body, 6-8 and less than 200 pounds. I don't expect to see too much of him in conference play but he will contribute valuable minutes and points off the bench. He will be a good post player once he bulks up a bit, but I think he'll put up some good numbers against the patsies in the schedule.
Blue Ribbon Outlook:
"It's still going to be a very tough league," Howland said. "People said it would be down last year and we still had six teams in the NCAA tournament. We've lost a bunch of players early to the NBA draft, and that has hurt us as much as anything. But I still think you'll see some very good teams coming out of this league."
Head Coach: Kevin O'Neill (1st year, career 171-180)
How's this for an opening statement: "Contrary to popular belief, I'm not Darth Vader," O'Neill said on June 22nd when he was introduced as USC's new coach. This might be the most intriguing coaching situation to watch this year. We all thought he got a bum rap for not getting to keep the job at Arizona despite doing well in a difficult situation. Now we should find out if he really is a good coach or if it was all the players. Looking at that career record does cause me to be a bit skeptical.
Taj Gibson, DeMar DeRozan, Daniel Hackett
Dwight Lewis (SR, 14.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.1 spg, .379 3PT)
Lewis is an athletic scorer who can hurt you in many ways. He led the team in scoring last year, hitting fairly well on three pointers but was very good at pulling up and hitting jumpers off the dribble. Like most of Floyd's recruits, he's a good defender. He will be expected to become the leader of the team as the season progresses as there are only three seniors in the lineup (one transfer).
Leonard Washington (SO, 6.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 17.9 mpg, .500 FG)
Who does this sound like: A promising lefty freshman who was a catalyst off the bench before succumbing to an injury. After returning from the injury, he never quite regained his form and may never be the same again! Only he's not Serbian. He'll be out the first semester due to academic problems, but he should use the time to fully recover and get his studies back on track. I think he will get better and could be a dangerous threat in the low post.
Alex Stepheson (SR, 4.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 0.9 bpg, 14.5 mpg, .539 FG, .447 FT at North Carolina in 2007-08) is a transfer from North Carolina, meaning he unfortunately missed out on being a bench player for the title winning squad. He does have the body of an NBA player (6-9, 235), but it is unknown if those decent numbers (for 15 mpg) are a result of the outstanding offenses typical of UNC. He'll get a lot of minutes this year, and how well he uses them may largely determine if USC can stay out of the Pac 10 cellar.
Marcus Simmons (JR, 1.9 ppg, 1.2 rpg, 0.4 apg, 11.7 mpg) was slowed down by nagging leg injuries most of the year but could be primed for a breakout season. After he got healthy for the stretch run last year, he put in excellent defensive performances on Jerome Randle and Darren Collison en route to the Pac 10 tournament title. He'll look to improve his offensive game this year while also defending the opponent's best guard.
Blue Ribbon Outlook:
None of that [program disarray] is O'Neill's fault, but it is the situation in which he finds himself. The Trojans may need to crawl before they can walk again. "I think our players will enjoy playing for me and I'm going to enjoy coaching them. And I'm not taking over a rebuilding situation here. We have good players, guys that I'm looking forward to teaching and coaching as we move forward.
The Trojans face a difficult transition from Floyd's tenure. The talent level isn't close to that of the Trojans of recent years, and there is a dearth of quality depth.
Another rivalry at opposite ends of the Pac 10 this year. USC looks stuck in a quagmire with recruiting collapsing in the wake of Tim Floyd's resignation. They have a few good players returning but the proverbial cupboard is bare, and the existing young depth hasn't had the chance to prove itself yet. Kevin O'Neill faces a monumental challenge, perhaps made more difficult by the fact that this USC team is built dramatically differently than Arizona was. Will O'Neill attempt to push the tempo with the players he has or will he redefine his coaching strategy to fit the tough defensive team USC figures to be this year. It doesn't look like a great fit from afar, and I wouldn't be too surprised if USC's athletic department casts long and lustful googly-eyes at this year's hot young coaches.
UCLA looks to have its weakest team in several years, but we've all learned not to count out a Howland squad. They have great potential but still too many questions. I think they were picked 3rd by the media as a sort of default selection, since it's common wisdom that UCLA always manages to be good. How will the loss of Darren Collison affect the flow of the offense, and does UCLA have anyone to step up in crunch time? The NCAA tournament is the minimum expectation in Westwood these days, and UCLA should get there again, even if the Pac 10 only ends up sending 4 teams this year.