Not since the Lopez Twins roamed the streets of Palo Alto has there been this much excitement surrounding the Stanford men's basketball program. With its core (minus forward Josh Owens) returning from last year's NIT title team, and Cardinal and NBA alum back with the program as an assistant coach, expectations are sky-high for Johnny Dawkins and Stanford.
Cardinal Sports Report enlisted the assistance of former Bay Area resident and author of the popular Yahoo! Sports basketball blog The Dagger Jeff Eisenberg to preview the 2012-2013 Stanford basketball season.
This is part one of our two part preview. The first segment focuses on the Pac-12 men's basketball conference as a whole, while the second is more Stanford-specific.
Cardinal Sports Report: Pac-12 men's basketball has struggled mightily over the past few seasons. How do you think the conference as a whole in 2012 compares to past seasons?
Jeff Eisenberg: I don't think it can get worse than it was last year. I do think it's going to be quite a bit better. I don't think it's going to be back to its heyday in 2007 and 2008 when there were pros on every roster, but I think it's going to be quite a bit better. I think Arizona is going to be a legit top-25, top-20 program again this year, I think UCLA has the potential to be that as well, especially if Shabazz Muhammad is playing by mid-December or so, and then I think there are some intriguing teams behind those two.
I think it will really help the conference if those two are again kind of the flagship programs because it gives teams the chance to have some marquee wins in conference when they beat those two teams, which is something that's been lacking, especially last year when every conference win didn't help you too much and every conference loss was looked at as a bad loss.
In addition to those two I think that Stanford has a lot of potential if they can build on the NIT run from last year. I really like Colorado's young talent. I think they're kind of a year away from winning the conference or at least contending to win it, but I still think that they'll be in the NCAA Tournament mix. I still think that Mike Montgomery teams tend to finish one or two spots ahead of where we expect them to every year and the Cal team may be no different. And I really look for USC to be one of the more improved teams in the country this year with the influx of talent that they have coming in and with Jio Fontan healthy. I think those six, I don't think they'll make the NCAA Tournament, but I think those are NCAA Tournament contending type teams and you could potentially see Washington joining that group too if some of their young talent comes together.
CSR: For the conference race in general, UCLA and Arizona like you mentioned are the two teams getting the most pub, but how do you see playing that for the top three, top four? UCLA, Arizona, and then what other teams do you think have a chance to finish up high and what do you think would need to happen for another team to get in the mix?
JE: I think UCLA and Arizona are deserving favorites and yet I think there are question marks with both of those teams that it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see someone else jump in there and at least finish in the top-two.
I think Arizona has fewer question marks, which is why at this point I would probably pick them to win the league. I really think Mark Lyons is going to come in and be an impact transfer for them. I think Solomon Hill will have a nice season. He's so versatile, can do so many things and I think he'll be comfortable playing on the wing this year as opposed to playing inside, so I think that will help them. I think the two keys for them are how Mark Lyons kind of adapts to that point guard position. They don't need him to be a distributing-first point guard, but they do need him to still make other guys better around him and I think that will be a challenge for him after playing off-ball for so many years. And the other thing obviously is how those freshmen big men develop. Those guys, if at least two of them are able to come in and be impact guys right away, I think Arizona's really good and I think they could be a potential second-week of the tournament, maybe even a Final-Four type team if all of that comes together.
UCLA, I think there are a ton of question marks. Can Larry Drew handle the point guard position? Josh Smith obviously didn't lose as much as weight as they were hoping he would over the offseason, so is he going to be able to give them consistent minutes even off the bench if he's starting right now? Obviously the big question being whether they'll have Shabazz Muhammad even at any point this season. I think those are all question marks and even if those things come together I question how UCLA is going to be able to defend. Ben Howland is a man-to-man coach. He likes to play an extended man-to-man defense. And while UCLA is big and strong they aren't very quick. And I think that's going to be an issue with the way Ben likes to play defense. I like some parts of UCLA's roster and I think that the roster gets much better with Shabazz Muhammad there if he is able to play. I certainly think they are a team that can win the league, but I also see a lot of questions there.
As far as teams that can jump up, I mentioned a couple of them before. I like Stanford, I like Colorado and I like Cal. I would say that those are the three that I could see moving in to the top two if things broke into their favor.
I think that the two keys for Stanford -- I think that Dwight Powell needs to have that breakout year for them, in particular. I just think that he has a ton of potential that he showed as a freshman and then it sort of plateaued a little bit last year, especially with the injuries that he was dealing with the ankle all year. And then I think that Josh Huestis is another big key. Can he build on the defensive season that he had last year and can he also provide them some interior scoring inside? So that's big for Stanford.
For Colorado I don't like Colorado's depth particularly. I don't like their bench. But I do really like their starting five. I think the biggest key for them is can Josh Scott provide them some interior scoring, the freshman. He's had a really good offseason and has showed a lot of promise and I know the coaching staff is pretty high on him. If he's able to provide the interior scoring and if Roberson is as good defending and rebounding as he was last year I think that backcourt can shoot, I think there's good potential there with that young sophomore backcourt and that's a pretty complete roster.
With Cal I think the biggest thing is their interior play. The backcourt is one of the best in the conference. If David Kravish and Richard Solomon are able to be a solid enough frontcourt to provide some support for that backcourt then I think again Cal can be a team that can finish in the top three or four in the conference and can surprise some people, as Mike Montgomery teams often tend to do.