Thu Apr 14 12:18pm EDT
If the consensus had been that the 2011-12 college basketball season appeared likely to be a bounce-back year for the beleaguered Pac-12, the past three weeks have surely dimmed that optimism.
In a year in which Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, Baylor's Perry Jones and North Carolina's John Henson and Tyler Zeller have all passed up NBA riches and returned to school, the Pac-12 has not been so fortunate. More Pac-12 underclassmen have declared for the draft and hired an agent than any other league thus far, greatly diminishing the chances that the conference will produce an elite team next season.
The departure of Arizona star Derrick Williams on Wednesday ensured that at least six of the 10 members of the 2010-11 all-Pac-10 team won't return next season. Washington senior Matthew Bryan-Amaning will graduate, underclassmen Williams, Isaiah Thomas, Tyler Honeycutt, Malcolm Lee and Nikola Vucevic are turning pro and Washington State junior Klay Thompson could join them in a matter of days.
Even the Pac-12's two newest members have not been able to escape the attrition. Utah's leading scorer Will Clyburn transferred to Iowa State after the firing of coach Jim Boylen, while Colorado will definitely say goodbye to double-digit scorers Cory Higgins, Levi Knutson and Marcus Relphorde as a result of graduation and may lose all-Big 12 sophomore Alec Burks to the draft.
The result is a conference that certainly isn't anywhere near as talent-starved as it was two years ago, yet may not place a team in most preseason top 25s.
UCLA will have one of the nation's deepest and most formidable frontcourts, yet the point guard position was already a question mark and the departure of Lee and Honeycutt robs the Bruins of their two top wings.
Washington has elite recruit Tony Wroten coming in to help replace Thomas in the backcourt, but the Huskies don't have a back-to-the-basket scorer to fill Bryan-Amaning's void unless 7-footer Aziz N'Diaye develops quicker than expected.
Then there's Arizona, which returns an array of 3-point shooters and adds the conference's best recruiting class featuring guards Nick Johnson and Josiah Turner. It's possible the Wildcats could be elite by the end of the season, but everything Arizona did offensively ran through Williams this past season and it remains to be seen whether the 3-point shooters will get as many open looks without him.
It's possible one of this past season's also-rans could make a big leap, especially if both Thompson and top big man DeAngelo Casto return and Washington State keeps its entire roster intact. Thompson is reportedly leaning toward leaving for the NBA, while coach Ken Bone said last month that Casto may not return for his senior season.
In addition to Washington State, lower-division teams Cal, Stanford and Oregon also could be much improved. The Bears seem the most likely to make a big jump with the core of an NIT team back including all-conference guard Jorge Gutierrez, versatile forward Harper Camp and last year's Pac-10 freshman of the year Allen Crabbe.
There's no doubt that the Pac-12 still is in better shape than it was a couple years ago when coaching instability and early entries to the NBA draft left the conference at its weakest level in decades.
Still the departure of so many of this past season's stars will hurt. Every team appears to have major question marks entering the offseason, and it will be up to some new players to try to answer those.