Former Arizona State guard Kyle Dodd, now the color analyst for Sun Devils basketball, spoke with me this week to help preview the Pac-12. Here's his scouting report on the league next season:
1. The Pac-12 has endured a few unusually bad seasons in a row, especially last year. Do you think the league will begin to bounce back this season with all the talented newcomers set to arrive?
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KD: Obviously it's been down the past couple years, but what will help is the combination of younger talent becoming juniors and seniors and the influx of new talent. When you have that much talent leave the league in '08 and '09, you're going to see a dropoff. The league paid the price for that a couple years, but you knew it was going to bounce back. It was just a question of when. I feel like this year is the year they go back to getting a bunch of teams in the tournament and becoming one of the top leagues in the country again.
2. UCLA and Arizona appear to be the favorites in the Pac-12 depending on who's eligible for the Bruins. Who would you pick between those two?
KD: I can never pick Arizona, so I'd probably lean toward UCLA. They're the two teams that signed huge classes, but as much as people are picking those two teams, there are a number of teams that can compete for the title. Washington's had a great run under Coach Romar. I think Stanford and Colorado will also be in the mix. I think the big key for me regarding UCLA is whether a guy like Josh Smith, who has the talent, has really, truly decided this year that basketball is important to him and he wants to be the man down low. How well some of their older guys can adapt to the influx of the kids they brought in, how those guys all mesh is also key for them. Assuming everyone's eligible, they have every piece. It's just a matter of whether they can figure out how to play together.
3. Is there a dark horse team that you'd expect to maybe contend in the conference or at least be better than most people think?
KD: My surprise team would be USC. I don't know that they can win the league. But from being at the bottom last year, I don't know that people are expecting much. But from the outside looking in, I think that's a team that can win a lot of basketball games. I don't think a lot of people realize how much they have coming in. Guys like J.T. Terrell and Eric Wise, they can make an impact. I know a couple of their coaches pretty well, and they expect to win 25 games and be in the NCAA tournament.
4. Your alma mater, Arizona State, has struggled recently. With Jahii Carson finally getting on the court this year, do you think the Sun Devils can make some progress?
KD: I think there's optimism. They have all the components of a good college basketball team. A guy who can get in the lane and create — they have that with Jahii Carson coming in. They have shooters in Evan [Gordon] and Jonathan Gilling. And then good bigs. The way Jordan Bachynski came on last year, I think if they can put all those things together, they have a chance to surprise people. They have talent they flat-out haven't had the past few years, and it starts with Jahii. He's an ultra-quick guard. He's instinctive. He'll make everybody better. A real big key is Carrick Felix. Athletically, he's an NBA two guard, but mentally, he's got to figure it out. I used to kid with him on the road, 'I knew you were going to have a good game tonight because you haven't had one in three games.' If he can be consistent, I think it will be huge for them.
5. Who's your preseason favorite for Pac-12 player of the year?
KD: Someone asked me that the other day, and I said I don't know if I can even list the three or four favorites. There are 10 guys who can win. For me, someone to watch is Andre Roberson at Colorado. He's a talented guy. He was pretty raw on offense last year, kind of Anthony Davis style, but he affected the game so many other ways. If he can put it together offensively, he has a chance to really take over. Solomon Hill down at Arizona has a shot because he plays so many positions. Then the freshman, Shabazz Muhammad, at UCLA has to be a front runner if he's eligible too. But there really are so many guys who have a chance.
6. What's the most intimidating arena in the league to play in and why?
KD: I always really thought Cal was underrated. That building is as loud as anywhere. And when Stanford is going well, Maples is really good. Those two, as far as college basketball atmospheres, are really good. And, also, I should mention Washington. They have the students right there and with the success they have, they fill that building every game. I haven't been up to the new Oregon building, but when I was playing, Mac Court was the best. Those stick out. To me, Arizona is more of a pro crowd. It's a big building and it's loud, but it's not as crazy as when you get the students on the floor like some of the other schools do.
7. If you could go back in time and play for one current Pac-12 coach, who would you pick and why?
KD: The guy that recruited me out of high school and I've stayed in touch with is Lorenzo Romar at Washington. I think the world of him. I enjoy the way he recruited me and the professionalism, and I love the relationships he builds with his players. Anybody who went to Washington and played for him has left a better person. So he's one guy I'd want to play for. And then being around Coach Sendek doing my announcing gig, I really have respect for what he does and his approach to the game of basketball. He's a really, really smart guy and I've enjoyed getting to know him.