Editor’s Note: This is a piece Ryan Greene originally wrote for Yahoo! Sports.
The 2011-12 season didn’t leave teams in the western half of the United States with plenty to brag about when all was said and done.
Sure, the Mountain West Conference continued its emergence as a legitimate basketball power, earning four NCAA tournament bids for the second time in three years. The West Coast Conference isn’t far behind, either.
But the Pac-12 had a down year, to say the least. It was so down that the ‘power’ conference’s regular season champ — Washington — was left out of the NCAA tournament. In fact, no teams in the Mountain time zone or farther west made it to the tourney’s second weekend. Only two — Gonzaga and New Mexico — got to the Sweet Sixteen’s doorstep.
But don’t look at it as the start of a trend.
Highlighted by UCLA’s recent warpath on the recruiting trail at the start of the spring signing period, the buzz for college hoops out west in 2012-13 is rapidly growing.
Here’s an early look ranking the West Coast leagues’ best heading into the summer.
THE TOP FIVE
1) UCLA — Say all you want about the rocky times the program has endured over the past few seasons, but on raw talent alone, UCLA wins out in these rankings. A commitment from center Tony Parker on Monday helped round out a stellar recruiting class highlighted by fellow McDonald’s All-Americans Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson. Plus, the Bruins could still add another piece. Even though Ben Howland’s team struggled in 2011-12, there’s still a decent amount of talent coming back from a 19-win team, especially up front with the Wear twins and — if he disciplines himself and gets in shape — Josh Smith. Howland has the pieces in place to redeem himself from a recent swoon. Now it’s time for him to prove he still has the chops to win in Westwood.
2) San Diego State — In what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, San Diego State won 26 games, a Mountain West regular season title and advanced to its third straight NCAA tournament in 2011-12. Not only do the Aztecs return their top four scorers next season — including leading scorer and rebounder Jamaal Franklin, who was the Mountain West Player of the Year — but Steve Fisher’s team adds plenty of depth, which was a significant weakness that held them back this year when injuries came into the equation. A trio of transfers — Dwayne Polee (St. John’s), J.J. O’Brien (Utah) and James Johnson (Virginia) — should help make San Diego State one of the nation’s most versatile clubs, while it will likely remain one of America’s toughest to crack mentally.
3) Arizona — One of the nation’s top recruiting classes is frontcourt loaded. Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski are all ranked by Rivals.com as five-star prospects, while shooting guard Gabe York is as explosive a scorer as you’ll find in the 2012 class. Solomon Hill is back as a senior after a breakout year at the small forward spot, but what Sean Miller does about his point guard situation might determine how far this team goes. After booting former elite recruit Josiah Turner, who was more of a distraction than a solution as a freshman, Arizona could end up turning to sophomore Nick Johnson, who had a productive freshman season playing off of the ball and is a proven quick learner. Post-graduate transfer Mark Lyons from Xavier is also a possibility there for the Wildcats, as Arizona is on his short-list of prospective destinations.
4) UNLV — The Rebels lost some steam from a hot start late in the season, but Dave Rice’s second UNLV team should be better equipped to run his uptempo offensive system than the first one was. Mike Moser, who averaged a double-double in his first season after transferring from UCLA, is back as a junior, and will spread his wings some, playing primarily at small forward instead of power forward. Between returners Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins and newcomers Bryce Jones (USC) and Katin Reinhardt (No. 38 in Rivals.com’s 2012 rankings), the Rebels will be fast-paced and prolific on the perimeter. They should also be improved on the interior both defensively and on the glass, with Pitt transfer Khem Birch becoming eligible after the fall semester. UNLV is also still in the running for Anthony Bennett — the 2012 class’s top unsigned prospect — which would only further bolster their front-court. Landing Bennett would likely vault the Rebels on this list.
5) Gonzaga — Gonzaga got hot late, and nearly pulled off an upset of Ohio State with a Sweet Sixteen berth on the line. And it was likely just the beginning for a young team that should continue its rule of the WCC. The Bulldogs have an exciting young backcourt duo with Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., while Elias Harris should be the league’s best post scorer as a senior. What remains to be seen is how Mark Few replaces the consistent, rugged presence of Robert Sacre in the middle, both as a scorer and rebounder. That will put the microscope on juniors Kelly Olynyk — who redshirted this season — and Sam Dower.
THE NEXT FIVE
6) Saint Mary’s — Gonzaga’s depth and balance barely gave it the edge over Saint Mary’s for the No. 5 spot, but the Gaels should again push for a WCC crown. They were slowed late by the injury to top defender Stephen Holt, who is back next season alongside the WCC’s top point guard in Matthew Dellavedova. Promising 6-foot-9 sophomore Brad Waldow should only continue to get better in the post, too.
7) New Mexico — The Lobos lose their entire starting front-court, but return every guard from a 28-win team except for reserve Phillip McDonald. That should keep them strong, but plenty of pressure will be on redshirt sophomore center Alex Kirk to fill the void left by Drew Gordon and his nightly double-doubles.
8) Stanford — The Cardinal could be a trendy preseason pick in the Pac-12. They blitzed through the field en route to an NIT title and have an excellent young duo in the backcourt in Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright. Plenty more comes back from a 26-win team, too. Consistent shooting — both from the floor and the free throw line — could determine how big a step forward Stanford takes.
9) Colorado — The Buffs unexpectedly ran to a Pac-12 tournament title, and even scored a nice NCAA tournament opener upset of UNLV. Not a bad way for a young team to end a decent season. Now comes the expectations. Junior Andre Roberson could be the best big man in the league, and four-star recruit Xavier Johnson joins a rapidly-progressing backcourt.
10) Colorado State — Losing Tim Miles and replacing him with Larry Eustachy is hardly a downgrade for a program on the rise. Four of five starters are back, and transfers Colton Iverson (Minnesota) and Daniel Bejarano (Arizona) give the Rams the depth they sorely lacked last season. Expect Colorado State to again be mature, gritty and almost impossible to beat at home.
THE BEST OF THE REST
11) BYU — Matt Carlino and Brandon Davies make up a strong core, but what can Tyler Haws (11.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 2.7 apg as a freshman in 2009-10) add as he returns from a two-year mission?
12) Cal — As long as the injury bug doesn’t nail the Bears as hard as it did in 2011-12, Mike Montgomery’s guard-rich ball club should be just fine.
13) Nevada — The Wolf Pack moves to the Mountain West, and comes in strong with one of the league’s best backcourt combos in Deonte Burton and Malik Story.
14) Washington — Losing both Tony Wroten and Terrence Ross hurts, but a backcourt comprised of Abdul Gaddy and C.J. Wilcox could make Washington a more efficient offensive team.
15) USC — A ridiculous rash of injuries made 2011-12 a season to forget for USC. With all of its wounded back and a strong influx of talent, it’s a make-or-break year for Kevin O’Neill.