Sunday was the final opportunity for underclassmen to withdraw from the NBA draft, and decisions by Stanford’s Jeremy Green and Washington State’s Klay Thompson to exit school created a scenario perhaps no one could have ensvisioned:
Cal guard Jorge Gutierrez, known over much of his career for anything but scoring, will be the top returning scorer in the Pac-12 Conference next season.
In fact, the Bears will have three of the top six scorers in the league, at least from the 10 schools that competed in the conference in 2010-11.
Gutierrez will be No. 1 among those returnees at 14.6 points per game, Harper Kamp No. 3 at 14.2 and Allen Crabbe No. 6 at 13.4.
Kamp (5.6) and Crabbe (5.3) rank Nos. 7 and 9 among returning Pac-10 rebounders and Gutierrez 4.48) and Brandon Smith (3.91) will be Nos. 1 and 3 in assists.
Do these statistical riches categorize the Bears as favorites to win the first Pac-12 title?
By no means.
But they do underscore the very real opportunity for Mike Montgomery’s club to at least challenge for its second conference crown in three seasons.
First, let’s review who has decided to make an early dash for pro cash:
— Washington State junior guard Klay Thompson, who ranked No. 1 in the Pac-10 in scoring at 21.6 points per game.
— Arizona sophomore forward Derrick Williams, No. 2 at 19.5.
— USC junior forward Nikola Vucevic, No. 3 at 17.1.
— Washington junior guard Isaiah Thomas, No. 4 at 16.8.
— Stanford junior guard Jeremy Green, No. 5 at 16.7.
— UCLA junior guard Malcolm Lee, No. 14 at 13.1
— UCLA sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt, No. 15 at 12.8.
— Washington State junior forward DeAngelo Casto, No. 18 at 12.0.
Factor in three departing seniors, and that leaves just seven of the Pac-10’s top 18 scorers due back next season. And that doesn’t include Colorado sophomore guard Alec Burks, who averaged 20.5 points and is projected a lottery pick after declaring for the draft.
So what do we make of the 2011-12 Pac-12 race? Who is the favorite?
After much thought, and some discussion with a couple colleagues who cover teams elsewhere in the conference, I have come to this conclusion:
There is no clear favorite to win the Pac-12 in 2012.
Sure, someone is going to win the thing, but we may not know that until the first weekend of March.
For now, here’s a look ahead, breaking down the teams into three categories:
AT THE TOP
ARIZONA: The Wildcats lose Derrick Williams, but everyone else is back, and that includes coach Sean Miller, who was rumored as a hot prospect for Maryland before the Wildcats signed him to an extension. Arizona also boasts the league’s best incoming recruiting class, featuring top-20 guards Nick Johnson and Josiah Turner. The Cats aren’t going anywhere.
CAL: As they were two seasons ago, the Bears will be among the league’s most experienced teams. Four starters return, including the still-underrated Gutierrez and Crabbe, who could blossom into a star his sophomore season. Questionable how much the Bears will get right away from their two recruits, but a big freshman-to-sophomore jump from Richard Solomon will be critical.
UCLA: Ben Howland lost two starters, but has big Joshua Smith back for his sophomore season, along with bruisers Reeves Nelson and Anthony Stover and 6-foot-10 twins David and Travis Wear, eligible after transferring from North Carolina. There are some questions in the backcourt, but this team may be better suited to play the rugged, defensive style Howland prefers.
WASHINGTON: Thomas and senior Matthew Bryan-Amaning are gone, but there is plenty of talent, especially on the wings. Abdul Gaddy will come back after an ACL injury to run the point and the Huskies again will feature great speed and depth. The recruiting class will be strong, provided five-star recruit Tony Wroten is cleared in a mini-scandal in which he told a Seattle school district investigator he received a “C” in a Spanish class at Garfield High for which he did no work. The Seattle Times reports he will be eligible for UW if he passes a spring semester Spanich class.
IN THE MIDDLE
COLORADO: Alec Burks and graduating senior Cory Higgins, formerly of Monte Vista High, combined to score nearly 1,400 points last season. In all, four starters who provided 75 percent of the Buffs’ offense are gone. The top returnee is 6-7 sophomore-to-be Andre Roberson, who averaged 6.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and blocked 42 shots. Among four incoming freshmen is Damiene Cain, a 6-7, 230-pound three-star forward prospect.
STANFORD: With Jeremy Green, Stanford figured to be at the top of this pack in the middle. He apparently decided school wasn’t for him anymore, because he left with no assurance the NBA is interested. Josh Owens was better than expected last season in his return from a medical redshirt, but the sophomore-to-be class will need to grow up in a hurry for the Cardinal to be competitive.
USC: The Trojans lost Vucevic, but guards Jio Fontan (10.5 ppg) and Maurice Jones (9.9) return. Coach Kevin O’Neill welcomes six newcomers, including junior forward Aaron Fuller, a transfer who Iowa, where he averaged 9.7 points and 6.2 rebounds in 2009-10. Is it just me, or doesn’t it seem the Trojans always have lots of new parts?
WASHINGTON STATE: No Klay Thompson and no DeAngelo Casto suggests no chance for the Cougars. Casto, who left because he has a young child and needs income, could be the bigger loss because WSU cannot easily replace his muscle and presence inside. Point guard Reggie Moore and shooting guard Faisal Aden will become focal points, but the Cougs are certain to take a step back.
AT THE BOTTOM
ARIZONA STATE: What happened to the Sun Devils? After three straight 20-victory seasons, ASU stumbled to 12-19 despite three returning senior starters. Ty Abbott, Rihards Kuksiks and Jamelle McMcMillan are gone — taking their combined 295 starts and 3,132 points with them — and the 2012 team will be built around 6-4 junior wing Trent Lockett and freshman point guard Jahii Carson, a top-50 prospect. But the Sun Devils have a tough climb ahead of them.
OREGON: The new Matthew Knight Arena should have been built with a revolving door. The transition period continues for second-year coach Dana Altman, who has lost three more players to transfer, including starting point guard Malcolm Armstead. Junior-to-be E.J. Singler is back and the Ducks hope forward Jeremy Jacob is healthy after missing virtually all of last season with knee problems. The strong six-man recruiting class is toppped by Oakland’s Jabari Brown.
OREGON STATE: The Beavers figured to be better than they were last season, which makes projecting what they can be in 2012 a difficult assignment. Their 11-20 season was marked by horrid shooting and defense and general dysfunction. Four seniors are gone, but they had all but given up on things by the end, anyway. The returnees are led by junior guard Jared Cunningham, the high-flying San Leandro High grad. But these guys need to learn to win before we believe in them again.
UTAH: New coach Larry Krystowiak had the job about two days when senior-to-be Will Clyburn, who averaged 17.1 points and 7.8 rebounds, announced he was transferring. The 6-7 forward wound up at Iowa State. Senior guard Josh Watkins (14.5 ppg) is the top returnee from a 13-18 club. Krystowiak, who played college ball for Mike Montgomery at Montana, hopes a couple JC arrivals help.