Looking Ahead in the Pac-10

by Rob Carpentier | February 1st, 2007

In what has to be considered one of the most exciting games of the year, Stanford came back from 17 points down to defeat previously #2 ranked UCLA on Sunday. The game marked the final battle of the first half of the Pac-10 Conference season.In recent years, largely due to a lack of nationwide television coverage, few people east of the Mississippi gave the Pac-10 much attention. “The Conference of Champions” was overwhelmingly perceived as “The Conference of Chumps,” and the race for the conference title had little redeeming value with regard to the NCAA Tournament.

But this season is different. Notwithstanding the terribly rotten egg that Arizona laid last Saturday at home against North Carolina, the Pac-10 has been the best and deepest conference in the country, even if that fact is not borne out by the RPI. With six, and perhaps as many as seven, conference teams likely to receive a ticket to the Big Dance, viewers and fans east of the Rockies have begun to take notice.

UCLA’s #1 ranking in both polls for six straight weeks helped the conference enormously. East Coast programs like SportsCenter and College Gameday HAD to talk about the Bruins and their conference brethren. It meant that when Oregon defeated Georgetown in D.C., the East Coast took notice; it meant that when Stanford beat Bobby Knight’s Texas Tech, ESPN reported it towards the top of that night’s telecast. A 5 th or 6 th place Pac-10 team has a far better chance of making the NCAA Tournament than a similarly placed Big Ten, Big East, or Big XII team, all things being equal, thanks to the conference’s dramatically improved RPI ranking.

The extra attention that the Pac-10 has received this season hasn’t all been positive. Most college hoops media “experts,” patently unfamiliar with the true state of West Coast basketball, hitched their proverbial wagons to Arizona—the one West Coast team they all thought could make the Final Four. That has meant that each time Arizona has lost, which has become much more frequent in the past three weeks, ESPN et al. have been all over it.

While I don’t ascribe to the conspiracy theory predicated on television ratings (the Pac-10 is the only BCS conference carried by Fox, hence ESPN’s denigration of Pac-10 members), I do believe that there are some subliminal biases that are true simply because of location.

East Coast viewers don’t get a good look at West Coast action because the games generally start about the same time as the late local news on the East Coast. Because people generally stick with what they know, and dismiss what they don’t, Pac-10 hoops doesn’t get the respect it deserves, at least not this year.

But if the teams in the middle of the conference in particular keep playing like they have in the first half of the season, then the rest of the country should develop a serious love affair with West Coast basketball by March, as the networks devote more and more airtime to the one of the nation’s most exciting conference races. Let’s take a closer look at that conference race.

Records listed are as of January 31.

UCLA: (7-2 conference record)

The Bruins suffered an aforementioned tough loss this past Sunday night to Stanford after leading the Cardinal by 17 late in the first half. Sunday’s game notwithstanding, UCLA has played the best basketball in the conference up to this point in the season.

They played a tougher non-conference schedule than anyone except Arizona and came through it unscathed. The Bruins do have one important non-conference game remaining on their schedule, at West Virginia on February 10, so their resume won’t be complete for another 10 days.

In terms of conference play, UCLA has two losses, but both were on the road (the first coming at Oregon), so they have a chance to avenge both later in the year at Pauley Pavilion. One down, one to go after the win over the Ducks Thursday night.

Outlook: The Bruins still have to go to the Arizona schools and the Washington schools, while still getting USC and the Bay Area schools at Pauley Pavilion. The trip to Arizona doesn’t look as daunting as it did a month ago and with Washington playing so sloppily, the Bruins have a good chance to run table the rest of the conference season.

Prediction: (15-3). Conference champs.

Oregon: (7-2)

The Ducks have had a marvelous season, playing far better than most prognosticators predicted before the season began.

It starts and ends with point guard and Player of the year candidate Aaron Brooks. Brooks has won several games for the Ducks nearly single-handedly and is leading the team by example; he leads the team in scoring and assists.

He’s not without help, though. Junior guard Bryce Taylor would likely start for any other team in the conference and his combination of quickness and outside shooting has proved a nice foil to his backcourt mate. Taylor doesn’t start due to the high level of play from 5’6” sparkplug Tajuan Porter.

Junior wing Malik Hairston, who is probably the most talented member of the Ducks, has recently returned from injury, and the team has only gotten better. One tends to worry when a superlative player returns from injury to a team that seems like it’s clicking on all cylinders, but Hairston’s return has been seamless for the Ducks.

Outlook: The Ducks are in the midst of a difficult four-game stretch where they faced the Washington schools, (going 1-1 on that trip), and now face USC after dropping the first game of their trip at Pauley Pavilion. Oregon has been able to catch teams in match-up problems because of their four-guard offense, but generally the second time around is a bit easier for opponents who have seen the offense. Expect the second half of the season to be tougher on the Ducks than the first half. They may get swept this weekend, and they still have to travel to Stanford and host a fully-healthy Washington. Prediction: 13-5. The schedule isn’t kind. Three more losses…

Stanford: (6-3)

The Cardinal seem to be clicking better than any team in the country right now. Freshman post Brook Lopez is just getting back to 100% after an early-season injury, and his twin brother Robin, has been playing consistently well for Trent Johnson all year.

The deciding factor for this team has always been its backcourt, and after Sunday night’s win over UCLA, Anthony Goods and Mitch Johnson (no relation to Trent) have made many believe, including myself, they can carry this team into the NCAA Tournament. Then there’s sophomore wing Lawrence Hill who has led the Cardinal in scoring all season and continues to improve as the year progresses.

Perhaps more importantly, Stanford seems to be developing a bench. Postman Peter Prowitt has finally given Trent Johnson a viable option in the paint so that he feels comfortable resting one of the Lopez twins. Remember, on Sunday, before the Bruins got into foul trouble in the second half, Robin Lopez sat on the bench most of the first half with two fouls.

Outlook: This is still a young team and they have proven to be much better inside the friendly confines of Maples Pavilion on the road. They still have to travel to the Los Angeles schools, where the Cardinal can expect superior efforts from both USC and UCLA because of their losses in Palo Alto, and they still need to go to the Washington schools. Because this team is so young, they’ll probably lose a head-scratcher (see the home debacle against Cal). Still, this team is playing a year ahead of schedule, and is playing its way into the NCAA Tournament.

Prediction: 13-5. Look for even better things from Stanford next season, but this year’s edition isn’t half-bad…

Washington State: (6-3)

Has there been a more surprising team this season than Tony Bennett’s Cougars? Washington State, a.k.a. “Wazzu,” was picked by every national media outlet as the last place team in the PAC-10 (Bracketography was no exception). Yet here we sit talking about a potential #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, let alone a #4 finish in the Pac-10.

The Cougs’ success can be attributed to several factors. First, Bennett has kept up the emphasis on defense that his father and former Wazzu head coach Dick Bennett started when he came to the Palouse several years ago. In terms of defensive strategy, intensity and schemes, Washington State is the toughest team in the conference to prepare for.

The second factor was moving incumbent point guard Derrick Low to the ‘2’ guard spot, where he has flourished as the Cougars’ leading scorer. That decision also meant that junior guard Kyle Weaver, probably the most talented player on the Cougars, was moved to the point for major portions of games. Weaver has had terrific scoring, assist and rebounding numbers this season, even recording a triple-double two weeks ago. And just think: the Cougars are doing this despite last year’s leading scorer, Josh Akognon, transferring to Cal State-Fullerton.

Outlook: This may be the toughest team in the conference to gauge. My gut says that Washington State will start playing more like the talent on its roster, but I just can’t discount the job the young Bennett has done. He and Ernie Kent are the only logical choices for conference Coach-of-the-Year honors. Weaver is a nice player, and he and Low could probably get serious minutes on any roster in the country outside of Chapel Hill. Still, this team’s bread and butter is its defensive schemes, and like the Ducks, teams tend to play the Cougars better the second time around. Wazzu does get the L.A. schools in Pullman in a few weeks, but they still have to go to Oregon, Arizona and Washington.

Prediction: 11-7. This is without question an NCAA team, but the second half of conference play won’t be quite as successful as the first.

USC: (6-3)

There has been some fine coaching pretty much throughout the Pac-10 this season, and Tim Floyd’s job at USC has been no exception.

Floyd has taken a team that was rocked by the untimely death of returning point guard Ryan Francis, and hit by the academic suspension of possible all-conference guard Gabe Pruitt and molded the Trojans into a conference title contender.

USC was picked by most to finish somewhere in the middle of the conference standings. They had an unbalanced, albeit talented, line-up, but no real point guard and little talented size on the front line. All-American candidate Nick Young was a known commodity, but Lodrick Stewart (the epitome of a streaky shooter) was the only other given on the squad.

Floyd has employed an athletic four-guard line-up that is similar to the Ducks’, but is not as lethal from the outside, and is not as disciplined. Floyd has also gotten this team to buy into playing hard-nosed defense. Given how well they match up with Oregon, it was not a real surprise that they were able to upset the Ducks in Eugene.

Outlook: If the Trojans can continue to play defense as they have in the first half of the season get solid contributions night-in and night-out from potential Pac-10 FOY Taj Gibson, then the Trojans have a real shot at winning the Pac-10’s automatic bid with a conference tournament title.

The key will probably be coaching. Floyd should probably shoulder much of the blame for the last-second loss to UCLA, as he changed his defense in the second half, when what he was doing in the first half was working well. Tony Bennett also got the better of Floyd in Wazzu’s trip to the new Galen Events Center to start the year. And it’s pretty obvious that he’s gotten the reputation with the officials of being the biggest pain in the butt of any of the conference coaches. That won’t do him or his team any favors. USC still has to go to UCLA and at Arizona and the Washington schools, as well as playing Stanford in L.A.

Prediction: 11-7. Another team that has exceeded expectations; they have the athletes and the defense to stay near the top of the league.

Arizona (5-4):

I’ve been saying for two years that Arizona may have some fundamental issues with its program. Lute Olson has a great reputation as a coach, but his recruiting is beginning to remind me of Steve Lavin. These days, Olson seems to be recruiting names and player rankings rather than trying to get kids that would truly fit into the program.

For the past two seasons, Olson has had wonderful athletes, but they have been soft physically and even softer mentally. This has been a team that has crumbled when the chips have been down. Enter North Carolina last Saturday, and one can argue that Arizona is close to being in free-fall mode.

Think about the future of this program: the ‘Cats lose point guard Mustafa Shakur and postman Ivan Radenovic to graduation and they probably will lose sophomore forward Marcus Williams to the NBA draft. Those are the three most complete players on the roster.

Junior guard Juwann McClellan hasn’t ever lived up to the hype and freshman Chase Budinger has shown few signs of solid defense and has proved fairly soft in big game situations. There is really an air of decomposition around the program right now and the team chemistry appears as woeful as last year.

Outlook: There really are only two sure wins left on the schedule: Arizona State and Oregon State. The Wildcats are going to get these two, but it isn’t completely outside the realm of possibility to see the ‘Cats lose the other seven conference games. Yes, even Cal is a potential loss, because the Bears will likely have DeVon Hardin back by then and Arizona really doesn’t have anyone to match up with him.

Prediction: 9-9. Arizona has made the NCAA Tournament every year for more than two decades. But once again Olson’s challenging non-conference schedule will be good enough to get the Wildcats back to the Tournament, despite some stumbles down the stretch.

Washington (3-6):

About a month ago, many pundits, were talking about how Washington was the biggest disappointment in the conference. They went on to start the conference season 1-6. Looking at the schedule and the roster for the Huskies, however, the slow conference start wasn’t a surprise.

Washington was going from a wing-oriented offense that was led by all-American Brandon Roy last season, (an offense much like Oregon’s and USC’s this season), to a more traditional offense with balance between the posts and the guards. The starting backcourt for the Huskies has been sophomore Justin Dentmon and freshman Adrian Oliver. Dentmon, who had a great freshman season, was held out of the starting line-up for several games because of his erratic play. Having young guards is not a luxury a coach can live with in the PAC-10 this season because there are at least five teams with experienced and talented backcourts. In fact, the Huskies generally start three freshmen, led by star post Spencer Hawes, and two sophomores; the other being power forward Jon Brockman, who has proved to be Coach Lorenzo Romar’s steadiest player. Washington may be the scariest team in the conference the second half of the season because you just know that the kids on the team are more talented than their record.

Outlook: The Huskies started playing better last weekend with the sweep of the Oregon schools (the Ducks were without a suspended Aaron Brooks, as you may have heard). There are the two sure wins on the schedule in the second half of the season, (Oregon State and Arizona State), and Washington could knock off two or three more teams that they probably shouldn’t. They get the L.A. schools at home, as well as the Bay Area schools and Washington State. That means the harder games are, for the most part, at home, and Hec Edmonds Pavilion is not an easy place to get a win.

Prediction: 8-10. Right on the bubble at the end of the season…but the NIT is more likely than the NCAA’s.

California (4-5):

The Golden Bears are playing better than anyone could have expected (in spite of being swept at home this past weekend by UCLA and USC), considering they lost all-conference forward Leon Powe to the NBA as well as presumptive star DeVon Hardin and sophomore post Jordan Wilkes to injury, Wilkes for the season. The injury bug has bitten this team badly; junior forward Eric Verneisel had to sit out the past two games, leaving the Bears perilously thin up front.

This team has had to rely on a freshman post, Ryan Anderson, to supply the bulk of the frontline punch. Anderson’s done a nice job, but Cal has won several games seemingly with smoke and mirrors. Coach Ben Braun does a solid backcourt featuring senior Ayinde Ubaka and junior two-guard Omar Wilkes. As long as they continue to play consistently well, the Bears will stay over .500 for the season, if not in conference.

Outlook: This one’s pretty simple—Cal should win the games they’re supposed to and lose the ones they’re supposed to. Getting Hardin back even one week early would be a big help, and they could beat teams like Arizona and Washington with his presence. They may put a scare into some teams, but they just aren’t talented enough or deep enough to cause many upsets.

Prediction: 7-11. The N.I.T. is a definite possibility, maybe even a probability, but the Big Dance is too much of a reach.

Oregon State (1-8):

Coach Jay John has been trying to turn OSU around for what seems like an eternity, and he is farther away from it now than he has been in the past few seasons. The Beavers are one of the two teams in the conference that aren’t very good…check that, Arizona State is just awful.

Oregon State, at least, has some talent. Junior forward Marcel Jones could probably start for most of the team’s in the conference, (don’t think Arizona wouldn’t love to have Jones right now), and senior center Kyle Jeffers is serviceable. Junior forward Sasa Cuic has been a disappointment after a good freshman year. He is second on the team in scoring, but he should be playing at a much higher level considering the skills he brings to the table.

But this is a team that lost at home to Southeastern Louisiana, a team that is barely .500 in the Southland Conference! Oregon State has the bad combination of shooting the ball poorly, particularly from behind the arc, and turning the ball over too many times. They are playing with energy and their defense is decent. They are just overmatched night and night out.

Outlook: Not much better this season, but they do have a brighter future. Both of the Beavers’ main guards are freshmen…and brothers, (although not twins), Seth and Josh Tarver. Josh is third on the team in scoring. Sophomore Jack McGillis, who has a deft shooting touch, is starting to play with a lot more confidence. The problem for Coach John is that he may not be around to enjoy them in the next few years. After all, you can only rebuild for so long before you hire someone else to come in and rebuild.

Prediction (3-15): They’ll play tough and they may scare UCLA or Oregon in the PAC-10 Tournament, but only one more win is guaranteed.

Arizona State (0-9):

Coach Herb Sendek may be wishing that he didn’t leave Tobacco Road right now. This could be the worst major Division I team in the country. Minnesota beat the Sun Devils in the non-conference season to avoid the tag.

Sendek really walked into a bad situation that got a lot worse after his arrival. The Sun Devils weren’t going to be that good to begin with, but leading returning scorer Kevin Kruger took advantage of a new transfer rule for seniors who have completed their course work to transfer to UNLV and play for his father, Lon. Then second-leading returning scorer, Bryson Krueger, was tossed of the team after being arrested for gun and drug possession. Sendek does have sophomore post Jeff Pendergraph who, like OSU’s Marcel Jones, could play for any team in the conference. Beyond him, there isn’t much. Freshman sharpshooter Christian Polk would probably find a few minutes on most teams, but he’s probably the Sun Devils’ second best player! No worries, though, because…

Outlook: …Sendek knew it would be a tough year and he already has commitments for next year that will make the team a lot better. For instance, James Harden, from Artesia High School in the L.A. area has committed and he’s one of the best preps in the nation. He should step in and start right away. In Fact, ASU’s long term prospects are better than Oregon State’s and Cal’s and may even be better than in-state rival Arizona.

If the fans give Sendek time (and they will), he will build a consistent winner in Tempe. He was able to do it at North Carolina State when he had to battle three other state schools for recruits. But for this season, they could be the first team to go winless in the PAC-10 since they entered the conference almost 30 years ago.

Prediction: 0-18. At least it’s warm and sunny in Tempe.

– Rob Carpentier

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