Checking in on… the Pac-10Posted by Brian Goodman on February 24th, 2011
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and Mountain West Conferences.
A Look Back
This was the week the west was (all but) won. With Arizona’s thrilling victory over Washington Saturday and UCLA’s overtime loss at Cal on Sunday, the Wildcats now own a two-game lead over the Bruins in the Pac-10 with four games to play. And with UCLA having to travel to the Washington schools to close the conference season after hosting the Arizona schools this week, while it is still possible that the ‘Cats could be caught, it would take a Westwood-favorable convergence of events for that to happen.
Team of the Week: Arizona – I’ll admit, I’ve been slow to come around on this version of the Wildcats. Sure, Derrick Williams is on the very short list of Player of the Year candidates, went my thinking, but the rest of that roster is ordinary. Well, looking back at what Arizona has done to this point is impressive. They’ve won eight in a row and 12 of their 14 conference games. Even if this conference isn’t up to the caliber of the 2009 vintage, that’s mighty impressive. Outside of their inexplicable loss at Oregon State on the first Sunday of the year, the other three Arizona losses have come against teams ranked in Ken Pomeroy’s top 11 right now. Momo Jones has stepped up as a legitimate major conference point guard and a good second scoring option, having scored in double figures in eight of his last nine games. Solomon Hill has established himself as a do-everything scrapper up front, Kyle Fogg has proven to be a capable distributor (he’s had six or more assists three times in this winning streak), Kevin Parrom has turned into a deadly three-point shooter (nine-of-16 from deep during the streak) and a terrific defensive presence and Jesse Perry has become an enforcer up front, averaging 8.8 rebounds per game in their last ten. And if all that isn’t enough, Jamelle Horne, the lone senior on the club, has shown a penchant for knocking down big threes when his team needs it the most. Aside from Williams, the individual pieces on this club may not blow you away on a regular basis, but Sean Miller has done a masterful job molding them into a legitimate threat to make a deep run in March.
Player of the Week: Derrick Williams, Junior, Arizona – 26 points in each of his games this week. 19 total rebounds. A couple of assists per game. Fifteen of 26 shooting from the field and 20-21 from the line (this from a guy who shot 68% from the line last year). Oh, and throw in ten points over the last six minutes against Washington, a couple of big threes, including one with just over a minute left to give the ‘Cats the lead back, then a monstrous rejection on the Huskies’ last viable chance, and it was a very good week for Williams. For the season, the guy hasn’t been kept out of double figures once, has nine double-doubles, is shooting 63% from the field, 75% from the line and an absolutely absurd 68% from deep, averages over two points per shot, is one of the most efficient high-use players in the land and is an absolute shoo-in as a first-team All-American.
Newcomer of the Week: Chase Creekmur, Freshman, Arizona State – With apologies to C.J. Wilcox, Maurice Jones and Jay-R Strowbridge, who all had excellent weeks bombing from deep, let’s recognize this freshman wing from Marshalltown, Iowa who had the game of his very short career this week in helping the Sun Devils to just their second conference win. Creekmur played the most minutes of his career against Washington State and came up with 18 huge points on five-of-eight shooting from behind the arc while also grabbing three rebounds and handing out a couple of assists. As Herb Sendek turns his eye towards the future of the ASU program, Creekmur has thrown his hat into the ring as someone to keep an eye on.
Game of the Week: Arizona 87, Washington 86 – Game of the week, for sure. On the short list with the Arizona/Cal three-overtime epic for game of the year in the conference as well. While the Arizona/Cal game had 15 extra minutes and all the drama and scrappiness that you could ask for in a college basketball game, this one had a national television audience and both teams playing for a potential conference championship. Down the stretch, both teams had its stars step up, as Williams carried the Wildcats on home and Isaiah Thomas did the same for the Huskies, handing out in rapid succession three beautiful lob passes that ended in Washington dunks. In the end, however, it was Williams sending back a Darnell Gant attempt in dramatic fashion with under a second left that sealed the game for the Wildcats.
Game of the Upcoming Week: Arizona (23-4, 12-2) at UCLA (19-8, 10-4), 2/26, 1PM, FSN – While this will no longer be a game for the top spot in the conference, following UCLA’s upset loss at Cal on Sunday night, this should still tell us a lot about both teams. UCLA is still a complete cipher. They’ve beaten BYU and St. John’s (arguably the two best wins by any team in the Pac-10 this year – although the crosstown rival has a major bone of contention there), but in their big “up” games in the Pac-10 (at Arizona and at home against Washington), they’ve lost by 11 points each time. They’ve got a loss to a mediocre Montana team on their rap sheet and while clearly a talented team, they turn the ball over at a ridiculous pace (turnovers on almost a quarter of all possessions) and have efficiency numbers of both ends of the court that are merely average. For Arizona, while we have discussed all the good things they have done, there is still a gaping hole in their resume: lack of quality road wins. To this point their best win away from the McKale Center is either at Washington State or Cal, neither a team that is in the NCAA picture any longer. While a win at an average UCLA team is not normally a resume highlight, given the Wildcats’ relatively weak schedule, this win would be very welcome. Oh, and then there’s the fact that an Arizona win here in all likelihood clinches the Pac-10 title.
1. Arizona (23-4, 12-2): So, the Wildcats are a lead-pipe cinch to get invited to the NCAA Tournament next month, even without a Pac-10 tournament championship. But where do they wind up seeded? They’ve got road games against the Los Angeles schools and home games against the Oregon schools to finish things up, and while a 2-2 record to finish things up is not impossible, we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that they’ve earned and say they finish up 3-1, then advance to the Pac-10 title game before losing. And that’s the worst-case scenario. If that happens, they wind up at 28-6 on the season with the wins over Washington and UCLA as their sole wins over NCAA Tournament teams (barring some well-placed upsets in Championship Week). What is that good for? Three-seed seems too high for the lack of quality wins, while a six-seed seems too low for a team that won their regular season conference title, finished the season 8-2 (in our scenario) and winds up with a top-20 RPI. I say this team tops out at a four-seed (might have a chance at a three with the Pac-10 tourney title and a couple other dominoes falling ahead of them) with a five-seed the low end.
Looking ahead: While you can’t overlook anything in the Pac-10, this week presents the final large challenges to Arizona’s Pac-10 title dreams. The Wildcats travel to face a suddenly resurgent USC team on Thursday night, then battle UCLA on Saturday with a chance to wrap up the conference championship.
2. Washington (19-8, 10-5): It was a disappointing week for the Huskies, coming up just short in the desert. And while the tightness of the game and the excitement of the final minutes indicate that Washington was right there to the end with the ‘Cats, a close look at the box score reveals some disturbing numbers. To begin with, the Huskies allowed the Wildcats to grab 50% of all offensive rebound opportunities – an unforgivable number – and on the other end, Arizona limited the Huskies to an offensive rebounding percentage of just 24%. While Lorenzo Romar’s team has been just average cleaning the defensive glass this season, in part because they challenge a ton of shots, their inability to positively affect the game on the offensive glass had to be disturbing. That, combined with the fact that Washington wasn’t getting a lot of clean looks from deep, and the looks they were getting weren’t falling, explains the loss. But all things considered, a controversial one-point loss on one of the toughest roadies in the Pac-10 in a game in which you didn’t play all that well is not a terrible result.
Looking ahead: The Huskies are done with the road for the season, and thankfully, as six of their eight losses so far came on the road (the other two were neutral site games in Maui). Back in the friendly confines of the Hec Ed, Washington fully expects to take care of business the rest of the way against Washington State (on Sunday), UCLA (next Thursday) and USC (next Saturday).
3. UCLA (19-8, 10-4): The Bruins are in second place in the conference and the only team with much of a remaining shot at catching Arizona for first place. But I wouldn’t dare put this team as the second strongest team in the conference. They’ve won seven of their last eight, 11 of their last 13, and as referenced above, they’ve got two of the best wins of any team in the Pac-10 this season. This week they got a hard-fought and acceptable road split at the Bay Area schools, but a deeper look at the team reveals serious flaws. But regardless of all that, if the season ended today, the Bruins would be safely in the NCAA Tournament. And yet, the season doesn’t end today.
Looking ahead: Ahead for the Bruins lies danger. This week they’ve got Arizona State and Arizona at home. The Bruins have flirted all season long with giving away conference games against teams that they should beat, but thus far have escaped with perfectly explainable losses. They’ll need to keep up that streak by taking care of business against ASU and not allowing the specter of the Arizona battle to lead to a bad loss. Then come the Wildcats, where a win is a great outcome and a loss is, well, expected. To wrap up the season, Ben Howland takes his team to Washington and Washington State, probably the toughest road trip in the Pac-10 this year. A sweep is almost unthinkable, a split is brilliant and an oh-fer-the-road-trip is a potential nightmare. Even if the worst case scenario comes true and the Bruins go 1-3 down the stretch, winning their first round Pac-10 game to get to 21 wins on the season, paired with wins over BYU and St. John’s, and the Bruins probably limp in. Lose in the first round, and sweat it out on Selection Sunday.
4. USC (15-12, 7-7): From here on down, we are looking at teams that either need to win the Pac-10 Tournament or consider their options for the NIT. And, perhaps most importantly in the short-term for these next five teams, is the fact that teams one through six in the conference receive a first-round bye in the conference tournament. You don’t want to finish seventh here. For the Trojans, they jump from the back of this middle pack last week to the top of it here on the strength of a road sweep of the Bay Area schools. Kevin O’Neill’s club was sparked this week by freshman Maurice Jones, who, after being relegated to coming off the bench for the first time in his college career, took exactly one half to wallow in pity before exploding for 22 second-half points to fend off an attempted-comeback back Cal. Jones followed that game up with another ten points in the win at Stanford, and it looks like he’ll be an asset providing a scoring punch off the bench the rest of the way. Elsewhere, Nikola Vucevic was typically excellent this week, averaging 20 points and 12 rebounds, but also knocking down a surprising five threes this week, which was more than a quarter of his total coming into the game.
Looking ahead: Like the Bruins, the Trojans have a tough row to hoe the rest of the way: Arizona, Arizona State, at Washington State and at Washington.
5. Oregon (14-12, 7-7): The Ducks tore past Oregon State this week to put the wraps on a season-sweep of the Civil War. With the game still somewhat in doubt early in the second half, Jay-R Strowbridge knocked down three straight three-pointers to push Oregon further out ahead. A three by Tyrone Nared followed, as did one by E.J. Singler, then Strowbridge added another and after six straight threes by Oregon, an eight-point Duck lead had turn into a 20-point lead. All in all, Oregon knocked down 13 threes, forced 19 Beaver turnovers and eased home with a 19-point victory.
Looking ahead: Oregon hosts Cal and Stanford in a pair of games that will be very important for Pac-10 Tournament seeding.
6. Cal (14-13, 7-8): The Golden Bears snapped a four-game losing streak on Sunday night, fighting through an improbable buzzer-beating three by Malcolm Lee that sent the game into overtime, to squeak one out in overtime. Junior guard Jorge Gutierrez was phenomenal throughout, scoring 34 points, handing out six assists, grabbing three boards, swiping three steals and just epitomizing toughness and grit. Freshman guard Allen Crabbe returned in that game after missing two straight games and most of a third with a concussion. While Crabbe did not play as well as he had played before the injury, his importance to the club was emphasized during his absence.
Looking ahead: Cal travels to the Oregon schools this week, a good opportunity for a talented club to get right and jump back up the Pac-10 standings.
7. Washington State (17-10, 7-8): Instead of catching the Wildcats looking forward to the Washington game last week, the Cougars found themselves with a post-Arizona hangover when they played Arizona State on Saturday, and my, what a headache that turned out to be. Despite 58 points on the week from junior Klay Thompson, Washington State limped back home with an 0-2 record on the road trip and with any hopes of an NCAA at-large bid dashed upon the rocks. What seemed to be a promising season around Christmastime has turned into utter disappointment, although it is not merely sarcastic to say that this season is a vast improvement over last season’s total collapse.
Looking ahead: The Cougars play two of their final three at home, but it is not an easy stretch by any means. After traveling to play the Huskies in Seattle on Sunday, they’ll host USC and UCLA next week. It looks like they’ll need to win two of those three to feel comfortable about getting a first round Pac-10 bye.
8. Stanford (13-13, 6-9): Getting swept at home in conference play in a week is never a good thing. And now, riding their second losing streak of at least three games this season, the Cardinal find themselves staring up at seven teams above them in the conference standings. Against UCLA, Jeremy Green continued his hot streak, knocking down nine-of-16 shots and five three-pointers on the way to 27 points, his fifth straight 20-point game. But USC was able to get Green off his game, limiting him to 3-13 shooting and just ten points in the 16-point loss.
Looking ahead: The Cardinal travel to Corvallis and Eugene this week for game that border on must-wins.
9. Oregon State (9-16, 4-10): I’ve said enough about the Beavers for the year, I think. They’ve been a fascinating and utterly frustrating team. I’ll throw out bipolar and underachieving as two fairly apt adjectives that I don’t think I’ve used to describe them yet this year. But mostly, I just want to point you to George Dohrmann’s excellent blog post where he spares no quarter in describing the many faults of this Oregon State team. Maybe next week we’ll talk about what the future holds for this Beaver team, but for now they just make me tired.
Looking ahead: Stanford and Cal come calling this week. Who knows what will happen.
10. Arizona State (10-16, 2-12): I love it when we get to wrap up one of these posts on a positive note. There’s not much happy news to report at the bottom of the standings, and certainly one win in a sea of conference losses isn’t much to get excited about, but the ASU win over Washington State on Saturday will have to do. Playing without injured seniors Rihards Kuksiks and Ty Abbott (addition by subtraction much?), the Sun Devils got a career performance by Chase Creekmur (18 points, five threes), the best performance by the team’s leading scorer, Trent Lockett (20 points, eight rebounds), since November and the best performance from freshman guard Corey Hawkins in his brief career (29 minutes, six assists). The Devils knocked down nine threes, outshot the Cougars from the field and played their best defense in about a month and now head into the final weeks of the season with a puncher’s chance at not finishing in last in the conference.
Looking ahead: The Sun Devils travel to UCLA and USC before hosting Oregon and Oregon State. They’ll need to win two of those games and have Oregon State lose all of their to take ninth place, but at least it is something to play for.