Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and Mountain West conferences.
A Look Back
While most seem to agree that the Pac-10 is a better conference from top to bottom than it was last year, the early returns across Pac-10 schedules are not particularly encouraging. Pac-10 schedules are littered with near-misses (Washington’s two losses in Maui, the efforts by UCLA and Arizona against Kansas, Washington State’s battle with Kansas State, Oregon’s comeback against Missouri), bad losses (Montana over UCLA, Rider over USC, Utah Valley State over Oregon State). Even the handful of good wins, like Cal over New Mexico and Temple, Washington State over Gonzaga and Stanford over Virginia, come with asterisks ready to be applied. Really, the only win that stands out for the conference as a no-questions-asked good win, was USC’s surprise of Texas in the Galen Center on Sunday night. Sure, Texas struggled down the stretch last season and there are some questions about their maturity, but given USC’s early-season struggles with youth and inconsistency, the Pac-10 has to feel pretty pleased about its win over a top 25 team. Now, it’s just a matter of stringing a few more of those wins together, or else schools up and down the conference are going to be in a similar situation to last season come the time to talk about quality wins and bad losses on their NCAA Tournament resumes: too few examples of the former and too many of the latter. As of 12/9, of the four teams that I would put in the top tier (or couple of tiers) of the conference (Washington, Arizona, Washington State and UCLA), there really is maybe just one quality win to point to, assuming that Wazzu’s win over Gonzaga actually qualifies as a quality win. Sure, the Pac-10 may be improved, but controversial one-point losses in Lawrence and hard-fought disappointments in Maui aren’t going to earn you much credibility come Selection Sunday.
Team of the Week
USC – The Trojans take down this award based solely on their 17-point beatdown of Texas on Sunday night, their only game of the week, and the best win of the season by a Pac-10 school. USC came out strong right out the gates in the first half, eventually built up a lead as big as 11 before taking an eight-point lead into the half, then opened the second half with an immediate 14-3 run to kill an hope the Longhorns had of getting back into the game. Junior Nikola Vucevic led the Trojans, and you’ll read more about him shortly, but this win belongs to the whole undermanned team. Just seven players got off the bench for the shorthanded Trojans, and just six played more than eight minutes, but four players scored in double figures, and the ones who didn’t made their contributions as well. USC took their lumps in November, playing three freshmen in their short rotation, but as the season turns the corner, head coach Kevin O’Neill has his team improving on a nightly basis.
Player of the Week
Nikola Vucevic, Junior, USC – With USC the Team of the week, it only makes sense that their best player take down Player of the Week, especially considering his sole game of the week featured a career-high 24 points paired nicely with nine rebounds and solid work in the middle against a talented Longhorn frontcourt. On the season, Vucevic is averaging a double-double (16.9 PPG, 10.7 RPG) while playing 36 minutes a night along a severely shorthanded Trojan front line. He’s managed to keep out of foul trouble most nights, and play effectively even while in foul trouble on the remaining nights, and he just keeps getting better every time I see him. He’s a workhorse on the glass, he’s a solid post defender, he’s continually adding new wrinkles offensively and he’s turning into a vocal leader for a Trojan team that needs one. In short, Vucevic’s breakout performance last season was no fluke, and he is proving this season on a nightly basis that he is an all-conference caliber player.
Newcomer of the Week
Joshua Smith, Freshman, UCLA – Smith had the kind of week that is not unusual for a talented freshman, especially early in the season: a big breakout performance one night and an entirely forgettable, mostly-absent game the next. In the Bruins’ loss to Kansas on last Thursday (detailed below in our Game of the Week), Smith came off the bench – mostly as a Ben Howland strategy to keep the big youngster out of early foul trouble – and threw his vast weight (reported somewhat forgivingly at 305 pounds) around on his way to career highs in points (17), rebounds (13) and offensive rebounds (8), and perhaps most importantly, a career low in fouls (just two fouls – he had never had less than four in a game before). And considering this all came against the talented Kansas frontcourt, it was even more impressive of an effort. However, rather than back that type of game up with a second statement, Smith struggled through the Bruins’ next game, a loss at home against Montana, hitting just one of his eight field goal attempts and grabbing just five rebounds. For Smith to be a difference maker at the Pac-10 level, he’ll need to get used to giving a consistent effort, night in and night out, regardless of the opponent.
Game of the Week
Kansas 77, UCLA 76 – For the third consecutive week, we’ve got a Pac-10 loss in this spot, and for the second consecutive week, it is a close loss against Kansas, although this week’s edition was a little more excruciating for the loser. The Bruins fought and clawed with the Jayhawks all night long, in a game where neither team ever led by more than eight, but down the stretch it was Kansas in control, leading by six with under three minutes and by five under two. The Bruins eventually tied the game up on a three by Tyler Honeycutt, who had 31 points, nine rebounds, four assists and five threes on 11-15 shooting from the field, with eight seconds left, but as the Jayhawks brought the ball up court in the waning seconds, with the Bruins seemingly on the verge of fouling the whole way up court, UCLA’s Malcolm Lee and Kansas’ Mario Little bumped into each other while scrambling for a loose ball, and with what turned out to be 0.7 seconds on the clock, a referee blew the whistle and sent Little to the line with a chance to win the game. He hit the first free throw and the Jayhawks escaped with a one-point victory, while the Bruins racked up just another good effort on the way to a loss.
Game of the Upcoming Week
Arizona vs. BYU, in Salt Lake City, 12/11, 3:00 PM PST, BYUtv – While things slow down in most places this week as the student-athletes work through their exams, there are a couple good opportunities for Pac-10 schools to get quality wins, with Washington’s trip to College Station to face Texas A&M as the other good example. BYU will throw all sorts of frontcourt players at the Wildcats’ Derrick Williams in an attempt to slow the most efficient offensive player in the nation, according to Ken Pomeroy. But while the Cougars’ frontcourt will have their hands full trying to slow Williams, the Wildcats’ backcourt will have similar problems trying to match up with BYU’s backcourt of Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery. In a clash of styles, this game may come down to which team can play this game in their comfort level – BYU will want to get out in transition and play a fast-paced game, while Arizona will be more comfortable in the halfcourt set. Sean Miller will need to make sure his players remember the game plan and stay under control, but if they do, the Wildcats have a chance to get their first quality win of the season.
1. Washington (6-2): A couple big wins over decent programs this week for the Huskies, as they averaged 101 points per game and a 25.5 point margin of victory in knocking off Texas Tech and Portland at the Hec Ed. Senior wing Justin Holiday led the team with 20 points in each game, throwing in 15 rebounds and seven threes over the course of the week, but once again the story was mostly balance and contributions from players all up and down the roster. Junior guard Scott Suggs, for instance, scored in double figures for the first time since the season opener when he helped stop short a Portland comeback attempt, hitting two straight threes as part of an 11-0 response to the Pilots cutting the lead to six and starting the Huskies on their way to putting the game out of reach. While junior Isaiah Thomas has been relatively quiet this season, he still leads the team in scoring at a 15.6 clip, leading five Huskies currently averaging more than ten points per night.
Looking ahead: The Huskies travel to Texas A&M on Saturday for their last chance at a good out-of-conference win, making this a very important week for Washington.
2. Arizona (8-1): A workmanlike week for the ‘Cats, as they dispatched with two teams that they were clearly better than in an efficient manner. In the Sunday win over Oklahoma, sophomore forward Derrick Williams struggled with foul trouble, but ‘Zona had no trouble easing past the Sooners by 23. Then on Wednesday night, Cal State Fullerton threw a zone at the ‘Cats to keep things close, and succeeded in that goal, before Arizona outscored the Titans by ten in the second half, with Williams chipping in 16 of his 22 after the break. Head coach Sean Miller has yet to really have anyone step up and claim the role of secondary option to Williams yet, but with ten players sporting 110+ offensive ratings according to Ken Pomeroy, it looks like there are plenty of options on any given night. Point guard does remain a position of concern, however, as sophomore Momo Jones has been more down than up thus far, with turnovers and poor shooting chief among his faults. However, Miller has been able to get capable playmaking out of other players, with off-guard Kyle Fogg handing out 3.6 assists per night and forward Solomon Hill dishing out 2.5, both while keeping their turnovers in relative check.
Looking ahead: Big week for the ‘Cats, even if it is just a one-game week. See our Game of the Upcoming Week section for more details of Arizona’s matchup with BYU.
3. Washington State (6-1): The Cougars’ brief undefeated streak may have ended this week, but Ken Bone and company have to pretty feel good about what they accomplished this week, splitting a home stand with a blowout win over Gonzaga and a tough loss against Kansas State. While the 22-point win over their regional rival, Gonzaga, may look better at first glance, we learned more about this year’s version of the Cougs in the loss against Kansas State. In that loss, juniors Klay Thompson and Faisal Aden, the team’s two leading scorers with roughly 40 points a night between them, struggled offensively, hitting just nine of their combined 28 shots. Nevertheless, WSU hung tight with the Wildcats, using defense and grittiness to stick around to the bitter end. The Cougs held KSU leading scorer and All-American candidate Jacob Pullen to a mere two makes on 11 attempts, and despite getting outrebounded by the more physical Wildcats, were able to force 21 Kansas State turnovers. While sophomore point guard Reggie Moore provided a spark for the Cougs while playing in his first game of the season, albeit with a splint still on his injured wrist, the Cougs inability to hit their shots (they were just 3-16 from three) cost them down the stretch. Still, given that the biggest question mark for this program has been the effectiveness on the defensive end, their ability to scrap and fight with a top ten team like KSU proves that this year’s WSU squad is quite a different beast than last year’s paper Cougar.
Looking ahead: After last week’s excitement, things slow down considerably, with only a visit from Texas-Pan American on Friday as schoolwork takes precedence.
4. UCLA (3-4): While the Kansas loss is the big story of the week, just as important for the Bruins’ long-term hopes was the Sunday night game against Montana, in which the young UCLA squad was unfocused and passive and allowed the Grizzlies to outplay them. While the Bruin defense had been up and down all season, on Sunday night it completely deserted them, as Montana shot 52% from the field. Things weren’t much better on the other end of the court as the Bruins shot just 31.3% from the field, and the two stars of the Kansas game, Tyler Honeycutt and Josh Smith, shot a combined four of 20 from the field. With BYU and St. John’s as the only non-conference games remaining of any importance, no good wins to speak of and with this bad Montana loss on the resume, the Bruins find themselves stuck behind the eight-ball with Selection Sunday still months away. They’ll need to make a big run through the Pac-10 in order to have any hope of hearing their name called when the brackets are announced, and in order to do that, they’ll need to eliminate mental lapses like the Montana debacle.
Looking ahead: While UCLA showed the ability to lose to teams with less talent than them, one would have to guess that this week’s docket is pretty manageable: UC Davis and Cal Poly, both in Pauley.
5. USC (5-4): In this space last week, I called the USC upset of Texas. And, really, I was halfway serious about it. There is talent on this team. Junior Nikola Vucevic just keeps getting better every time I see him. He’s a workhorse on the glass, he’s a solid post defender, he’s continually adding new wrinkles offensively. Paired up front with senior Alex Stepheson who grabs rebounds like he needs them to live, the Trojans have an intimidating duo up front. Freshman Maurice Jones is getting almost all of the time at the point right now (he’s averaging over 38 minutes a game) until Fordham-transfer Jio Fontan is eligible next week, and while he has experienced some growing pains along the way, Kevin O’Neill and his club will be better for it in the long run. Fellow freshman Bryce Jones isn’t getting quite as much run as his unrelated teammate Maurice, but he has the capability to be the off-ball scorer that USC has been missing, and while he too has had some bumps early, he has been spectacular at times. What this team lacks is any kind of effective depth, but if they can keep their big guys clean, this club is going to be dangerous in the Pac-10 race.
Looking ahead: The Trojans wrap up the first portion of their season with a game against Northern Arizona on Saturday, their last game in the pre-Fontan era. The next time USC takes the court, the following Saturday in Lawrence, Fontan will be the man at point.
6. Arizona State (3-4): Herb Sendek got awfully brave with his non-conference scheduling this season, and after a couple more adventurous games this week (at Baylor and home against Richmond), and a couple more losses to boot, the wisdom of such a schedule could be questioned. But, from Sendek’s point of view, with three senior starters returning from last year’s second-place Pac-10 finisher, the Sun Devils appeared ready to be tested early. But, thus far, the seniors have been a disappointment, with only point guard Jamelle McMillan anywhere close to sniffing a Pomeroy offensive rating of 100 and a combined field goal percentage of under 37%. There are bright spots for the Devils though, as sophomore slasher Trent Lockett has been most impressive, contributing across the stat sheet (15.6 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 3.3 APG, 63% from the field, 40% from three) and seeming ready to step into a leadership role, while freshman forward Kyle Cain has posted some great nights, albeit interspersed with a couple games where he was limited by foul trouble. Cain has averaged 9.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game so far, but his best days are ahead of him, especially once he beefs up his skinny frame. In the end, this non-conference run through a challenging schedule could toughen up ASU for conference play, but they’ll need their trio of seniors to step up the efficiency.
Looking ahead: A quiet week for the Sun Devils, with just a visit from Gardner-Webb on Saturday.
7. Cal (5-3): Earlier in the season, the Golden Bears hung a 25-point whooping on a visiting MWC team, New Mexico, at Haas Pavilion. On Wednesday night, they ran into a MWC team of a completely different caliber, when San Diego State blasted the Bears in the second half and ran away to a 20-point win. Earlier in the week, however, head coach Mike Montgomery and his team met up with a more compatible opponent, Iowa State, a lower-division team in the Big 12. Despite playing the first true road game of the season for this young group of cubs, they were able to have four players score in double figures and they got a couple big plays from sophomore forward Bak Bak with under a minute to go in a tight game. With the game tied at 59, Bak converted a three-point play on the offensive end to give the Bears the lead, then stripped the Cyclone point guard on the other end of the court and calmly hit two free throws to ice the game. Montgomery has gotten as much as anyone could have thought possible out of frontcourt players like Bak, senior Markuri Sanders-Frison and redshirt junior Harper Kamp, but the young backcourt is still very much a work in progress. While junior Jorge Gutierrez has done what he can at the point (leading the team in scoring, assists, steals and three-point percentage), he is really not a natural point. While freshmen guards Gary Franklin and Allen Crabbe have each had strong moments, they’ll need to grow up before conference play rolls around for the Bears to entertain an upper division finish.
Looking ahead: The Bears host Southern Mississippi in a sneaky good Sunday afternoon matinee, a stiff test for both squads.
8. Stanford (4-2): Absolutely nothing for the Cardinal this week, as finals was the focus around campus this week.
Looking ahead: The Cardinal get back to the hardwood with a couple of very winnable games: UC Riverside on Sunday and North Carolina A&T on Wednesday.
9. Oregon (5-3): The Ducks split their two-game week, but all things considered, it was a good week in Eugene. Sure, the basketball program lags a bit behind their brethren on the gridiron, but an undermanned Oregon squad has shown quite a bit of tenacity under new head coach Dana Altman. RTC’s #15 Missouri visited McArthur Court on Thursday night and the Ducks, after falling behind by 20 in the first half, rallied behind 62.1% shooting in the second half and a career high 19 points from sophomore E.J. Singler to at least give the Tigers a scare, before eventually falling 83-80. The Ducks followed that up by beating in-state foe Portland State on Sunday in a game where they could have easily been caught sleeping (see UCLA and Montana, above). After scrapping to something of a draw in the first half, Oregon turned it on in the second half and finished on a 24-8 run to settle matters. Singler, thus far, has been one of the most improved players in the nation, posting highly efficient offensive numbers while playing out of position for the undersized Ducks. While there just isn’t enough talent on this squad to pose a serious threat in conference, they’ll win their fair share of games this year, just on effort and smarts alone.
Looking ahead: Willamette and Jacksonville State visit Eugene this week, before the Ducks play their first game outside the state of Oregon on 12/17 when they travel to Charlottesville to face Virginia.
10. Oregon State (3-4): The Beavers followed up their two-point loss to Utah Valley State with a 26-point loss to Colorado, going a long way towards answering the eternal question, “if Utah Valley State and Colorado were to play, what should be the betting line?” Of course, the UVSU game was in Corvallis and the Colorado game was in Boulder, so assuming that there is actually a home court advantage in Boulder (hey, this has Pac-10 relevance – we’ll need to know if the Colorado home court advantage is significant) and estimating it at around five points (based on a couple home and away games with Big 12 opponents over the last couple of years), we can safely say that Colorado should be somewhere in the neighborhood of a 19-point favorite over Utah Valley State. There. I got through this little section without having to say anything meaningful about Oregon State. Aside from the fact that they are terrible.
Looking ahead: The Beavers host Texas-Pan American on Sunday, then travel to Missoula to face Montana on Wednesday. Watch OSU beat Mont—ah, never mind, I can’t even type it with a straight face.