Ed. Note: the previous posts in this series (Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Atlantic South, Deep South, Mid-South, Lower Midwest, Upper Midwest and Mountains) are located here.
It’s time for the ninth installment of our RTC 2009-10 Impact Players series, the group of hot, dry, desert-y states known as the Southwest Region. Each week we’ll pick a geographic area of the country and break down the five players who we feel will have the most impact on their teams (and by the transitive property, college basketball) this season. Our criteria is once again subjective – there are so many good players in every region of the country that it’s difficult to narrow them down to only five in each – but we feel at the end of this exercise that we’ll have discussed nearly every player of major impact in the nation. Just to be fair and to make this not too high-major-centric, we’re also going to pick a mid-major impact player in each region as our sixth man. We welcome you guys, our faithful and very knowledgeable readers, to critique us in the comments where we left players off. The only request is that you provide an argument – why will your choice be more influential this season than those we chose?
Rihards Kuksiks – F, Jr – Arizona State. Advice to Pac-10 coaches writing up their scouting reports for when they go up against Arizona State this season: when Rihards Kuksiks enters the building, get a man on him. Don’t bother waiting until the game actually starts. You don’t want him getting comfortable, because he’s the kind of shooter who can change a game just that quickly. The guy can touch the ball a few times and the next thing you know you’re down nine before the first TV timeout. Or you get a little comfortable with your late-game lead and after Kuksiks gets a couple of touches the lead is gone and you’re wondering how time can tick so slowly. You want numbers? Fine. Kuksiks is third in terms of returning individual leaders in 3-point field goal percentage (44.3%) in the country among players who hit at least two threes a game and finished 8th in that category last year. A recent article on FoxSports.com by Jeff Goodman reveals some other incredible stats: in games decided by 2 points or less, Kuksiks shot 47% from behind the 3-point line; against ranked opponents he shot 46% from beyond the arc, and in the loss to Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament’s second round last year, he put up his career high in points with 20, with 18 of those coming from long range. In other words, the man steps up during big games. If the numbers don’t interest you, then consider the fact that many of these threes are not from a hair behind the line. They are often from distance. And they are often clutch (ask Arizona about a couple of late ones he nailed in that February game last year). Most importantly, watch the form. It should be an instructional video. He gets good height on his jumper but doesn’t overdo it, and you can see how he gets his legs into the shot. He releases the ball out in front just a little bit, but then the follow-through is a perfect example of that “reach into the cookie jar” that basketball coaches start teaching kids from the moment they can lift a basketball. By the way, he’s 6’6 and more than happy to mix it up in the paint, if needed. My favorite bit about Kuksiks comes from an interview he did for a site called EuropeanProspects.com in which he was asked what kind of player he was. The first words out of his mouth? “I am a sharpshooter.” This is confidence, not cockiness, from the big man from Riga, Latvia. But I think it’s just fine if there actually is a little cockiness there. Long-range shooters are like neurosurgeons. They’re often asked to do the most difficult things in their field…and if I get to the point where I need to depend on one, I want them a little bit cocky.
It’s gearing up as another interesting offseason for Tim Floyd at USC. For the second consecutive year, with the news that Demar DeRozan, Daniel Hackett and Taj Gibson are going pro, he’ll be losing a significant portion of his team to NBA early entry after another relatively disappointing campaign. (note: we’re sorry, but if you lose potentially five draft picks in two seasons and win only one NCAA Tournament game in that period, that’s really disappointing). And guess what, probable one-and-doner Renardo Sidney is set to arrive on campus in 2009-10, further contributing to the problem that Floyd annually faces: it’s great to have NBA-level talent every season, but he doesn’t have enough ‘program guys’ who stick around for 3-4 years and provide consistency within the USC program.
An interesting analogy is John Calipari at Memphis. When Calipari returned to college coaching at Memphis in 2000, there was a common presumption that he would do very well immediately. The truth, however, is that it took Calipari five years at Memphis before he really got rolling – his first half-decade with the Tigers resulted in 2 NCAA appearances and only one NCAA win. Remember the Dajuan Wagner, Antonio Burks and early Rodney Carney teams? Yeah, we don’t really either. It was only after he had built up enough depth of talent to sustain annual high draft pick losses and still win 30 games the next season did Memphis become a brand name again.
Floyd has struggled in his four seasons at USC to put together a team that looks largely like its predecessor, which is really the only way to consistently perform at an elite level. The last three champions (UNC, Kansas, Florida) were essentially the same teams as the year prior, and that’s basically true of many of the F4 teams as well (with a piece here or there added). Floyd’s problem is exacerbated by his tendency to utilize a short bench, as he typically plays only 7-8 guys throughout the season, so when he ends up losing a couple or three key players he’s left with depending on star freshmen to lead his team the next year (e.g., Sidney and star wing Noel Johnson in 2009-10).
Floyd would do well to continue recruiting elite players who are likely one-and-dones, but he should also try to get a few more of the three- and four-year players that will provide a backbone of consistency for his program. Otherwise, the annual postseason rollercoaster of incoming/outgoing talent that USC basketball currently finds itself on won’t end anytime soon. Of course, this all may be for naught if the NCAA continues snooping around…
With the release of the brackets on Sunday evening there has been quite a bit of controversy (Arizona over St. Mary’s being the predominant gripe) and there have been some interesting moments with Jay Bilas and Digger Phelps ganging up on Dick Vitale and almost bringing him to tears. However, it was nothing compared to the furor that we saw when the BCS released its final poll that determined the BCS bowl games and more importantly the national championship. We thought it would be a fun exercise to try to make a mock BCS basketball system. I used the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls as the human polls and ESPN.com’s InsiderRPI, KenPom.com, and Sagarin’s ratings as the computer polls. There are a couple polls I excluded for other reasons: Kenneth Massey’s (wasn’t updated yet) and Jerry Palm’s (not free). I did not throw out the high and low computer polls for two reasons: (1) we only had 3 available and (2) they were fairly similar with a few exceptions (Gonzaga in the RPI, but they weren’t going to be a factor anyways because of Memphis). ESPN.com’s InsiderRPI didn’t include the games from Sunday, but after looking at the final results they would not have had any impact on the rankings based on the teams involved. Here are the results:
Michael Hurley is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 Conference.
News & Notes
Lute Olson compiled a 43-6 record against Arizona State. Since he took a leave of absence last year, Arizona is 0-4 against the Sun Devils.
Against ASU, Jordan Hill, Chase Budinger, and Nic Wise all logged 40 minutes. For the year the three are each averaging over 35 minutes a game. They are the only team in the Pac-10 with three players averaging over 35 minutes a game. Come Pac-10 tournament time these three horses have to be tiring.
Oregon State swept the season series against Cal for the first time since the 1994-95 season.
Jerome Randle has 59 three-pointers this season putting him 9 shy of the school season record 68 set by Ryan Drew in 1990. With four games left and Randle averaging over two a game he stands a fighting chance at overtaking Drew.
Washington State’s win at UCLA last week was only their second win in their 53 games at Pauley Pavilion.
The battle for coach of the year in the Pac-10 has four solid candidates. With the jobs Mike Montgomery, Russ Pennell, Craig Robinson, and Lorenzo Romar have done, there is an excess of candidates to choose from.
Pennell is the front-runner right now in my mind. He turned this Arizona team around and has them at 8-6 in the Pac-10 and 18-9 overall. He was the second choice for interim coach in late October. Last year he did color commentary for Arizona State radio network.
Jon Brockman is the only mid-season candidate for the Naismith trophy from the Pac-10.
Player of the week: Taylor Rochestie
Rochestie scored 24.5 points a game for Washington State this week. Rochestie also averaged five rebounds and four assists a game. Rochestie scored 33 points in WSU’s upset of UCLA. He shot 5-for-7 from three-point range and a perfect 10-for-10 from the free throw stripe.
Honorable Mention: Darren Collison and Rihards Kuksiks
Collison scored 18.5 points and averaged 6.5 assists for UCLA this past week. Collison went a perfect 7-for-7 from the line in the two games. Kuksiks scored 17 points in Arizona State’s win this week. Kuksiks scored 15 of those on five three-pointers.
Michael Hurley is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 Conference.
Freshman extraordinaire Isaiah Thomas is averaging 16.5 points a game for Washington. His 413 points so far on the season are the second-highest point total for a freshman in Washington history.
Jon Brockman is putting together another solid season for the Huskies. Against Oregon he registered his 54th double-double of his career. That is the most of any active player.
Jon Brockman, Washington 54
John Bryant, Santa Clara 45
Jeff Adrien, Connecticut 44
Luke Harangody, Notre Dame 43
Tyler Hansbrough, UNC 41
Brockman also holds the Washinton career record for rebounds with 1,159 and is the only Husky in history to total 1,500 points and 1,000 rebounds. Check out this video the University of Washington made to market its All-American candidate.
Arizona State’s season sweep of UCLA was their first since 2002-03 and first by any team over UCLA since Washington did it in 2005-06.
Arizona’s six-game conference winning streak is the longest by any Pac-10 team this year.
When you hear “Big Three” Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen shouldn’t come to mind, but rather Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill and Nic Wise. They have combined to account for 69 percent (1,303 of 1,877 points) of the Wildcats scoring.
Michael Hurley is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 Conference.
News and Notes
Arizona State‘s Rihards Kuksiks leads the nation in 3-point percentage, but is only third in the Pac-10. How is that possible? Well NCAA statistical leaders need to make a minimum of 2.5 per game from three-point range to qualify, while Pac-10 needs to make one per game and play in 75 percent of the team’s games. Theo Robertson is shooting 56.2% and Michael Roll is shooting 54.5%, both ahead of Kuksiks’s 46.7%. Either way Kuksiks has had a tough time the past two games going 3-for-20 from behind the arc.
Ben Howland‘s 13-4 record against California is his best against any team in the Pac-10.
UCLA’s recent victory over Stanford was UCLA’s largest victory over Stanford at Pauley Pavilion in over 30 years. It was also UCLA’s highest scoring game under Howland. UCLA shot 73% from 3-point range and only 62% from the free throw line. Maybe they should start taking their foul shots from behind the arc.
California, the best three-point shooting team in the nation at 47%, shot 2-for-16 from three-point range against USC.
UCLA dominated teams this week. The Bruins went 3-0 with average margin of victory over 21 points.
Darren Collison, who earlier this year broke the UCLA record for consecutive free-throws with 43, is shooting 94.4% from the line, which leads the nation.
Craig Robinson has turned it around for Oregon State. The Beavers have four wins in the first half of the Pac-10 schedule for the first time since 2002-03.
After another week of ups and downs in the Pac-10, there are really only two locks for the tournament at this point: UCLA and Washington. Four others (Arizona, Arizona State, California, and USC) still have work to do.
Michael Hurley is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 Conference.
News & Notes.
California’s 66.7% from the field against Oregon was the best any Pac-10 team has registered in conference play this year. Theo Robertson of the Golden Bears still leads the nation in 3-point percentage shooting at a 55.2% clip. Patrick Christopher is just 13 points shy of 1000, at 987. Jerome Randle is right behind at 957. Randle also is ninth in career 3-point field goals made at 125, and tenth in career assists with 313. Randle is also first in career free-throw percentage at 85.7%.
This is just the third time Washington has started 6-1 in the last 25 years. Washington has won 13 out of their last 14 games. It is the first time the Huskies have been in sole possession of first place in the Pac-10 since January 2005. It is just the third time Washington has started 6-1 in the last 25 years. The only time the Huskies ever had a better start through seven games was 1953 when they went 7-0. Last week Washington averaged getting to the free throw line 41.5 times a game. If they keep getting to the line this much they will be hard to beat.
Arizona forward Jordan Hill’s 30 points and 18 rebounds against Houston, was his first game of his career that he broke the 20 point and 15 rebound plateaus. Blake Griffin on the other hand has put together 10 such games so far this year. Aubrey Coleman’s face stomp of Chase Budinger was the most classless act I have seen in years. He should have been suspended multiple games for that. Each high-five he got while leaving the game, should have added a game to it.
Oregon State’s three victories so far match their total of the last two seasons combined.
Joe Lunardi currently has Arizona State, California, UCLA and Washington getting in the dance. It is hard to see any other Pac-10 teams really making a push. USC has been too inconsistent still and they are the only other team with a shot in my mind.
Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Challenge. We’d hoped to have gotten a preview up on these games this afternoon, but we were epically busy today, so it didn’t happen. Nevertheless, we probably would have chosen UCLA, USC and Oklahoma St. But we have to say that the two marquee games tonight were considerably more interesting than the premier games of the ACC/Big 10 Challenge the last two nights (Duke v. Purdue and UNC v. Michigan St.). We had the good fortune to watch both of these game in their entirety.
Oklahoma 73, USC 72. As soon as you’re prepared to completely right off Tim Floyd and his Trojans, they have a game like this where it makes you reconsider every lackadaisical stereotype that you held about his team. Of course, the stereotype for punkish behavior – yep, still got that one. We’re sure you’ve already seen it, but in case you haven’t, USC freshman goon forward Leonard Washington introduced himself to all-world Blake Griffin with a rogue elbow to the family jewels as they ran upcourt in the second half (see below). He was ejected for the manuever, but Griffin was forced to leave the game for a while, whereupon USC immediately started cutting into the 6-8 pt lead. The game remained tight until the very end, when OU made just enough FTs to hang on. USC competed well in the hostile environment, though, shooting 50% from the field and 8-11 from three; Dwight Lewis had 25 and Taj Gibson chipped in a double-double (12/10). Most importantly, even though Griffin still had 25 pts, OU kept him off the boards to the tune of 6 total (13 below his average) and only 1 offensive, so limiting those second-chances helped keep the Trojans in the game.
Texas 68, UCLA 64. When these two teams get together, you can count on physical defense, high-flying athletes, and (usually) a bricklayer’s convention. That was pretty much the case tonight, as the two teams combined for 50-122 (40.9%) from the field and 16-29 (55.2%) from the line. Still, the duel between all-american guards Darren Collison and AJ Abrams was well worth the price of admission. Early in the game it appeared that Collison was going to shoot 70% for the remainder of the season, as everything he threw up was hitting the bottom of the net. But it was Abrans who had the last laugh again this year, as his huge three with just under three minutes remaining gave Texas a more comfortable six-point lead and forced UCLA to begin rushing possessions. Damion James added 13/13 for Texas, but UCLA is going to have to get more help for its upperclassmen from their uber-hyped freshmen (1-12) tonight. Their rookie quintet will ultimately determine the success of their season.
Washington 83, Oklahoma St. 65. UW is difficult to figure this year. They’ve looked downright awful at times, and like a tournament team others. Tonight was the latter, as Jon Brockman dropped 16/11 in the home win. What has happened to OSU’s James Anderson? Big things were expected for this sophomore guard, but in his last four games he’s put up only 11ppg on 14-44 shooting.
WYN2K. This is not the same Pac-10 conference as last year, plain and simple. Gone are lottery picks OJ Mayo (USC), Russell Westbrook (UCLA), Kevin Love (UCLA), Brook Lopez (Stanford) and Jerryd Bayless (Arizona). Gone are Robin Lopez (Stanford) and Ryan Anderson (Cal), also first-rounders. Gone are Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (UCLA) and Davon Jefferson (USC), who went in the second round and not at all, respectively. This year’s Pac-10 transition isn’t just limited to players. There are new coaches at Oregon St. (Craig Robinson), Stanford (Johnny Dawkins), Cal (Mike Montgomery) and Arizona (Russ Pennell). It’s safe to say that no other major conference will look as significantly different from last year as the Pac-10 in 2008-09.
Predicted Champion.UCLA (NCAA #1). Perhaps the only consistency in the Pac-10 this year will be he continued dominance of Ben Howland’s UCLA Bruins over the rest of this conference. After three straight Final Fours and another superb recruiting class matriculating in Westwood, Howland has built his program to the enviable point where he can lose two lottery picks and another starter as early entries to the NBA Draft and not expect his program to suffer major slippage. While we don’t believe that this version of UCLA will be as good of a team as the 2007-08 edition, the Bruins’ position relative to the rest of the conference may actually be stronger this time around. He returns an all-american PG, Darren Collison, who has played in three F4s and led the nation in 3FG% last year (.525, min. 80 attempts). More importantly, Collison has a chip on his shoulder after a miserable national semifinal performance against Memphis last year (2 pts, 5 tos, 5 fouls) – when he’s directing his team effectively, there are few teams in America that can overcome their bruising defense and efficient offense. The national #1 recruiting class is headlined by all-world guard Jrue Holiday, who is expected to start from day one. His talent, along with a cadre of perimeter (Malcolm Lee, Jerime Anderson) and inside players (J’Mison Morgan, Drew Gordon), will give Howland numerous lineup options to throw at opponents. Furthermore, UCLA returns a finally-healthy Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya to provide experience and a steady hand at crunch time. As we said before, we don’t believe this UCLA team will be as good as last year’s squad, but it probably doesn’t have to be. The Pac-10 has dropped in talent significantly, and UCLA should be able to roll through to another fantastic record and possible high RPI rating to garner another #1 seed out west. Here’s a pretty good indication of why Darren Collison is so important for this team.
NCAA Teams. We’re not sure that we see more than four NCAA teams in the Pac-10 this year, which sent six to the Big Dance last season and arguably deserved seven (Arizona St.). In the best-case scenario, things come together for certain teams and the league hopes for five on Selection Sunday, but there’s a more realistic chance that there will only be three NCAA selections made on that day.
Arizona St.(NCAA #4) – Herb Sendek’s coaching resume shows that once he gets a program to the 20-win plateau for the first time, it typically stays there. In other words, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that ASU, who is returning its top eight players from a 21-13 NIT quarterfinalist, will regress this season. The key player, of course, is James Harden, a coulda-been-one-and-done, who lit up the conference for 18/5/3 assts, including 41% from behind the arc (and 53% overall). Harden is a future lottery pick in a league where the only other potential such picks are freshmen (DeRozan, Holiday). Pac-10 teams are not going to enjoy their trips to Tempe this year.
USC(NCAA #8) – We struggled in making this selection, but the thing that pushes USC into the top three of the Pac-10 is simply, talent. Other than UCLA, no other program has as much pure talent that it can put on the floor. Undisciplined, maddening talent – sure – but that’s Tim Floyd for ya. Demar DeRozan wll be a highlight reel for his one year in LA, but he has considerable help next to him, assuming they can all learn to share the ball and play together. Daniel Hackett, Taj Gibson and Dwight Lewis are all talented players, and if UNC transfer Alex Stepheson is deemed eligible to play for the Trojans this year, USC has enough talent to make a run at the Pac-10 title. We don’t expect that to happen because Ben Howland is Ben Howland and Tim Floyd is Tim Floyd, but the talent differential excuse doesn’t hold water anymore.
Washington St.(NCAA #10) – We’re taking a bit of a risk with Wazzu at fourth and a bubble team for the NCAAs, but we truly believe that Tony Bennett is a system coach. Like Bo Ryan at Wisconsin, the names on the backs of the jerseys are largely irrelevant to the success of the program. They’re going to run their slower-than-Xmas stuff no matter which faces are running around out there, and in so doing, dare the rest of the Pac-10 to figure it out. Now we’re not saying that the losses of Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver and Robbie Cowgill won’t hurt – after all, that trio was the most decorated group of players in Washington St. history; but with center Aron Baynes returning along with guard Taylor Rochestie and small forward Daven Harmerling, Bennett has more than enough experience to continue confounding skeptics up in Pullman.
Washington (NIT) – This program has seemed to be in a funk ever since Brandon Roy left the dreary environs of Seattle. If the Huskies are going to take advantage of a weaker Pac-10 to make a run at the NCAA Tournament (or the NIT), they’re going to have to get another superb season from PF Jon Brockman (18/12 on 54% FG). But that won’t be enough without improved performances from Quincy Pondexter and Justin Dentmon on the perimeter. Freshman Isaiah Thomas is getting some hype from Husky fans – perhaps he can push them over the top.
California – The story here is obviously Mike Montgomery’s return to college coaching at his former employer’s bitterest rival. Had Cal held onto star player Ryan Anderson, we would have considered the Bears as a bubble NCAA team. We do think Monty will get there eventually, as he did at Long Beach St. and Stanford (not exactly powerhouses when he arrived), but he’s not a quick-fix guy and it will take time to undo the culture of mediocrity left by Ben Braun.
Arizona – On talent alone, with Chase Budinger, Nic Wise and Jordan Hill, the Wildcats should be a top three Pac-10 team. However, with the fiasco that unfolded last month and the eyebrow-raising hire of the fomer Arizona State radio announcerRuss Pennell as the head coach, we’re not sure anyone will actually want to play for UA this season. Putting them seventh was a gift.
Oregon – We still can’t figure out how Ernie Kent got a big contract extension, but we suppose it doesn’t take much to satisfy people in Eugene. At least until Mark Few takes an interest in coaching in the Pac-10. With only one significant player returning, the 5’6 Tajuan Porter, and nine new faces, we just don’t see the Ducks making a return trip to the NCAAs this season.
Stanford – We think Johnny Dawkins is in for a surprise in Palo Alto this season. Nobody has any clue as to how good of a coach he will be, but we can say with a degree of certainty that the only thing keeping the Cardinal afloat last year was the interior presence of the comical Lopez twins. The guardplay was relatively abysmal (39.5% shooting), and oh, well, now the Lopezes are gone. Good luck with that, JD.
Oregon St. – Hey, did you guys hear that new head coach Craig Robinson is Barack Obama’s bro-in-law? Wehadn’teither. Screw Corvallis, with Robinson’s financial resume, he should be in DC helping Barry fix the economy. Seriously though, last year, OSU might have been the worst major conference team we’d ever seen (Indiana has a shot at bettering that this year). Ferguson had success at Brown, though, which is a herculean task in its own right, so maybe he can get a few Ws in Corvallis this season. Three or four would be miraculous.
Washington v. Kansas (11.24.08)
UCLA @ Texas (12.04.08)
USC @ Oklahoma (12.04.08)
Arizona @ Texas A&M (12.05.08)
Gonzaga @ Washington St. (12.10.08)
Arizona v. Gonzaga (12.14.08)
Kansas @ Arizona (12.23.08)
Notre Dame @ UCLA (02.07.09)
UCLA @ USC (01.11.09)
Arizona St. @ UCLA (01.17.09)
USC @ Washington St. (01.24.09)
USC @ UCLA (02.04.09)
USC @ Arizona St. (02.15.09)
Washington @ UCLA (02.19.09)
Arizonan @ Arizona St. (02.22.09)
Neat-O Stat. The Pac-10, with only ten conference members, is the only BCS league that plays a true round-robin schedule of home/away games with every other team. We like this because it gives a true measure of the strength of each team relative to one another in the conference. There are no plans on the horizon to expand the Pac-10 to twelve members (for football reasons, the NCAA requires twelve teams to have a postseason championship game).
65 Team Era. The Pac-10 has traditionally been the weakest of the six major conferences in its NCAA Tournament performance, going 127-96 (.570) over the era. The league simply doesn’t put as many teams into the Tournament as its peers, earning 4.1 bids per year – the next lowest is the Big 12 with 4.8 per year, and the “Super Six” average is 5 bids per year. As might be expected as a correlation to that fact, the Pac-10 is also last among the six conferences in #1 seeds (12), S16s (36) and F4s (9). UCLA can’t do it all, folks!
Final Thoughts. UCLA has led the re-emergence of the Pac-10 conference as a basketball powerhouse the last several seasons, but turmoil among several previously consistent programs (Arizona, Stanford) has put the possibility of UCLA and the Nine Dwarves back into the conversation. One thing that we can be certain of is that Ben Howland will win and win big as long as he’s residing in Westwood. He hasn’t won a national title yet, but it seems a foregone conclusion that one of these years he’ll break through and win the brass ring. The rest of the Pac-10 is going to have to figure out a way to recruit on par with UCLA as well as perform in March before this league will be considered a national power again. We know that Pac-10 schools can attract star talent across the spectrum, but can they be coached up to taste national success?