Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist at Rush the Court.
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“Banner season” probably isn’t the first phrase that comes to mind when describing the Pac-10 in 2009-10. Much bandied about as a potential one-bid league until Washington peaked in March with a conference tournament run, the Pac-10 was largely kicked to the curb as an inferior of their fellow BCS brethren. A mass exodus of high draft picks coupled with down spirals for normally contending programs resulted in only California vying for a spot in each Monday’s national rankings last season. Bad news for Pac-10 diehards searching for a comeback as soon as this winter: six of the ten All Pac-10 first team members are gone. Regular season champion Cal lost their top four scorers. Powerhouses UCLA and Arizona are not back to elite status yet. The prized incoming freshman changed his mind and bolted for Kentucky. While a conference as proud as the Pac-10 will surely reclaim its glory sooner than later (especially if a raiding of the Big 12 is inevitable), fans may have to hold off on these wishes another season. Still, intrigue does exist. Many feel that Washington is the clear favorite, but there’s question marks abound from that point on, making for what should be an unpredictable Pac-10 slate.
1. Klay Thompson, Washington State- Thompson heads into his junior season as many experts’ preseason pick for conference player of the year. A high volume scorer blessed with a picture perfect jumper, Thompson delivered to the tune of nearly 20 PPG and 17 20+ point performances. Forced into carrying his team on the scoreboard for long stretches- only Stanford’s Landry Fields utilized more of his teams’ possessions- was the only reason Thompson’s shooting percentages dipped a bit last season. He’s also an ace from the charity stripe and his excellent court vision goes unnoticed at times. Thompson could turn into the Evan Turner of the West Coast by season’s end in terms of his versatility, ball-handling and ability to play multiple positions while filling up the stat sheet. Adding some bulk, improving toughness and shaking off a late-season shooting slide are the only areas of improvement that jump out when it comes to this special talent.
2. Isaiah Thomas, Washington- The diminutive Thomas was expected to make a gigantic leap and lead Washington to a year-long stay atop the conference standings last season. Part of the reason Thomas’ sophomore campaign was labeled a disappointment by some when February rolled around was largely due to the expectations he established as a freshman. Luckily for the purple-clad UW fans in Seattle, Thomas played his best basketball late, scoring in double digits in his last 12 games, averaging less than two turnovers per game in his last seven contests and helping lead Washington to a surprising Sweet 16. Thomas isn’t a pinpoint shooter and he’s always been more of a scorer than point guard, but there are only a handful of players in the nation that play with more energy and toughness than the 5’9 Tacoma native. He’s fearless driving to the rim, has a strong frame for his size and the athleticism is jaw-dropping. Expect first team all-conference honors for Thomas as a junior.
3. Derrick Williams, Arizona- A freshman revelation for Sean Miller in his first season at the helm, the former USC commit established himself with an early 25/8 against Wisconsin in Maui and never looked back. Williams went on to surpass even the loftiest expectations as the conference’s rookie of the year: a 16/7 average, double digit scoring in all but three games and top-100 season nationally in true shooting percentage and effective FG%. Williams is a 6’8 versatile forward that lived at the free throw line, shooting 232 free throws last season. Developing his mid-range jumper even further would help disguise suspect athleticism, but Williams’ strengths has piqued the interest of NBA evaluators and the potential is there to lead the Pac-10 in scoring as a sophomore. His role will only expand with senior Nic Wise exhausting his eligibility.
4. Jeremy Green, Stanford- Last season was the Landry Fields & Jeremy Green show for Johnny Dawkins and his Cardinal, two all-conference players that combined for almost 39 PPG and kept the team afloat. With Fields drafted by the New York Knicks, the onus now falls on Green and a duo of talented freshmen to boost Stanford towards the upper portion of the Pac-10 standings. Green improved mightily as a sophomore, more than doubling his scoring average and playing an effective second fiddle to Fields. His ten 20+ point games and establishing the single season Stanford record for threes were strong enough to earn second team all-conference accolades. There’s little doubt Green has the capability to score 20+ PPG as Fields accomplished, it’s other facets of his game that must improve- namely getting to the free throw line at a higher rate and improving extraordinarily low assist totals- in order for Stanford to climb out of the Pac-10 basement.
5. Malcolm Lee, UCLA- Lee is the player who I feel could make the biggest leap this season and finally tap into that potential that has scouts pegging him as a future first round selection. Thrust into directing the Bruin offense after Jerime Anderson flopped, Lee was learning on the fly and a disappointing overall campaign for UCLA masked some considerable steps forward for the jet-quick sophomore. There are flashes where it rings clear Lee can develop as a steady point guard, but the turnovers still can come in bunches and, although Lee loves to run in transition, his proficiency in half-court sets certainly needs work. His 6’5 frame will allow Ben Howland to play Lee at either guard position and he’s displayed a propensity to defend either 1’s or 2’s at the college level. It’s asking a great deal, but refine a questionable jumper while continuing to progress directing traffic and Lee could be the most improved player in this conference.