Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-10 conferences.
A Look Back
The big story in the Pac-10 last week was the battle between the prohibitive favorite in the conference, Washington, and its biggest supposed contender, Arizona. If you’ve followed this here series all year, you know that we haven’t really bought into the Wildcats as serious threats to the Huskies, but despite Washington’s 17-point win on Thursday night, Arizona did actually post what was, to me, by far their most impressive performance of the season on Saturday, when they followed up their disappointing loss with a tough road victory in Pullman over Washington State. While that one victory still doesn’t mean the ‘Cats are a serious threat to the Huskies, it does set up a battle this week between Arizona and UCLA, each 5-2 in the conference, for the inside track to the two-seed in the conference tournament come March. With this week wrapping up the first half of the conference season, this is a major battle. Elsewhere around the conference, Stanford looked awful in its road trip to Southern California, posting just a 30.5 effective field goal percentage on the weekend. Arizona State continued to look terrible, dropping a couple more games this week (they’re now 1-6 in conference play). And Oregon State continued its vacillating season with a come-from-ahead loss at home against in-state rival Oregon.
Team of the Week: Washington – Both the Huskies and UCLA posted 2-0 records on the week, but while the Bruins won their games in uninspiring fashion, the Huskies garnered the big win over Arizona, then added a tougher-than-expected win over Arizona State on Saturday. Isaiah Thomas continued to be just excellent in the role of point guard for Lorenzo Romar, posting another 18 assists this week, while he is still scoring in bunches (20.5 PPG this week), knocking down threes (three more this week), playing great pressure defense and keeping the high-octane Husky offense running smoothly. Matthew Bryan-Amaning also continued his hot play, averaging 24 PPG and 8 RPG this week.
Player of the Week: Isaiah Thomas, Junior, Washington – For the second week in a row, I’m dissing Derrick Williams and his spectacularly efficient numbers (19.5 PPG, 15 RPG this week and shooting a stunning 70% from three on the season, albeit on just 27 attempts – still amazing) in favor of the diminutive floor general in Seattle. In a 17-point win like the Arizona game on Thursday, it is hard to say that there is one play that determines the game. But, if there was that one play in that game, anyone who watched it knows what it is. With Washington clinging to a 56-50 lead, a Husky turnover led to an Arizona breakaway. Junior forward Darnell Gant hustled back to make a great block in transition, sending the ball towards the corner of the court, seemingly headed out of bounds. But Thomas didn’t stop, went hurtling head-first after the ball and was able to save the ball to teammate Aziz N’Diaye in bounds. After Thomas regained his footing, N’Diaye got the ball back to the Huskies’ leader who brought the ball back up court, drove into the meat of the Wildcat defense and was able to kick it out to an open Gant for a three-pointer, completing a five-point swing. From there, the Huskies slowly put the game away, sparked by the great hustle by both Gant and Thomas. That play, along with several others, prompted Arizona head coach Sean Miller to say the following about Thomas: “Isaiah Thomas, it’s not even close, there’s not one player in the country who’s more disrespected across the nation than him. Not one. It’s not even close. If he’s not one of the top four or five point guards in the country, then I’m going to tell you I want to invite these guys who vote to come and watch film.”
Newcomer of the Week: Lazeric Jones, Junior, UCLA – It was not a pretty week for the Bruins. Freshman center Josh Smith went down midway through the Cal game with a concussion and did not return the rest of the weekend. Sophomore forward Reeves Nelson struggled with foul trouble on Saturday, while junior guard Malcolm Lee fouled out early on Thursday night. And in both cases, the Bruins were awful lucky to have Jones, a junior college transfer, along to bail them out. On Thursday against Cal, the Bruins seemingly had the game under control late, with a comfortable lead. But when Lee fouled out, Cal freshman Allen Crabbe went wild, scoring 13 of his 17 points once his defensive shadow had been disqualified and getting the Bears right back into a tie game. But Jones kept the Bruins steady, knocking down eight of his ten free throws down the stretch on his way to a career-high 24 points. On Saturday, Jones added another 17 important points for a Bruin team lacking its normal big production from their frontcourt. And on the season, Jones is now averaging 11.5 PPG (including 16.5 PPG in his last four), 3.1 APG and a solid 1.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Game of the Week: Arizona 65, Washington State 63 – In a game that both teams considered very important to their postseason hopes, the Wildcats escaped from their Washington trip with a split when Klay Thompson’s clean look in the lane came up short and Faisal Aden was unable to get up a second shot before the buzzer sounded after securing the offensive rebound. Derrick Williams led the ‘Cats with 17 points and 19 rebounds, while WSU’s two top scorers, Thompson and Aden, struggled all night, combining to hit just six of their 23 field goal attempts and just two of their ten attempts from beyond the arc. Arizona’s Jamelle Horne, the lone senior on either roster, was the hero for the second time in four games, knocking down two big threes around the two-minute mark to extend a 56-55 Zona lead to a 62-57 game. From there, Washington State took advantage of some missed Arizona free throws, including two misses by Kyle Fogg with 15 seconds left, to get back within striking range, but Thompson’s miss at the end left WSU back at .500 in the conference.
Game of the Upcoming Week: UCLA (13-6, 5-2) at Arizona (16-4, 5-2), 1/27, 6PM PST, ESPN2 – There was a time in the recent past, where this game between these schools would go a long way towards deciding the eventual regular season champion. While both schools have struggled through some downturns of late, this rivalry is back on the map and the winner of this game remains just one game back of Washington in the conference. Josh Smith is expected back from a concussion for UCLA, but the biggest question for Ben Howland is how to slow Williams. Nelson will likely take much of that responsibility (with additional eyeballs on Williams at all times), but he has found himself mired in game-long foul trouble twice in the past two weeks, and the Bruins will need him to contribute offensively to have a chance to get the road win. For the Wildcats, they’re still waiting for a consistent second option to arise alongside Williams, to no avail yet. Horne has hit some big shots recently, but has failed to secure his head coach’s complete trust. Momo Jones has scored in double figures the last two times out, but he’s seemingly just as often a liability as an asset. And Solomon Hill, the ‘Cats second leading scorer on the season at 8.5 PPG, is more suited to the role of garbage man than as a go-to offensive player. So far, riding Williams has worked out just fine, but Miller may need to have somebody else step up in this game to secure this win.
1. Washington (15-4, 7-1): In the last three games, head coach Lorenzo Romar has gone with junior Scott Suggs in the starting lineup, choosing to bring the energy of Venoy Overton off of the bench, and Suggs has produced four threes in those games. In the first two games as a starter, a sole three-pointer seemed to be the only production that Suggs contributed, but in the Arizona State game on Saturday, he knocked down two key second-half threes to help propel the Huskies to victory. With Thomas, Bryan-Amaning and Justin Holiday established offensive weapons, Romar just needs Suggs to provide the three-point threat and some solid defense in his minutes on the floor, but with gunners like C.J. Wilcox and Terrence Ross waiting in reserve, Suggs had better keep knocking down the threes in order to retain his starting job.
Looking ahead: The Huskies travel to Pullman on Sunday for a game that the Cougars are going to be very interested in winning. An in-state rival coming calling on a team who has not yet lived up to their lofty expectations for themselves? Yeah, the Huskies better be ready for a street fight on Sunday.
2. Arizona (16-4, 5-2): We’ve detailed Arizona’s visit to the Washington schools above, so let’s just take a look at their NCAA Tournament resume to this point. They’ve played four teams in Ken Pomeroy’s top 70 teams in the nation, and their win at Washington State on Saturday was their first positive outcome. In the three losses (to Kansas, BYU and Washington), they’ve lost by an average of over 15 points per contest. Aside from the WSU win, their best result was a road win over an underachieving NC State team that was missing its best player. Beyond that, a couple of ugly home wins against the Bay Area schools are the best thing they’ve got going. Sure, “16-4” looks real good, but upon closer inspection, there is just not a lot of meat on the bones of the Arizona resume, to the point where it is possible they’ll need some more appealing wins in the conference schedule in order to secure an at-large bid.
Looking ahead: This week’s homestand against the Los Angeles schools is a good place to start. Hosting UCLA on Thursday and USC on Saturday gives the Wildcats to pick up a couple more wins over KenPom’s top 70 teams.
3. UCLA (13-6, 5-2): The good news for the Bruins is that they posted a couple wins and overcame some adversity in order to do so; the fact that neither game was anywhere near a work of art is beside the point. Against Cal on Thursday, they blew a 14-point lead in a game that was seemingly in hand and had to get a spectacular tip-in by Nelson at the buzzer to avoid overtime. Then, against Stanford on Saturday, they got off to a terrible start, building up their own 14-point deficit early before turning it on late in the first half to get back to within one at the break and then skating through the second half to an 11-point win. While the defense has at times looked very much like a typically stout Howland defense, unfortunately the offense has looked very much like a stagnant Howland offense, a concerning development considering the offensive talent on the roster.
Looking ahead: To this point in the season, the Bruins have done very little to prove to their fans that the ’10-’11 version of the team is significantly different than the ’09-’10 version. On Thursday, they’ll have a good chance to change that perception. But given that they have a history of letting down after a big game, they’d be wise to make sure they don’t take Arizona State lightly on Saturday.
4. Washington State (14-6, 4-4): This was the week for the Cougars to get right back in the mix at the top of the conference. The schedule set up perfectly, with Arizona State coming in on Thursday and Arizona – off of its big battle with Washington – showing up on Saturday. But while they took care of business on the front end, cold shooting from their stars doomed them against the Wildcats. Thompson’s shooting percentage took a significant dip during last year’s conference play, but there is a major difference this year: he’s still able to contribute in other areas when his shot isn’t falling. Against Arizona, he hit just four of his 16 shots, but at least he was able to contribute team highs with eight rebounds and seven assists. But given that Thompson’s scoring is such a focal point of the Coug offense, what will be remembered from that game is his missed shots, and specifically, the final missed shot.
Looking ahead: The Cougs host Washington on Sunday to wrap up the front-end of the Pac-10 conference schedule. For Ken Bone’s club to hold any hopes of competing for a conference title, this is a game they absolutely have to have.
5. USC (11-9, 3-4): Following their lost weekend in Oregon, the Trojans came out strong against Stanford on Thursday and just demolished them. They held the Cardinal to a 24.6 effective field goal percentage on the way to a 23-point victory. Relying on defense, slowing the tempo down on offense, and getting offense from Nikola Vucevic and Jio Fontan, USC looked every bit the part of the upper division Pac-10 team that they occasionally pretend to be. Against Cal on Saturday, it was back to the bad Trojans again, however. Outside of senior guard Donte Smith going absolutely bonkers from deep (eight of 11 threes for a career-high 24 points), the offense was non-existent. The Trojans defended well enough to still have a shot at the win on the final shot of the game, but the Fontan three at the buzzer came up short, a perfectly emblematic offensive possession for the Trojans.
Looking ahead: The Trojans will need to win both of their games in Arizona this week (ASU on Thursday, Arizona on Saturday), in order to complete the first lap of conference play above .500.
6. Cal (10-9, 3-4): Really, a two-point win and a two-point loss for a split on the Southern California road trip, that’s a perfectly defensible result. But the fact that the Golden Bears rallied from a 14-point second half deficit against UCLA and scored 23 points in the final 3:20 to get back to even for the first time since the score was tied at 6-6, then lost on a offensive rebound putback at the buzzer, had to be particularly heartbreaking. The flip side of that is that head coach Mike Montgomery was able to get his team to rebound from that crushing defeat with a fine performance against USC on Saturday is a credit to his coaching ability. Freshman Allen Crabbe continued his hot streak, averaging 14.5 PPG this week and has now hit double figures in six straight games, while junior forward Harper Kamp led the team in scoring in both games, averaging 20 points per contest and bumping his streak of double-digit scoring to eight games.
Looking ahead: The Bears host the Oregon schools this week, and given the way the Pac-10 has played out thus far, no one really knows what to expect in those games.
7. Stanford (10-8, 3-4): With the Cardinal’s two losses in Southern California this week, the team is now 1-5 in true road games this season and 1-2 in neutral site games. Those two wins? Over Arizona State and DePaul, and everybody beats Arizona State and DePaul. For a team with no real veteran point guard and a lot of freshmen counted on for serious contributions off the bench, struggling away from home is not an unheard of proposition, but the way Stanford struggled this week was particularly ugly. In the two games in the LA area, the Cardinal had a combined effective field goal percentage of 30.5%. Against USC, their traditional field goal percentage was 22.2%, their lowest total since the adoption of the 35-second shot-clock. Basically, this Cardinal team is a historically bad offensive team. Johnny Dawkins does have a commitment from class of ’11 recruit Chasson Randle, and he may be able to start at the point from his first day on campus. If he can turn into a playmaking point, the Cardinal could have quite a few nice pieces around him next year, with Jeremy Green and Josh Owens as seniors and youngsters like Dwight Powell, Aaron Bright and Anthony Brown with a year of experience under their belt.
Looking ahead: The Oregon schools come to Maples this week, so the Cardinal have a good shot at getting over .500 this week.
8. Oregon State (8-10, 3-4): Let’s start by saying that these last three teams in the conference are all a jumble. I’m putting OSU 8th based on talent and, you know, a better record, but this is a team that just got done losing at home to Oregon, arguably the least talented team in the conference (and really, there isn’t even much of an argument). While the Beavers have the type of talent that has their fans dreaming of competing for a conference title, those talented players are still awful young and inexperienced. Guys like sophomore Jared Cunningham and freshman Roberto Nelson have shown tantalizing touches of incredible ability, but in the game with the Ducks, those two combined to make just seven of their 21 field goal attempts and Nelson in particular needs to tighten up his shot selection considerably. Also of news this week was Nelson starting ahead of senior Calvin Haynes for the second straight game. It had been thought that the true changing of the guard wouldn’t take place until after the season, but it looks like Craig Robinson will be using the remainder of the season to get experience for his youngsters. While that is a perfectly cromulent decision, it is a shame to see a senior of Haynes’ ability and unselfishness lose minutes down the stretch of his senior year.
Looking ahead: The Beavers travel to Cal on Thursday, then to Stanford on Saturday, and the way they’re playing right now, anything is possible.
9. Oregon (9-10, 2-5): I don’t think it is doing a disservice to the guys on the Oregon roster to say that this is not an overly talented bunch. There aren’t any five-star recruits on this roster; I don’t think there are even any four-star guys here. But, so far this season they’ve played Missouri to a standstill, knocked off USC (a top-50 team according to Ken Pomeroy), and just this week knocked off intra-state rival Oregon State. You generally don’t give Coach of the Year consideration to a guy whose team is 9-10 on the year (with the majority of those nine wins against the dregs of Division I), but it cannot be repeated enough how great of a job head coach Dana Altman has done with these Ducks. This is an undersized, under-talented team that has had to deal with offseason defections, in-season injuries and more talented opposition, but Oregon has continued to scrap, Altman has begun rebuilding the talent base on the recruiting trail, and Duck fans have to be optimistic about the future of the program
Looking ahead: The Ducks travel to Stanford and Cal this week, and while road wins are not likely, given how hard this team competes, the Bay Area schools will be in for a fight.
10. Arizona State (9-10, 1-6): In the interest of remaining positive, wow, has Ty Abbott been on fire from deep lately. He’s had 22 threes in the last five ASU games, averaging 18.6 points per game over that stretch. Unfortunately, the only Sun Devil win over those five games was a non-conference win over Tulsa. ASU’s sole win in conference play was a road win in the final game at Mac Court. Really, this collapse is almost inexplicable. The Sun Devils have as much talent on board as any of the five teams at the bottom of this conference, and they’ve got something that no other team in the conference can boast: three experienced seniors. While Abbott has been excellent of late, as a whole the senior class has had a very disappointing year, and as the old saw goes, “you’re only as good as your seniors.”
Looking ahead: The Devils welcome USC and UCLA into Tempe this week, and while they’ll be underdogs in both games, there is no good reason this team can’t be competitive in both of these games.