Checking in on… the Pac-10

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 16th, 2010

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and Mountain West conferences.

A Look Back

  • Much like the rest of the country, this week in the Pac-10 was mighty slow as student-athletes focused on their schoolwork in anticipation of winter break. And, much like the rest of the Pac-10 season to date, the three challenging games on the schedule this week for Pac-10 institutions all went down as losses, as Arizona got destroyed by BYU, Washington continued its run of losing to quality competition in a loss to Texas A&M (a loss that also sealed the Pac-10’s fate in the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Challenge) and Cal dropped a nail-biter against Southern Mississippi. With just a couple more weeks of non-conference play remaining, the Pac-10 is in danger again of having few if any viable candidates for at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament.
  • Team of the Week: VACANT – Really. There’s not a team out there that did anything this week to earn any accolades. Who is this supposed to go to? USC for beating Northern Arizona? UCLA for unimpressive wins over Cal Poly and UC Davis? Stanford for not slipping up against UC Riverside and North Carolina A&T? Cal for only losing to Southern Miss by two? Nah. There’s just not a team in the conference that did anything worthwhile this week.
  • Player of the Week: E.J. Singler, Sophomore, Oregon – While Singler certainly owes a portion of this award to the fact that it was a light schedule around the conference, he did his fair share to outright win this honor as well. Kyle’s little brother averaged 16 points and 12 rebounds per game in leading his Ducks to a pair of easy wins over a couple teams with a combined record of 5-14, including Willamette of Division III, a game in which Singler went for 18/17 and three steals. So far this season, the versatile Singler is second on his team in scoring (13.1 PPG), and leads the team in rebounding (6.7 RPG), blocks (11 on the year) and threes (14-26 from deep), while putting in just a minute less than the team-leader in minutes, Joevan Catron.
  • Newcomer of the Week: Faisal Aden, Junior, Washington State – Aden has moved to the bench with point guard Reggie Moore now back from his wrist injury, but his production hasn’t slowed a whole lot. He added another 20-point game this week in WSU’s by-the-books win over Texas Pan-American, with a season-high seven rebounds and another four three-pointers along the way, and is presently averaging 18.3 points per outing while hitting at a rate of 49.6% from the field. Aden’s continued ability to providing a scoring punch off the bench makes the Cougars one of the top contenders for the conference crown.
  • Game of the Week: Texas A&M 63, Washington 62 – Another week, and another disappointing Pac-10 loss takes home our Game of the Week honors, this time the Huskies coming up short in their attempt to beat somebody – anybody – of consequence. Despite their perfect 16-16 night from the foul line and the Aggies’ imperfect night from deep (0-8 from three), the Huskies were outrebounded, outworked and outclassed by their Big 12 opponent. And yet, with time winding down, they still had a chance when Isaiah Thomas snuck up on Nathan Walkup in the open court and picked his pocket with six seconds left, then raced up court to the free throw line before running out of room and out of time. He forced a shot up as time expired into the waiting arms of Aggie junior David Loubeau who sent it back and, with it, sent the Huskies back to Seattle with three losses in their three attempts against top-tier opponents. Soon enough, all these Pac-10 teams will be playing each other, so we’ll have to choose a game in which a Pac-10 team leaves victorious.
  • Game of the Upcoming Week: USC at Kansas, 12/11, 9:00 AM PST, ESPN – While this would not normally be the type of game you would look down the schedule and circle, there are a couple of interesting debuts here that should have all college basketball fans – not just Pac-10 fans – very interested. For the Jayhawks, freshman guard Josh Selby will make his debut, while Trojan fans will get their first glimpse at their new point guard, Jio Fontan, a junior transfer from Fordham. While Selby’s unveiling will get the most attention, given that he was a McDonald’s All-American and one of the most highly regarded recruits in the nation this offseason, Kevin O’Neill and the Trojans are just as excited about Fontan. “He’s our best player,” O’Neill said. “He’s our best leader. He’s our best scorer. He’s our best defender. He’s our best passer. He’s our best guard. He’s our best player.” Whether he’ll be able to fit right in with the Trojans and move them beyond the up-and-down 6-4 squad we’ve seen so far remains to be seen, but O’Neill at least has some experience with getting midseason transfers to step in at point and change the look of his team, as Pat Gerrity did last season for USC. Last year, Gerrity stepped in about this time and led the Trojans to an improbable blowout win over then ninth-ranked Tennessee in his first game back. If Fontan can make anywhere near that type of splash in his first game back, the Trojans could head into Pac-10 play with postseason hopes.



Power Rankings

1. Washington State (7-1): Following this week’s Washington and Arizona losses, it is time to bump the Cougars up to the top spot in the league, even in a week where all they did was post a 22-point win over an outmanned Texas-Pan American squad. This is far from a perfect WSU team, but they’ve cleaned up some of their weaknesses from last season – namely, defensive efficiency – and even improved on their strengths. Last season, Klay Thompson started out the season on fire, ripping through the non-conference schedule with a barrage of shots from deep, but this season he has clearly returned as a more complete player. He’s added the ability to score off the dribble effectively, he’s become a much more effective passer (he has led the team in assists thus far, stepping in as the team’s playmaker as the incumbent point, Reggie Moore, sat out the first five games with a wrist injury), while still rebounding at a good rate (4.3 RPG). Throw in juco transfer Faisal Aden as a consistent offensive threat alongside Thompson, plus the return of Moore at point and frontcourt contributors like DeAngelo Casto and Marcus Capers, and the emergence of sophomore Brock Motum and freshman Patrick Simon and this is a solid WSU team that is not going anywhere once conference play kicks in.

Looking ahead: The Cougars travel to Santa Clara on Sunday before heading off to Honolulu for the Diamondhead Classic, where they’ll open against Mississippi State (with Renardo Sidney and Dee Bost) with a potential matchup with Baylor awaiting in the semis, assuming both squads advance.


2. Washington (6-3): It cannot be said enough, just how disappointing the Huskies have been thus far. Sure, KenPom loves them, still rating them as the sixth best team in the country and the seventh most efficient offense in the land, but even a slightly closer look reveals a team with some cracks. Sure, their three losses are to Kentucky, Michigan State and Texas A&M – all three teams that figure to be dancing come March – but in all three of those games, they were outrebounded (in the Kentucky and A&M games, severely). Worse yet, for a vaunted offensive team, they turned the ball over, didn’t shoot particularly well and were consistently slowed by their defensive-minded opponents. Then there’s Isaiah Thomas, the pint-sized point with the over-sized game. However, thus far he has struggled to take on his new role as the team’s go-to offensive player. In previous seasons he has been at best a secondary option for Lorenzo Romar, but now he needs to be the man for the team when the game is on the line, and thus far, he has been largely ineffective in the team’s three losses: a 13-point average on a combined 10-32 with 11 turnovers and nine assists. Certainly, the team’s three losses aren’t entirely on Thomas’ shoulders, but if he’s going to take over the role of team leader, he’ll need to be a lot more effective in their big games.

Looking ahead: A couple home games against San Francisco and Nevada round up the pre-conference slate (although the Huskies do have one more non-conference game with Seattle mixed in with their Pac-10 play) before the Washington schools visit the Los Angeles area in the last week of December to kick off the conference season.


3. UCLA (5-4): Following the Montana debacle, the Bruins got back on track this week with some ho-hum victories over UC Davis and Cal Poly at Pauley Pavilion. While names like Tyler Honeycutt, Reeves Nelson, Malcolm Lee and Joshua Smith (19 points and 12 rebounds against Cal Poly) jump off the box scores for UCLA, a closer look reveals signs of life from much-maligned point Jerime Anderson. Anderson handed out 11 assists against just one turnover while knocking down three of his seven three-point attempts in these two games and looked solid defensively. Clearly this means one of two things: either Anderson is starting to come around and, while he’ll probably never live up to his advance-billing as a highly-regarded recruit, is ready to make solid positive contributions for Ben Howland, or he’s more suited to play at the Big West level. Anderson’s taken enough abuse in his first two seasons as a Bruin, so in the spirit of finding that silver-lining for a hard-working kid, either one of those possibilities is an improvement for a guy who has struggled mightily living up to his expectations in Westwood.

Looking ahead: The last major test for the Bruins before conference play comes Saturday in the Wooden Classic against BYU. However, given their earlier experiences with overlooking Montana following a tough loss at Kansas, UCLA would do well to pay attention when Montana State comes calling on Tuesday.


4. Arizona (8-2): There’s no sense in beating around the bush: Arizona got completely destroyed by BYU in Salt Lake City on Saturday. A year after allowing Jimmer Fredette to go for 49 points at the McKale Center, the Wildcats were fortunate to hold the All-American candidate to a mere 33 points and nine assists in this year’s matchup. Perhaps more disturbing than their inability to reign in Fredette – a guy who few teams in the country have been able to control – was their own inability to get their All-American candidate, Derrick Williams, free. Williams was efficient against BYU, tallying 13 points on nine shots, but the Cougars denied him the ball and collapsed on him when he did touch it, forcing other ‘Cats to beat them. Sophomore point Momo Jones did his best, going for 20 points (on 7-11 shooting with four threes mixed in) in his best game of the season, but the rest of the team aside from Williams and Jones combined to make just nine of their 40 shots. At this, point the entirety of the Arizona resume is that they played Kansas sort of close on national television, losing by just eight. Sorry, but an eight-point loss as your best performance of the season doesn’t present major qualifications for a conference title, even in a weakened Pac-10.  

Looking ahead: The Wildcats host Northern Arizona in something called the Fiesta Bowl Basketball Classic on Thursday (even though the Fiesta Bowl is a football game, and one that won’t even be played for about two more weeks), then travel to Raleigh for a pretty tough roadie against North Carolina State.


5. USC (6-4): The Trojans have been the epitome of an up-and-down team so far. They won their first two against less-than-stellar completion, then dropped their next two against only slightly better teams. Two more unimpressive wins followed, backed up by even more unimpressive losses. The good Trojans have been back for the last two, the upset of Texas a couple weekends back and their dispatching of Northern Arizona this week, during which senior point guard Donte Smith caught absolute fire in the middle of the second half, scoring 14 straight points to offer a strong response to an NAU team that had cut a 12-point halftime lead to just three. Smith started his run by knocking down a three, then stole the ball on the defensive end and turned that into a breakaway layup, before wrapping up his outburst with three more threes to send the Trojans on their way to an eight-point win.  

Looking ahead: Given the Trojans two-up/two-down pattern, this week’s road trips to Kansas and Tennessee look even less promising, although maybe newly eligible point guard Jio Fontan will be able to break the USC streak.


6. Arizona State (4-4): The Sun Devils played just one game this week, a 71-48 thrashing of Gardner-Webb, but there are some signs that they might be on the verge of turning things around. While sophomore Trent Lockett and freshman Kyle Cain have been pretty solid contributors for Herb Sendek this season, the Devils’ trio of seniors (Ty Abbott, Rihards Kuksiks and Jamelle McMillan) have been disappointing. Not to read to much into a win over Gardner-Webb, but those three combined for 39 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists and nine threes in that win. Given that each of those guys has been a consistent contributor for the Devils over their time in Tempe, they might be ready to turn it on for conference play.

Looking ahead: The Sun Devils make a trip to Reno to face Nevada on Friday before returning home to host Long Beach State, a pair of games that should not be overlooked.


7. Cal (5-4): Three games into the season, Mike Montgomery looked like he was on the verge of pulling off something special in Berkeley. Despite losing four starters from last year’s Pac-10 champion, along with a host of other reserves to various maladies and defections, the Golden Bears opened with wins over CS Northridge, New Mexico and Temple, the last two on that list particularly impressive. Since then, the Bears have gone 2-4, scored five points in a half on one occasion and followed that up with a 15-point outburst in a half the next night out, and have lost twice by 20 or more. This week’s slip-up was quite a bit closer than that, as they lost at home to Southern Mississippi in a nail-biter, with the game undecided until a potential game-winning three by Jorge Gutierrez clanged off the heel at the buzzer. The Golden Eagles’ Gary Flowers scored the last 12 points for Southern Miss on his way to a game high 28, including the game-winner with three seconds left, but the game was really won on the glass as Cal was outrebounded 31-22 on the game and 11-1 on the offensive end, an unsettling stat given the Bears’ desire to rely on the toughness of their frontcourt duo of Harper Kamp and Markuri Sanders-Frison. One highlight for the Bears was junior Nigel Carter’s 16 points on 4-4 shooting from deep, matching his entire output from last season in one afternoon. Carter hasn’t exactly been a consistent scorer for the Bears this season (he has just 14 total points in the other eight Cal games), but after Sunday’s performance, he has made eight of his 11 three-point attempts on the season.

Looking ahead: Cal hosts Cal Poly on Saturday before being the last of four Pac-10 teams to get a crack at Kansas (at least in the regular season) this year.


8. Stanford (6-2): Stanford got its first action since the 76 Classic in this week, although the competition wasn’t exactly top-notch: UC Riverside and North Carolina A&T. Junior Jeremy Green led the way with nine three-pointers this week while averaging 20 points a night and junior Josh Owens stepped up as the likely candidate to be Green’s running mate this season, notching 14.5 points and nine rebounds per game this week and proving himself a good Mr. Inside to Green’s Mr. Outside. While Johnny Dawkins won’t learn a whole lot about his team against competition of this caliber, at least the Cardinal had a chance to get back out on the court and get the relatively unexperienced team used to playing with each other.  

Looking ahead: A significant bump up in the level of talent this week, as the Cardinal travel to Indianapolis for a meeting with Butler on Saturday before a Tuesday matchup with Oklahoma State in Stillwater.


9. Oregon (7-3): The Ducks continue to be rock solid under new head coach Dana Altman, generally beating the teams they are supposed to beat while giving solid efforts in their losses. This week the competition was meager (Willamette, a Division III school and Jacksonville State), but the Ducks took care of business with a great deal of maturity. Instead of sleepwalking through overmatched opponents, Oregon did exactly what they were supposed to do. They beat Willamette by 33 while dominating on the glass, then never trailed in the crisply-played game against Jacksonville State, handing out 20 assists on their 29 field goals. While I’ve still got Oregon down here near the bottom of the conference, this is a solid ninth-place team, a team that will not beat itself, that will give consistent effort on a nightly basis, and a team that will probably finish further up the standings despite the limitations of this roster.

Looking ahead: So far, the Ducks have played every game on their schedule within the friendly confines of the state of Oregon. That changes on Friday with a trip to Charlottesville to face Virginia, a significant test for a young Duck team. They return home on Tuesday to face Idaho at Mac Court.


10. Oregon State (4-5): I’m going to try to get through this Oregon State review without mentioning how bad this Beaver team is. Wait. Does that count? Oh well. The good news for the Beavers is that their savior has finally arrived. Highly regarded recruit Roberto Nelson has finally played his first game in a Beaver uniform, over 15 months since he first set foot on the campus as a student, after battling with the NCAA over academic eligibility issues. While his debut performance in the Beavers’ 20-point win over Texas-Pan American was underwhelming (15 minutes, four points, three turnovers), OSU fans got a glimpse of the type of talent that made him a top-100 recruit a couple years back, as Nelson scored 13 in a five-point loss at Montana. While he’s not going to turn this team into a contender overnight, he is a badly needed dash of talent on an otherwise very ordinary roster.

Looking ahead: George Washington and Illinois-Chicago visit Corvallis – two very winnable games for the Beavs.

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Checking in on… the Pac-10

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 9th, 2010

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.

Power Rankings

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.

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RTC Conference Primers: #6 – Pac-10

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 1st, 2010

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and Mountain West Conferences and an occasional contributor.

Predicted Order of Finish

  1. Washington (13-5)
  2. Arizona (12-6)
  3. UCLA (11-7)
  4. Washington State (10-8)
  5. Arizona State (10-8)
  6. Cal (9-9)
  7. USC (9-9)
  8. Stanford (6-12)
  9. Oregon State (6-12)
  10. Oregon (4-14)

All-Conference Team

  • G: Isaiah Thomas. Jr, Washington (16.9 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.2 APG)
  • G: Klay Thompson, Jr, Washington State (19.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG).
  • G: Jeremy Green, Jr, Stanford (16.6 PPG, 3.8 RPG)
  • F: Derrick Williams, Soph, Arizona (15.7 PPG, 7.1 RPG)
  • F: Nikola Vucevic, Jr, USC (10.7 PPG, 9.4 RPG)

6th Man

Ty Abbott, Sr, Arizona State (12.0 PPG, 4.4 RPG)

Impact Newcomer

Josh Smith, Fr, UCLA: Smith is the biggest incoming recruit in the conference, in more ways than one. Ranked the 20th-best recruit in the 2010 class according to ESPNU, Smith also tipped the scales at somewhere over three bills when he stepped onto the UCLA campus this summer. Immediately, head coach Ben Howland put him in a conditioning program and Smith changed his dietary habits as well, putting him on the road towards dropping 40 pounds already. Paired with his soft hands and quick feet, the trimmed-down Smith will play a vital role in the Bruins’ attempts to bounce back from last year’s brutal campaign.

UCLA’s Ben Howland is among several Pac-10 coaches looking to make the conference an NCAA Tournament threat again after a poor showing in 2009-10.

What You Need to Know

  • Pac-10 Blues: Last year, the Pac-10 was saved from the indignity of receiving only one NCAA Tournament berth when Washington won nine of their last 11 games of the regular season, then proceeded to win the Pac-10 Tournament to clinch the automatic berth. Together with regular season champion California, the Huskies represented the Pac-10 well, advancing to the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual Final Four team West Virginia, while the Golden Bears fell in the second round to eventual champion Duke. However, the Pac-10’s limited success in the tournament did little to hide the fact that last season was a down year across the conference, and with 11 of last year’s top 20 scorers, and nine of the top 20 rebounders gone, it doesn’t seem that the talent level across the conference is ready to skyrocket.
  • Stability and Youth: But, while there aren’t loads of household names up and down the rosters in the conference, there is some stability, as only Oregon welcomes a new head coach (Dana Altman, formerly of Creighton) and teams across the conference average a total of 3.2 returning starters. And there is plenty of youth, with just 17 seniors on rosters across the conference. Schools will need to see their youngsters step up quickly for the Pac-10 to improve upon last year’s showing. There is a bright side here, though. Even with five members of last year’s all-tournament team (all except the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, Isaiah Thomas) and six of the ten All-Pac-10 first team members having graduated, most teams around the conference, with the significant exception of Cal, return the majority of their production – eight of the ten conference schools return more than 50% of their scoring production, and nine of the ten return more than 50% of their rebounding production. If the kids around the conference can put some of that experience they earned last season to use, this could be a much-improved conference, as the veteran coaches around this conference have proven their ability to coach up their players. There are five coaches in the Pac-10 with more than 300 career wins, and that doesn’t even include some of the most respected young coaches in the land like Sean Miller and Lorenzo Romar. While the talent level seems to be down across the conference, expect this lineup of stellar coaches to get the most out of what they do have.
  • Last Roundup: This season marks the end of the Pac-10 conference. Next year the conference will welcome Colorado and Utah, officially becoming the Pac-12. In the process, plenty of tradition will be discarded: no more home-and-home round robin and the resultant crowning of a true regular season champion, the biggest change. There will be years where UCLA doesn’t visit McKale and Oregon won’t visit Hec Ed, for instance. But in the long run, the conference will add a Utah program that has had some significant success over the years (including a run to the national championship game in 1998) and a Colorado program that, well…hey, they made a Final Four in 1955, I’m told. In any event, come 2011-12, basketball season around the conference will have a different feel.

Predicted Champion

Washington (NCAA Seed: #5): The Huskies are pretty much the de facto favorite, given that last year’s regular season champion Cal lost about 85% of its scoring, but Lorenzo Romar’s team, despite having plenty of talent, still has some question marks. Not in question is the team leader, 5’8 junior point guard Isaiah Thomas, a dynamo who is the team’s leading returning scorer and an interesting personality. Paired in the backcourt with 6’0 senior Venoy Overton (8.5 PPG, 3.1 APG. 2.9 RPG), the duo are undersized but form an intimidating pair for opposing ballhandlers, with the quickness and aggressiveness to get up into their opponents, keeping the opposition from getting comfortable in the half-court set and forcing turnovers which the Huskies can use to jump-start their transition game. They can be overpowered by bigger guards in the half-court game, but use their quickness to good advantage defensively. On the offensive end, Thomas plays with a style that belies his stature, getting into the lane and drawing fouls or finishing in often spectacular ways. The Huskies also return sophomore guard Abdul Gaddy (3.9 PPG, 2.3 APG), the second-ranked point guard in the 2009 recruiting class, who struggled finding his rhythm in his rookie campaign. Should he get his swagger back and become a consistent offensive force for Washington, they could have one of the stronger backcourts in the nation, with junior Scott Suggs (4.7 PPG, 1.2 RPG) providing depth and a good long-range threat. However, up front the team still has something to prove, given the graduation of last year’s leading scorer Quincy Pondexter and the retirement from basketball over the summer of forward Tyrese Breshers due to medical issues. Matthew Bryan-Amaning (8.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG) and Justin Holiday (5.9 PPG, 4.5 RPG) figure to start at the forward spots, giving the Huskies an undersized but athletic starting five. Bryan-Amaning will need to prove himself capable of taking over Pondexter’s role, but all signs show that he is ready for that challenge, as he finished his junior season strong and was one of the big reasons for Washington’s improvement down the stretch. Depth up front will come from 6’8 junior scrapper Darnell Gant (2.5 PPG, 2.4 RPG), 7’0 transfer Aziz N’Diaye and 6’6 wing Terrence Ross, one of the conference’s most heralded newcomers, and a guy who could be an offensive weapon immediately for Romar, provided he can earn the minutes. In a conference where the talent level is presently in question, there is little doubt that the Huskies have plenty of talent. But they’d like to come out of the gates more quickly than they did last season and prove that they are ready to win on the road on a consistent basis, something they struggled with in 2009-10, when they lost their first seven games away from the Hec Ed. Odds are, they’ll be improved in that area due to an extra year of experience for their hyper-talented backcourt, but they’ll have a good early season test of that theory when they travel to the Maui Invitational during Thanksgiving week.

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