Andrew Murara is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference and the Pac-10.
A Look Back
After a disappointing season last year when the conference needed a late Washington rally to qualify just two teams to the NCAA Tournament, the Pac-10 was looking to get off to a faster start this season, but with early results in, the reviews are definitely a mixed bag. While four of the conference teams remain undefeated, conference favorite Washington limped home to a 4th place finish in the Maui Invitational and the bottom of the conference is littered with embarrassing losses, such as USC losing at home by 20 to Rider and Oregon State dropping games to Seattle and Texas Southern. While the Bay Area schools have had some strong performances and Arizona and UCLA have looked solid in the early going, the questions about the overall strength of the Pac-10 remain unanswered.
Team of the Week
Stanford – The Cardinal’s best win thus far is a 21-point drubbing of an underwhelming Virginia squad, but Johnny Dawkins’ crew wins this week mention not so much because of the quality of their opponents, but the ease with which the Cardinal have handled them. Stanford sandwiched the Virginia game with a 16-point win over San Diego in their opener and a 43-point victory over Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and in the process they have had seven players score in double figures at least once, have had different rebound and assist leaders in each game and have consistently controlled the boards. While Dawkins and company still have a ways to go to match the success that Mike Montgomery and Trent Johnson (in his brief tenure) had on the farm, given their talented youngsters and early success, the Cardinal certainly appear on their way.
Player of the Week
Derrick Williams (Sophomore), Arizona – Williams has led the Wildcats in scoring in each of their four victories this season and in rebounding on three occasions on his way to a 19.3 scoring average and 8.3 rebounds per contest early on, while converting on a whopping 74.3 percent of his attempts from the field. While the ‘Cats haven’t played their typically brutal non-conference schedule to this point, Williams had his best performance in Arizona’s second game when he went for 27 points and 14 rebounds, six of which came on the offensive end, in a 26-point win over the Aggies. Things get tougher for Sean Miller’s team this week, with a neutral-site matchup with Kansas in Las Vegas on Saturday, and if Williams can keep on his roll, the Wildcats could give the Jayhawks a good run.
Newcomer of the Week
Faisal Aden (Junior), Washington State – With sophomore point guard Reggie Moore sidelined for the Cougars’ first three games due to a wrist injury, Aden, a junior college transfer who is originally from Somalia, got a chance to step into the starting lineup and made the most of his opportunity, leading Washington State in scoring in each of their first two games and pouring in 21.7 points per game in their first three games. While Moore is currently day-to-day and could be back as soon as Friday against Fresno State, Aden has definitely staked his claim as a key contributor to this Coug offense and a potential second scoring threat to take some of the pressure off of junior wing Klay Thompson.
Game of the Week
Kentucky 74, Washington 67 – While clearly not the score that Pac-10 fans want to see as their game of the week, this outcome sums up the state of the conference. All offseason, the Huskies were pointing towards this game as a chance to make a statement on a big stage and as a chance for some type of revenge against Kentucky and their freshman Terrence Jones for his change of heart after originally committing to Washington. So, the Huskies come out revved up and riding their momentum rip off a big huge run right out of the starting gate, well, right up until Kentucky coach John Calipari called a timeout to stop that short at 4-0, that is. A 20-2 Kentucky run later and the Huskies had to spend the rest of the first half scrapping back to even. Then, down the stretch, it was the youngsters of Kentucky who had the most poise. Washington senior defensive specialist Venoy Overton struggled with cramps and was unable to stop Wildcat freshman Brandon Knight, and junior guard Isaiah Thomas struggled to score throughout the night, finishing just 4-14 from the field, 0-4 from three and 5-10 from the line as the Huskies missed a big chance to score an early signature win.
Game of the Upcoming Week
Arizona vs. Kansas in Las Vegas, 7:30 PM PST, ESPN2 – Arizona’s first big test of the season against a BCS conference opponent, and it is a big one as they face the Jayhawks in the centerpiece game of the Las Vegas Invitational. The ‘Cats dodge a bullet in facing Kansas without the services of freshman guard Josh Selby, but they’ll still have their hands full with the Morris twins who have been dominating up front with 30 points and 17 rebounds a night between them and junior guard Tyshawn Taylor who has taken over the Kansas point guard position without missing a beat. Arizona will need Derrick Williams to continue his excellent play and guards Kyle Fogg and Momo Jones to lend a hand in order to spring the Saturday night special in Vegas.
1. Washington (3-2): Sure, the Huskies have as many losses as any team in the conference, but given that those two losses have come in relatively tight games against top 10 teams, the Huskies are still the top dog in the Pac-10. Isaiah Thomas has shot poorly in both Washington losses (shooting a combined 8-25 from the field), and Lorenzo Romar’s team has yet to iron out their roles and rotation. One of the bright spots early for the Huskies has been the play of junior college transfer Aziz N’diaye who has shown the ability to block shots and rebound with the best of them, swatting five against Kentucky and pulling down double-digit rebounds twice in limited minutes early. Freshman guard C.J. Wilcox has also impressed with his sharpshooting, knocking down ten of his 19 three-point attempts thus far. Once the guards settle into their roles and typically excellent performance, the Huskies will be as tough to beat as ever.
Looking Ahead: Things quiet down significantly for the Huskies, with just a visit from Long Beach State on Tuesday before a visit from Texas Tech on 12/4.
2. Arizona (4-0): Sean Miller has used the Wildcats relatively light early season schedule to get a look at a variety of players on his squad. In the season-opening 48-point win over Idaho State, 15 Wildcat players saw time, and in their first four games, ten different players have averaged at least 12 points per game. When your average margin of victory is 32.5 points, you have that luxury, but with a higher caliber of opponent on the horizon, expect that rotation to tighten up a bit. Of the new faces on the Wildcat roster, it has been Jordin Mayes who has made the biggest contribution in relief of starting point Momo Jones, averaging seven points and two assists while knocking down five of his 11 three-point attempts in 16 minutes per night.
Looking Ahead: The Wildcats head to the Las Vegas Invitational for matchups with Santa Clara and Kansas on back-to-back nights before heading to Houston to face Rice next Wednesday.
3. UCLA (3-1): After four games, the difference between this year’s Bruin team and last year’s edition is pretty evident. To begin with, the addition of junior college transfer Lazeric Jones as the team’s starting point guard improves that position, not to the point where it is a strength, but at least to the point where it is not an Achilles’ heel. Up front, sophomores Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt are more comfortable and are starting to make plays, with the two finishing first and second, respectively, in points scored in each of UCLA’s first three games. But it was the fourth game, UCLA’s NIT Season Tip-Off semifinal matchup with Villanova, that really showed where Ben Howland’s club is at this point. Last year at this time, the Bruins had already lost to Cal State Fullerton and were about to get embarrassed by Portland and Long Beach State. This year, the Bruins hung tight with one of the best teams in the country for most of the game, only to run out of steam against a more talented, more physical, and more experienced opponent. While this by no means is a great UCLA team, they’ve got the ship pointed in the right direction and should be a strong contender for an NCAA Tournament berth.
Looking Ahead: The Bruins will wrap up their NIT play with a consolation game against VCU before heading back home for a few days to get ready for a road trip to Lawrence for another matchup with a highly-touted opponent, Kansas.
4. Washington State (3-0): The Cougars are yet another undefeated Pac-10 team without a really impressive victory on their resume yet. Their best win came over Portland (4-2) in Seattle on Tuesday when Klay Thompson exploded for 35 points, including WSU’s first nine en route to a 24-4 run to open the game. Thompson has averaged 24.3 points per game, but has also chipped in 5.3 rebounds per game and six assists a night in the absence of starting point guard Reggie Moore. Thompson and Faisal Aden, my Pac-10 Newcomer of the Week, have averaged 46 points per game between them and are the only two players on the squad to average double digits thus far.
Looking Ahead: The Cougars travel to Fresno State for their first true road test of the year on Friday, then return home for a relative breather with Sacramento State as a warm-up for hosting Kansas State in the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series on December 3.
5. Cal (3-0): The Golden Bears have what is arguably the best win by a Pac-10 team of the new season, a 25-point blowout of New Mexico on Saturday. Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp have been the biggest producers for a revamped Golden Bear team that lost four starters from last season’s regular season Pac-10 champion. Gutierrez has done a little bit of everything for the Bears, averaging 19 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.5 steals and a three per game, while Kamp has returned from a medical redshirt year to lead a bruising Cal frontline with 18.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per night. Of the highly regarded five-man freshman class, guard Gary Franklin has been the most comfortable early, adding 16 points (including four threes) and four assists in the New Mexico victory.
Looking Ahead: Cal competes in the Old Spice Classic this Thanksgiving weekend, with a good opening round battle with Temple followed by a matchup with either Georgia or Notre Dame on Friday.
6. Stanford (3-0): The Cardinal may be our team of the week, but they’ve still got a lot to prove before they start skyrocketing up our rankings. In the early going, they look solid, getting production from go-to scorer Jeremy Green when possible (he had 21 in each of the Cardinal’s last two games), but not forcing the issue when their opponents attempt to take him away. In the opener against San Diego, the Torreros ran a lot of defenders at Green, holding him to just one field goal on seven attempts and forcing him to give up the ball time and again. However, in his stead, Johnny Dawkins had players like junior forward Andrew Zimmerman and sophomore guard Gabriel Harris step up. Zimmerman had 14 in the opener (and added 12 in the next game) while Harris knocked down a couple of open threes on the way to 12 for the game. Stanford has also had multiple freshmen contribute, with 6’10 center Dwight Powell most prone to spectacular plays from time to time. Aside from Powell, point guard Aaron Bright, wing Anthony Brown and forward Josh Huestis and Stefan Nastic have all made positive contributions, giving this Cardinal team plenty of exciting upside.
Looking Ahead: The Cardinal get their chance to prove that they are for real in a big way this weekend at the 76 Classic. They’ll open with one of last year’s Cinderellas in Murray State, then get a crack at either UNLV or Tulsa in round two.
7. Arizona State (1-1): The Sun Devils didn’t have the scheduling fortune to open with the cupcakes that so many of their conference brethren did, and they got bit. They opened with a tough road trip to The Pit to face New Mexico, a scary proposition even for a group of seasoned veterans, but this young ASU team suffered from lapses, most evident during a 20-0 first half Lobo run, and despite some spectacular play by sophomore wing Trent Lockett – 22 points and eight rebounds – they just didn’t hit their shots, shooting poorly from three (5-21) and from the line (13-23), leading to a 14-point loss. Lockett has been strong in both Sun Devil games, averaging 20.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and three assists. However, the senior trio of Ty Abbott, Jamelle McMillan and Rihards Kuksiks has been inconsistent at best thus far, with Kuksiks particularly absent (5.0 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 30.8% FG). While it would be no surprise to see the explosive Lockett lead the team throughout the year, he’ll need help from that senior class for the Devils to compete for a postseason berth.
Looking Ahead: The Sun Devils look to heat up in the great white north, as they head to the greatly diminished Great Alaskan Shootout, where the most interesting possible opponent would be St. John’s.
8. Oregon (4-1): The mere fact that head coach Dana Altman has this ragtag bunch of Ducks considered to be something other than the worst team in the Pac-10 is a testament to his coaching ability. After a nightmare of an offseason during which four players transferred out of the program, and another left in the shadow of NCAA investigations, what is left is a severely undersized team with 6’6 senior forward Joevan Catron, coming off of a medical redshirt year, considered the team’s big man, and with E.J. Singler, who is more suited to a wing position asked to assume a role close to that of power forward. And, most impressively, both players have looked good in doing so. Catron led the team in scoring in each of their first four games, averaging 21.8 point in those games, while Singler has added 11.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per outing. And while the Ducks have escaped with close wins over UC Santa Barbara and North Dakota State, their only blemish is a loss to undefeated San Jose State on a late three-point play. While these Ducks probably don’t have the firepower to really compete this year in the Pac-10, fans in Eugene have to be pleased with the direction Altman has this program going.
Looking Ahead: Okay, all those good and happy thoughts above? Yeah, well, table those for a week. Duke rolls into Portland for a Singler family reunion that is likely to have all the brotherly affection of Cain and Abel. And after the Ducks deal with the best team in the nation on a neutral court, they head back home to welcome Missouri. Yikes.
9. USC (4-2): Two games into the season, things were looking good for Kevin O’Neill and his Trojans. Junior Nikola Vucevic was continuing the strong play of his sophomore campaign and taking over a leadership position, senior forward Alex Stepheson was doing the dirty work with zeal and freshman Bryce Jones and Maurice Jones (unrelated) were doing some heavy lifting offensively. Then Rider rolled into town as part of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off event and laid a whooping on the Trojans in front of their home crowd, 77-57, as Rider’s Justin Robinson led the Broncs with 28 points on an absurd 9-10 from the field, while making all five of his three-point attempts and all five of his free throws. And the rest of his team wasn’t too bad either, torching the USC defense with 60.7% shooting from the field and making 12 of their 19 three-point attempts. A few nights later, a good Bradley team got the better of the Trojans in Springfield, Massachusetts, before SC was able to bounce back with victories over New Mexico State and Cal State Fullerton. Despite what Rider did to the Trojans, they still have had a very efficient defensive performance early in the season, and with Fordham transfer Jio Fontan becoming eligible in mid-December, all is not lost for this Trojan team. If Vucevic keeps up his strong early play (17.8 PPG, 11.3 RPG) and the freshmen continue to improve, this team should be rounding into excellent shape just in time for conference play.
Looking Ahead: A couple road games against beatable teams for the Trojans, although I’m thinking that these games would be far more appealing on the gridiron than on the hardwood: USC at Nebraska on Saturday, then USC at TCU on Monday.
10. Oregon State (2-2): Well, I guess there’s a bright side here. Last season Oregon State welcomed Seattle, a Division I Independent, into Corvallis and head coach Cameron Dollar and his team drilled the Beavers by 51 points. This year Oregon State repaid Seattle’s kindness with a trip to their place and only lost by three. So, the Beavers are a lot better this year, right? In fact, Oregon State had the powerful Redhawks on the ropes midway through the second half, the scrappy Beavs up 10 with just 10 to play, before the inevitable happened and Seattle turned on the juice and pulled away with a 20-5 run. Oregon State made one final stand, and actually had a chance to send the game to overtime, but senior Calvin Haynes had the ball knocked out of his hands before he could attempt the game-tying three. What a wonderful victory it could have been for the David from small-town Corvallis to storm into Goliath’s lair in big-city Seattle and slay the might giant, but it was not to be. The sad part is, that’s probably not the worst loss for the Beavers this season, as a few nights later, they lost at home to Texas Southern, a team that Oregon drilled by 23. It’s going to be a long season for Craig Robinson. It’s a good thing he’s got friends in high places.
Looking Ahead: The Beavers head to Washington, D.C. for a matchup with Howard. Hopefully the Beavers can beat Howard. I mean, he’s just one guy, right?