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Pre-Game: Arizona vs. USC

Posted by naterb on February 12, 2009

Jamelle Horne and Russ Pennell hope for a redemptive win tonight against USC

Jamelle Horne and Russ Pennell hope for a redemptive win tonight against USC

One of the greatest things about PAC-10 basketball is teams get a chance to try and make amends for the “what-ifs” that often go hand-in-hand with one-point losses. Arizona will get such a chance tonight when in a rematch of a 65-64 January 17th loss when they face off with USC tonight in Tucson. The Wildcats were done in by a poorly officiated play in which Nic Wise was called for an intentional foul and a questionable call (or a poor decision depending on your perspective) on Jamelle Horne with 1.2 seconds remaining in the game.

Other factors, such as shooting 64% from the free throw line, a would be last-possession turnover by Nic Wise, and no significant contributions from any player other the “Big Three” also contributed to the one-point loss. Can the Wildcats continue their five-game winning streak and make amends for a one-point loss marked by poor execution? Read the rest of this entry »

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PAC-10 Player of the Week: Week 3

Posted by naterb on January 19, 2009

PAC-10 Player of the Week: DeMar DeRozan (USC)

WhileDeRozan’s total stats aren’t that impressive (32 points, 12 rebounds), DeRozan was largely responsible for holding James Harden to 0-8 and 4 points in a fantastic defensive effort. To me, that’s more impressive than Rochestie’s 44 points, 6 rebounds, and 14 assists against the Oregon schools. Partly because Rochestie did put those numbers up against the Oregon schools, and partly because to hold Harden to 0 field goals is unbelievably incredible.

Runner-Up: Kevin Brill (REF)

Brill almost single-handedly won the game for the Trojans on Saturday. He came up with the big play in a crucial moment that gave the Trojans the confidence and momentum they needed during the final 3:50 to pull out a 1-point home win.

Arizona Player of the Week: Chase Budinger

Budinger is officially out of his slump. After rough outing after rough outing, Budinger finally steps up big. He was the focal point for UCLA and USC defensively and still put up solid numbers against these kids. He gave us fans a glimpse as to why he was so highly touted coming in and why he’s projected as a first-round pick in this year’s NBA Draft.

Runner Up: Jordan Hill

Hill had a monster game against UCLA, and save but first half foul trouble he had a good game against USC as well.

 

 

 

 

Do you think Kevin Brill would’ve gotten this one right?

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PAC-10 Power Rankings: Week 3

Posted by naterb on January 19, 2009

pac10-power-rankings4

  1. UCLA (E)
    They made Arizona’s make-shift 1-1-3 zone look awful. They had an offensive explosion with five players reaching double-digit scoring. But losing at home against ASU in a game you controlled in the second half shows they aren’t as far ahead of the rest of the conference as they would hope.
    Last Week: W vs. Arizona 83-60, L vs. ASU 61-58
  2. CAL (E)
    With their first loss in conference play coming against a rival in a close game, you can’t fault CAL too much – especially when you went on the road for a game filled with more drama than any other rival game will contain this year. The game against UCLA is getting bigger and bigger each week.
    L at Stanford 75-69
  3. ASU (E)
    A win at Pauley is impressive. But as great as that was, the loss against USC was bad enough to keep them from moving past CAL. Losing by 12 to a defensive minded team exploited their lack of players outside of Pendergraph and Harden. Shut Harden down and they falter.
    L at USC 61-49, W at UCLA 61-58 Read the rest of this entry »

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Take it Personal: Arizona @ USC

Posted by naterb on January 17, 2009

The threat level of Arizona’s NCAA Tournament streak coming to an end has been heightened to critical after a blow-out loss to UCLA on Thursday. It’s not the single game that has put it there, it is a large accumulation of things. Ineffective defense, poor shooting and decision making, mostly non-existent bench players, points given up in transition, and a big donut in the road wins column. Arizona will get a chance to put a vertical number in the left column when limp into the Galen Center later today.

I’m going to keep this preview short, as in my mind there is really only one pressing issue for Arizona that will make or break any remaining hope for an NCAA Tournament bid. I’m sure you can figure what that is, but we’ll get there in a minute.

USC has shown significant strides over the more recent portion of the season. They hung tough against UCLA, and beat ASU – which should be no surprise to anyone that really pays attention to PAC-10 basketball. Sure they lost to OSU, but teams have bad games, mental lapses, or get caught looking ahead – don’t expect that to happen tonight at the Galen Center. You can expect Tim Floyd to have a defensive scheme to throw at Budinger, Hill, and Wise. Most likely a triangle and two with Hill and Budinger receiving heightened attention throughout the game.

Tim Floyd is known for catering his defensive schemes to individual schools based upon their strengths and weaknesses. Because of it the Trojans are ranked the ninth best defense according to pomeroy.com. They have built that ranking by being the 5th best team in the nation in blocked shots with 5.2 per game, and hold teams to 39% shooting from the field. DeMar DeRozan is being a very tough defender for the Trojans, but his inexperience may cause him problems against Budinger.

Offensively the Trojans are led by Dwight Lewis, Taj Gibson, and Daniel Hackett. Hackett is a tough-as-nails player who gets in opponents faces, dives for loose balls, and leaves it all on the court. But despite shooting over 51% as a team the Trojans have shown signs of inconsistency due to selfish play. The Trojans average 15.6 turnovers per game, only Oregon with 15.7 turns the ball over more in the conference, and have a 0.87 a/to! Their lack of cohesiveness as a team has led to some late game problems when the game is on the line. The Trojans’ turnover problems bring me to the pressing issue I alluded to earlier and my keys to the game.

Keys to the Game:

  1. Defense, Defense, Defense (Part 1)- USC, as I mentioned is the 5th best defense in the nation. Arizona… well… 111 before the thumping by UCLA on Tuesday. Arizona’s “Claw” defense is so ineffective the Wildcats may as well be sitting in lawn chairs while on the defensive end. Arizona needs to crank up the pressure and make some changes. I don’t care if it is going to a man defense, a 3-2 zone, or a 1-3-1. Just find something that works and do it!
    Projected Need: Force USC to shoot less than 40% on the night, and less than 35% from beyond the arc.
  2. Defense, Defense, Defense (Part 2) – Not only do they need to find a defense that works, they need to find one that can give them more opportunities to get out and run. The ‘Cats have been drastically outscored in points off turnovers during their three of their five conference games, and in five of their six losses of the season.
    Projected Need: Force USC into 15 turnovers, and limit their transition points to fewer than 8.
  3. Defense, Defense, Defense (Part 3) – It’s not just Arizona’s lack of perimeter defense that has been appalling, it’s how easily teams are able to break the zone defense and get the ball for wide-open jumpers around the free throw line. If that isn’t bad enough, they are allowing opponents to dribble penetrate past them which leads to offensive rebounds as Hill is forced to defend the ball leaving the weak-side rebound up for grabs.
    Projected Needs: Hill 6 defensive rebounds, Limit Gibson to 3 or fewer offense rebounds
  4. Battle on the Blocks: Jordan Hill and Taj Gibson, the conferences best two big men, will be going head to head. Gibson leads the conference in blocked shots (3.1 per game), and is second in rebounding (10.3 per game). Meanwhile, Hill is second in the conference in blocked shots (2.3 per game) and first in rebounding (11.8 per game). The Wildcats have gone away from Hill when he had a significant advantage over each team in conference play this year, they better not do the same tonight.
    Projected Need: Hill 16 points, 12 rebounds, 2 blocked shots, 35 minutes
  5. Take it Personal: The Wildcats have seemed to have a ho-hum attitude ever since conference play began. I know they haven’t given up on Pennell & Co., but they certainly aren’t firing on all cylinders and aren’t playing with emotion. Arizona needs to take it personal if they want to keep their slipping chances for an NCAA Tournament bid within grasp. Defensively they need to be more aggressive. They need to take the shots they are given, and they need to play with a fire in their eyes as if this were the game that could burst their bubble.

 

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Game Preview: Arizona @ UCLA

Posted by naterb on January 14, 2009

tipoff“You can beat UCLA in Pauley Pavilion.” Those are the words that Assistant Coach Mike Dunlap has for the Wildcats every day during practice. The ‘Cats are hearing the message and by all accounts appear to be buying into it. UCLA has heard Dunlap’s message as well, and are preparing for Arizona’s best shot, even if the Bruins’ fans aren’t.

 It’s been nearly three years since the Wildcats beat the Bruins – and it just so happened the last win came at Pauley Pavilion. Since that February game in 2005, both teams have had complete roster turnovers with the exception of UCLA’s Josh Shipp. That shows just how dominant the Bruins have been over Arizona the past few years. As an Arizona fan, that’s a tough pill to swallow.

So after seven straight games and almost three years, what is it going to take to make Dunlap’s words a reality? Let’s cover the obvious fan retorts- UCLA injuries, miracles, a lucky night, UCLA looking past Arizona, and any other number of would-be post-game excuses would all be pathetic reasons for victory at Pauley. But I don’t think that’s what Dunlap and the Wildcats have in mind. So we’ll break down UCLA’s counterparts to Arizona, followed by the Keys to the Game.

Point Guard: Nic Wise vs. Darren Collison

Collison is the better guard here, hands down. Collison is a lightning quick point guard with great court vision, the ability to shoot the long jumper or create his own shot, and plays very smart basketball. Collison is only 6-0 (2-inches taller than Wise) but is an aggressive defender with long arms that menace point guards into poor decisions.

Nic Wise was not the primary point guard for Arizona last season, and struggled to find his niche under Kevin O’Neill while Jerryd Bayless was in the game. Wise, while not known for his on-ball defense, has shown improvement and is a master at dropping down into the paint to strip the big men on the low block. While Wise has shown improvement in his decision making and shot selection over the course of the year, he still has a long way to go to finding that sweet spot between being aggressive and allowing the game to come to him. As a playmaker and the floor general, that is a key element of his game that the Wildcats need him to pick up on.

Last Year: Nic Wise played 1 game with 12 points, 2 assists, and 3 turnovers

Darren Collison averaged 14 points, 4 assists, 2 turnovers in two games against Arizona, but had 16 points, 7 assists, and 1 turnover while at Pauley.

Shooting Guard: Kyle Fogg vs. Jrue Holiday

Freshman vs. Freshman here. Fogg and Holiday have both become the best on-ball defenders their respective teams have to offer. Holiday is the more athletic of the two and takes defensive challenges personally. In fact, he even asked to guard DeMar DeRozan in the USC game after DeRozan got off to a good start. Subsequently DeRozan only scored five more points with Holiday on him. Chances are that mentality will find Holiday guarding Chase Budinger instead, with Shipp defending Fogg.

Holiday, unlike Fogg, is an offensive threat. He has a decent long-range shot and can work his way to the rim. Fogg, however, can shoot long range but has been apprehensive about taking the open look far too frequently. Credit Fogg, however, for continually showing growth in every area of his game, and finding ways to score and collect loose balls.

Small Forward: Chase Budinger vs. Josh Shipp

Shipp is a lean athletic shooting guard, that like all of Howland’s players, is trademarked by in-your-face defense. Shipp is an explosive player who has the capability of dropping 20 points on a team that allows him to get into a nice flow. Shipp has great career numbers against the ‘Cats averaging 13.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 2 steals each contest. Shipp likes to get out into the open court and run in transition, so a big part of stopping him will be stopping transition.

Budinger isn’t nearly as talented defensively as Shipp is, but he is the more explosive player. If Budinger is assertive on the offensive end he becomes difficult for anybody to guard. Since the probability of Holiday guarding Budinger is pretty high, the ‘Cats will need to look to find Budinger slashing to the bucket and posting up the smaller Holiday. Budinger is due for a big game against a tough opponent this year, and it would be great to see him get it against a team that he is still winless against in his collegiate career. My train of thought has always been that Budinger doesn’t show up to play against the Bruins’ aggressive defense – but I crunched his career numbers and was surprised at what I saw.

Budinger’s Stat Line: 14 ppg, 40% fg, 5.5 rebounds, 2.75 assists, 2.75 turnovers

Power Forward: Jamelle Horne vs. Nikola Dragovic

James Keefe has been the typical starter for the Bruins this season, in part because Howland considered him the better defender. But Howland said that Dragovic has closed that defensive gap, and is a bigger offensive threat so he’ll get his second start of the season against Arizona. Dragovic has performed well his previous two games, and has filled the role player spot well. Dragovic has the capability of knocking down the occasional three-pointer, but considering he only shoots 25% from beyond the arc, Horne should let him make one before stepping out on him.

Jamelle Horne is the more athletic of the two players, and plays a lot bigger than his 6’7” frame would indicate. Horne did not have an opportunity for significant minutes against UCLA under Kevin O’Neill a year ago. So Horne’s athleticism and hustle may prove to be an ace in the hole for the ‘Cats.

Center: Jordan Hill vs. Alfred Aboya

Aboya is a thug on the inside. He provided a different defensive look for UCLA last year when they would move Kevin Love off of Hill. This year, the change in personnel guarding Hill won’t make as much of an impact. Hill is a superior interior player than any Bruin. Hill will need to play under control and avoid offensive fouls, and picking up tacky fouls when trying to block shots of penetrating guards.

Aboya is a tough defender and a decent shot blocker for UCLA, but his big threat is junk stats. Aboya hustles for loose balls and rebounds, he’s very active on the offensive glass, and like Jamelle Horne, can pick up junk stats with some regularity.

The Bench:

UCLA has a much deeper bench than the Wildcats, and can get productive minutes from three players off the bench, and two more can provide mistake free minutes to help the Bruins starters get rested. The key bench players for the Bruins are Michael Roll and James Keefe.

Roll is an improved version of Zane Johnson. He can shoot the three, and has the tendency of finding himself open around the elbow or baseline with good looks. Roll won’t impress you with his athleticism or rebounding, but he’s a smart player with a nice stroke.

Keefe isn’t much of an offensive threat, but expect to see him come in to log some defensive minutes against Jordan Hill. Keefe is a solid defender, but will likely struggle against the taller, more athletic Hill.

Arizona’s bench has been iffy at best this season. We’ve seen erratic production from Judkins and Lavendar. Zane Johnson has stepped up his game and become more aggressive the past few games, and a continuing that effort and results will be vital for Arizona if they want to pull of the road win at Pauley.

Injuries:

Arizona – None

UCLA – Malcolm Lee, another key reserve for UCLA, is listed as probable. Freshman center J’Mison Morgan is doubtful

Head to Head:

UCLA is deeper, more athletic, and better defensive team that Arizona is. But they aren’t infallible, and they aren’t as good as they’ve been the previous 2 years. The ‘Cats, although not as talented as last year, are playing better team basketball and when things are going well believe they have a shot against anybody. It won’t be easy to pull off a road win in Pauley against a great team like UCLA, but it isn’t unrealistic to think they can do it.

 

Head-to-Head

Head-to-Head

Keys to the Game:

  1. Secure the Package: UCLA is averaging over 9 steals a game behind their in-your-face perimeter defense. The ‘Cats need to play smart, controlled basketball and limit their mistakes because they won’t be able to keep up with UCLA for 40 minutes of transition basketball.
    Projected Need: Limit turnovers to 12 or fewer, while forcing UCLA into at least 10.
  2. Limit Collison: Collison is the drive train for this UCLA offense. If they can limit his ability to pass and find open teammates the ‘Cats will be headed in the right direction. Just as with the Gonzaga game, point guard play is going to be key.
    Projected Need: Limit Collison to 5 or fewer assists, while forcing him into 3 or more turnovers.
  3. Break-out Budinger: Budinger has been handcuffed the past few games, and more importantly against defenses tailored to limit him. Budinger has decent numbers against ULA with one bad game, and one great game to show for his two years. Coming off the series against the Oregon Schools, Budinger appears to be heading out of his slump and due for a big game in the near future.
    Projected Needs: Budinger – 16+ points, 45 FG%, 3 3-pointers, 3 assists, 2 or fewer turnovers.
  4. Exploit the Advantage: Jordan Hill has no match to be found on UCLA’s roster. But, as with Oregon, perimeter defense can limit the touches that Hill gets. The ‘Cats need to find Hill on the low block or within 8 feet throughout the game.
    Projected Needs: Hill – 18+ points, 35 minutes playing time, 12 rebounds, 2 blocks, 75% FT%.
  5. Four through Six: Arizona needs Jamelle Horne, Kyle Fogg, and Zane Johnson each to step up big in this game. Between them they need to apply defensive pressure, scrap for loose balls, steal some rebounds, and do all those intangibles you expect from role players. The needed impact of the role players in this game can not be understated, as they are likely the most vital part of Arizona’s upset hopes. If they can step up big, Arizona has a honest chance, if they don’t it could prove to be a long night for the ‘Cats.
    Projected Needs: Horne, Fogg, Johnson combined – 24 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, less than 5 turnovers.

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PAC-10 Weekly Preview

Posted by naterb on January 14, 2009

PAC-10 conference play rolls on this week as the Arizona schools travel to visit the LA schools, the Oregon Schools host their neighboring Washington schools, and Cal travels to Stanford for this week’s rivalry match-up. After the week is through we should start seeing a clearer picture of how the conference shakes up with two of the top three teams facing off, a pair of middle-of-the-pack teams going head-to-head, and some of the bottom of the barrel teams matching up.

Arizona 11-5 (2-2) W2

Chase Budinger looks to continue to pull out of his shooting slump when the ‘Cats face UCLA and USC on the road this week. The ‘Cats will have to notch up their playing level as they’ve been inconsistent at best the past four or five games.

Arizona State 14-2 (3-1) W2

Arizona State’s claim to contend for the Conference Title is put on the line this week as they face off with UCLA, the pre-season favorite, at Pauley Pavilion. James Harden will keep them in the game, but they’ll need solid minutes from Pendergraph and at least one other player if they hope to pull off the tough road win.

USC 10-5 (1-2) L2

USC hopes to get back to their winning ways when Arizona State and Arizona pull into town this week. DeMar Derozan has started to step up, but even at home the Trojans will need more than a good freshman to propel them towards a sweep.

UCLA 13-2 (3-0) W9

The Bruins are looking to build on a nine-game win streak, and hope to protect their home court against the Arizona schools. Collison has been an absolute stud this season, and it should be interesting to see how they hold up in their toughest conference challenges yet this year.

Washington State 9-6 (1-2) W1

Washington State is looking to build upon their slight victory over the Cardinal last week. Fortunately they face off against an inexperienced Oregon team. But the interesting match-up will be when they face off against Oregon State who play a similar slow-down offense as the Cougars.

Washington 11-4 (2-1) L1

A tough triple-overtime loss to Cal hurts, but Washington should be ready to take it to the Ducks and the Beavers this week. Brockman could be in for a huge week as he faces off against the Ducks with an inexperienced big-man, and Oregon State with no true inside presence to speak of.

Oregon State 6-8 (1-3) L 2

The Beavers aren’t any more talented than they were last year – but they’re playing an offense more suited to their strengths. They’re organized and experienced. Playing at home might even give them an edge towards their second conference victory this week.

Oregon 6-10 (0-4) L4

The biggest question for the Ducks right now has to be when the veteran players are going to step up and lead this team. They’ve collapsed in big games thus far, and too much has been left on a great freshman in Michael Dunigan – who ironically is almost an after thought in the Ducks offense.

Rivalry Match-Up: CAL & Stanford

CAL 15-2 (4-0) W9

The Golden Bears are on a 9 game winning streak with solid conference wins over ASU, Arizona, and Washington. Now they travel across the Bay to play their rivals. It should be interesting to see Mike Montgomery back in Maples for the first time as an opposing coach this weekend.

Stanford 11-3 (1-3) L2

Stanford’s front court has been the marquis headliner for the Cardinal so far this year. They’ll get a huge test when they have to stop on Patrick Christopher and Jerome Randle. This should be an interesting guard match-up with Stanford fighting an uphill battle – even at home.

Thursday’s Games:

Washington State @ Oregon State
Washington @ Oregon
Arizona State @ Southern Cal.
Arizona @ UCLA

Saturday’s Games:

Washington State @ Oregon
Arizona State @ UCLA
CAL @ Stanford
Arizona @ USC
Washington @ Oregon State

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PAC-10: Contenders vs. Pretenders

Posted by naterb on December 31, 2008

As PAC-10 play has drawn closer, I’ve been taking a good look at the different teams and haven’t been too startled by what I saw. The only exception to that has been the success of Stanford and their undefeated record after losing the Lopez Twins to the NBA. They are even receiving votes in the AP and the Coaches polls! So I started kicking around the teams trying to sift through the soft OOC schedules, and misleading stats trying to figure out who will challenge for the PAC-10 crown this year.

The obvious choice is going to be UCLA. Sure, they’re down from the past two or three years, but they’re still a potent team with stifling perimeter defense and the best backcourt in the conference. But I didn’t want to just stick with “UCLA wins it… again,” I wanted to really dig into the conference. So pretend that UCLA is out of the equation – they lose Collison to a knee injury or for whatever reason the team implodes costing them 5 or 6 games and effectively the conference title.

 

Now I’d love to pick my Arizona Wildcats, that would be a great farewell gift to Olson for putting this team together, and a nice reward for Pennell and Co. who stepped in to pick up the pieces in the wake of Olson’s sudden retirement. However, they’re a very inexperienced team that is relying on three main players and a supporting cast that is largely unknown and mostly unproven. Despite this, Arizona is a strong candidate to play for the conference title. However, to prevent the homer pick of Arizona, we’ll pretend that Jordan Hill’s strained calf muscle is a torn ligament and he can’t play until next year.

 

Let’s whittle down the options here by eliminating teams that even with just eight teams to choose from, still don’t have a chance. First to go is clearly Oregon State. They are barely a .500 team against competition that is severely sub-par of PAC-10 caliber. With losses to Howard, Yale, Montana State to name a few, there is little hope of them picking up 2 wins this season.

Next off the board has to be Washington State. I like their program and their deliberate style, but at some point when push comes to shove you need a guy that can get to the rim and take over a big game. Their leading scorers (Aron Baynes 11.4 ppg, Klay Thompson 11.0 ppg, and Taylor Rochestie 10.2 ppg) are not players that can get terribly physical and have yet to show up against a quality team. All four of their losses have come against the only opponents on their schedule that could compete in the PAC-10. During these losses (Pitt, Baylor, Gonzaga, and LSU) their three leading scorers combined for an average of 26 points. If they want to compete, someone needs to step up.

Elimination next stops in Eugene, Oregon with the Ducks. They lost a lot of talent gone to wasted efforts last year, and brought in a solid recruiting class. Their youth isn’t coming along as quickly as Ernie Kent would probably like, and they’ve lost a couple ugly games because of it. If I were going strictly by record, they’d be off the board before WSU; However, they do have a good amount of talent and finally have a good inside presence with Michael Dunigan. Dunigan is a bad performance or two away from having been the Ducks’ leading scorer to this point. The potential of this team far exceeds Washington State right now, and that’s why Oregon gets a spot ahead of WSU.

Picking the middle of the remaining teams is almost like splitting hairs. Stanford is undefeated because of exceptional backcourt performances, and Washington has three losses, and no quality wins, but have a huge frontcourt advantage. So who’s next?

It has to be Stanford. I’m impressed with their 9-0 record after losing the Lopez Twins and all frontcourt presence from a year ago. That is, I’m impressed until I look at who they’ve played. Their only reasonably good win is Santa Clara, and only by 8 points. The Cardinal backcourt of Mitch Johnson, Anthony Goods, and Landry Fields appears to have stepped its game up a notch from a year ago. Heading into conference play the three guards account for 48 percent of the Cardinal’s scoring. Guard play is extremely important, especially in the PAC-10. But with opposing guards like Harden, DeRozan, Rochestie,  Randle and Christopher to face off against, it’s going to be difficult to outmatch any team in the backcourt. Despite the performances of Lawrence Hill and Josh Owens, Stanford needs more inside presence if they want to win the conference this year.

Like I said, this is like splitting hairs. Stanford needs inside presence, but Washington needs another scorer. The frontcourt of Jon Brockman and Matthew Bryan-Amaning is the most formidable in the conference and the inside size advantage alone is what sets them ahead of Stanford. But the Huskies are still waiting for Quincy Pondexter to step up consistently and become the wingman he has the potential to be. Pondexter has only had three of those games this year with 21 points, 16 points, and 14 points, but not one of them against a good defensive team. The Huskies’ backcourt consists of the forementioned Pondexter and two guards under six-feet – Isaiah Thomas and Justin Dentmon. Thomas is the second-leading scorer with 14.8 ppg followed by Dentmon at 12.4. These two guards have the capability to get to the rim, draw the foul, and shoot from beyond the arc. But guards under six foot have a history of falling off the table during conference play. When matching up against taller guards like Collison of UCLA, or Fogg of Arizona the height becomes a huge disadvantage. Clearly, if Washington wants the title they need a guard taller than 6′ to step up – namely Quincy Pondexter.

The remaining three teams are clearly head and shoulders above the five I’ve already covered. And picking the gem amongst them is extremely difficult. I know that no matter what order I put them in, there is going to be debate and argument over it. Each team has a solid case for the best of the group, but ultimately I feel it comes down to who has the most rounded unit combined with coaching ability. Since coaching adjustments, team management, and the fact that when push comes to shove the coach is blamed if they fail and only given a quiet congratulations if they succeed, the head coach has to be the distinguishing factor amongst these three teams.

For that reason, USC has to come off the board. Tim Floyd has done a good job with these kids. They play a very physical and aggressive style of basketball. Combined with four legitimate scorers and you’ve got a recipe for success. But my problem with this team comes back to Tim Floyd. It isn’t their style or abilities that has me concerned. It’s the fact that Floyd has permitted this program to become merely a stepping stone for players like Mayo and DeRozan to take until they are allowed to move on to the NBA. That type of individual play leads to turnovers (conference high 16.8 per game), and will ultimately cost them games against teams with better chemistry. It’s Floyd’s job to counter that, and I don’t believe he’s capable of it – after all, it was his recruiting that built that scenario.

 

So now we’re down to Arizona State and CAL. An easy pick if you listen to the media, right? Wrong. Take a look at both teams stats. Statistically they are almost identical with the majority of their scoring coming from four players, and fewer than 5 point per game from the rest. The largest separation between the two teams, statistically, is opponents points per game. CAL is giving up 64.3 while ASU is only 58. So who do you take? I go with CAL.

First while Arizona State has gotten additional help from Rihards Kuksiks, who has doubled his ppg production from a year ago up to 10.8 points per game, they still don’t get consistent production from anyone except James Harden, and that’s a problem. Arizona State is only as good as Harden performs within his team. Want proof? Look no further than the IUPUI and BYU games. Against IUPUI he didn’t show up and was too busy talking with Amare Stoudemire behind the ASU bench to care. He tallied 9 points and ASU got lucky with a one-point win. The other problem is if he becomes selfish against a good team. Harden dropped 30 on a good BYU team, but ASU struggled to a controversial win – another one point margin. Harden can carry the Sun Devils far, but when teams like UCLA make him the defensive focal point as they did last year, Harden becomes ineffective as a team player and ASU struggles. If the Sun Devils  want to be best out of this group it’s going to take a team effort and more than the Harden/Jeff Pendergraph combo to do it

Once again, it comes down to team chemistry and how well they play as a collective unit and how much faith I have in the coach. This CAL team has had the most talent in the conference, outside of UCLA, for the past couple of years, but hasn’t been able to capitalize on it under Ben Braun. With the hiring of Mike Montgomery this team almost instantly became better. Montgomery has these kids playing hard, shooting well, and playing as a team.  CAL is getting great production from all over the court. They have the size to compete with Brockman & Washington, and the guards to compete with anybody in the conference. That’s why I have CAL ahead of USC, ahead of ASU, but just barely. 

So when it comes to contenders and pretenders it is pretty clear. Stanford and the schools from Oregon and Washington are pretenders who will make their way to a first round exit from the PAC-10 Tournament and perhaps an NIT invite. Leaving the PAC-10 crown to be contested by the LA area schools, the Arizona schools, and CAL.

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