National Basketball Notebook: Pac-10 hoops overview

For a conference that has traditional basketball powers like UCLA, Arizona and USC, the fact that the conference only got two NCAA Tournament bids last year is an embarrassment. What could be more embarrassing? The Pac-10 may only get two teams again this year.

Sure, there are plenty of reasons why the Pac-10 has apparently fallen off so drastically over the last two years. Recent years have seen a massive turnover in the coaching staffs: seven schools have coaches in their third year or less. Recent years have seen the league’s top players take their talent to the NBA at a higher rate than any other conference; the Pac-10 averages five NBA players per school, the ACC 4.4 and the Big East 3.4, by comparison. But has the Pac-10 really fallen off that far?

The Pac-10’s two tournament bids last year went to No. 8 seed California and No. 11 seed Washington. In the opening round, Cal destroyed Big East foe, Louisville, 77-62, only to run into eventual champion Duke in the second round. Washington advanced to the Sweet 16 by beating No. 6 seed Marquette and No. 3 seed New Mexico. This success begs the question, should Arizona State — ASU finished second in the Pac-10 with a 22-11 record — have been given the opportunity to play in the Big Dance?

Here is a preview of this year’s Pac-10 season:

1. Washington Huskies (10-3, 2-0 Pac-10)

The Huskies are looking to build off of a Sweet 16 showing in last year’s NCAA Tournament. Returning four starters from that team, UW was almost the unanimous media pick to win the Pac-10 this season; UW received 33 of 35 first place votes.

Junior guard Isaiah Thomas was expected to take over the leadership role on this team, and he has done just that. Cutting down his turnovers while increasing his assists, Thomas has looked to get his teammates involved early and often this year, while being more selective with his own looks.

On the defensive side of the ball, senior guard Venoy Overton is considered by many to be the best on-ball defender in the country. Aziz N’Diaye, a 7-foot junior college transfer, gives the Huskies an inside presence they have not had since the days of Todd MacCulloch. N’Diaye’s defensive presence should allow senior forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning to concentrate on providing the Huskies with an offensive low-post presence, something they lacked last year.

Led by their depth and athleticism, the Huskies finished their non-conference schedule with an 8-3 record, averaging a conference-high 87.9 points per game. Their three losses were to No. 8 Kentucky and No. 2 Michigan State in the Maui Invitational, and to Texas A&M in College Station. These three losses were by a combined total of 13 points.

Last year, a major weakness for the team was its inability to shoot from the perimeter. The Huskies finished No. 200 in the nation from the 3-point stripe and lost their two best shooters. Shooting has not been a problem for this team. Washington has been filling it up from outside the arc, hitting at a 41.9 percent clip. Sharpshooting red-shirt freshman guard C.J. Wilcox is leading the way hitting an unconscious 48.1 percent from 3-point land this year.

The Huskies have struggled to break into the win column on the road, and this is nothing new for them. Last year, the Huskies were 4-7 away from home. However, last week in a road trip to Los Angeles, the Huskies swept two games with a 73-67 overtime victory at USC on Wednesday and a 74-63 win at UCLA on Friday. Bryan-Amaning led the way, scoring 18 and 21, and winning the Pac-10 Player of the Week.

In a weak conference, the Huskies have a real opportunity to win 15 conference games. They have the depth and talent to get it done, but with the loss of sophomore guard Abdul Gaddy on Tuesday to an ACL injury, that depth will be tested. A Pac-10 championship is probable, but until the Huskies show an ability to play a solid game against a top-10 opponent, there will be questions as to how far this team can advance come March.

Predicted final regular season record: 24-6 (15-3 Pac-10)

2. Arizona Wildcats (12-3, 1-1 Pac-10)

For the first time in a quarter of a century the Wildcats did not appear in the NCAA Tournament last season. Second-year coach Sean Miller looks to right the ship this season on the back of returning leading scorer and rebounder, sophomore forward Derrick Williams.

Fellow sophomore point guard, Lamont “Momo” Jones (former Oak Hill Academy star), takes over the facilitation of the Wildcats’ offensive attack. Jones has been charged with the task of filling the large shoes left by last year’s floor general, Nic Wise.

The Cats cruised through the non-conference schedule, finishing with an 11-2 record. Their two losses were on the road against two quality opponents, No. 6 Kansas and No. 18 Brigham Young University.

In the first week of Pac-10 play, the Wildcats split road matchups with the Oregon schools. In a game they had no business losing, the Cats went down 75-76 at Oregon State on Sunday. Arizona turned the ball over, was dominated on the boards and missed 13 free throws in route to this loss. These are all indications that this young team, led by underclassmen, lacks maturity, and that will likely cost them come the first round in March.

Predicted final regular season record: 23-8 (12-6 Pac-10)

3. Washington State Cougars (10-4, 0-2 Pac-10)

Led by one of the top players in the country, junior guard Klay Thompson, the Cougars are poised to rise to the top of the conference once again this year. Returning all five starters from last year, Washington State has come out of the gate strong.

Two solid non-conference wins over Gonzaga and Baylor are evidence the Cougars are finally comfortable with second-year head coach, Ken Bone’s, up-tempo system. The Cougs have two of the top five scorers in the conference (Thompson – 1 and Faisal Aden – 5) and are averaging 79.4 points per home game this season. That’s 27.2 more than their opponents.

Two road losses to UCLA and USC last week have tempered expectations for Washington State. If the Cougars can rebound and play solid defense throughout conference play, it is clear that they have the offensive weapons to make a real run for a NCAA Tournament berth this season.

Predicted final regular season record: 22-8 (12-6 Pac-10)

4. UCLA Bruins (9-5, 1-1 Pac-10)

After everything seemed to come so easily to the Bruins for almost a decade (three straight Final Fours) the Bruins hit rock bottom last year after a 14-18 season. While a Final Four appearance is out of the question this year, the media picked the Bruins to finish third in the Pac-10 this season.

The Bruins are led by sophomores Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt. Nelson brings his hardhat and lunch pail game in and game out, and has proven to be the Bruins most consistent scorer and rebounder this year. Freshman big man Josh Smith has provided assistance inside, averaging 10 points and seven rebounds per game.  Despite these solid numbers, Smith has struggled to stay on the court, at times, due to foul problems.

The Bruins recent six-game winning streak was snapped Friday when they fell 74-63 at home to Washington. The success of this team will be tied to the success or failure of their point guard play. If junior guard Lazeric Jones steps up the Bruins are poised to return to the dance yet again.

Predicted final regular season record: 20-11 (11-7 Pac-10)

5. USC Trojans (9-6, 1-1 Pac-10)

The Trojans are trying to bounce back from a tough season, which saw them banned from post-season competition. Head coach Kevin O’Neill lost four of his top six players from a team that finished fifth in the Pac-10 with a 16-14 record last year. But the two players who are returning make up the best frontcourt duo in the conference this year.

Senior forward Alex Stephenson and junior center Nikola Vucevic give USC an advantage over every other team in the Pac-10 in the frontcourt. Vucevic leads the team, averaging a double-double, while Stephenson chips in with 10 points and close to nine rebounds a game.

The Trojans’ recent success — USC has gone 5-2 in its last seven games — can be attributed to its discipline at the defensive end and the balanced scoring on offense. Six different Trojans have led the team or tied for game-high honors in assists, steals, scoring and blocks.

The Trojans opened Pac-10 play by splitting two home games against the Washington schools. USC took the Huskies to overtime last Wednesday, only to fall 73-67, but rebounded by beating the Cougars 60-56 on Friday.

With impressive wins over Texas and Tennessee and a close loss at Kansas, the Trojans have shown they have the talent to beat some of the better teams in the country. Like most in the Pac-10, however, USC will be battling for consistency all season.

Predicted final regular season record: 20-11 (11-7 Pac-10)

6. Arizona State Sun Devils (8-5, 1-1 Pac-10)

Despite losing their top two players a year ago, the Sun Devils posted their third straight 20-win season last year, finishing second in the Pac-10. Prior to this string, Arizona State had only three 20-win seasons during the prior 25 seasons. After a rough start to the season, it will be difficult for the Devils to make it four straight.

ASU was expected to be led by a trio of senior guards — Ty Abbott, Jamelle McMillan and Rihards Kuksiks — but it has been a sophomore leading the way so far. Trent Lockett is averaging 14.7 points per game, up from 6.7 during his freshman campaign. He is also second on the team in both rebounding and assists.

Arizona State picked up a split on the road against the Oregon schools during the first week of conference play. The Devils were without Lockett for the road trip, as he was nursing a sprained left big toe. Despite not having their best player, the 25-point loss to the likes of the Beavers is a major cause of concern for this team.

If the Sun Devils don’t find their shooting touch soon — ASU is shooting 32 percent from behind the arc and 64 percent from the free throw line — this season could get away from them in a hurry.

Predicted final seasons record: 18-12 (10-8 Pac-10)

7. Stanford Cardinal (8-4, 1-0 Pac-10)

Coming off of a seventh-place finish last year, the Cardinal brought in a freshmen class ranked in the top 20 in the nation. With nine new additions to the roster, a lot of the pressure has fallen on junior guard Jeremy Green. Green leads the Cardinal averaging 16.2 points per game while shooting better than 46 percent from behind the 3-point stripe.

Stanford’s strength this season has been on the defensive end. The Cardinal is allowing a Pac-10-best 61 points per game. This is a huge improvement from the last two seasons when Stanford gave up 70 and 69 points per game, respectively.

This team will go as far as its young core will allow it to. Freshman forward Dwight Powell showed his potential by scoring a career-high 20 points and pulling down seven rebounds off the bench in the Cardinal’s 82-68 win over Cal in its Pac-10 home opener. If this performance is any indication, Powell has the talent to become a force in the Pac-10.

This season, however, the Cardinal will go through growing pains as it learns to deal with the grind of a conference schedule.

Predicted final regular season record: 16-13 (9-9 Pac-10)

8. Oregon State Beavers (7-6, 2-0 Pac-10)

Despite non-conference losses to Seattle U, Texas Southern and Utah Valley, among others, the Beavers have impressed lately, sweeping the Arizona schools during the first weekend of Pac-10 play. Behind an improved offense, averaging 74.4 points per game — up from 60 points per game last season — this young team, made up of mostly freshmen and sophomores, may finally be turning the corner.

The Beavers’ 1-3-1 zone look on defense has been frustrating its opponents. Oregon State is second in the nation in steals with 11.2 per game.

Expectations for this team must be tempered, however, as there is simply not enough talent on this roster to compete night in and night out in the Pac-10. If head coach Craig Robinson can get consistent inside play from sophomore center Joe Burton, the Beavers will have an opportunity to catch a few teams sleeping throughout the Pac-10 season.

Predicted final regular season record: 10-19 (5-13 Pac-10)

9. California Golden Bears (7-6, 0-1 Pac-10)

From first to worst. It is common in the NFL, but in Pac-10 basketball? Clearly, this is a rebuilding year for the Golden Bears, who lost all five starters from last year’s Pac-10 regular season championship team, including Pac-10 Player of the Year, Jerome Randle.

Junior guard Jorge Guiterrez, usually known more for his defense, is averaging 12 points per game and fellow junior, Harper Kemp, is averaging 13 points per game to pace the Golden Bears.

Coach Mike Montgomery is in for one of his stiffest challenges as head coach with this inexperienced bunch. It would be surprising if this team won more games in the Pac-10 this year then it lost last year (5).

Predicted final regular season record: 10-20 (3-15 Pac-10)

10. Oregon Ducks (7-7, 0-2 Pac-10)

The Ducks better enjoy this Monday night because after the BCS National Championship game is over and done with, they will have to finally come to grips that their basketball team is not good. In fact, they were picked by the media to finish last in the Pac-10 and their non-conference performance has done nothing to change expectations.

First-year coach Dana Altman has his hands full with this Ducks team. Oregon is down to eight scholarship players after four players transferred, one turned pro and another became academically ineligible.

The Ducks started the Pac-10 season by dropping two home games to Arizona and Arizona State. Possibly the only bright spot for the Ducks, senior forward Joevan Catron, was held to a combined 20 points against ASU and UA, down from his average of 16.4 points per game.

After such a great football season, it’s only fair that the only thing Duck fans will have to look forward to this basketball season is the $227-million Matthew Knight Arena, which opens Jan. 13. If you thought Boise State’s Smurf turf was bad, wait until you see Oregon’s new basketball floor.

Predicted final regular season: 9-21 (2-16 Pac-10)

Scott Jamieson is a Staff Writer for The Juice Online.

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