Pac-10 teams without great PGs are pointless.
by Mike Middlehurst-Schwartz
Take a look at the Wooden Award Watch List. Notice anything?
At first glance, the 50 players represented seem to provide a diverse sample of college basketball’s elite. But there’s a distinct pattern that appears when one breaks down the list and looks West.
The Pac-10 has three representatives: Cal’s Jerome Randle, Washington’s Isaiah Thomas and Arizona’s Nic Wise – all point guards. Though the buzz throughout the conference may be that the overall talent level is down, the trio of diminutive ball handlers show that there’s plenty of talent still left at point guard.
The newest wave is well aware of the conference’s reputation of producing gifted guards such as Gary Payton, Jason Kidd and Baron Davis.
“The history of this conference centers around the point guards,” Randle said. “There’s so much to live up to, so all of us guards in the conference have to work to meet the standard that has been set.”
But having a talented point guard isn’t just an indicator of success in this league, it’s a necessity. Cal, Washington and Arizona are all preseason favorites to finish atop the league, while teams who are still looking for answers at the position – Washington State, USC and Stanford – are projected for turbulent times.
Look no further than powerhouse UCLA to see the importance of point guards. The Bruins have seen four top guards – Jordan Farmar, Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday and Darren Collison — drafted during their stay atop the conference standings.
“That’s the key to why we’ve had so much success,” Ben Howland said. “From my perspective, good college basketball teams depend on having someone out there who can lead and make good decisions.”
The situation is more dire in Westwood this year after losing Collison and Holiday. Jerime Anderson is slated to take over but has been hampered by a nagging groin injury.
The 6-2 sophomore did not play in UCLA’s exhibition against Concordia in which the Bruins eked out a one-point win despite committing 20 turnovers.
“There’s so much riding on him being healthy,” Howland said.
The outlook is considerably more upbeat at Cal, where the once-shaky Randle has emerged as one of the conference’s best playmakers. The 5-10 senior’s maturation from an inconsistent sparkplug to a reliable performer was pivotal to the Golden Bears’ ascension in the Pac-10 pecking order.
Randle improved his decision making dramatically in his junior year and shot 50 percent from the field and 46.3 percent from three-point range. On a senior-laden squad, he’ll be asked to distribute the ball more effectively and cut down on his turnovers.
But improving his defense was the top priority for the offseason.
“I didn’t think my defense was good at all last year,” Randle said. “But that’s not going to be the case this year because I’ve been working at it and studying film.”
Wise may not carry the same name recognition as Randle and Thomas, but he may be the most valuable player to his team in the conference. He is the only senior on a team that has faced constant turmoil – Sean Miller will be Wise’s fourth coach in four years.
Miller had to breathe a sigh of relief when Wise announced he would be returning to school after a brief flirtation with a professional career.
“He has one of the hardest jobs a student-athlete can have, to leader nine freshmen and sophomores while learning a new system,” Miller said. “I expect him to be more vocal on and off the court and try to bring his teammates along.”
Washington enters the season as one of the prohibitive conference favorites in no small part because of their prolific point guards. In fact, the Huskies may have more potential at the position than any other team out West.
Isaiah Thomas took little time to establish his presence as one of the conference’s most explosive players as a freshman. With Jon Brockman off to the NBA, Thomas and forward Quincy Pondexter team up to become the new faces of the team.
But like Randle, Thomas will be relied upon to refine his game and develop into more than just a scorer.
“I think he has become more of a complete basketball player,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. “ He is someone that in the past, before coming to college, he would not have thought much about playing defense. That has changed now and he takes pride in it.”
For as impressive as Thomas was in his opening season of college basketball, Seattle has been buzzing about incoming freshman Abdul Gaddy. The five-star recruit gives the Huskies plenty of options in the backcourt with Thomas and Venoy Overton also available.
And though it could take some time to sort out the dynamic, Gaddy’s potential to be a prototypical point guard has Romar excited about the possibilities.
“We have a host of guards on our roster, but I think Abdul is a pass-first guard, and we haven’t had very many of those in our program,” Romar said. “I think he will fit just fine with whoever he is playing with.“