Pac-10 Lessons Learned
Non-conference slate provided few highlights out West, but there’s still reason to tune in.
by Mike Middlehurst-Schwartz
Well, at least the best has yet to come.
The Pac-10 was set for a down year after an exodus of talent. But few could have expected the conference to take this many body blows through the first month and a half of the season. Washington is the only team ranked in the top 25; most other teams have been relegated to afterthoughts.
But even if the hype has died down, there’s still plenty left to determine in the conference. And that uncertainty is what makes the season all the more fun to follow. Here are three themes that emerged from non-conference play in the Pac-10:
The doomsayers were right…sort of. Here’s a sampling of several schools that took down Pac-10 teams: Portland (twice), Montana, Loyola Marymount, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Sacramento State, Illinois-Chicago, Cal State-Fullerton and Long Beach State.
First reaction? Ouch – that’s not exactly the making of an Elite Eight. The Pac-10’s resume looks even worse because of all the marquee games in which its teams came up short (USC’s win against Tennessee might be the conference’s most impressive).
So the prognosticators were right: there are no teams that elicit national interest (sorry, Washington) and UCLA nearly imploded before it played a conference game.
But there’s reason for optimism, if only because it’s so sorely needed. Teams like USC and Washington State found their rhythm at the end of the year and only UCLA finished with a sub-.500 record heading into conference play.
The days of six teams getting into the NCAA Tournament are over, but there’s still reason to believe that four schools can make it.
A pecking order has yet to emerge. If the Pac-10 won’t give us marquee teams, at least it might give us some excitement in the form of parity.
The lack of a conference king means more games that will be toss-ups. And if no established caste system has emerged, the Pac-10 Tournament will make for an entertaining three days.
Washington has lived up to its preseason billing, despite losses to Texas Tech and Georgetown. Washington State has more than lived up to expectations under new coach Ken Bone, continuing the Cougars’ trend of maximizing their talent.
USC enters Pac-10 play with more momentum than any other team and two wins against top 25 teams. After trudging through the early season with a short bench due to injuries and ineligible players, the Trojans have found a rhythm with point guard Mike Gerrity leading the way. Arizona State has similarly established a comfort zone despite lacking an elite scorer.
Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State have all been erratic in non-conference games. All three teams are equally capable of giving any team in the conference a run for its money as they are of dropping an unexpected game at home. Arizona has survived several close calls but was thrashed by BYU in a 30-point loss that saw Jimmer Fredette go for 49 points.
There’s plenty of talent if you know where to find it. The Pac-10 has been known as one of the premier conferences in producing NBA-level talent. This year…not so much.
Nation-wide, college basketball’s talent pool is shallow. Don’t expect any players on the West Coast to be in the running for All-American honors, but you can still find top-tier performers if you look closely.
Washington’s Quincy Pondexter is one of the few names that will resonate among draftniks. After three pedestrian seasons in Seattle, the senior forward has put it together and averaged 21.9 points and 8.4 rebounds per game through his first 11 contests. If the Fresno native can stay aggressive and keep the Huskies atop the conference, he’ll be the favorite for Pac-10 Player of the Year.
Washington State’s Klay Thompson is tucked away the spotlight, but he’ll be hard to keep hidden much longer. With 25 ppg on 48 percent shooting, the sophomore guard is a legit threat to be the country’s top scorer (he’s currently third). As long as Thompson’s shooting stroke doesn’t leave him, the Cougars will be a threat in any close games.
The usual influx of star freshman didn’t arrive out West this year, but Arizona’s Derrick Williams has been a revelation. Williams has helped fill in the void left by Jordan Hill’s departure by averaging 15 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. UCLA’s Reeves Nelson is as hard-nosed as it gets and leads the conference in field goal shooting at 65.3 percent.