Articles in Category: College Hoops
The regular season is over and Championship Week is upon us. The time is now for many teams to circle the wagons and make a run in their respective conference tournament.
Of course, the caveat to making a deep conference tourney run is that it doesn’t necessarily translate to NCAA Tournament glory, or, for that matter, a win in the first (sorry…) second round.
Anything can happen, though, in a conference tournament, and for that reason, little stock should be placed in winning or losing.
As you prepare to fill out your bracket (or brackets… shame on you if you fill out different sheets) and plot the many ways you plan to fool your boss into thinking you’re actually doing work, there are three teams that deserve more attention than they are getting.
Coincidentally, one team nobody is talking about. But, they should be. Another has hovered under the radar all year long. And the third team is a perennial contender that you probably forgot about because they were left for dead after losing three straight games in late January.
These three are teams capable of making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, regardless of how they perform in their conference tournament this week because they are hot at the right time, possess elite scorers, and have shown they are capable of winning games against the best programs in the nation. At last glance, these are the primary characteristics of championship-caliber teams.
Temple Owls – Atlantic 10
In light of their win over VCU Sunday afternoon in their regular season finale and for the sake of this column, I will put Temple comfortably in the tournament. With that said they’ll likely bow out in the A-10 quarterfinals. Sorry for the Kiss of Death, Temple fans.
Despite finishing fourth in the ultra-competitive A-10 and possessing some surprising regular season losses, Temple enters postseason play winners of 10 of their last 12 games, including the aforementioned 84-76 win over A-10 runner-up VCU.
During their current seven-game win streak, Temple is averaging 79 points per game. Likely A-10 Player of the Year, Khalif Wyatt, who posted 30 points against VCU, leads the way, averaging nearly 21 points per game during the streak.
In addition to their win Sunday over VCU, Temple owns two quality early-season victories over Syracuse and A-10 regular season champ Saint Louis.
Those two wins are impressive because Temple was able to win games utilizing two different styles of basketball.
The ability to adapt and play multiple styles will be something that can certainly prove useful in a tournament field where match-ups and style of play are always important.
Oklahoma State Cowboys – Big 12
Safely in the field of 68, the Cowboys have quietly put together a tremendous season, finishing third in the Big 12 and winning 11 of their final 13 games.
Unlike Temple, Oklahoma State has multiple scoring threats, which gives them flexibility in the event one of their go-to guys has an off night. This is something that is entirely possible given the relative unfamiliarity of neutral court settings in the NCAA Tournament.
Despite being third on the team in scoring average, the leader of the trio, Le’Bryan Nash, is arguably the most talented scorer in the Big 12 and has shown flashes of being the most talented scorer in the nation.
Nash has really asserted himself in the last five games, averaging nearly 20 points while shooting an impressive 68 percent from the field. It’s no coincidence that his scoring totals have gone up as his shot attempts from beyond-the-arc have been nearly eliminated.
Oklahoma State beat N.C. State, Tennessee, Big-12 regular season champion Kansas in Lawrence (nearly beating them again in a 2 OT thriller) and Kansas State. In addition, they gave Gonzaga – now the nation’s top team – all they could handle on New Year’s Eve.
I’ll take multiple scoring threats and the swagger that comes from winning tough games during the course of the season. Don’t sleep on Oklahoma State.
Louisville Cardinals – Big East
While the world talks about how awesome Duke is now that Ryan Kelly is back healthy, and how dynamic Indiana can be, keep in mind the Cardinals’ only loss since January 28th was that epic 5 OT contest at Notre Dame. A game they probably should have won, Louisville’s season could have come unraveled.
Instead, it galvanized a Cardinals squad that was picked by many in the preseason not only to win Big East, but to also cut down the nets in Atlanta. A prediction many experts leaned away from as recently as three weeks ago.
Russ Smith is one of those guards that can make a coach feel like he is on top of the world. He’s also one of those guards that can make a coach pull out his own hair and wonder to himself why he even bothered drawing up a play in the huddle. If you saw the Notre Dame game back in February, you know exactly what I mean.
Smith is a fearless scorer, willing to take the big shot when the game is on the line. The kid has ice water in his veins. No shot is too big. No situation too tense.
Like Oklahoma State, Louisville can punish you in so many ways.
Although he isn’t the prolific scorer that Smith is, senior Peyton Siva is a shifty guard that can attack the paint, get in the lane and find finishers around the rim and behind the arc.
In recent games, the primary finisher for the Cards’ has been Luke Hancock. The sharpshooter is 12-18 from three in the last five games and is shooting 37 percent on the season. Last week, Hancock single-handedly buried Syracuse at the Carrier Dome in Louisville’s 58-53 win over the Orange.
Gorgui Dieng’s play has greatly improved and Chane Behanan is one of the more underrated big men in the nation. The tandem is ferocious on the glass, accounting for nearly half of Louisville’s 38 rebounds per game.
Senior leadership, a three-point specialist, two dominating interior monsters and a guy without a conscience… Sounds like the recipe for a championship run. Might this be Rick Pitino’s best team at Louisville?
Will any of these teams cut down the nets in Atlanta? If I had that answer, I’d be in South Beach right now sipping a Corona. Instead, I’m in my office, wracking my brain analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of a team with 20 regular season losses.
Truth be told, we’re on the brink of what could be the most entertaining and captivating tournament in recent memory. So sit back, relax, and perfect the fake cough you’ll use to call off of work next Thursday. It’s March Madness, the most exciting event in all of sports.
Four Rhetorical Questions About College Basketbal
In the second half of the Men’s NCAA Championship game last Monday, there was a stretch of seven minutes and eight seconds (19:40-12:32) that went like this, for the Butler Bulldogs:
19:40 -- Chase Stigall made Three Point Jumper. Assisted by Shawn Vanzant.
19:01 -- Chase Stigall missed Three Point Jumper.
18:03 -- Shelvin Mack missed Three Point Jumper.
17:22 -- Shelvin Mack missed Three Point Jumper.
17:13 -- Andrew Smith missed Layup.
16:50 -- Ronald Nored missed Layup.
16:27 -- Matt Howard missed Three Point Jumper.
16:09 -- Shelvin Mack missed Jumper.
16:00 -- Chase Stigall missed Layup.
15:54 -- Ronald Nored made Free Throw.
15:54 -- Ronald Nored missed Free Throw.
15:04 -- Ronald Nored missed Three Point Jumper.
14:51 -- Shelvin Mack missed Three Point Jumper.
13:59 -- Khyle Marshall missed Jumper.
13:44 -- Shelvin Mack missed Layup.
13:18 -- Matt Howard missed Layup.
12:38 -- Khyle Marshall missed Free Throw.
13:38 -- Khyle Marshall missed Free Throw.
12:32 -- Wait for it... Shawn Vanzant made Jumper. Assisted by Chase Stigall.
I still don't know which is worse, reading that, or watching it live. I'll take the latter, simply because I somehow sat through that entire game. Sometimes, as fans, we are blindly loyal, getting caught up in our teams or in players we root for. I am a college basketball fan. I am even more of an NCAA Tournament fan; I couldn't tell you the last time I missed a championship game. I had no emotional investment in either team that played on Monday, but, for the sake of my own streak, I couldn't turn it off. This is not blindly loyal, but more like -- blindly stupid. Three things can do this to men: sports, women and politics. I haven't seen basketball that bad since the Nerdlucks stole Barkley's talent in Space Jam. In the spirit of the Final Four, here are four rhetorical questions regarding college hoops.
1) Can we change the start time of the National Championship Game?
College basketball is predominantly an East Coast sport. I understand the Pac-10 has its fans with the likes of UCLA and Arizona within the conference. I'm not saying college basketball is irrelevant out West, but it isn't nearly as big as it is in the Central and Eastern zones. There is no reason for any championship game to start at the same time the Girls Gone Wild commercials come on.
2) Can the NBA air games the Monday of the championship, already?
Okay, fine, I lied; three college questions and one NBA question. Why can’t the NBA air any games the night of the Men’s National Championship game? Out of respect for college hoops? It's their night -- let them have it. Okay. But, the NBA and NCAA don’t work well together when it comes to anything else, so why this one night?
Just look at the draft policy. The NBA makes its draft rules with complete disregard to how it affects college ball. They don't care; unlike other sports and their college counterparts, the NBA and NCAA are competitors. Look at it this way, in every other sport, as you go up in level, so does the popularity -- except basketball. The NFL is more popular than college football, which is more popular than high school football. The same goes for baseball and the MLB or hockey and the NHL. College football doesn't expect to match the NFL's popularity; they're cool with it.
So, back to my question, why won’t the NBA air games the night of the National Championship? I'm not saying a full slate, but give me a double-header somewhere. If nothing else, have something on League Pass. Anyone who loves basketball enough to order it shouldn’t have to go a day without an NBA game. Don't play the ratings card here, either. Monday's game featured a 53-point scoring winner, the lowest since 1949. Butler shot 12-of-64; that is the lowest shooting percentage (18.8) of any national championship game in history, and the third lowest of any tournament game ever (I don't know how it's third, but whatever). Adding insult to injury, Butler shot an "I-swear-I'm not-making-this-up" 3-of-31 from inside the three point line. At some point, like this one, it is just flat out terrible basketball. The NBA could have aired Raptors - Bobcats on Monday and it would have been a better watch. Normally that's an analogy used to exaggerate for effect. I'm not exaggerating at all; it was that bad.
3) Can we start re-seeding yet?
This one really only came to fruition after that epic game on Monday. Let's be honest, the National Championship was played Saturday night between UConn and Kentucky. College basketball simply isn't as good as it used to be, so it's time to evolve. When the major argument against re-seeding is that filling out a bracket would be more difficult, it's time to tackle the subject. Upsets are fun in the early rounds, but when Number Eight is defeating Number Eleven to get into the NCAA Championship Game, something is wrong. We have technology; if you need to re-align your bracket when filling it out, the computer can do it for you. Problem solved.
4) Does the regular season even matter in college basketball?
I've heard the following statements from certain radio hosts over the pass couple weeks:
"It [the tournament] makes the regular season completely meaningless."
"It [the tournament] is a ridiculous way to pick a champion."
To which I say:
A) Does it make the regular season completely meaningless?
Ask Kemba Walker. Ask Jim Calhoun. Ask any UConn Huskie who used the entire regular season, and eventually the conference championships, to find their identity as a team. Spectators have a very short-term memory; we evaluate each game and move on. How about the mid-season game verses Team (insert name here), where player (insert name here) learned something about himself on the court? The moment, before, after or during the game, in which Player X took the next step, from something he learned from a teammate, or from a coach. These games, regular season, pre-season, postseason or what-have-you, aren't about us. It’s about these 18-22 year old kids who learn lessons, on and off the basketball court, throughout their college career.
B) Is the tournament a ridiculous way to pick a champion?
Are there flaws in the tournament? Certainly. We already tackled the idea of re-seeding in the later rounds. These kids play their regular season to get into the playoffs. The regular season matters. Once they get in to the playoffs, anything is possible. How is that different from any other sport? At least these kids get to decide their champion where it was meant to be decided -- on the court.
Follow Bryan on Twitter at http://twitter.com/bryanconfer
With just two days before the NCAA Tournament actually starts, play-in game aside, it is time to break down the bracket and uncover the potential storylines of the upcoming weeks. After an unquestionably down year for college basketball, there are few clear-cut favorites outside of the #1 seeds.
Let’s face it, the beauty of the tournament is in the stunning upsets and incredible individual efforts that bring teams to victory. These performances live on in our memories much longer than actual tournament winners do. With several standouts already in position to do some damage, this year appears to be no different.
Kemba Walker, G – UConn
In a year when college basketball has lacked a truly dominant player, Walker elevated his game to fill the void. In fact, Uconn has Walker to thank for their magical run through the Big East tournament, winning five games in five days. Demonstrating remarkable consistency, killer instinct and skill, Walker scored double digits in nearly every game. Over the past few months, Walker has gained the confidence and swagger that lets every opponent know that he is the best player on the court. The matchup to watch out for will be in the Sweet 16 when UCONN will likely play San Diego State. SDSU has a lot of experience with trying to shut down a superstar (they played BYU’s Jimmer Fredette three times this season) and has enough athletes to compete with the rest of the Huskies. The Aztecs will presumably use the Jimmer defense on Walker, which consists of continually rotating their taller athletes defensively on the point, rather than use D.J. Gay. This matchup will likely provide the winner with a shot at Duke and the Final Four.
Kenneth Faried, F – Morehead St.
Every year there is a player who goes unnoticed until the bracket is set; this year, that player is Kenneth Faried. In his four years at Morehead State, Faried became the NCAA all-time leading rebounder, grabbing more rebounds than everyone else in their collegiate career. This season, he has averaged close to 18 points per game and led the Eageles to a 24-9 record. As his team is peaking right on time, 12-1 in their last 13 games, Faried has all the makings of a breakout player. Their first round opponent lacks an equally dominant big man. Rick Pitino will no doubt have his Louisville Cardinals coached up on Faried but it’s going to take a team effort to slow him down. The Eagles will have a difficult time getting past the first round but teams like Morehead State and players like Kenneth Faried always seem to rise to the occasion under the bright lights of March Madness.
Taylor Battle, G – Penn State
Taylor Battle is arguably one of the best players in the country. Capping off his career with his finest season yet, Battle has been “the guy” for Penn State for the past few years. After a rough start in the Big 10 tournament, Battle willed his team to victory against a Tourney bound, Michigan State squad. Battle’s shooting ability (75% from the line, 37% from downtown) is more than adequate and, like we saw against Michigan State, when he catches fire, he’s unstoppable. The Nittany Lions will easily win the first round game against Temple and will likely play San Diego State afterwards. With a little magic from Taylor Battle, we could definitely see Penn State sneak into the Sweet 16.
Jimmer Fredette, G – BYU
What, like he wasn’t going to make this list? Everything that there is to say about Jimmer has been said. The man is a once-in-a-decade scorer with a killer’s mentality. However, the most interesting part of Jimmer’s game is his lack of court ego. He is more than willing to pass to his teammates as defenses key in on him, and his supporting cast of shooters, namely Jackson Emery and Noah Hartsock, are more than capable of knocking down the open jumpers he sets up. Therein lays the key to BYU’s tournament chances. Jimmer is going to get his points, but his teammates can enable him to get better looks by knocking down the open shots he gets them. It is pretty clear that the Southeast is the easiest region, so if BYU can put it all together with a little luck, they could mess around and find themselves in the Final Four. The Wofford Terriers should watch out; after dropping 30 gutsy points on an incredibly athletic SDSU team that was seeing him for the third time, Jimmer has got to be licking his chops for Thursday night.
With the regular season coming to a close over the weekend, Pac-10 schools have turned their attention to the annual conference tournament in the Staples Center, the only arena in America that serves as the home floor of two NBA franchises.
Fans who watch on TV will notice that the atmosphere is much closer to that of a Clippers’ game than to the buzz surrounding the defending NBA Champions. That is to say it is brightly lit, sparsely attended, and no one west of the Rockies gives a damn.
After many long nights, the finish line is upon us: the Big East Tournament. Five days at the Mecca of basketball, Madison Square Garden. A final opportunity for teams to either seal or blow their chances at the NCAA Tournament.
As the regular season winds down, the Pac-10 regular season title still hangs in the balance. While preseason favorite Washington has faltered down the stretch, the league’s two most prestigious programs UCLA and Arizona, are going toe-to-toe for the title with merely two games left to be played. There was a time when it was simply assumed these heavyweights would compete for the title on an annual basis.
However, neither of these teams was expected to contend for this year’s Pac-10 Championship.
Just last season, the Wildcats snapped the nation’s longest consecutive streak of NCAA Tournament appearances at twenty-five. It was a somewhat understandable slip with the new coaching regime taking over after the unstable ending to Lute Olson’s otherwise sparkling tenure as head coach in Tucson. Generally speaking, the Wildcats were still assumed to be at least a year away from conference contention as they filled the stables with the kind of talent that had made them a national power in the eighties and nineties.
The same could be said for Ben Howland’s bunch that stumbled to a 14-18 record last season. This was on the heels of a run of achievement only two years removed from the last of three consecutive Final Four appearances for the school. What had been the most stable program in the conference since Howland came over from Pittsburgh was now showing some cracks in the foundation as failed recruits fled to lesser programs and the team floundered as a result. Fans and critics wondered aloud if the slowed down style Howland was famous for could continue to bring in recruits in a conference famous for running and gunning.
These two powers have already met twice this year. The first was an eleven-point win in the McKale Center for Arizona. The most recent meeting was merely a few days ago with UCLA casually dismissing Arizona in lopsided fashion by a score of 71-49. The most recent loss cemented the Wildcats’ first and only losing road trip this season. This is somewhat understandable as the trip through L.A. has historically been a thorn in so many programs’ sides in the Pac-10 conference slate. With the season series split, the Bruins’ impending game with the Huskies took on great meaning for not such an obvious reason as one might think.
In the Pac-10’s tie-breaker rules the next deciding factor after head-to-head results is each team’s record against the next team down in the standings. Arizona halved the season series with the Huskies with their dramatic home win a few weeks ago. However, UCLA was defeated in Pauley for only the fourth time ever by Washington on New Year’s Eve. This means that in order to gain the number one seed for the conference tournament next weekend that the game against a suddenly underachieving Washington team is a must-win.
UCLA’s final road to the regular season title is much rockier than that of the Wildcats. Arizona gets to host the lowly Oregon schools this week, neither of whom has had much success away from home this season in league play. Meanwhile, the Bruins travel to Washington this Thursday in an arena that has been a house of horrors for Howland who has lost his last six contests played in Seattle.
There is much to gain for the school that can emerge as the conference champion this weekend. First and foremost, the winning school gets to lay claim to the Pac-10 regular season title. UCLA has not won the regular season title since 2007-08 and Arizona has been without a conference crown since the 2004-05 season. Each school would prefer to return to the habit of hanging banners sooner than later. Also, the winner can avoid matching up with the defending tournament champion Washington Huskies in the semifinal round. This is especially important in a top-heavy year for the conference where there are only realistically three tournament-caliber teams.
This season in the Pac-10 proves that the elites of the conference simply can not be held down for long. With Sean Miller bringing the stability back to Arizona and Ben Howland restoring the order in Westwood, expect neither program to leave this perch any time soon.
For the better part of this decade, St John’s has been a doormat in the monster that is the Big East. Usually hanging around with the Seton Halls’, South Floridas’ and Rutgers’ of the conference, the Johnnies lacked sizzle in a conference that breaths swagger. Norm Roberts tried and started their rebirth on the path to respectability, but in the end he didn’t win enough. So Roberts left for the SNY TV studios, and in walked Steve Lavin with his UCLA pedigree.
Once it was announced that Ernie Kent wouldn’t be welcomed back as the Oregon basketball coach after a mostly successful tenure that included multiple Regional Finals’ runs, speculation began instantly on who would be named his successor. Oregon is by no means a premier job in college basketball, but because of the deep pockets of Nike boss and Ducks’ mega-donor Phil Knight, all of the early candidates were big names.
The Creighton alum-turned-defect was brought in to take over a program opening a new arena the next fall without a marquee team (or coach) to showcase. He wasn’t exactly a slam dunk hire for the fan base either as his Blue Jays had only advanced to four NCAA Tournaments in his previous ten seasons at the school after appearing in five straight starting in the late-nineties. Also, in 2007 he had been hired at Arkansas only to turn around and return to Creighton so his reputation made it seem as though it may not be set in stone until he sleeps on the idea. His reception was lukewarm at best but a few of the players hadn’t even bothered to wait to find out who the next coach would be. By the time Altman had taken over the team, several of his would-be best returning players had already transferred. He had to rebuild a roster so depleted it was unable to fulfill a planned team tour of Italy because of a lack of available bodies.
To most who followed the team it was no surprise at all that Oregon stumbled to lesser opponents (in theory at least) at home and were beaten handily by Duke in Portland. There was a glimmer of hope in the Missouri game, but only after the team managed to construct a twenty point deficit. By pressuring a high octane Missouri team into very nearly squandering their lead, Altman had found his style of play. After taking most of the month of December to hone their craft (the team went from 12/14-01/14 between wins), Oregon has become the conference’s most improved team. They have advanced from glorified dunk-bait to an opponent worthy of careful consideration and preparation for the teams vying for the regular season title.
The Ducks have won six of nine Pac-10 games since opening 0-4 during their transitional phase where teams way less impressive than Pac-10 opponents were casually dismissing them. In that stretch they have beaten two teams ahead of them in the conference standings (Washington, Washington State) and beaten USC, a school also in transition although for other reasons entirely, in both match-ups. At Creighton it took Coach Altman a few years to turn around a downtrodden Creighton Blue Jays’ program that had far fewer resources than his current employer. With a top-flight recruiting class coming in next season featuring prep superstar Jabari Brown as well as several other high-major conference prospects, Altman is obviously selling the system well in his short tenure. The Oregon basketball team benefited greatly from the publicity received by the football team and no doubt prospects around the country are infatuated with the Nike connection in Eugene. For this year the team is still not ready to win a conference championship.
However, they are certainly prime to help a higher profile team fall short fall short of their own championship goals. In a year where the conference as a whole is lacking for elite guards there is value in successfully pressuring the backcourt and that has been proven in the team’s late season resurgence. Dana Altman may not have been Oregon’s first choice last spring, but no coach in the conference is doing more with less than he is with this year’s roster. The Pac-10, weak in national reputation, would be greatly buoyed by resurgence from the Oregon basketball program moving forward when the conference adds two basketball non-powers in Colorado and Nebraska next year. With Oregon’s Nike resources and Altman’s proven system the fans and opponents of the Oregon Ducks shouldn’t have to wait too long before the program is back to the upper echelon of the Pac-10.
With just over half of the Pac-10 season over with, the conference race has shifted drastically over the last two weeks. The 2010-2011 Pac-10 men’s basketball conference title was thought to be Washington’s crown to claim; it certainly looked that way after roaring out to a 7-1 start in league play. However, now that Washington is mired in a three game road losing streak, there appear to be several qualified suitors for the regular season championship.
Now that they have all crossed the halfway mark, the current conference standings are remarkably representative of the state of each team. Below is a snapshot of where each team stands presently as well as what has gotten them there, for better or worse.
1. ARIZONA (20-4 overall, 9-2 conference)
The leading candidate to stand in for Washington is Sean Miller’s revamped Arizona team. Over the last thirty years, the Wildcats have been no stranger to the upper echelon of the conference, but saw their NCAA tournament appearance streak snap last season in Coach Miller’s first year on campus. With three of their four total losses this season coming against ranked teams, Arizona has somewhat quietly built the best tournament selection resume in the Pac-10. In conference, Arizona has lost only at Oregon State and Washington respectively and now sit at 15th in the newest AP poll. In order to maintain their position at the top of the Pac-10 pecking order they will need more consistent guard play to compliment All-American candidate Derrick Williams. Williams has attempted more free throws than field goals and has also converted just under 70% of his 36 three-point shots attempted.
2. UCLA (16-7 overall, 7-3 conference)
After capping off a four game losing streak in their non-conference slate with a loss in Pauley Pavilion to Montana, it did not appear that UCLA would be able to right the ship and return to being a top contender in the league. Make no mistake, this is not the kind of roster that fans of the Pac-10 are accustomed to seeing under Ben Howland at UCLA. In the past, Howland built his teams around quick scoring guards and gritty posts who set bone-crushing perimeter screens and rebounded like their uniforms were on fire. That is no longer the case as this year’s edition features a highly-skilled frontcourt, albeit more of a finesse group. The most concerning weakness has been in the backcourt where the team lacks for great ball handlers and is more susceptible to pressure defense as a result. Freshman big man, Josh Smith must learn to stay out of foul trouble so that the Bruins have a back-to-the basket scoring threat to compliment the face up games of Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt.
3. WASHINGTON (15-7 overall, 7-4 conference)
A mere two week ago, things couldn’t have been better in the U-District of Seattle. After having beaten Arizona at home in a nationally televised showdown between the conference’s only ranked teams at the time, the Huskies were charging hard at running away with the title. The Huskies were saddled with the loss of steady sophomore point guard Abdul Gaddy but buoyed by the brief but sublime basketball renaissance of Isaiah Thomas as an elite college point guard. In the first eight Pac-10 games for Washington the diminutive guard, affectionately known as “I.T.” to Washington fans, was averaging just over 18 points and 8 assists per game. Unfortunately, the Huskies returned from an unusually long eight day mid-season hiatus between games and have reverted to the problems that held them back last winter, before the miraculous run to the Sweet Sixteen. The team has faced an increasing amount of zone defense, largely due to their settling for the three-point shot which they have collectively hoisted eighty-seven times in their losing streak. Washington must commit to valuing the basketball and shooting more free throws than their opponents to regain the form they had a fortnight ago.
4. WASHINGTON STATE (16-7 overall, 6-5 conference)
Klay Thompson has terrorized opposing defenses all season, but had time to dish out the early favorite for quote of the year in the Pac-10. After the Cougars powerful performance against favored bitter rival, Washington, Klay said, “I think we have a chance to run the table,” in a post game interview. Interestingly, the very next game on the schedule was a road trip to Eugene where the Cougars careened right off the “table” to the tune of losing 69-43. Not only did the team perform poorly, but the Cougs only got twelve points to go with six turnovers for the normally outstanding Thompson. That quote and subsequent performance demonstrates the maddening inconsistency that has plagued the Cougars in Ken Bone’s second year on campus. Every time it appears they are poised for a run as one of the most experienced teams in the league, they stub their toe and continue to hover around a .500 conference winning percentage. The loss of suspended guard Reggie Moore will hurt the team that was already light on elite athletes in a league filled with them. It will take continued Herculean efforts by Thompson to guide this team to a NCAA tournament bid.
5. CALIFORNIA (13-10 overall, 6-5 conference)
The young Golden Bears stumbled out of the gate to a 2-4 league mark before reeling off a four game winning streak that was derailed in Berkeley in triple overtime over the weekend. Things are looking up for Mike Montgomery’s bunch that appears to have benefited from the departure of freshman point guard and recent Baylor enrollee, Gary Franklin. The team has piggy-backed off the energy of Jorge Gutierrez and the apparently Samson-esque qualities of his pony-tailed mane. He has set the table and allowed for freshman phenomenon, Allen Crabbe to focus on scoring in bunches. Strangely, since the two teams contrast in makeup as sharply as Berkeley and Pullman contrast in general, Cal and Washington State are in a race for relevance as a potential at large team. For a chance to play in the postseason, Cal must hope their young contributors are seasoned to finish strong against a road-heavy remaining schedule.
6. STANFORD (12-10 overall, 5-6 conference)
If they continue to struggle to win on the road, this team won’t have the same lofty perch in the overall standings for the rest of the season. Actually it is fair to say that the Cardinal have been struggling to win since an eye-opening 3-1 start to conference play. Stanford won one, and only one, true road game this season at lowly Arizona State (more on them to come) back in late December. Since then, they have been beaten handily over the course of an eight game slate where they finished 2-6 with only home victories over Oregon State and Arizona State to stand on. Freshman Josh Owens may be the recruit that Johnny Dawkins can finally build around (assuming he isn’t asked to leave in any of the next three years). Owens is averaging 12 points and nearly 8 rebounds per game so far, in his premiere campaign through the Pac-10. Scoring leader Jeremy Green must become more efficient on the floor offensively to bring up the level of this team or they will continue to flounder. The Cardinal are still at least a year away from being able to contend for the conference title but can relish the role as a potential spoiler down the stretch. Any foe coming into cramped Maples Pavilion the rest of the way, better be ready for a fight.
7. OREGON (12-11 overall, 5-6 conference)
Oregon’s ascent through the standings is on the polar opposite path to that of the Stanford Cardinal. After christening their new state -of-the-art, and slightly over the top home court (the floor itself is painted to look as though it is enclosed by trees—if that makes any sense at all) with a win over USC, the Ducks have hardly looked back. Oregon is 5-2 over that stretch, fresh off a home sweep of the Washington schools that are both expected to participate in postseason play. Just as the tired joke going around the FSN announcing crews goes, Dana Altman wasn’t his wife’s first choice either but that seemed to work out okay. The same can be said for his first season coaching a roster that had so much offseason turmoil and turnover that the school had to plan a cancelled team tour overseas because the roster only featured six players at the time of their scheduled departure. Altman should be able to sell kids on joining him at “Nike U.” with a brand new arena and unlimited cutting-edge Nike product access. Any success they have this season is just icing on the swoosh-shaped cake.
8. USC (12-11 overall, 4-6 conference)
The Trojans are the conference’s most puzzling team so far this season. When they are on, they are good enough to beat anyone in the league. When they aren’t, they play badly enough to lose to every other team. The decisive home win against Texas seems distant but Nikola Vucevic’s play has not dipped since that breakout game. The Montenegrin junior is having an All-Pac-10 caliber season while averaging just under a double-double (16.7 ppg, 9.8 rpg). Unfortunately, the rest of the team cannot match his level of play as the program’s cupboard has been relatively bare since the departure and ensuing scandal of recent NBA drug policy violator O.J. Mayo. USC could be a terrifying early opponent for a top seed in the Pac-10 tournament in March, just as easily as they could go out with a whisper and lose convincingly.
9. OREGON STATE (9-13 overall, 4-7 conference)
The rebuilding job of the nation’s First Brother-in-Law continues with some glimmers of hope for the program. The Beavs are the only team in the conference to have beaten both Washington and Arizona this season, with both wins coming in Corvallis. However, they have not had similar success away from home. Craig Robinson has been vocal about his desire to increase the athleticism of his roster in recruiting and be more adaptable to an up and down style. With the youthful triumvirate of sophomore, Jared Cunningham as well as freshmen players, Roberto Nelson and Devon Collier, the program has already taken strides towards the goal of matching up athletically with the league’s power programs.
10. ARIZONA STATE (9-14 overall, 1-10 conference)
It is hard to shed any positive light on this abysmal season for the Sun Devils. In the opening weekend of Pac-10 play at Oregon, Arizona State had one lonely conference win, and has a donut in the conference win column, since. This is a team who was expected to be competitive just by virtue of a veteran coach and senior leadership in the backcourt. One player who has not disappointed in an otherwise dismal conference season is sophomore Trent Lockett, who leads the team in scoring while also being second in assists and rebounding. Having lost all four conference games they have played that were decided by four points or less, it is not as though Arizona State hasn’t been close. However, at this point, roughly two-thirds of the way into the conference season with one measly win, it is just a matter of trying to send seniors Jamelle McMillan, Ty Abbott, and Rihards Kuksiks out with a little pride, after largely successful careers in Tempe.
There are only a few games left before the Big East converges on Madison Square Garden for the Big East Tournament and this year it seems that any team is fully capable of beating anyone- especially on a neutral site like the Garden. Before we look towards the Garden, you have to look back at the previous three months of play and see the one team who can run the table at the Garden, one team not many picked at the beginning of the year; Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals. Louisville was picked largely in the middle of the pack at the beginning of the year, in part because of the loss of Samardo Samuels and Edgar Sosa. Whether or not Preston Knowles and Terrence Jennings could step up was the biggest key for Louisville this year. Knowles has led the team in scoring at just under 15 a game, followed by Peyton Siva at 10 a game. Knowles has been a star though, shooting 83% from the foul line and 40% from three point range. The Senior has made everyone at Louisville forget Sosa or Samuels. Kyle Kuric has also been a revelation, shooting an insane 46% from long range and adding 10 points a game to the Cardinal attack. The Louisville offense ranked 27th in the nation, averaging 77 points a game. Their defense - Pitino’s signature full court press - has helped get quick baskets and has added to the helter-skelter style Pitino teams have become famous for. Speaking of Pitino, this could be considered perhaps his best coaching job while at Louisville, and could rival his early years at Kentucky. He has gotten more out of this team than out of last year’s more talented team. Pitino may deserve the accolades for the team’s performance, but this year’s Louisville team is playing free and loose, and could cause major problems not just in the Big East Tourney, but the NCAA's as well.
Currently averaging over 100 points per game through their first two contests, the Washington Huskies have started the season playing at a blistering pace. The guard-heavy Huskies attack so fast, it must seem to their opponents as if they inbound made baskets from mid-court. With a plethora of emerging perimeter weapons, there is no doubt that the University of Washington has the conference’s most lethal backcourt. The question is, can the Huskies win the Pac-10 and contend nationally with such an undersized roster?
Team of the Week: CALIFORNIA
After the graduation of so many great offensive talents, most pundits picked the Golden Bears to struggle, especially early, with their brand new cast of players. It turns out that what they had left isn’t so bad after all after thrashing New Mexico, a likely tournament team who had defeated Cal last season, by 25 points at home.