Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Conference Play Primer: The Pac-10

Favorite: Washington Huskies

Washington has dropped out of the national top 25. Part of the reason for that is U-Dub once again has started the season slowly, going 8-3 in non-conference play without a marquee win, unless you consider beating Texas Tech or Virginia a marquee win. That said, Washington doesn't have a bad loss year, either. They lost close games to Kentucky and Michigan State in the Maui Invitational before losing by one to Texas A&M, who has climbed all the way into the top 25, on the road. Its enough that Kenpom has the Huskies sitting pretty at fifth in the country. It generally isn't a good idea to argue with Kenpom, either. Washington is deep -- ten guys average at least 13.0 mpg and no one plays more than 27.0 mpg -- and they are balanced -- all ten of those players average at least 5.4 ppg. They have athletes, they have shooters, they have playmakers, and they have defenders. You know about Isaiah Thomas and Matthew Bryan-Amaning, so I'm going to mention Justin Holiday, Jrue's brother, who has been great thus far in his senior season. He's averaging 12.5 ppg and 6.2 rpg and has been just as good as Venoy Overton on the defensive end of the floor.

Player of the Year: Derrick Williams, Arizona

With all due respect going to Klay Thompson of Washington State, Williams is my early season pick for Pac-10 player of the year. It isn't just because of the numbers he puts up. Williams averages 19.7 ppg and 7.0 rpg while scoring at an insanely high efficiency -- he averages more than two points per shot attempt, as he is knocking down 63.2% from the floor and 68.4% from three. Its the fact that he is putting up these numbers without a true point guard on the floor with him. Williams is much improved at getting his own shot. At 6'8", he has enough athleticism and quickness that he will likely be a combo-forward in the NBA, but his perimeter skills are still dragging a bit behind his tools. He's improved -- his three point shooting percentage proves that, and he was also become adept at driving left from the perimeter -- but he's still a guy that would benefit from a point guard that could get him the ball in better spots to score. Thompson's numbers are better, but so is his supporting cast.

All-Conference Team

  • G: Isaiah Thomas, Washington: 15.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.8 apg
  • G: Faisal Aden, Washington State: 16.1 ppg, 41.9% 3PT
  • F: Klay Thompson, Washington State: 22.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 4.2 apg, 2.3 spg, 42% 3PT
  • F: Matthew Bryan-Amaning, Washington: 13.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.4 spg, 1.4 bpg
  • C: Nikola Vucevic, USC: 15.2 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 1.6 bpg
Biggest Surprise: Washington State

The Cougars finished in last place in the Pac-10 in 2010. Dead last in a conference that many considered to be one of the worst of the decade. With their core basically intact this season, most expected an improvement out of Wazzu, but I doubt many people expected them to become a legitimate contender for the conference crown, a potential tournament team, and a group that is on the edge of cracking the top 25. There are still some concerns that I have -- DeAngelo Casto still isn't much more than a dunker and is a bit of a hot head, Klay Thompson and Faisal Aden are both a bit soft, they don't have much quality depth. Having said that, Thompson's performance in the Diamond Head Classic should help rid him of the "soft" label, and Reggie Moore's return from injury has given this group a big boost. There are not many teams in the country with a perimeter as good as Wazzu's.

Biggest Disappointment: UCLA Bruins

Simply put, there is too much talent on this team for Ben Howland's club to be struggling like this. Their front line, on paper, looks as good as anyone in the country. Joshua Smith is a force on the block when he decides to be, Reeves Nelson is a blue-collar forward that has improved this season, and Tyler Honeycutt has the tools to be a first round pick. Malcolm Lee and Jerime Anderson are blue-chip recruits. Zeke Jones, Tyler Lamb, and Brendan Lane are all capable players. So why the struggles? This team doesn't defend the way Ben Howland teams should defend. Jones and Anderson -- and the entire back court, for that matter -- have a habit of making the wrong decision in critical junctures. They don't get up for games against lesser competition -- UCLA nearly beat Kansas on the road, then lost to Montana at home, beat BYU, then nearly lost to Montana State and UC Irvine. Can we pin all of that on leadership? Who knows, but with the talent UCLA has, they should be a Pac-10 favorite. Few outside of Westwood currently believe that.

Teams to keep an eye on:
  • USC: The Trojans have been a different team the last month, and that was true before they added Jio Fontan, who is averaging 16.7 ppg and 3.3 apg, to the mix. They knocked off Texas at home by 17 (without Fontan) and they beat Tennessee on the road after coming up a couple of Josh Selby jumpers short of beating Kansas in the Phog. Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stephenson are big enough to compete with anyone up front, and the tandem of Maurice Jones and Fontan has been tough to handle through three games.
  • Cal: There are some decent pieces on the Bears. Jorge Gutierrez is good, as is Harper Kamp. A 25 point win over New Mexico is nice, but I think their five point first half against Notre Dame is probably a better indication of how good this team is.
  • Arizona State: This is charity, because I think Arizona State has some talent. On the perimeter, they are loaded, with guys like Ty Abbott, Rihard Kuksiks, Jamelle McMillan, and Trent Lockett. But up front, they are relying on the undersized Kyle Cain. And that's about it.
Teams to forget about:
  • Stanford, Oregon, and Oregon State: These are just not good basketball teams.

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