As PAC-10 play has drawn closer, I've been taking a good look at the different teams and haven't been too startled by what I saw. The only exception to that has been the success of Stanford and their undefeated record after losing the Lopez Twins to the NBA. They are even receiving votes in the AP and the Coaches polls! So I started kicking around the teams trying to sift through the soft OOC schedules, and misleading stats trying to figure out who will challenge for the PAC-10 crown this year.
The obvious choice is going to be UCLA. Sure, they're down from the past two or three years, but they're still a potent team with stifling perimeter defense and the best backcourt in the conference. But I didn't want to just stick with "UCLA wins it... again," I wanted to really dig into the conference. So pretend that UCLA is out of the equation - they lose Collison to a knee injury or for whatever reason the team implodes costing them 5 or 6 games and effectively the conference title.
Now I'd love to pick my Arizona Wildcats, that would be a great farewell gift to Olson for putting this team together, and a nice reward for Pennell and Co. who stepped in to pick up the pieces in the wake of Olson's sudden retirement. However, they're a very inexperienced team that is relying on three main players and a supporting cast that is largely unknown and mostly unproven. So, to prevent the homer pick of Arizona, we'll pretend that Jordan Hill's strained calf muscle is a torn ligament and he can't play until next year.
Let's whittle down the options here by eliminating teams that even with just eight teams to choose from, still don't have a chance. First to go is clearly Oregon State. They are barely a .500 team against competition that is severely sub-par of PAC-10 caliber. With losses to Howard, Yale, Montana State to name a few, there is little hope of them picking up 2 wins this season.
Next off the board has to be Washington State. I like their program and their deliberate style, but at some point when push comes to shove you need a guy that can get to the rim, and take over a big game. Their leading scorers (Aron Baynes 11.4 ppg, Klay Thompson 11.0 ppg, and Taylor Rochestie 10.2 ppg) are not players that can get terribly physical and have yet to show up against a quality team. All four of their losses have come against the only opponents on their schedule that could compete in the PAC-10. During these losses (Pitt, Baylor, Gonzaga, and LSU) their three leading scorers combined for an average of 26 points. If they want to compete, someone needs to step up.
Elimination next stops in Eugene, Oregon with the ducks. They lost a lot of talent gone to wasted efforts last year, and brought in a solid recruiting class. Their youth isn't coming along as quickly as Ernie Kent would probably like, and they've lost a couple ugly games because of it. If I were going strictly by record, they'd be off the board before WSU; However, they do have a good amount of talent and finally have a good inside presence with Michael Dunigan. Dunigan is a bad performance or two away from having been the Ducks' leading scorer to this point. The potential of this team far exceeds Washington State right now, and that's why Oregon gets a spot ahead of WSU.
Picking the middle of the remaining teams is almost like splitting hairs. Stanford is undefeated because of exceptional backcourt performances, and Washington has three losses, and no quality wins, but have a huge frontcourt advantage. So who's next? It has to be Stanford. I'm impressed with their 9-0 record after losing the Lopez Twins and all frontcourt presence. That is, I'm impressed until I look at who they've played. They’re only reasonably good win is Santa Clara, and only by 8 points. Guard play is extremely important, especially in the PAC-10. But with opposing guards like Harden, DeRozan, Rochestie, Randle and Christopher to face off against, it's going to be difficult to outmatch any team in the backcourt. Stanford needs more inside presence if they want to win the conference this year.
Like I said, this is like splitting hairs. Stanford needs inside presence, but Washington needs another scorer. The frontcourt of Jon Brockman and Matthew Bryan-Amaning is the most formidable in the conference and the size advantage alone is what sets them ahead of Stanford. But the Huskies are still waiting for Quincy Pondexter to step up consistently and become the wingman he has the potential to be. Pondexter has only had three of those games this year with 21 points, 16 points, and 14 points, but not one of them against a good defensive team. If Washington wants the title they need a guard taller than 6' to step up.
The remaining three teams are clearly head and shoulders above the five I've already covered. And picking the gem amongst them is extremely difficult. I know that no matter what order I put them in, there is going to be debate and argument over it. Each team has a solid case for the best of the group, but ultimately I feel it comes down to who has the most rounded unit combined with coaching ability. Since coaching adjustments, team management, and when push comes to shove the coach is blamed if they fail, and only given a quiet congratulations if they succeed, the head coach has to be the distinguishing factor amongst these three teams.
For that reason, USC has to come off the board. Tim Floyd has done a good job with these kids. They play a very physical and aggressive style of basketball. Combined with four legitimate scorers and you've got a recipe for success. But my problem with this team comes back to Tim Floyd. It isn't their style or abilities that has me concerned. It's the fact that Floyd has permitted this program to become merely a stepping stone for players like Mayo and DeRozan to take until they are allowed to move on to the NBA. That type of individual play leads to turnovers (conference high 16.8 per game), and will ultimately cost them games against teams with better chemistry. It's Floyd's job to counter that, and I don't believe he's capable of it - after all, it was his recruiting that built that scenario.
So now we're down to Arizona State and CAL. An easy pick if you listen to the media, right? Wrong. Take a look at both teams stats. Statistically they are almost identical with the majority of their scoring coming from four players, and fewer than 5 point per game from the rest. The largest separation between the two teams, statistically, is opponents points per game. CAL is giving up 64.3 while ASU is only 58. So who do you take? I go with CAL.
First while Arizona State has gotten additional help from Rihards Kuksiks who has doubled his ppg production from a year ago up to 10.8 points per game, they still don't get consistent production from anyone except James Harden, and that's a problem. Arizona State is only as good as Harden performs within his team. Want proof? Look no further than the IUPUI and BYU games. Against IUPUI he didn't show up and was too busy talking with Amare Stoudemire behind the ASU bench to care. He tallied 9 points and ASU got lucky. The other problem is if he becomes selfish against a good team. Harden dropped 30 on a good BYU team, but ASU struggled to a controversial win. Harden can carry the Sun Devils far, but if they want to be best out of this group it's going to take a team effort.
Once again, it comes down to team chemistry and how well they play as a collective unit and how much faith I have in the coach. This CAL team has had the most talent in the conference, outside of UCLA, for the past couple of years, but hasn't been able to capitalize on it under Ben Braun. With the hiring of Mike Montgomery this team almost instantly became better. Montgomery has these kids playing hard, shooting well, and playing as a team. That's why I have CAL ahead of USC, ahead of ASU, and ahead of the other teams in this scenario. CAL is getting great production from all over the court. They have the size to compete with Brockman & Washington, and the guards to compete with anybody in the conference.