ENTER THE OCTAGONThey'd never admit it, but Pac-10 teams like Arizona and UCLA used to breathe a small sigh of relief when they got through their tough non-conference games. After some Big East or ACC roadies, how tough could home dates with the Washington schools be?
This year that has all changed. This year there are only a couple of gimmes on the schedule (and ASU may be a tougher test as their freshmen gain game experience.) Only one thing is for certain in the suddenly tough Pac-10: If you lose to Oregon State at home, you have a problem. Everything else could be a bit of a challenge.
The Pac-10 schedule used to be a cake walk for the one or two elite conference teams. This year it is The Octagon. Two coaches enter, one coach leaves. Here's where things stand from our vantage point on the eve of conference play:
Best win: 65-62 over Texas A&M in Anaheim. Worst loss: NA. The Schedule: Pretty tough, though only A&M is an elite team (Kentucky and Ga Tech look to disappoint). The Good: Just about everything, but particularly their defensive effort. UCLA is holding opponents to 42% from the field and 32% from three. The Bruins' turnover advantage is 212-143. The Bad: Despite recent improvement, the Bruins' free throw shooting is still dangerously poor. The Surprise: We didn't think Russell Westbrook would log more minutes than James Keefe among Bruin freshmen. Everything else has gone according to expectations. The question: No questions, really. We assume the best coach in the Pac 10 will improve free-throw shooting and cut down the nets at Staples next March.
Best win: 79-71 over Memphis in Tucson. Worst loss: 93-90 at Virginia. The Schedule: Toughest among the Pac-10 teams; three of the 'Cats' non-conference opponents will go Dancing in March. The Good: Almost everything, but especially their improvement on the defensive end. Opponents are shooting only 40% against the Cats. The Bad: Kirk Walters isn't getting better from his bout with mononucleosis, which is both scary and troubling for an Arizona team that's light on big bangers. The Surprise: Two words: Ivan Radenovic. We expected improvement, but he's leading the Cats in scoring as well as rebounding. The question: If Chase Budinger looks this good this soon, how good is he going to be come March? And wasn't he in the Spin Doctors?
Best win: 57-50 at Georgetown. Worst loss: NA. Schedule: Pretty lame. A 12-point win over Nebraska came at home. The Good: Everyone knows Oregon can score. The question was whether the Ducks could defend and rebound? So far the answer is yes - Oregon is averaging 40 boards a game and have forced nearly 20 turnovers per game. The Bad: They've been dinged up (maybe that's good news, given their record) and need to stay healthy to compete for the conference crown. The Surprise: That we're talking about conference championships and Oregon and it's not meant to be funny. Oh, and Tajuan Porter's just a little bit better than we thought - averaging 18.2 with a high of 38. The Question: with Porter's emergence, will there be enough basketballs to go around once everyone's healthy in Eugene? Chemistry has never been Ernie Kent's strongest subject.
4. Washington State
Best win: 77-67 over Gonzaga in Seattle. Worst loss: 69-55 at Utah. Schedule: Just OK, though only two roadies after their opening tournament. The Good: Derrick Low is playing as well as any 2-guard in the conference, shooting 44% from three-point range. The Bad: WSU is a backcourt team that has been out-rebounded against a largely creampuff schedule. The Surprise: They're 11-1. Is that surprising enough for you? The Question: Can the Cougs' frontcourt hold up against bigger teams in conference play?
Best win: 88-72 over LSU in Seattle. Worst loss: 97-77 at Gonzaga. Schedule: Embarrassing - only two quality opponents (Gonzaga and LSU). The Good: With the emergence of freshman SF Quincy Poindexter, the Dawgs have great scoring balance with four starters in double figures. Spencer Hawes looks to have his sea legs. The Bad: Elite teams shouldn't have 193 turnovers through eleven games (nine of which were against gimpy opponents). The Surprise: The loss to Gonzaga was a complete meltdown and UW showed a lack of composure, which has been unusual under Romar. The Question: Can Justin Dentmon establish control over this team and limit the mistakes that plagued UW in the Gonzaga debacle?
Best win: 60-56 over Wichita State in LA. Worst loss: 68-55 v Kansas State in LA. The Schedule: Pretty good compared with their peers - Kansas, South Carolina, Wichita, KSU. The Good: Tim Floyd coaches defense, and it's finally rubbed off on this group of Trojans. Opponents are shooting a ridiculous 33% for the season against SC. The Bad: Turnovers - just like the Huskies, USC struggles to complete possessions and has suffered 248 turnovers in 13 games. That breeds inconsistency and bad losses like the Kansas State debacle. The Surprise: Tim Floyd has guided SC to a 10-3 start while holding open auditions: Ten Trojans (including Pruitt) average double figures in minutes played. The Question: Will newly-returned Gabe Pruitt commit to the same defensive intensity that his mates have shown over the first two months?
Best win: 78-48 over Kansas State in Berkeley. Worst loss: 72-67 v USD in Berkeley. The Schedule: Pretty weak - and the Bears have been found wanting against the good teams on the schedule - DePaul and SDSU. The Good: Ryan Freaking Anderson, that's who. Cal has played good defense on the whole, holding opponents to 42%. The Bad: A team that needs wing scoring isn't getting much of it. Omar Wilkes has been OK, averaging 10 ppg, but Theo Robertson hasn't taken a step forward. Oh, and DeVon Hardin is hurt. The Surprise: Other than Anderson, there's the FT shooting, much improved at 80%. The Question: How do you replace a guy who is the cornerstone of your defensive system and one of only two offensive threats from the post? (BTW, don't flame us for ranking SC ahead of Cal - we're aware of the K-State scores, but who among you thinks Cal is a better team than the Trojans right now?)
Best win: 70-59 over Texas Tech in Oakland. Worst loss: 79-45 to Air Force in Palo Alto. The Schedule: Meh, but then the Cardinal always sprinkle in a tough non-con or two during conference play. The Good: The Lopez twins have shown flashes (and inconsistency) in the early going - Robin is averaging 2.5 blocks per game; Lawrence Hill has emerged as a real scoring threat, averaging 15 ppg on 58% shooting. The Bad: The Cardinal just don't have enough scoring to compete with good offensive teams. Anthony Goods is only averaging double figures because he shoots too damn much. The Surprise: Hill, basically - we weren't prepared for 58% from the field, even against gimps in non-conference play. The question: How much longer can Stanford afford to start two guards who shoot below 40% from the field?
9. Arizona State
Best win: 67-64 over Iowa in Tempe. Worst loss: 75-71 to Northern Arizona in Tempe. The Schedule: Character-building, with trips to tough environments at Minnesota and Xavier. The Good: The kids are alright - four true freshmen average more than 85 minutes per game. Herb Sendek is figuring out who can play, and has started four different starting lineups. Freshman Christian Polk leads the team with 15 ppg. The Bad: ASU just doesn't have much beyond the talented kids and senior forward Serge Angounou. The Surprise: Beating Iowa was a stunner, even if the Hawkeyes are really down this year. The Question: Can Sendek keep the kids' morale up through what should be a difficult conference schedule? If so, ASU looks like a breakout team in '07-'08.
10. Oregon State
Best win: none. Worst loss: 85-41 at Hawaii. The Schedule: Pathetic. It's one thing to play low-majors and D-1AA teams. It's another to play losing low-majors and D-1AAers. The Good: Marcel Jones has played well, averaging 16 a game. The Bad: Everything else. The Beavers shoot 42% from the field and 63% from the line and have been out-rebounded by D-1AA teams. The Surprise: Sasa Cuic has been awful, shooting 36% from the field. The Question: Will they win more than two conference games?