HALFWAY HOME - PAC-10 OUTLOOK, PART ONEIn an earlier post we looked at Cal's second half chances and saw - well, not much. Today we'll roll out a mid-season review of the entire conference starting with the top 5 teams as we see them. Later today we'll have the bottom half of the conference, and our picks for Pac-10 honors. This is a power poll that doesn't perfectly conform to current conference standings (as you'll note by our #5 choice).
#1. UCLA Bruins (18-2/7-2)
Yeah, why not? They're not perfect - any team that allows Stanford's guards to take them off dribble drive is far from that - but this is still the best TEAM in the conference and our conference's best bet to cut down the nets in Atlanta. Defense rarely slumps.
1st half MVP: Arron Afflalo. We thought about giving this to Collison, since he's such a sparkplug on the defensive end, but Afflalo showed us why he's an All American by nearly outscoring Cal in the second half at Haas. When the Bruins' backs are against the wall, AA is the guy who will bail them out on both ends of the floor.
Pleasant Surprise: Lorenzo Mata blocks shots and controls the defensive glass - an underrated contributor who has really polished his game since last year.
Important Number: 28.2. That's the % of opponents' field goal attempts that come from three point range, ranking 19th in the nation. This shows that the Bruins get out on shooters as well as any team in the conference, reducing their vulnerability to rivals who have a hot shooting night.
What they need to fix: Two things - 1) they can struggle to stay in an offensive flow and Collison needs to establish a bit better control of the half court. 2) And, of course, the free throw shooting is still a bit of an Achilles heel. Nitpicking, really.
Reasonable expectation: UCLA will be a 1 or 2 seed in the tournament, and they have all the ingredients to make a return visit to the Final Four.
#2. Oregon Ducks (19-2/7-2)
We've stopped waiting for Ernie Kent to implode; he's got the Ducks playing really well and is the odds-on favorite to win Coach of the Year (though we'd give it to Floyd). Few teams in the country can score from outside like the Ducks - we knew that, but we've been shocked by how well they lock down opponents in slower paced games.
1st half MVP: Aaron Brooks. Who else? He's the Conference POY so far - he sits against UW and the Ducks lose. He returns, and Oregon knocks off WSU at Friel. He slumps in the first half against Cal, and the Bears run Oregon out of the gym. He catches fire, and leaves the Bears grasping at air.
Pleasant Surprise: Tajuan Porter's the trendy pick here, but we're going to give it to Maarty Leunen. Leunen leads the conference in rebounding, which is pretty important for a team that has one post player (two if you count Zahn off the bench).
Important Number: 41.2. That's the % of Oregon's field goal attempts that come from behind the arc. Live by the three, die by the three. This makes Oregon an interesting team come Tourney time - on a cold night they could be upset bait.
What they need to fix: Even with Leunen, they can really struggle on the glass. Their wings need to stay at home against bigger teams like Washington if the Ducks are to make a run deep into March.
Reasonable expectation: Elite Eight. They seem like one of the eight best teams in the country right now.
#3. Washington State Cougars (17-4/6-3)
Everyone's cuddly underdog, right? Not ours. We remember Tony Bennett ending Jason Kidd's college career, so we will continue to root against the Cougars. Not that it will help much - WSU does the little things better than any team in the conference, and their efficiency masks some obvious athletic shortcomings.
1st half MVP: Derrick Low. Takes care of the basketball like no other point guard in college basketball (see "important number," below). Shoots 42.5% from three. Fifth in the conference in steals.
Pleasant Surprise: Kyle Weaver. Kind of hard to call Weaver a big surprise, since he was the most athletic returnee on the Cougar team, but he's taken his game to the next level. Teams must respect his ability to penetrate and finish at the basket, and this makes Low and Ivory Clark all the more dangerous in the half court.
Important Number: 15.9. That's WSU's turnover %, which ranks them 2nd in the country. The Cougars simply don't waste possessions, which is why they've become a much more efficient offense.
What they need to fix: Offensive Rebounding. It's really nice that Wazzu has been efficient in the half-court, shooting 47% from the field. But eventually the Cougars will have a night where the shots don't fall, and they need to generate second shots. Right now they're 9th in the Pac-10, and that won't cut it.
Reasonable expectation: Sweet 16. Depth is a killer for the Cougars, and they will struggle against teams who match up well defensively in the half court and can run. If WSU gets the right draw, though, there's no reason to think they can't go a step further.
#4. USC Trojans (16-6/6-3)
The Extreme Makeover of the Pac-10 - Tim Floyd has completely reinvented the Trojans as a defensive juggernaut. What a brilliant hire. It's getting harder and harder to remember just how dysfunctional this bunch was under Henry Bibby.
1st half MVP: Taj Gibson. He's the only new starter, so we give him the lion's share of the credit for SC's improved defensive efficiency. Gibson helps force opponents to the perimeter where they must contend with a swarm of athletic and long 6'5" guards.
Pleasant surprise: The defense, obviously. No team in the conference has made a bigger improvement in its defensive stats than USC. Also, SC's freshmen have made big contributions off the bench.
Important number: 42.2. That's the effective FG % for USC opponents (giving greater weight to made three-pointers). That ranks them third in the freaking nation. Ernie Kent's getting lots of love for COY, but we think Floyd deserves the honor for eliciting this type of improvement.
What they need to fix: Turnovers. Floyd seems to have gone a ways toward fixing this issue, but without a "true" point USC can still fall into stretches where they're lax with the basketball.
Reasonable expectation: Sweet 16. Why not? Floyd's a good game coach, and the Trojans have enough offensive weapons to slug it out in the half court. This is a very dangerous team, and they have a top 5 recruiting class coming in.
#5. Arizona Wildcats (14-6/5-4)
As noted yesterday, Lute is back on retirement watch after the Cats' recent implosions in LA and against North Carolina at home. The big question in Tucson is whether he's lost his touch. Some of the Cats have made great improvements (Ivan the Terrible, Shakur) but collectively they suffer from the same defensive shortcomings that plagued them in '05-'06. Are we witnessing the end of an era, or will Arizona pull it together for one last run?
1st half MVP: Ivan Radenovic (right). For all the Chase Budinger hype, Radenovic has quietly put together an all-conference season (15.8/7.8) even if his teammates don't get him the ball enough.
Pleasant surprise: Mustafa Shakur has finally emerged as the true point guard that Cat fans have been waiting for. He averages 7.4 assists per game and is a big reason that Arizona runs the most efficient offense in the nation.
Important number: 33.6/19.0. Those are Arizona's %s for getting to the line, and keeping opponents from the line. They rank 10th in the nation on the former stat, and first in the nation on the latter. This tells you two things: first, Lute hasn't lost his touch and still rides the refs better than any coach in the conference. Second, Arizona's always a threat to win games at the line, which is critical come tournament time.
What they need to fix: Lazy perimeter defense. Arizona isn't a very big team inside, so you'd think opponents would jam the ball inside to get Radenovic in foul trouble. Nope - Arizona is almost dead last in the country in the % of opponents' shots that come from three point range. Watching the Cats confirms this - their guards and wings just don't pressure shooters as well as they need to to make a deep run in March.
Reasonable expectation: Who knows? We continue to think this team could make the Elite Eight. They could also be one-and-done in the tourney. It all comes down to the defense - every other part of their game is Final Four-worthy.