Holiday Catch-Up: The Pac-10

Holiday Catch-Up: The Pac-10
Dec 24, 2006, 05:02 pm
Holiday Catch-Up: The Pac-10

The Standings

1. UCLA – Probably not the top team in the country, but playing like it right now. The Bruins were quite obviously the class of Maui, and the hard-fought win over Texas A&M is going to look nice come March. Ben Howland has emerged as one of the top system coaches in the country, always getting the most out of his players in terms of physicality on defense and the glass. The frontcourt is somewhat ho-hum, but everybody he puts on the floor competes with a ferocity that is eerily similar to what we used to see from his big men back at Pitt. Even the wing duo of Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp draw parallels to the longtime Howland-led Panther duo of Julius Page and Jaron Brown, though the Westwood version is certainly more talented. Many knew that Darren Collison would do a great job in replacing the departed Jordan Farmar, but who knew he would be such a significant upgrade? Another thing this team has the luxury of significant depth. Especially in the frontcourt, Howland can throw fresh bodies at opponents all night long.

2. Arizona – Lute Olson has Top 5 talent, but it is rarely clear whether or not he will get Top 5 results this early in the season. The loss at Virginia to open the year was very discouraging as the Wildcats displayed just about every characteristic that caused last season to be a disappointment. The team has toed the line with similar let downs since then on several occasions, but managed to notch a series of impressive wins to finish the non-conference slate on a 9 game winning streak: New Mexico State, UNLV, at Illinois, at San Diego State, Houston, and Memphis. There are still too many cooks in the backcourt kitchen, but the improved play of Mustafa Shakur is really helping. The frontcourt is quite limited, but as long Ivan Radenovic is playing like an All-American, Lute Olson should be able to get by.

3. Washington – The Huskies are young, have a tendency to start games very poorly, and their only loss came in the lone road venture thus far. But it is still hard not to get excited about the exceptional talent on Lorenzo Romar’s roster. Spencer Hawes is already the best low-block scorer on the west coast, and Quincy Pondexter appears to be a one-and-done talent. But the spectacular freshman duo doesn’t have to carry the load all the time, with players like Adrian Oliver and Jon Brockman around. Romar needs more consistent play out of Justin Dentmon, but it was stunning to see how much the team defense had improved against LSU. Perhaps this is an area that the young Huskies have nailed down, after looking well behind the curve early in the season. Washington is still too young to get overly bulled up on at this point, but this team is more than ready to be a factor in the Pac-10 race.

Middle of the Pack (4-7)

Oregon – The Ducks have looked great in non-conference play, not only coming away with a marquee win at Georgetown but also winning games against lesser opponents in a fashion that last year’s team could not. The way Ernie Kent’s squad has won games looks even more impressive, considering it has been done in the face of a serious injury bug. Malik Hairston has missed most of the season with nagging injuries, and the junior is the player that would really make this team good. Chamberlain Oguchi and Tajuan Porter have also missed significant time. Oregon is still way too thin in the frontcourt, but Bryce Taylor and Aaron Brooks are both (finally) playing up to expectations and unheralded power forward Maarty Leunen is quietly averaging a double-double. All things considered, it would be silly to buy in on an Ernie Kent-coached team with one marquee win to its name. But there are a lot of positives to take away from the undefeated start, and this team starts to get really good if Hairston can get things going in conference play.

USC – The non-conference slate hasn’t been particularly telling, with a disappointing home loss to South Carolina to start the season and moments of generally uninspired play since then, but it appears that Tim Floyd has a good thing going here. This weekend’s win over Wichita State is a huge one, and the young Trojans also have a nice win over George Washington to their credit. They certainly weren’t embarrassed in losing at the Phog to Kansas. Freshman Taj Gibson has his ups and downs, but appears to be the interior presence that Floyd so desperately needed. Daniel Hackett has taken similar lumps after graduating a year early to run the point in the wake of Ryan Francis’ tragic death, but looks like a youngster who is slowly figuring it out. USC has an absolute killer early conference schedule, hosting the Washington schools and then tripping to Oregon for a pair of games, followed by visits from UCLA and Arizona. But if Floyd can get Gabe Pruitt up to speed and not end up in too big a hole come mid-January, a Tourney berth isn’t out of the question.

Washington State – One of the biggest surprises of the young season has been the play of first year head coach Tony Bennett’s Cougars. There aren’t any McDonald’s All-Americans on the roster or NBA scouts flocking to campus in droves, but this team is winning games. The Cougars beat Mike Davis in his first game as head coach at UAB, shocked Gonzaga, and most recently beat a San Diego State squad that is going to contend for the MWC crown. I haven’t gotten a chance to take in a Washington State game yet this season, so my comments will be brief. I will say that if junior big man Robbie Cowgill can match his 17 point outburst against San Diego State on a regular basis in Pac-10 play, this team is probably too low and that Cowgill certainly has the ability to be a factor at the power conference level.

Stanford – It should be an interesting year for Trent Johnson. The talent in the frontcourt is undeniable, with both Lopez twins and sensational soph Lawrence Hill already ranking amongst the league’s top frontcourt presences. But Johnson has struggled to find a way to utilize the trio effectively, as only two of the three can be played together for significant stretches and the underwhelming backcourt doesn’t exactly make life easy for the developing big men. Anthony Goods has struggled season 30-point outburst in the season opener, while 6’5 athletic sparkplug Fred Washington does most of his damage around the basket as well. Brook Lopez looked absolutely phenomenal in the big win over Texas Tech, displaying a polished, versatile offensive repertoire. Robin is much more raw on the offensive end, but has shown the ability to run the floor, rebound, and block shots at a very high level for a player as young and as big as he is.

8. California – Injuries have robbed Ben Braun of a legitimate chance at a return trip to the Dance. Promising sophomore 7-footer Jordan Wilkes will miss the season with another injury and it will be too late by the time imposing big man Devon Hardin returns from surgery for a stress fracture. Power forward Ryan Anderson is perhaps the biggest freshman surprise in the country, showing skill and feel for the game well beyond his years. But the freshman phenom is about all Braun has left in the frontcourt. This is a shame, too, because it appeared as though Cal had the talent to overcome the loss of Leon Powe. There isn’t a standout in the backcourt, but Ayinde Ubaka, Omar Wilkes, and the much more athletic Theo Robertson can get the job done on most nights. Ubaka has done a nice job of steadily improving over the past four years and a package of size/athleticism that teams must account for. Freshmen Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher are also contributing. Never say never, but it is likely that the loss Hardin’s NBA-caliber rebounding and shot blocking presence will prove too much to overcome.

9. Oregon State – Jay John has a fairly complete roster to work with in terms of Beaver standards, but the early results haven’t been pretty. Oregon State has lost to every legitimate team they’ve faced, and also took one on the chin from the hand of Southeastern Louisiana. Marcel Jones has steadily improved in his three years on campus and appears ready to take over as the team’s feature player, while Sasa Cuic is certainly a legitimate offensive presence at 6’10. But the backcourt is a bit overmatched, with little experience and poor production so far. The Tarver brothers can get there, but it is going to take time. This is a team that could come together and win a few games down the stretch, but this appears to be a ways off at the moment.

10. Arizona State – If the early results mean anything, don’t expect a dramatic turnaround from Herb Sendek in year one. The Sun Devils took a big blow when a silly new NCAA rule allowed leading scorer Kevin Kruger to transfer without penalty, and the youngsters have been up and down so far. Freshman guards Derek Glasser, Christian Polk and Jerren Shipp have been spectacular at times, but “broke” would be a better way to describe their play in recent contests. Polk is an athletic volume shooter who can play a little of both guard spots, and it appears that the combo guard will have to play at a high level for the Sun Devils to compete in conference. Antwi Atuahene is another ballhandler that can contribute, while sophomore PF Jeff Pendergraph is going to put in his daily double-double and is probably the best player on Sendek’s roster. Even if the squad struggles this season, Sun Devil fans should be focused on next year when some elite talent arrives on campus. With this year’s solid group of recruits getting a year of experience under their belts, that dramatic turnaround could take place in year two.

All Pac-10 Team

PG Darren Collison, sophomore, UCLA – It really can’t be emphasized just how much Collison means to UCLA’s success and how dominant the previously under the radar sophomore has been so far this year. He doesn’t look like a star at first glance, but his relentless ball pressure and the remarkably efficient way he picks his spots on the offensive end will make a believer of you in short order.

SG Arron Afflalo, junior, UCLA – Afflalo didn’t look like anything special as a sophomore early entrant, but it is hard to deny what he does for Ben Howland. The junior has polished his offensive game, is dedicated to playing physical perimeter defense and willingly gives up a few points per game for the sake of the team by scoring within the confines of the offense.

SF Nick Young, junior, USC – It has been an up and down season for the talented junior, but his spectacular performance in the win over Wichita State this past weekend solidified his spot here. Young is an athletic, versatile shot creator, and really emerges as an elite scorer when his somewhat inconsistent outside shot begins to fall. If his performance in Las Vegas was any indicator, it could be a big year for the junior.

PF Ivan Radenovic, senior, Arizona – Perhaps the MVP of the Pac-10 so far, Radenovic has improved nearly every facet of his game and is Lute Olson’s best player at the moment. His feel for how and when to score is superb. He will burn you in a variety of ways, and almost always at the wrong the time.

C Spencer Hawes, freshman, Washington – The best player in the Pac-10 already? Most likely. Hawes is so far along offensively it is scary, and he is only going to improve as an athlete. There are only a handful of players in the NBA with Hawes’ variety and polish on the low block, and perhaps no 7-footer with his feel for how to put points in the basket. It is going to be a near 20-10 season for the freshman.

2nd Team – G Derrick Low, junior, Washington State; SG Bryce Taylor, junior, Oregon; G/F Chase Budinger, Arizona; PF Lawrence Hill, sophomore, Stanford; PF Jon Brockman, Washington

All-Freshman Team

G/F Chase Budinger, Arizona – Buddinger is the one Arizona guard always willing to pick his spots in Lute Olson’s high-powered offensive attack. This probably isn’t helping his draft stock all that much, but it is helping Olson. The freshman isn’t exactly a blow-by type when putting the ball on the floor, but has a smooth way of creating his own offense. The perimeter stroke and open-court explosiveness are undeniable. Is a “blank slate” in a Tyrus Thomas sort of way, in that he doesn’t have that one trademark way of changing games just yet but is such a good all-around player that you know him developing it is only a matter of time.

SF Quincy Pondexter, Washington– As good as advertised athletically, even more skilled. His shooting stroke is impressive, he defends well and is relentless in transition, while his points aren’t meaningless transition dunks in the second halves of blowouts. Pondexter is certainly a one-and-done candidate in most drafts.

PF Taj Gibson, USC – Gibson struggles in attempting to create his own offense on the low block or step outside and play more of a perimeter role, but he is an explosive presence around the rim and on the glass. Floyd doesn’t need him to put up 20 ppg, but the 10 rpg it appears he will average could be the difference between NIT and NCAA for the Trojans. An athletic, slim 6’9, it is entirely possible that Gibson could develop into something more down the road.

PF Ryan Anderson, California – If you saw Anderson coming, I commend you. Most young big men struggle with the speed of the game, but Anderson looked at home from the opening tap. He does just about everything well, whether it be knocking down the outside jumper, contesting for rebounds, or creating his own shot in the paint.

C Spencer Hawes, Washington – See “All Pac-Ten Team” section.

PG Tajuan Porter, Oregon; G Adrian Oliver, Washington; G Christian Polk, Arizona State; C Brook Lopez, Stanford; C Robin Lopez, Stanford


G/F’s Arron Afflalo, and Josh Shipp, UCLA – These two are really just the perfect Ben Howland guards, and very similar players at that. Both are above average athletes with mature frames who focus on defense before offense and neither player is against changing the game through good old-fashioned hustle. The now-healthy Shipp has been particularly effective in recent games – expect to see both Howland wings in an NBA arena near you someday.

SG Bryce Taylor, junior, Oregon – We all knew Taylor was one of the best shooters in the country, but he sure hadn’t proven it on the court in his first two seasons as a Duck. But whatever curse had been holding back Ernie Kent’s perimeter rotation has been lifted this fall, and Taylor is knocking down shots again. People might not realize what a great athlete the junior is, and he is sure to attract a lot of national attention if the shots keep falling and the Ducks keeping winning.

PF Lawrence Hill, sophomore, Stanford – Hill quietly went about his business as a freshman, displaying dazzling potential but generally deferring to upperclassman teammates. This season, he has emerged as one of the better frontcourt players in the conference. He does a bit of everything, has good length and skill, and is a formidable athlete.


SG Marcus Williams, sophomore, Arizona – Many fell in love with Williams’ feel for the game as a freshman, but if there has been one player most hurt by the numbers crunch in Lute Olson’s backcourt it is the projected lottery pick. Williams clearly wants to take over as Arizona’s go-to guy, but has struggled to pick his spots and displayed quite a bit of frustration on the court about not getting the lion’s share of the looks. It is hard to blame him, but the other Arizona guards have been more efficient so far this year. He is still an impressive talent, but he was so highly regarded last season because of his all-around scoring touch, not his athletic attributes. Williams is likely to bounce out of this funk, but it may not be the breakout season people had already written him in as having.

F Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, sophomore, UCLA – Final Four standout Joakim Noah has been taking all sorts of flack for his play thus far, but fellow Tourney breakout star Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, considered a lottery pick some, has actually played worse while avoiding much of the negativity. Mbah a Moute appears a bit more focused on his NBA future this season, and not as focused on doing the little things around the basket that made him an overnight national success a season ago. It is a long season and Mbah a Moute is one player I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt to, but it is also a little disturbing to see that the sophomore really hasn’t polished up his perimeter skill set all that much.

PG Justin Dentmon, sophomore, Washington – This one is a stretch, but it is hard to notice that the one Washington player who continues to play a bit like a freshman is actually one of the sophomores. Dentmon is your classic hot-or-cold underclassman point guard, capable of really changing games by pushing the tempo and playing physical defense when he is on, but also turning in head shaking play after head shaking play by forcing things when he is not. Dentmon isn’t having a bad season, but there are going to be times when his young Husky squad will get rattled and need him to provide a calming, veteran presence. He added to the problem Gonzaga, instead of providing the solution.

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