Lute Olsen's Arizona (18-4, 8-2) squad has been somewhat up and down this year, but has shown some major improvements over last season. Where last year the team struggled playing an up-and-down pace due to a lack of depth, the Wildcats might just be the deepest team in the conference this season. And while nobody played defense a year ago, this squad has shown the ability to lock down some very good offensive players. In the 2nd half of the win over Washington, Arizona was shockingly able to slow down UW's perimeter attack. While this team still struggles getting into a rhythm sometimes, as there are too many players here that thrive only with the ball in their hands, the talent differential simply overwhelms most opponents. Salim Stoudamire has been on one of the great shooting tears in NCAA history, and even after an off game in the loss against Washington State, he is still shooting 54% from 3. The key to Arizona's season may come down to the play of the other inconsistent guards. Either Mustafa Shakur, Hassan Adams, or Chris Rodgers must show up on a given night.
It can clearly be stated that UCLA (12-6, 6-4) is a talented young team, and that they have played like one thus far. In between a shocking win at Washington and an 18-point second half comeback at USC were three truly putrid games, including an embarrassing 51 point effort against California. The Bruins can be an offensive powerhouse or a stingy, defense-oriented team, depending on the night. They are led by freshman PG Jordan Farmar, who might be the best pure PG to enter the conference since Jason Kidd. One of the few experienced contributors, senior wing Dijon Thompson, has taken his game to an entirely new level and is a legit Pac-10 player of the year candidate. The Bruins will have a chance to prove themselves, with the Washington rematch this weekend and Arizona coming to town next week.
The Stanford (12-8, 6-4) program probably lost more than any other team in the nation, including lottery pick Josh Childress, two other double-figure scorers, and longtime head coach Mike Montgomery. There were some growing pains early, as a group of kids used to playing supporting roles were thrust into the limelight. However, this team has gotten good in a hurry, winning six straight league games before running into the buzz saw that is Ike Diogu earlier this week. The Cardinal still struggle in the athleticism department, but boast skill players at nearly every position. There is experience at the PG position, as junior Chris Hernandez is healthy at the moment. Junior wing Dan Grunfield has emerged as a go-too guy in a shooters role, while junior big man Matt Haryasz is starting to explode, averaging 16 and 12 over his last 5 games. Stanford has a tough schedule the rest of the way, with games against Arizona, UCLA, and Washington still to come.
It's fairly obvious what to expect from Arizona State (16-6, 5-5). This is a one player team, and they aren't going to put up much of a fight when Ike Diogu isn't playing like the best player in the nation. Fortunately for the Sun Devils, he might just be the nation's best player. Just when you thought he couldn't get any better, he goes out and smacks a sizeable Stanford frontcourt for 39 points on 16-26 shooting. Nobody else on the team made more than two field goals, but it didn't matter - Ike is just that good. His numbers (22 ppg, 10 rpg, 2.6 bpg, 58% shooting) can't be matched by anybody else in the country. Rob Evans' squad has an easier stretch of games in which to improve position for the NCAA tourney, before facing Washington and Arizona down the stretch.
It's somewhat of a surprise to see California (11-9, 4-6) at even close to .500 in the conference, after the string of injuries that have literally crippled this team. NCAA tourney hopes may have been dashed before the season even began, as standout PF Leon Powe tore up his knee and was lost for the season. As if that wasn't bad enough, Ben Braun lost his promising floor general Ayinde Ubaka for a dozen or so games. Even combo guard Richard Midgley, who has stepped into the go-too role with Powe out, missed a week of games in January. Nonetheless, the Bears reeled off three straight wins until this week's blowout loss at Arizona, and that run has to be considered an accomplishment. The loss of Powe has allowed Braun to give his young big men some valuable experience, while junior big man Rod Benson has become a reliable scorer. This program is in good shape next year with the entire roster slated to return, plus the additions of Powe and the Wilkes brothers.
Dick Bennett is slowly turning the Washington State (9-10, 4-6) program into his type of team. The pace is nauseating and the scores are low, but as Arizona figured out last weekend, this isn't an automatic win on your schedule anymore. Senior wing Thomas Kelati destroyed the Wildcats with 7 3-pointers, and is shooting over 40% from behind the arc on the season. Undersized PF Jeff Varem gives the Cougars a presence down low, while a trio of freshman gives some hope for the future. Derrick Low and Josh Akognon will provide stability at the point that this program hasn't seen for quite some time, while big man Robbie Cowgill is showing a pulse. This is a team playing better every time out, and the Cougars have three very winnable games coming up against USC, Oregon, and Oregon State.
Oregon (11-7, 3-6) is a team in disarray at the moment. The touted freshmen class has played well at times, but things just don't seem to be clicking for this group. There is little contribution from the frontcourt, and little consistency from a group of very talented guards. Freshmen wings Malik Hairson and Bryce Taylor are both future all-league types, but both disappear in stretches. Aaron Brooks is a steady floor general, but gets overwhelmed when he is forced to carry the load. The Ducks have some winnable games down the stretch, but are probably out of tourney contention for the moment. Ernie Kent has reason for optimism down the road, but it will be crucial to get Hairston back on campus for his sophomore season.
Jay John's Oregon State (11-9, 3-6) team has clearly taken a step forward in terms of talent, but is losing a bit of momentum after a decent start to the Pac-10 slate. The return of senior PF David Lucas from injury has been huge, and despite being worked back into the rotation slowly, Lucas already has his scoring average back above 15 ppg. Transfers Nick Dewitz and Jason Fontenet are playing crucial roles, and are the kind of players that John needs to bring in for this program to be successful. He had high hopes for PG Lamar Hurd, who is quite the floor general, but averages under 3 ppg in 25 minutes. The more offensive-minded Fontenet has helped pick up the slack. The Beavers have lost three straight, though the play quality (close losses to Arizona and Stanford) didn't really decrease until this week's blowout loss to Cal.
Finally, we have the volatile mess that the USC (10-12, 2-8) basketball program has become. The administration did the right thing in firing Henry Bibby just a few games into the season. However, the coaching situation has remained up in the air, after Rick Majerus accepted and then turned down the job, and Tim Floyd worked out NBA contract issues. Now that Floyd, a proven recruiter and winner at the college level, finally has the job, maybe USC can get back to winning basketball games. Things aren't all gloomy on the court, though. Despite the poor conference record, fans have to be excited about the freshman backcourt of Gabe Pruitt and Nick Young. While these two don't come with the accolades of their UCLA or Oregon counterparts, they don't give up anything to them on the court. The roster is filled out by a group of uninspired upperclassmen, whom the program will be better off without. After a visit from Arizona next week, the schedule gets a bit easier. Hopefully Pruitt and Young don't view the rest of the season as an NBA audition
Top 20 NBA Prospects
1. 6'6 WG Malik Hairston, fr, Oregon â It's almost scary how complete Hairston's game is. He is the smooth type of athlete, and seems willing to play into Oregon's offense. In today's age of 3-pointers or dunks, it's nice to see a prospect with an advanced offensive repertoire in between. After starting off slow in the Pac-10, Hairston has averaged 17 ppg over his last 3 games. He has said he wants to declare this year, and he might have that opportunity if he keeps it up.
2. 6'8 PF Ike Diogu, jr, Arizona State â The knock on Diogu is that he's undersized, but he sure doesn't play that way. He was amazing as a freshman, and it's significant that he has kept improving. If Mike Sweetney can go 9th, I don't see what's keeping Diogu from going just as high.
3. 6'3 PG Gabe Pruitt, fr, USC â Less heralded than many of the freshman in the Pac-10 this year, Pruitt might just be the best of the bunch. His true PG skills are a bit untested, but he's got the size, athleticism, and shooting stroke to be a star. He reminds me a lot of Texas freshman Daniel Gibson, but he's an even better shooter. Pruitt hasn't gotten much national buzz so he's probably back next season.
4. 6'3 PG Mustafa Shakur, so, Arizona â It hasn't been a good season for Shakur, after many people predicted big things for him heading into the year. He has had trouble sharing the ball amongst so many players that demand it, and rarely gets to look for his own shot. Nonetheless, you can't deny the athleticism and playmaking ability he has at 6'3. My guess is that Shakur's stock only rises from here.
5. 6'7 WF Dijon Thompson, sr, UCLA â One of the more underrated players in the senior class, Thompson has completely revitalized his game this season. Once a one-dimensional scorer, Thompson is now giving effort on the defensive end, crashing the boards, and still improving a scary good offensive arsenal. Scouts were very cold on him last season when he tried to declare, and that would be the only reason I could think of that he doesn't end up in the first round.
6. 6'2 PG Jordan Farmar, fr, UCLA â One of those rare PG's that absolutely controls the game when the ball is in his hands. Very few lead guards have this skill, and Farmar is next in the line that includes Jason Kidd, TJ Ford, and Deron Williams. He looks very slow and methodical at first glance, but the more you watch him, the more you like him. Farmar has played like a freshman at times and will benefit from at least one more season at the college level, but I can't see Farmar falling out of the first round when he does declare.
7. 6'4 WG Hassan Adams, jr, Arizona â Adams has taken a step backwards this season, after breaking out as a soph. His offense has been much more inconsistent, and his long range shooting has fallen off dramatically. This could be due to Arizona's overabundance of players who can put the ball in the basket, but it could also have a bit to do with the fact that Adams isn't a very skilled perimeter player, and that he isn't playing the 4 slot like he did last year. Nonetheless, the guy plays like he is 6'7, and is as athletic as anybody in the nation.
8. 5'7 PG Nate Robinson, jr, Washington â Robinson's stock is very difficult to discern, and it seems to be different in the eyes of most every scout. 5'7 guards don't make it in the NBA, but 6'2 guards don't play above the rim the way Robinson does. I think he would be a worthwhile late first rounder for a team in need of a backup PG.
9. 6'11 PF Matt Haryasz, jr, Stanford â Haryasz took a while to get going this year, but he seems to really be picking up his play. He is a high post big man, much in the mold of a guy like Michael Doleac. Haryasz has solid size, has a great stroke from 15 feet, moves well, and does his share on the glass. Probably a 4-year guy, but has a chance to become a star over the next year and a half.
10. 6'6 WG Nick Young, fr, USC â Nick Young certainly isn't a household name in draft circles at the moment, but he has the chance to become one very quickly. Young is an explosive athlete from the wing slot, and already features a very complete game. Young has great body control on the way to the basket, and has a very pretty stroke, whether it be from long range or off the dribble. Young's long arms and leaping ability make him a factor on the glass as well.
11. 6'6 WF Brandon Roy, jr, Washington â Roy is a prospect that NBA scouts laughed at when he tried declaring out of high school, but made up a lot of ground after a solid sophomore season. This year injuries have severely limited his effectiveness, but there is no doubt that Roy has the kind of tools that NBA teams need in a wing. He knows how to get to the basket, and is a solid rebounder and defender. One thing he will need to work on is his long range ability.
12. 6'11 PF Channing Frye, sr, Arizona â Frye is a prospect that wowed a lot of people his freshman season with some very nice athleticism for someone 6'11. However, his game really hasn't progressed all that much in four years at Arizona, which leaves him looking like a 2nd round pick in the 2005 draft. Frye hasn't bulked up to the point where he can be effective in the paint, and still seems to shy away from much contact.
13. 6'8 PF Leon Powe, so, California â After one of the best freshman performances in the country last year, Powe is out this season after re-injuring the same knee that he tore up in high school. If he can get back to where he was, Powe is a potential first rounder. While a bit undersized, Powe makes up for it with some true explosiveness around the basket and some very long arms.
14. 6'4 PG Chris Rodgers, jr, Arizona â You might wonder how someone averaging 6 ppg could end up on this list, and you might actually have a point. However, 6'4 PG's that can take over games the way that Rodgers clearly can are in short supply. He is caught in the numbers crunch for the Wildcats at the moment, but has looked like a very good NBA prospect in individual games. Attitude and consistency are serious question marks.
15. 6'4 WG Tre Simmons, sr, Washington â Most people had never heard of Simmons heading into the year, but he has moved past some very talented teammates to become the Huskies' number one perimeter option. He's your textbook pure shooter, and might just have the athleticism to get by in the NBA.
16. 6'4 WG Bryce Taylor, fr, Oregon â Much like Simmons, most of the attention has been focused on Taylor's teammates at Oregon. And like Simmons, Taylor has managed to create a bit of a buzz for himself. He came out of high school with the rep of a shooter, but is actually quite the athlete. Not the prospect that Hairston is, but still someone that could be playing in the league in three to four years.
17. 6'6 WF Bobby Jones, so, Washington â Known as the team's defensive specialist, Jones is very tough around the basket, and has the athleticism to develop into a special player. He needs a couple of years, but has the tools.
18. 6'5 WG Jawann McClellan, fr, Arizona â Completely buried on the Arizona bench most nights, McClellan has shown that he belongs whenever he has gotten major minutes. As a strong, athletic wing, McClellan has a chance to be a star at Arizona, starting next year if a couple of the Wildcat stars declare for the draft.
19. 6'1 G Salim Stoudamire, sr, Arizona â It's hard not to be stunned by Stoudamire's ability to put points up in a hurry, but it's also difficult to see where he fits in at the NBA level. He doesn't handle the ball at all for the Wildcats, and he might not have the quickness to do it at the NBA level. Nonetheless, he is a truly special shooter, and will get his chance to make it in an Eddie House-type role.
20. 6'0 PG Aaron Brooks, so, Oregon â After struggling as a freshman, Brooks has turned his game up a notch this season. He is a solid floor general, can penetrate, and will hit the outside shot from time to time. Nothing about him jumps out and screams NBA to me, but he does have a very hole-free game.
Others: 6'6 WG Dan Grunfield, jr, Stanford; 6'10 PF Ivan Radenovic, so, Arizona; 6'10 C Rob Little, sr, Stanford; 6'4 WG Lodrick Stewart, USC; 6'7 PF David Lucas, sr, Oregon State; 6'5 WG Joel Smith, fr, Washington; 7'0 PF Ian Crosswhite, jr, Oregon