Pac-10 Teams Gear Up For Conference Play

With the non-conference schedules winding down this week, the staff analyzes the ASU squad and the other nine teams' seasons to date, and how they fair going into Pac-10 play starting on Thursday.

Arizona State (8-3)

The Sun Devils got off to a rather ominous start to the season with Serge Angounou being lost for the year due to a knee injury suffered in the first exhibition game of the year. Furthermore, Curtis Millage missed the first three games of the season due to an academic issue, and a negative ruling was rendered on the academic appeal of freshmen forward Allen Morill. Of course, these incidents followed Kenny Crandall's off-season dirt biking accident, which resulted in a broken leg, and a serious automobile accident that slowed the progress of Chris Osborne's return from the wrist injury that plagued him throughout the entire season a year ago.

Despite these obstacles the Devils managed to finish the non-conference schedule at a respectable 8-3, one win shy of what would have been considered a good start to the season. Thus the team gets a ‘fair' progress report heading into Pac-10 play. Losses to BYU at home and Utah on the road were biggest disappointments so far. The Sun Devils really needed at least a split in those games for the early part of the season to have been considered a resounding success.

Things have been looking up recently however as the team has played quite well at times on their recent four-game win streak, especially on the defensive end. The Devils have finally been stepping into passing lanes and creating offensive opportunities off of turnovers in the manner that Rob Evans has preached in his four plus years at Arizona State. Help defense has also been strong, with Ike Diogu as the anchor in the middle. His presence has allowed Tommy Smith to stay out of foul trouble and block shots coming from the weak side.

The team's guard play has been rather spotty at times with starting point guard Jason Braxton struggling to find his niche in the offense. Braxton is seemingly having a difficult time translating his extraordinary athleticism into an asset. Defensively he's been great but on offense he's been unable to really break down defenses and get to the rim this year, in part due to the scouting reports that undoubtedly suggest that the way to stop Braxton is to back off him and allow him room to shoot. Despite having endless open looks, Braxton is only shooting about 30% from the field, and .091% from the three-point line, not to mention .440% from the free throw line. The domino effect of Braxton's shooting woes is that with defenses sagging it closes down the offense and creates problems for the Devils.

Braxton is an extremely hard worker and no doubt doing everything he can to correct the liability, but until and unless the situation improves the Devils will likely see senior Kyle Dodd running the team more frequently from the point guard position. The offensive limitations of Braxton have been even more apparent with Curtis Millage struggling with his perimeter shooting. Millage is shooting only 6 of 26 from the three-point line for .231%. If the Devils are to have a legitimate chance at the NCAA tournament, their guard play has to improve on the offensive end of the floor. Still, it is a testament to Rob Evans' defensive philosophy that Devils can still be fairing relatively well in the win column even with this type of perimeter shooting from his primary guards.

In the frontcourt, Ike Diogu has proven that he's everything that he was purported to be by the coaching staff and the national media. He plays an extremely poised, intelligent game and is offensively gifted beyond his years. Diogu can use both hands equally and has tremendous footwork and body control. Remarkably he has already set a pace that would match or even perhaps surpass the production of Chad Prewitt in his all-conference senior performance from 2001-02. Diogu has averaged 18.3 points per game and 6.5 rebounds compared with 17.0 points per contest and 7.3 rebounds for Prewitt a season ago.

The other frontcourt players have been settling into their roles behind Diogu. Tommy Smith has become more of a shot-blocking and passing threat, putting up 13 assists in two games during the Holiday Tournament. Donnell Knight has really begun to settle in to his role as a defender and rebounder and that's key with the dynamic forwards the Devils will face in the Pac-10. Jamal Hill is showing that he's entirely capable of being the team's first athletic pure-shooting wing since the departure of Eddie House several years ago. Shawn Redhage has become an important bench scorer and versatile defender. The Devils are still trying to work either Justin Allen or Chris Osborne into a solid backup option for Diogu off the bench. The development of one or both of these players is another important thing to look for as the conference season unwinds.

With the Pac-10 conference as weak as it has been in quite some time, the Devils were fortunate to play a more challenging non-conference schedule than at any other time under Evans. The team is currently enjoying an RPI standing in the 30's and a schedule strength, which ranks in the top 40 nationwide despite the overall weak conference RPI. Should the Devils manage an 11-7 conference record they'd be almost assured of an NCAA bid. Even a 10-8 mark will make the tournament a reasonable possibility.

In order to get to the big dance the Devils will likely have to beat up on the lesser teams of the conference such as Washington State, Washington, Oregon State and even possibly UCLA. It is conceivable that ASU could and even perhaps should sweep these teams, but it is necessary for the Devils to win at least 7 of the 8 games against these foes to maintain a reasonable NCAA tournament pace. They'll also have to hold home court against Stanford, Cal and USC to reach bubble status. Arizona and Oregon are head and shoulders above the rest of the conference talent-wise and it would not be wise to count on victories against these two teams. Every loss to a team like WSU, UW, OSU or UCLA means the Devils will have to win an unlikely game against Arizona or Oregon or pull a sweep against the middle-tier teams of the conference. That is something that ASU would like to avoid.

Here's a brief updated look at the rest of the teams in the Pac-10:

Arizona (6-1)

Slipped up at LSU, but have otherwise been killing opponents on talent alone. So much depth, it is almost unfair, and actually could be causing problems with Lute Olson who's rather accustomed to playing a consistent eight-man rotation throughout his career. A primary weakness is that without Walton, they live and die by the jumper. They simply have too many players trying to create one on one, players are not moving enough away from the ball, and ball movement has been poor. Jason Gardner has struggled at times getting his teammates involved as well as shooting the basketball. Also, the team's inside presence has yet to become really assertive - Channing Frye has been hit or miss. This team has so much talent and athleticism though that they can likely compensate for any deficiencies. Freshmen Hassan Adams and Andre Igoudala are freakishly athletic players, but still need some indoctrination into the Olson style of play. If they can get Luke Walton back and develop a rhythm, look out for the Wildcats, particularly in such a down year for the conference.

Oregon (9-1)

Looked terrible at Cincinnati, but have quality wins over Kansas and Minnesota. They play at such a frenetic pace that when things are a little off it's magnified. This team is also heavily reliant on the three point shot. Shooting guard James Davis is leading the conference in three pointers and has settled into the role of replacing Freddie Jones nicely. The Ducks could have the best backcourt in the west. The starting five can play with anyone in the country, but they are still heavily dependant on Luke Ridnour and Luke Jackson. Ian Crosswhite is the Amit Tamir of the new season. He's an extremely versatile, veteran freshmen 6th man. Robert Johnson is a very steady and capable power forward. Still, they'll likely go as far as the Luke and Luke show can take them. These dynamic players currently are the top 2 players in the conference in assists and running second and third in steals.

California (6-2)

Both of their losses were against quality opponents – Georgia and Kansas; however, no wins against terribly impressive teams. This is a team that should struggle against teams with a strong inside presence (see Ike Diogu). Frontcourt depth is a major concern with Gabe Hughes struggling and freshmen duo David Paris and Rod Benson seeing very little court time. Amit Tamir has really stepped up his game and Joe Shipp and Brian Wethers are both having stellar senior seasons, but beyond that this team is limited offensively. Richard Midgley, a UK import has been relatively impressive off the bench on the backcourt and starting point guard A.J Diggs is leading the league in steals and is a very tough on-ball defender. This is a team that will have to make its mark on the defensive end. May still be too early to tell how good the Golden Bears will be.

Stanford (8-3)

This is a schizophrenic team to say the least. Very good showing in the first two games of the preseason NIT but looked mediocre in loss to UNC. The Trees suffered bad losses at home against Montana and Richmond, but came back with a quality win recently at Gonzaga. Youth has a lot to do with the up and down play and coach Mike Montgomery has said this is his youngest and most inexperienced team in quite some time. Julius Barnes is the only player with legitimate multi-year experience and he's off to a nice start. He'll have to have a monster year with starting point guard Chris Hernandez likely lost for the bulk of the season with a broken foot. Josh Childress and Justin Davis have shown dramatic improvement on both ends. Childress is extremely versatile and Davis should win the conference rebounding title. In order to win in the Pac-10 they will be forced to play smart, disciplined ball and not beat themselves with careless ball handling and defensive letdowns.

Southern Cal (4-3)

Anemic production from the point guard position is killing this team right now. Brandon Brooks has been in and out of coach Bibby's doghouse and senior Robert Hutchinson has been injured and unable to get into a rhythm. Derrick Craven just hasn't shown that he's ready to run the team as a lead guard. This team lost to UCSB on the road and it seems like the Gauchos beat a more esteemed Southland team just about every year. The only teams they've beaten have been patsies and they lost a disputed game to a Rhode Island team that's expected to finish at or near the cellar of the Atlantic 10 conference as well as to Missouri. So far they really seem to be missing the leadership of three seniors. Roydell Smiley has been an impressive newcomer, even landing a spot in the starting lineup. He's a really good shooter, with nice athleticism and makes few mistakes. Nick Curtis has shown quite a bit of improvement and is a very versatile forward. Errick Craven has gotten off to a slow start. Nobody on the team has really stepped up into a leadership position and if the mediocre point guard play continues, this team could struggle.

UCLA (2-5)

They won't be as bad once conference play starts. Maybe. The truth is as we said in our original conference preview, with the Bruins you never can tell exactly. They've played a relatively tough schedule with losses to Kansas, Michigan, and Duke but also suffered inexcusable losses to San Diego and NAU at home. They have no quality wins. Jason Kapono is off to a poor start, only scoring 5 points against Michigan and it seems that Steve Lavin still can't find a way to get the best pure shooter in the Pac-10 more open looks. Andre Patterson is just getting back into the flow after missing the first handful of games due to academic woes. Ryan Walcott has had some injury problems and that's been a big problem with no other true point guard on the squad. Cedric Bozeman has been a slight improvement at the position but he's still not a true lead guard. Dijon Thompson has been the biggest early surprise of the season, leading the team in scoring and in effort, but of course Lavin isn't starting him. T.J. Cummings still can't figure out that 6'10 kids should be playing in the paint and not shooting every time from the perimeter. There won't be any Sweet 16 magic this year – not enough talent. Steve Lavin is headed for a pink slip and that's bad for the rest of the conference.

Oregon State (7-2)

They have a pretty good record against pretty bad teams. Losses are to a mediocre Kansas State team and Idaho. No wins really stand out, with Portland State and Coppin State being the best of the bunch. They will come back to earth quickly, although don't rule out some improvement from last year with newfound continuity and a new system initiated by first-year coach Jay John. The main trio here continues to be Phillip Ricci, Brian Jackson and Jimmie Haywood, but this team needs much better play out of their point guards and frontcourt bench players. It's not likely to happen.

Washington (5-4)

Bad losses against Montana State and Eastern Washington at home, although they played Gonzaga tough on the road. Best win is against a meager Santa Clara club. Doug Wrenn got off to a slow and somewhat rocky start with new coach Lorenzo Romar and quickly found out it was a war he couldn't win. He has since seemed to get in-line with what Romar is trying to accomplish. Combo-guard Will Conroy may be leading the race for Pac-10 most improved player. He's playing with confidence and leading his team in scoring at over 13 points a game. This team is extremely mediocre up front and has struggled adapting to a new system.

Washington State (5-4)

All losses, with the exception of a close game against Gonzaga, have been on the road at TCU, Idaho, and Colorado State. No strong wins to buoy the Coug's hopes. Point guard Marcus Moore continues to be a one-man gang in Pullman, leading the team in scoring, rebounding and assists. This team may compete well at times, but often when Moore isn't on they'll get blown out. This team has zero hopes at finishing above 7th in the conference and a post-season appearance is out of the question.

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