How the West Will Be Won

If Thursday night's games are any indication of things to come, then it's sad to think that those living east of the Mississippi will have no idea that the best, most competitive and possibly most entertaining basketball in the country this year will be played out west at 10:30 p.m. eastern standard time in the Pac-10.

Sports like all other things in life are cyclical and it's obvious to me that the Pac-10 is on the rebound – no pun intended. From high flying athletes to three point snipers and from dominant centers to shifty point guards, every team in the league has superstars who could play and succeed in any conference.

Sure, Duke will always be Duke, North Carolina looks great, Ohio State will be tough to beat, Florida will most surely make it to the Final Four, the Big East will deliver some epic games and the days of being shocked by a mid-major upsetting a team from the Big Six conferences are long gone. But, and I say this with conviction, the Pac-10 is where it's at.

Right now, no less than six teams should be ranked in the top 25, but of course aren't. Furthermore, if the NCAA Tournament started today, UCLA, Arizona, Washington, USC, Washington State and Oregon should all be in. Stanford and Oregon State would be locks for the NIT with Cal also getting consideration.

Every Pac-10 team entered conference play with a winning record and overall, the conference boasts a lofty 92-22 out of conference record.

Now comes the tough part because the days of collectively beating up other conferences are over as Pac-10 play is now underway. Which teams will win enough in conference games to make a case for a March Madness birth? It's hard to predict. What is easy to predict though is whichever team can find a way to win half of their games on the road will most certainly be in contention for the regular season conference title.

So, what will the magic number be?

My guess is if any team can get to 15-3, they will undoubtedly win the crown. 14-4 might also do the trick. The key is to somehow find a way to win all your home games and then find away to get the road splits.

Stanford has already won one road game. That's huge as a loss at the hands of Arizona is most likely looming when the teams square off later this morning.

Washington and Washington State can afford to lose again this weekend as the L.A. trip will rival the Washington trip as the most difficult in the conference this season. Still, a win for WSU today against the Trojans or a win for the Huskies against the Bruins tomorrow will provide these teams with a tremendous early season advantage over their other conference foes.

Oregon State must win their home game against Oregon today as sweeping your in-state rival is practically imperative if a team expects to win it all this season. If the Ducks steal one on the road, they too will become the early favorites. Similarly, Arizona, UCLA and USC must hold court and finish off a weekend sweep from visiting schools.

Cal can afford to lose again today but a loss for Arizona State would be completely devastating since the Sun Devils already dropped their conference home opener to the Cardinal on Thursday.

With four conference games tipping today, let's quickly recap Thursday night before taking a quick look at the day ahead:

UCLA 55 WSU 52

The top ranked UCLA Bruins proved yet again that they don't need to necessarily score a lot of points to win games. More surprising in UCLA's 55-52 victory over Washington State though was the Cougars' statement that even on the road this year Tony Bennett's squad won't be a pushover. Unfortunately, their upset bid came up a bit short. I'm just spit balling here but trailing by one with 25 seconds to go, I don't think Bennett called for a fall away 21-foot jumper with nine on the game clock as his shot of choice to win the game. However, that's what Derrick Low took even though it appeared he had a pretty clear opening to the hole if he had put the ball on the floor instead. It might not have been the best shot to take, but you can't blame Low. Any player willing to put the game on his shoulders with everything on the line is a winner in my book regardless of the outcomes.

USC 86 Washington 79 2OT

The Trojans looks like Phi Slama Jama in displaying their explosive athleticism against the bigger Huskies. This game is an early game of the year candidate but I say that knowing that Pac-10 teams are so evenly matched this season that overtime games could easily become the norm over the next two months. Washington's Spencer Hawes has had a strong preseason but I really think the freshman came of age against the Trojans. He dominated the interior all night and then stepped out and knocked down a game tying three that forced a second overtime. The truly amazing thing about Hawes' shot from downtown was that Lorenzo Romar clearly designed the play for his beg man as Hawes rubbed off a screen from behind the arc, took the pass while curling to the line, stepped up and calmly knocked it down.

Stanford 71 ASU 60

The Cardinal got the key win they needed as Arizona State looks to be the whipping boy for the conference this year. Coach Herb Snedek might be able to make his Sun Devils competitive in the second half of the season, but it's going to take a bunch of games of playing in his new system before this team can realistically expect to compete against the quality of teams the Pac-10 is showcasing this season.

UA 94 CAL 85

This game wasn't even close as Arizona at one point led by as many as 29. Arizona's starters and key role players looked like gangbusters in destroying the undermanned Cal Bears who once they get accustomed to not playing with DeVon Hardin, will be a good team. For the Wildcats, Lute Olson began to clear his bench with about eight minutes to go and unwillingly was forced to sit back and watch the horror show that unfolded during garbage time. The only Arizona player who was running anything remotely close to the team's offense was David Bagga who rolled off a screen and made a fancy left handed lay up in the game's closing minutes. What was really disturbing though was Arizona's lack of effort on the defensive end during this stretch. They let Cal run off 26 points in the final six minutes after basically shutting them down with good team defense for most of the game.

Looking Ahead

Today's contest between USC and WSU will tell a lot about both of these teams. WSU can afford to lose, but a win would be huge. The Cougars played well enough to beat UCLA on Thursday and probably should have. Will they come out flat against the Trojans, or will they play with a chip on their shoulder? More importantly is how will the Trojans play. Last season, USC had many big conference wins. How they responded after those wins is what led to their demise though. If this were last season, I'd fully expect the Trojans to get blown off the court tonight by WSU. We'll see if USC is really ready to turn the corner and contend for a spot in the conference's upper echelon of teams. If they are, they'll make it three in a row over a quality opponent and take the opening weekend road sweep.

Oregon is looking to start the season 13-0 and remain as one of four undefeated Top 25 teams. In their way is a tough conference road game against their in-state rivals. I've watched Oregon State play several times this season and in my opinion they're playing a bit more undisciplined that a Jay John team should. They rush shots and don't look as smooth on offense. They've had a full week to prepare for the Ducks and if they've been able to iron out some of the kinks, they'll present a tough match up for Oregon. I'm not confident that they will though and for at least another week, the Ducks should keep things rolling.

Arizona State and California both need to win this game. Right now, these teams are mediocre. They both have had some serious setbacks to their rosters and that more than anything else is why they are struggling.

The Bruins welcome in the Huskies on New Year's Eve. Washington almost stole one from the Trojans on Thursday while the Bruins almost suffered a devastating loss. How these teams respond to diversity tomorrow should be interesting. Washington can put points on the board while the Bruins can lock down teams with their stifling defense. I think UCLA will need to play better on offense if they expect to win because Washington's inside game won't allow the Bruins to simply pack things in tight. If Hawes and Brockman stay out of foul trouble, their inside presence can open up shooting and driving lanes for Washington's athletic forwards and the sharp shooting Ryan Appleby. Washington has not had much luck on the road this year though and that could be enough to send the Huskies home 0-2.

Stanford may make things tough on Arizona inside today. Still, Arizona will present a ton of mismatches when they have the ball. If Stanford tries to man up the Wildcats, they won't have enough foot speed on the floor to guard everyone. If they go zone, Arizona should be able to exploit them with their outside shooting. Add in the fact that Olson was not pleased with how his team closed out the Cal game and things could get rough for a Stanford team who has not faired well against quality opponents this season.


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