After several years when the Pac-10 has been among college basketball's best conferences, the accepted wisdom is now that the league is going through a down year. But let's ask: how "down" is down?

"> After several years when the Pac-10 has been among college basketball's best conferences, the accepted wisdom is now that the league is going through a down year. But let's ask: how "down" is down?

">

Musings on the State of the Pac-10

<p class="txt">After several years when the Pac-10 has been among college basketball's best conferences, the accepted wisdom is now that the league is going through a down year. But let's ask: how "down" is down? </p>

The Pac 10 still boasts the nation's #1 team, Arizona, so an assessment of the conference has to start with the 'Cats. Immediately, questions arise: without a healthy Luke Walton, whose left ankle has not improved since rejoining the lineup in early January, the answer is more murky than Arizona's ranking might imply. Without Walton's rebounding and passing presence down low, Arizona lacks firepower in the paint.

Rick Anderson, the Cats designated Bear killer, is a fine perimeter player, but he is not the type of physical presence one usually equates with a championship team's starting power forward. Channing Frye is an outstanding player, the league's second best post player behind freshman Ike Diogu, but he's not going to make anyone forget Michael Wright. Because of the Wildcats depth, Jason Gardner has been asked to do more playmaking and less shooting. Gardner continues to provide great leadership and clutch shooting but his overall offensive game is down from last years and he's not nearly the playmaker that the nation's elite PG's (TJ Ford, Luke Ridnour, Chris Thomas) have become.

No doubt Arizona is deep and very athletic, but they are also young. Of their top 9 players, six are freshman or sophomores. Walton, Anderson and Gardner provide the experience, but with Walton at no more than 70% and Anderson playing a limited role, is there enough leadership for this team to win it all? Lute Olson is the X factor. He has that rare ability to get players to absorb his philosophy and system quickly and maintain confidence in themselves in the process. If he can get this team to play the type of pressing defense we saw be so effective against Kansas,  Arizona may be a lock for the Final Four. But without that consistency, the Wildcats are not the type of dominating team that can beat talented teams who also bring more size and physicality to the interior. Because of that lack, look for Arizona to lose at least twice more before the Pac 10 season closes out.

Given Arizona's vulnerability, what does that say for the rest of the conference? It's tough to tell. Stanford had some good non-conference wins but they were so early in the season it's tough to gauge much from those victories. And they did beat the 'Cats at home.  In spite of its great overall record, Cal has only played two contenders outside the Pac 10 - and lost both games. Oregon and ASU had mixed results outside the conference, making it difficult to gain further qualification.

Let's examine two key factors that may shed some light on the subject.

First: the conference is clearly not so physical or talented in the front court as it has been in years past. The biggest difference between this year and last is the loss of key big men like Sam Clancy, Dan Gadzuric, Chris Christoffersen, Jamal Sampson and Curtis Borchardt. Those five players were difference makers for their teams, regardless of their individual stats. As the better conference teams venture outside the league, they will be challenged by teams who have a skilled big man. For example, Nick Collison absolutely ate up Cal and Arizona. With the exception of facing ASU, the Pac 10 teams aren't getting the benefit of going against skilled, physical post players on a regular basis.

Many have suggested that Oregon's inability to meet preseason expectations resulted from the loss of Fred Jones. I think the cause lies elsewhere, namely in the absence of Christoffersen's defensive presence in the paint. And for that matter, had Borchardt and Sampson remained at Stanford and Cal, either or both of those teams could now be in contention for top rankings.  Given the offensive firepower the Bears have, all they are missing is that big stopper in the middle.

Secondly, and conversely, the conference is loaded with good back court and wing players. Outside of ASU, the top four teams in the Pac 10 each have at least two players who will contend for all-conference honors. Oregon with the two Lukes, Cal with its trio (counting Tamir as a tall wing), Arizona with Gardner and Stoudamire, and Stanford with Childress and Barnes.

The final question is, when tournament time comes, which of these factor will prove to be more important: the league's shortage of big men, or its depth of outstanding perimeter players? It may all come down to match-ups early in NCAA play. Not many teams have quality front courts like Kansas or Kentucky, but if I was a Pac 10 coach on selection Sunday, I would be hoping to draw a team without a real post presence.

Because Pac-10 teams don't face a weekly grind against such teams, they will probably pay a serious price in the tournament for this lack.

===========

Please visit our Writer's Feedback Forum, and post your comments and questions about this article there.

= GreyBear, Webmaster


BearTerritory.net Top Stories

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The Pac 10 still boasts the nation's #1 team, Arizona, so an assessment of the conference has to start with the 'Cats. Immediately, questions arise: without a healthy Luke Walton, whose left ankle has not improved since rejoining the lineup in early January, the answer is more murky than Arizona's ranking might imply. Without Walton's rebounding and passing presence down low, Arizona lacks firepower in the paint.

Rick Anderson, the Cats designated Bear killer, is a fine perimeter player, but he is not the type of physical presence one usually equates with a championship team's starting power forward. Channing Frye is an outstanding player, the league's second best post player behind freshman Ike Diogu, but he's not going to make anyone forget Michael Wright. Because of the Wildcats depth, Jason Gardner has been asked to do more playmaking and less shooting. Gardner continues to provide great leadership and clutch shooting but his overall offensive game is down from last years and he's not nearly the playmaker that the nation's elite PG's (TJ Ford, Luke Ridnour, Chris Thomas) have become.

No doubt Arizona is deep and very athletic, but they are also young. Of their top 9 players, six are freshman or sophomores. Walton, Anderson and Gardner provide the experience, but with Walton at no more than 70% and Anderson playing a limited role, is there enough leadership for this team to win it all? Lute Olson is the X factor. He has that rare ability to get players to absorb his philosophy and system quickly and maintain confidence in themselves in the process. If he can get this team to play the type of pressing defense we saw be so effective against Kansas,  Arizona may be a lock for the Final Four. But without that consistency, the Wildcats are not the type of dominating team that can beat talented teams who also bring more size and physicality to the interior. Because of that lack, look for Arizona to lose at least twice more before the Pac 10 season closes out.

Given Arizona's vulnerability, what does that say for the rest of the conference? It's tough to tell. Stanford had some good non-conference wins but they were so early in the season it's tough to gauge much from those victories. And they did beat the 'Cats at home.  In spite of its great overall record, Cal has only played two contenders outside the Pac 10 - and lost both games. Oregon and ASU had mixed results outside the conference, making it difficult to gain further qualification.

Let's examine two key factors that may shed some light on the subject.

First: the conference is clearly not so physical or talented in the front court as it has been in years past. The biggest difference between this year and last is the loss of key big men like Sam Clancy, Dan Gadzuric, Chris Christoffersen, Jamal Sampson and Curtis Borchardt. Those five players were difference makers for their teams, regardless of their individual stats. As the better conference teams venture outside the league, they will be challenged by teams who have a skilled big man. For example, Nick Collison absolutely ate up Cal and Arizona. With the exception of facing ASU, the Pac 10 teams aren't getting the benefit of going against skilled, physical post players on a regular basis.

Many have suggested that Oregon's inability to meet preseason expectations resulted from the loss of Fred Jones. I think the cause lies elsewhere, namely in the absence of Christoffersen's defensive presence in the paint. And for that matter, had Borchardt and Sampson remained at Stanford and Cal, either or both of those teams could now be in contention for top rankings.  Given the offensive firepower the Bears have, all they are missing is that big stopper in the middle.

Secondly, and conversely, the conference is loaded with good back court and wing players. Outside of ASU, the top four teams in the Pac 10 each have at least two players who will contend for all-conference honors. Oregon with the two Lukes, Cal with its trio (counting Tamir as a tall wing), Arizona with Gardner and Stoudamire, and Stanford with Childress and Barnes.

The final question is, when tournament time comes, which of these factor will prove to be more important: the league's shortage of big men, or its depth of outstanding perimeter players? It may all come down to match-ups early in NCAA play. Not many teams have quality front courts like Kansas or Kentucky, but if I was a Pac 10 coach on selection Sunday, I would be hoping to draw a team without a real post presence.

Because Pac-10 teams don't face a weekly grind against such teams, they will probably pay a serious price in the tournament for this lack.

===========

Please visit our Writer's Feedback Forum, and post your comments and questions about this article there.

= GreyBear, Webmaster

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