Ahh, the holidays, when you can sit back, relax, and take solace knowing that
college basketball is finally coming back to entertain you. Sure, the early
season games are fun, but most November basketball can be pretty sloppy – and
the games don't matter as much as conference games. But as the Washington
schools tipped off against the Los Angeles schools on Wednesday, the final
season of Pac-10 conference basketball will be underway.
All ten teams now have a few games under their belts, and the early schedules have helped us writers clear up a bit of the fog. However, we must press forward with some Pac-10 preseason prognostications.
1. Washington – This choice seems a bit obvious, as they were the only
team ranked in the top 25 before the season started. The Huskies opened up with
a 9-3 start, with their three losses coming to traditional powerhouses Kentucky,
Michigan State, and…. Texas A&M? The loss to the Aggies was a bit baffling,
but the one-point loss in College Station doesn't seem to indicate that there is
trouble ahead for the Huskies. They return four starters, including the talented
Isaiah Thomas, from last year's conference tournament champion squad. Time will
tell if they are deep enough to return to the Sweet 16 – the loss of Quincy Pondexter will be a hole to fill – but they shouldn't have too much trouble
taking care of the Pac-10, and their early schedule seems to prove it. After the
Huskies, of course, is where the Pac-10 gets interesting.
2. Arizona – Second through fifth place in the Pac-10 will be almost a toss up this year, which is good for the fans. When every game matters down the stretch, the games are significantly more fun to watch. And while two through five will probably be decided by a margin of less than three games, Arizona looks to be an early favorite to finish second. The Wildcats only have two losses so far – one to Kansas and one to BYU – and the Cats have a couple of nice wins against Oklahoma and North Carolina State. Basically, I'm picking with talent on this one. The Cats have impressive size across the board, and a roster that isn't as Freshman-dependent as many of the other squads in the Pac-10. Sophomore Derrick Williams already averages 19.3 points per game, and if Arizona rolls to the top of the conference, it will most likely be because of the stellar 6-8 forward, who was recently touted as a top 10 pick in the NBA draft (NBA Draft Rankings).
3. Washington State - The Cougars have wins against Baylor, Gonzaga, and Mississippi State on their 11-2 record, and a five-point loss to Kansas State (before the suspensions of Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly). These teams are all flawed (most notably Mississippi State), but the Cougars took care of business against some successful programs. Therefore, I feel pretty good about picking the Cougars, led by Klay Thompson, to win and show for the Pacific Northwest this season. But if the Cougars can find a way to finish the season better than last year's dreary 2-10 in their last 12, don't be shocked to see the Cougars sneak into the NCAA tournament.
4. UCLA – The Bruins hit a rough stretch with four straight losses to end November and start December, but they've rallied with five straight victories to stretch their record to 8-4. Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt are a frontcourt force to be reckoned with, and they helped the Bruins come within one point of upsetting No. 4 Kansas in Lawrence. So why do they drop to fourth in this poll? The rest of the squad behind Nelson and Honeycutt is, quite frankly, hard to project. Malcolm Lee, a junior, solidifies the backcourt, but junior college transfer Lazeric Jones and freshman center Joshua Smith are still questions on the starting five. They've played very well so far this season (both average over 10 PPG), but who knows if they can keep it up? If Jones and Smith prove me wrong, I'll be the first to eat my words, but until then, the jury is still out on the Bruins.
5. USC – Even though the Trojans had a couple of close games against good teams (a win against Tennessee, a loss to Kansas), the losses that the Men of Troy have sustained are pretty hard to overlook. The defeats at the hands of Bradley, Nebraska, and TCU make it pretty hard to rank the Trojans any higher than fifth.
6. Arizona State – The Sun Devils are very, very hard to define. Losses to New Mexico, Richmond, St. John's, and Baylor aren't spelling out doom, but the Devils don't really have a signature win in this early season either. Arizona State can go either way from this position, but I have reason to believe they will finish solidly in the middle of the pack.
7. Stanford – Full disclosure: it pains me to pick the Cardinal to finish seventh, because they have some very bright young players on the roster. But, depth is an issue with the Cardinal, and although I was very high on the Cardinal to start the season, anyone who watched the pitiful 76 Classic performance from the Card knows that they are still a year or two off from returning to where they once were – contending for the Pac-10 title.
8. Cal – What a difference a year makes for Coach Montgomery and the Golden Bears. The Bears lost seven of their top ten scorers from last year, and the results show that the Bears won't be hoisting the regular-season Pac-10 title again. So far, the Bears have averaged 65 PPG, a stat that leaves them 261st in the nation. Coach Mike Montgomery will have some talent to work with – Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp both average more than 12 PPG – but the losses from last season are just too big overall.
9. Oregon – Thanks to the success of the Oregon football team, the basketball Ducks will be overshadowed this season, but the Ducks are starting fresh with new head coach Dana Altman. While the former Creighton head coach has kept this job for more than 24 hours, there will be some moments this season that will make Altman wish he were back in Omaha. The Ducks did put up a good fight against No. 9 Missouri, but a 15 point loss to the same Virginia team that Stanford beat by 21 indicates to me that the Ducks' play this season won't turn as many heads as their innovative basketball court: Oregon's New Court
10. Oregon State – The Beavers have certainly had their share of early season struggles, but, unfortunately for them, those struggles will continue into 2011. An 83-57 loss to Colorado – the Beavers only major-conference opponent so far – seems to indicate that Coach Craig Robinson's team will have a tough time finishing out of the cellar this year.
And there you have it, fans. Stay tuned to The Bootleg for all the best Pac-10 basketball coverage this season!
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