The Pac-10 brings January to a close with what should be its best weekend of basketball yet. Two of the league's worst teams, Oregon and Oregon State, play only one game – and it's against each other. That leaves the Washington schools free to visit the Arizona schools, and the Bay Area schools to make the trip down to L.A.
A flurry of questions across the conference will begin to
be answered. Can Cal, Washington, and Oregon State continue their surprisingly
strong starts? Will we see the Jekyll or the Hyde versions of Arizona and USC?
Is this year's UCLA as dominant as last year's version, or will ASU or
Washington steal the league?
(My guesses: Yes. No. Yes. Arizona's done, put a fork in ‘em. USC's going to rally. And, no, last year's UCLA was better, but this year's Bruins will still win the Pac-10 when it's all said and done.)
Of course, Stanford has a litany of questions all its own. The Cardinal will be halfway through the Pac-10 after this weekend, and this weekend will drastically shape what they need to do moving forward. If Stanford (13-4, 3-4 Pac-10) somehow sweeps, they'd be 5-4 in the league, and needing just the same 5-4 league finish to be a shoo-in for the NCAA Tournament. With both Washingtons visiting, and both Oregons still left on the schedule, that shouldn't be too tough. Heck, in a year with no powerhouses, Stanford could start thinking about winning the Pac-10 outright – in a year they were picked to finish ninth.
With the Card significant underdogs at UCLA, the other two possibilities are probably more realistic: a split, or an 0-for-LA trip. Split, and the Card still have a shot. They'd be 4-5 at the break, with a winning Pac-10 season and NCAA Tournament berth within reach. Stanford probably isn't going to lose consecutive games down the stretch by one point apiece either, so they're probably safer than their record suggests.
But if Stanford gets swept, those Washington losses will really start to hurt. Stanford would be 3-6 at the break and would need, at a minimum, a winning record down the backstretch of the Pac-10, and even that might not be enough. Start Googling "Joe Lunardi Bracketology" daily, start rooting for obscure Sun Belt teams to lose in their conference title games, lest their one-bid leagues sneak in an additional team, and start hoping badly Stanford catches fire in the Staples Center. In all likelihood, clear that week in mid-March, because Stanford's probably going to earn itself an extra home game or three – in the NIT.
So the stakes couldn't be clearer. Though the opponents have lost more firepower than anyone in the league (three top-five picks in OJ Mayo, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Love, plus Luc Mbah a Moute), they are well-known, too.
Stanford at USC, Thursday, 7:30PM (Prime
Ticket, FCS Pacific)
Offensively, four Trojans account for the vast majority of USC's points: Dwight Lewis (16 points), Taj Gibson (15 points), DeMarcus DeRozan (13 points, but just 1-of-17 deep), and Daniel Hackett (11 points). USC shoots only 33 percent deep, with only Lewis (41 percent) and Hackett (38 percent) real threats. The Trojans score 70 points per game on 47% overall shooting, both solid numbers by Pac-10 standards. (All USC stats don't include their last game. Update your darn site, people.)
But, it's defense that's the story for this year's USC squad. Though the Trojans don't have a single center on the roster, and their tallest full-time starter is Gibson, at 6-9, their interior defense is positively Lopez-like. USC opponents score just 62 points per game on 39.5% overall shooting, which is tremendously stingy. The Trojans outrebound opponents 38 to 31, have 96 blocks to opponents' 36, and have shot 409 free throws to opponents' 318, all signs of dominant post presence. Plus, though opponents convert threes at virtually the same low rate (34 percent) as USC, opponents have launched 361 threes on the season, 124 more than USC. That tends to happen when you can't get a clean look at the hoop from within 20 feet. Of course, after last Saturday, Stanford fans know this all too well.
USC might actually be a pretty good matchup for Stanford. Offensively, the Card are decidedly perimeter-oriented, so the fact that USC locks down the paint doesn't matter as much as it would have for last year's Cardinal. Defensively, USC was one team that could give the Lopez twins trouble – the twins had the size edge, but USC's smaller posts were much quicker. Lawrence Hill and Josh Owens are quicker defenders, and probably better matchups.
However, I see three issues for Stanford. First, Stanford's frontcourt depth will be tested, as USC figures to attack the paint over and over again offensively. When Hill and Owens get tired or in foul trouble, that means it'll be Will Paul or one of the freshmen posts guarding Taj Gibson. I don't expect Stanford will do well in that matchup.
Second, of course, is the question of rebounding. Washington outboarded the Cardinal by 16 in Seattle, as Stanford lost a one-point road game it otherwise dominated. USC's a better team than UW (records not withstanding), and the Trojans' +7 rebounding margin gives me pause. Stanford might not beat USC outright on the boards, but even finishing within five rebounds of the Trojans would represent a major victory.
Finally, home-court advantage matters a lot to both these teams. Stanford is 10-2 at home and 3-2 on the road. USC, meanwhile is 3-5 away from the Galen Center, including losses at Oregon State and Washington. At home, however, the Trojans are 10-1.
I just think that's too many obstacles for the Cardinal to overcome. I like USC in a close one.
The Bootleg: USC 75, Stanford 68
Stanford at UCLA, Saturday, 12:30PM
Prior to the Washington meltdown, UCLA's three losses had come to Arizona State, Texas, and Michigan by a total of ten points. When Michigan beat UCLA, the Wolverines were playing like a Top 25 team, and Arizona State and Texas have been in and out of the Top 10 all season long. Hard to fault the Bruins for any of those losses.
Then the Bruins lost 86-75 at Washington, and the national perception of this team shifted. Depending on how the Pac-10 shakes out, it's entirely possible UCLA has yet to beat an NCAA Tournament team. The best non-conference win was Southern Illinois, and in conference, UCLA's victims are Arizona, Washington State, the Oregons, and USC. I guess it's unlikely the Pac-10 is just a four-bid league this year (UCLA, Arizona State, Cal, and Washington), but even if USC makes the Tournament, the point remains – a UCLA win this weekend might be their best of the season.
I think that's as much a fluke as it is a reflection of the Bruins' strength, however. For while the Bruins have yet to find a go-to scorer to replace Love and Westbrook, they're not lacking for candidates. Darren Collison (the most underrated player in the Pac-10 for three years running, in my opinion), Josh Shipp, Jrue "Yes, that's how you spell it" Holiday, Alfred Aboya, Nikola Dragovic, and Michael Roll all average at least seven points per game, giving UCLA the feel of an NBA team. Unlike the vast majority of college squads, the Bruins are a legitimate threat to score from every position. For opponents, there's nowhere to hide a bad defender.
UCLA shoots 49 percent overall, 38 percent on threes, and 68 percent on free throws, while holding opponents to 44 percent overall shooting and 31 percent on threes. The Bruins are +4 on rebounds and +4 on turnovers per game, which, like the rest of their stats, are good but not overwhelming.
Overall then, the picture of UCLA is pretty clear. The Bruins are a team that does nothing spectacularly. They lack the firepower of last year and there's no one player's numbers, no one team statistic, no one win that jumps out and grabs your attention.
Yet, with those good-but-not-great statistics, with those good-but-not-great scoring averages, UCLA is 15-4, controls its own destiny in the Pac-10, and, oh yeah, wins its average game by a score of 75-60. This is a team where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and in a culture that looks for the high-flying player, the signature dunk. or the marquee win, the fundamentally sound Bruins are a major sleeper. This is not only the best team in the league, but also quite possibly its most underrated. Look for UCLA to roll Stanford, and look for the Bruins to make a deep run come March.
The Bootleg: UCLA 78, Stanford 62
Predicted: Stanford 65, Arizona State 60 Actual: Arizona State 90, Stanford 60
Predicted: Arizona 69, Stanford 67 Actual: Stanford 76, Arizona 60
Predicted: Washington 78, Stanford 65 Actual: Washington 84, Stanford 83
Predicted: Stanford 57, Wash. State 53 Actual: Wash. State 55, Stanford 54
Predicted: Stanford 76, Cal 72 Actual: Stanford 75, Cal 69
Predicted: Stanford 75, Oregon 65 Actual: Stanford 77, Oregon 55
Predicted: Stanford 75, Oregon State 58 Actual: Oregon State 77, Stanford 62
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