Okay, it's that time of year. The Pac-10 season gets underway next week, and our job is to boldly make predictions on where everyone will finish, so all of you (and fans from other schools who read the site) can laugh at us for being such idiots when nothing goes like we planned. However, neither Tracy nor I care if anyone thinks we're idiots. That's how we stay sane in the insane world of UCLA basketball.
Here's our preview of the top 5 teams in the Pac-10, in our predicted order of where they'll finish up:
1. ARIZONA (5-2)
What, did you think we were really that stupid to pick UCLA to win the Pac-10? Arizona has played perhaps the toughest schedule in the country and they're 5-2, 4-2 against nationally ranked teams, and their only losses are to Kansas and Michigan State. There's no way around it: Unless something changes, Arizona is the best team in the Pac-10.
Why? Well, let's start with Lute Olson. He's the best coach in the Pac-10 and one of the best coaches of all time. His teams always play great defense and make few mistakes.
Second, while many of us believed that UCLA had the best returning talent in the Pac-10, we were wrong. Jason Gardner, Ricky Anderson and Luke Walton are better than any 3 other players on any other Pac-10 team. At least, so far this year. And remember they've been producing against a schedule that makes every other Pac-10 team's schedule look ridiculously soft by comparison.
Third, Arizona's 5 freshmen have all made solid contributions. Nothing fancy, just blending in with the vets and staying out of the way when appropriate. So, the Wildcats have a legit Pac-10 POY candidate in Gardner, two more All Pac-10 candidates in Anderson and Walton, and they go 8 deep in solid players who contribute every night. Plus, they have the best coach in the league. Right now, that trumps everyone else.
Gardner, a 5-10 JR, is playing more like an off-guard this season as he's averaged 23.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 4.3 apg and 1.6 spg. His A/TO ration of 1.2/1 is misleading: His role is to shoot that ball and create scoring opportunities off the dribble, he's the focus of opposing defenses, so he naturally will get turnovers. His first two years, he was better than 2/1 and he's already proven he's an excellent PG. With a 44.4% shooting percentage from 3, do you want this guy passing or shooting? If Gardner has any flaws, he might be a little risk-averse on defense. The Wildcats like to sag defensively and have chosen to give up the outside shot to most teams this year while focusing on keeping the ball out of the paint.
Anderson, the 6-9 JR PF who redshirted last year, is producing at a high level, 14.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.4 bpg, and he's hitting 42.9% from 3. Ricky would be putting up even more impressive numbers if he could stay out of foul trouble, but he's incredibly foul-prone, averaging 4.3 fouls in 28.1 mpg. With his long arms and the sound fundamentals he learned under Ron Palmer at Long Beach Poly (plus from his dad, long-time Long Beach CC coach Gary Anderson), Ricky plays taller than 6-9, he's more like a 6-11 guy inside, but he's a superior ballhandler and jump shooter who can go inside or out. He runs the pick and roll superbly, and he's a very good passer as well. He could use some more weight and sometimes gets pushed around inside, but that's rare and who's going to push him around in the Pac-10?
Walton, a 6-9 JR SF, is really the PG for Arizona this year. He's averaging 13.1 ppg, an excellent 8.9 rpg, and 5.4 apg. Now, if 5.4 apg from a 6-9 PF isn't impressive enough, this guy also has an A/TO ratio of 1.7/1, which is unreal for a power forward. Plus, he averages 1.4 spg. He's the best passing big man in the country, and he's got the mobility, handle and smarts to play outside as well. Indeed, the Wildcats feast on a lot of high post plays, using Luke and Ricky up top, where they can both set screens, run pick and rolls for each other in the paint or do the same with Jason Gardner up top, setting him up for open 3s. Luke has also proven himself to be one of the best rebounders in the conference. If Luke has a weakness, it's his shooting. He's just not much of a shooter. He's at 42.9% overall and 7.7% from 3. Ouch. Both Kansas and Michigan State packed it in against Zona and basically didn't guard Luke, which really limited his playmaking opportunities. Apart from Gardner and Anderson, Arizona lacks consistent jump shooters, so if you zone them and somebody has a bad day, Arizona begins to look like an ordinary team. But it's unlikely that both Gardner and Anderson will have very many bad days.
The five freshmen all have their strengths and weaknesses, but the leadership of the three juniors and Lute Olson's masterful discipline has gotten them to play to their strengths much more than their weaknesses. Outside, Salim Stoudamire, 6-1 FR SG (8.1 ppg) and Will Bynum, 5-10 FR PG (6.6 ppg, 1.9 apg) have proven to be excellent compliments to Gardner. Stoudamire is a very good shooter (34.5% from 3) who just needs to learn better shot selection (overall, he's at 30.5%, and that's coming from some bad shots, he's a very good shooter when he plays within the flow of the offense). Bynum is a superior two-way player, an excellent defender who seems to always hit a key shot or make a great breakaway layup off a steal at a critical time, and he provides a real spark for the Wildcats with his energy and defense. Like Stoudamire, Will needs to improve his shot selection (28.1% overall, 26.1% from 30), but again that will come with time and experience.
Inside, Isaiah Fox, 6-9 FR C, Channing Frye, 6-10 FR C, and Dennis Latimore, 6-8 FR PF, have given Olson a 3-man tag team which loves to bang and foul people. If you are in the paint, these guys will smack you around and foul you. Sometimes they do their jobs too well and get into too much foul trouble, and you don't want any of them on the FT line in a crucial situation, but you rarely see 3 freshmen have to take on the C job and do a solid job of it like these guys have. Isaiah (6.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg) is huge at 265 and really moves his body around well. He has soft hands and a great touch around the basket. He's only gotten 1 block all season in 7 games, so his defensive limitations (he's earth-bound) are obvious, but he does a great job of laying a body on people. Channing (4.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.0 bpg) is probably the most promising of all the FR. He presents a major shotblocking force inside, and with his quickness and athleticism it's only a matter of experience before he develops into an All Pac-10 player and one of the top big men in the country. Dennis (2.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg) has struggled learning the offense and is probably more of a combo forward, but he's certainly weighed in there like the others and battled underneath. The Wildcats do commit 20 fouls per game, and it's these 3 guys and Ricky who are the main culprits. Kansas and Michigan State exposed the fact that overall these guys are not only inexperienced (well, of course), but not particularly tall or mobile either, and that could hurt the Wildcats if they face a team with a strong and mobile post player inside (are there any strong and mobile post players in the Pac-10?)
Lute Olson's teams are noted for their defense, and this team is no different, although their lack of experience has given their coach a few headaches at times and he's made adjustments he'd probably rather avoid. The Wildcats play mostly man to man, but also employ a 1-2-2 matchup zone (Olson was one of the coaches who basically invented that defense). They do a great job of overplaying passing lanes, and they have the quickness in the backcourt to collapse on the ball if it gets into the paint and still get back out on the guards if the ball is passed back out. They do a good job of forcing turnovers, but with such a young team they are making a few more mistakes than most of Olson's teams, so they're turnover margin isn't all that hot (about 1.5 per game). Because of some inherent limitations in the post, Olson's defenses have been packing it in more than usual and a team with two great jump shooters can burn them.
Offensively, they still make fewer mistakes than most teams, and they can really use their quickness to their advantage in both the halfcourt and open floor. No team in the nation boasts two such fundamentally sound 6-9 players as Anderson and Walton. This allows Arizona to run its motion and high post (high-low as well) with extreme efficiency. Although the team does not shoot the ball well overall (42.7%), they get the ball to the right people (Gardner, Gardner, Gardner) and they are scoring at a clip of over 80 points per game against the best competition the country has to offer. They break exceptionally well, and with Gardner and Anderson getting the majority of the shots, the Wildcats are shooting it from 3 at a clip of 38.4%, a very impressive mark. I don't think any team in the Pac-10 can shut Arizona down with a man defense, though I'm sure Cal and Stanford will try.
That's all we really have to say. The Wildcats have proven themselves against 6 top-ranked teams and no one else in the conference even comes close in being tested again and again. Perhaps some the FR will hit "the wall". Perhaps playing on the road in the Pac-10 will cause some of the FR to lose their poise. Maybe Ricky will keep fouling too often. Maybe Jason will have some off nights. Whatever. It's hard to see Arizona losing more than 5 games in the conference, and this is a balanced league that should send 5 teams to the Tournament, so a 13-5 mark should be good enough to win it. If we said anyone else would win it, we'd just be out of touch with reality at this point in the season.
2. UCLA (5-2)
Okay, now you can laugh. The Bruins were crushed by Ball State, got whipped by Pepperdine, and struggled to beat UC-Irvine in their own crib. In 4 of UCLA's 7 games, their opponents have shot better than 45%, and one team (Irvine) shot 52.1%. The team has been riddled with injuries, and C Dan Gadzuric, a preseason pick for the John Wooden Award, has basically played like a scrub. They've only beaten one nationally ranked team this season. So, why should anyone expect UCLA to even make the NCAA Tournament, let alone take 2nd in the Pac-10?
Well, here's why:
First, whether anyone wants to accept it or not, the Bruins' play so far has been seriously impacted by injuries. Two major publications picked Ced Bozeman as the preseason national FR of the year, and they weren't doing it based on hype. A healthy Ced Bozeman would be one of the best PGs in the country, even as a FR. He appears to be recovering rapidly from his knee surgery, and by February 1, at the latest, UCLA will have one of the top PGs in the country playing on their team. Think about that for a second and you can start to comprehend how much UCLA is going to improve this year from where they are now.
Let's add Matt Barnes to the list. Some astute observers, like Frank Burlison, suggested that Matt was UCLA's MVP last year. Matt has been hurt all season and has played only one game like he played last year, against #16 Alabama, and the results were somewhat startling. Matt will likely be 100% by January 1, and UCLA will be at least 25% better as a result. 50% better probably wouldn't be an exaggeration. I'd add Dan Gadzuric to the list, but who really knows that goes on in the mind and body of the non-flying Dutchman. Only the Shadow knows, and he ain't telling.
Second, if Jason Gardner is the leading candidate for Pac-10 POY at this point in the year, UCLA's Jason Kapono is his most serious competition. Jason is averaging 22.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.0 apg, has an A/TO ratio equal to Gardner's, and is shooting 53.8% overall, an unreal 58.1% from 3, and an equally unreal 93.9% from the FT line. Jason has finally become a true star, and a true star can carry a team a long way. A long, long way. When you have a true star on your team, you are likely to win a lot of games.
Third, UCLA is among the best shooting teams in the conference. They have the best 1-2 punch from behind the arc in Jason and Billy Knight (48.3% from 3), and they use a weird offense (the 1-4 high set) which most teams have no clue how to defend properly. The Bruins are also the 2nd best FT shooting team in the conference (73.3%), notwithstanding Gadzuric's hands of stone. A team that shoots almost 44% from 3 and 73% from the line is just going to score a lot of points, no matter what the defense does. The Bruins are probably the most difficult team to defend in the entire conference, including Arizona. This is going to pay off in wins down the road.
Fourth, the Bruins' shift to a 1-2-2 matchup zone as their primary defense is already starting to pay dividends, some of them in unexpected ways. While UCLA has a long way to go to take pride in their defense (the Irvine game showed that), the impact of the zone is already apparent. In the 4 games where UCLA played man d and pressed, they caused 10.3 turnovers per game. In the 3 games where they played the matchup zone, they caused 19.7 turnovers per game. Big difference. Even Irvine made 22 turnovers. In their man games, the Bruins averaged 18.2 turnovers per game. In their zone games, they've averaged 13.7 turnovers per game. In short, the Bruins have gone from a negative turnover margin of 8 per game to a positive turnover margin of 6 per game, the best in the conference. When you have a team that shoots so well and has such a huge turnover ratio, positive results are much more likely than negative results. Riverside (34.7%) and Alabama (29.7%) sucked against the zone. UC-I (52.1%) did not, but they lost anyway. Because of their turnovers.
Fifth, part of UCLA's improvement in turnovers undoubtedly has to do with an emphasis on a halfcourt defense and less forced breaks. But part of it is certainly due to Jason Kapono taking over not only as the primary ballhandler, but also as the clear-cut leader of the team. Jason just doesn't turn it over, and he makes plays for his teammates, and he's a star. The Bruins seem to be emerging as a team, with a unique style of offense and defense and a definite chemistry. I don't think Ced Bozeman's return will disturb that. Indeed, Ced may wind up playing more like a SG when he's back, and that's that a PG does in a 1-4 offense. If you look at Oklahoma and Michigan State, their PGs have been either 1 or 2 in scoring every year. That's no accident. Ced's mediocre play early probably had something to do with his injury, and it might have something to do with the pressure he felt. Now that we all know Jason can handle the ball, make virtually zero mistakes and still score 22 ppg, Ced will ease back into a situation with much less pressure once he returns.
Sixth, even with Gadzuric playing like he has a hole in his head, UCLA is outrebounding opponents by over 7 rebounds per game, even with their zone. Only Stanford is doing better, and Stanford's schedule has sucked. If the Bruins are going to outrebound people, and force a large number of turnovers, their ability to score at a highly efficient pace is going to win games, even if their FG% defense is mediocre. If their FG% defense winds up more like the Alabama game, UCLA will beat out Arizona for the Pac-10 title. Kapono, Knight and a healthy Barnes aren't as good as Gardner, Anderson and Walton, but if Gadzuric and Cummings step up their play, UCLA will have the best 5-man veteran group in the conference. Dijon Thompson and Andre Patterson have already flashed their potential. When Ced comes back, everyone will see what all the fuss was about.
Apart from Jason Kapono, Billy Knight, 6-4 SR SG, and Dijon Thompson, 6-8 FR PG/SG/SF, have been the most consistent and productive Bruins. Billy is averaging 13 ppg, along with 3.3 rpb and 1.6 spg. He's got a positive A/TO ratio, a rarity in a "2" guard. He's hitting 48.3% of his 3s, as noted, and his 86.2% FT percentage gives the Bruins two guys (Jason is the other) who can basically close out a close game when the Bruins have the lead (no team in the conference has two guys who can hit the FTs like Jason and Billy). In the 1-2-2 matchup zone, Billy has become a very good defender, using his long arms, height and hustle to pick off numerous passes. Dijon has done that even more so, despite his youth. He's averaging 7.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.6 apg (2nd on the team) and 1.7 spg (1st on the team). He's also making 33.3% of his 3s and 83.3% of his FTs. Dijon has been a little gun-shy about shooting and driving, but with the coaches' urging, he's promised to become more aggressive. Dijon has the ability to drive through or shoot over pretty much everyone in the conference, and we expect that he will soon become a fixture in the starting lineup. Dijon has had trouble in man defense, but his height and long arms have made him very dangerous in the zone, and he's a big reason why UCLA is getting more turnovers. Between Jason, Billy and Dijon, the Bruins have become very nasty on the wings. Ced will make it worse on the world.
Going into the season, UCLA was supposed to have the strongest post play in the Pac-10. So far, they haven't lived up to expectations. They are still outrebounding opponents by over 7 rebounds per game, which simply adds to the advantages of getting more possessions than their opponents. Matt Barnes (9.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.2 spg) has shown improvement as an outside shooter (37.5% from 3, compared to 20% last year) and as a FT shooter (75% this year, compared to 59% last year and 50% for his career), but other than that he's fallen off in every aspect of his game. Last season, Matt was the key player on the press and in the halfcourt defense, seemingly able to cover 10 feet laterally quicker than any player in the country. His ability to both drive and post up for the jump hook made him a nightmare for opposing PFs. He became one of the top rebounders in the Pac-10. Where has Matt gone? His ankle points the way. We expect that Matt will become healthy soon and return to form in every way. Actually, he'll return to form and be a better jump shooter and FT shooter, and he might just make the All Pac-10 team after all.
Dan Gadzuric (6.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.0 bpg) is more difficult to analyze. At 6-11 and 245, with excellent mobility and athleticism, he should be one of the top big men in the country, despite his Euro mentality and lack of fundamentals. He enters the Pac-10 season as one the least productive starters in the conference. Despite the fact that most of his shot attempts are dunks, he's only shooting 44.4% from the field. His 37.5% shooting from the FT line is abysmal, as usual, although several other Cs in the Pac-10 are actually worse. Dan must simply improve his play to where he was last season, or the Bruins will struggle to finish higher than 4th in the conference. Only Gad and God know if Dan is up to the task. He has definitely struggled with injuries throughout his career, but he has struggled with his brain even more, and right now his brain is ahead in the box score. The zone keeps him out of foul's way, so he will get the time to score and rebound if he's up to the task. We think that Dan will turn it on at some point, and then UCLA will truly become a dangerous team.
TJ Cummings, 6-9 SO PF (10.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 55.4% from the field, 72.2% from the FT line) has had every opportunity to seize a starting job at either the 4 or the 5. He's had some superb games as a scorer. His midrange J is a thing of beauty, and when he takes it to the hole he's hard to stop, because he's a lot quicker than most players 6-6 or taller. While he's had some solid boarding displays, he remains an inconsistent rebounder and indifferent defender. TJ just doesn't have the killer OL mentality that most top-notch college post players have. He's a finesse player in a world of Udonis Haslems and Lonnie Baxters. He's also selfish, the only really selfish player on the team, and he rarely thinks of passing the ball to an open teammate, even when he is forcing up a bad shot. Teams and players are supposed to get better as the year wears on. If TJ gets better, especially in the physical and mental aspects of the game, he will be one of the top 5 post players in the league. He could very easily be way better than anyone on Arizona, Cal or Oregon. And USC's post players are 6-6. It's all up to TJ. And Steve Lavin. If Lavin wants this team to reach its potential, he must get Gadzuric and Cummings to reach their potential. No insult to Lavin, but I'll bet Lute Olson could do it. This season will be a real test of Lavin's ability to motivate and teach his players. The Bruins have the best outside shooters in the conference. They could have the best post game in the conference. In short, they could have the best team in the conference. That's up to the coaching staff…
Ced Bozeman, 6-7 FR PG, got 5.2 ppg and 3.2 apg with a torn cartilage in his knee. He managed to hit 33.3% of his 3s and 67% of his FTs without being able to jump or bend his knees properly. Time will tell when he gets back. He will reportedly be back by January 1 at the latest. Andre Patterson, 6-6+ FR PF, is averaging 4.3 ppg and 3.3 rpg in half the minutes that TJ plays. If you multiply it out and play "what if," Andre would be leading the team in rebounds and averaging 50% more rebounds per game than TJ in the same amount of minutes. However, Andre is a mediocre defender and human turnover machine and he must improve to earn more PT. Or maybe he should just get more PT and then he'll improve, we can't figure out which. Ryan Walcott, 6-0 FR PG, is averaging an assist per game and his A/TO ratio is better than 5 of the Pac-10's backup PGs, but his contributions have been on and off and we are still waiting to see if he can really contribute on a consistent basis this year. He needs to shoot it better, and do a better job of recognizing where Jason and Billy are, rather than just being content to slice through fullcourt presses and whip the ball around the perimeter.
A lot of people keep asking why Rico Hines, 6-4 SR SG/SF (0.3 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 1.7 apg) starts, or even plays. Well, his 1.5/1 A/TO ratio is the best on the team. He runs the offense better than anyone except Jason, Billy and Matt. In other words, the UCLA offense operates most efficiently when he's on the floor. As he showed in the Irvine game, he can guard some people too, a rare feat on this team. That's why he plays. But we can all recognize Rico's offensive limitations (Irvine wasn't even guarding him out there). Although Rico plays hard every game, plays good d, plays unselfish ball and makes good passes into the post, most likely he will be out of the starting lineup by January 1, if not sooner. Nonetheless, Rico will continue to see consistent minutes, even if they are fewer than they have been so far, and he will continue to contribute to the team in many ways that don't show up in the box score (actually, if Dan Gadzuric could hit a wide open dunk or 3-footer, Rico would be leading the team in assists right now).
The Bruins' 1-4 "high" offense offends, annoys, angers and confuses many Bruin fans. Fortunately, it does the same to most opposing teams. There's a reason why UCLA is 3rd in the conference in FG% and 2nd in the conference in 3-point FG% (they're 2nd in FT percentage, don't ask me to explain that). There's also a reason why they're 7th in team assists (Michigan State has the best PG in the Big 10, but they're only 5th in team assists, and Oklahoma arguably starts two PGs, and they're 9th in the Big 12 in team assists). The 1-4 offense is unusual and peculiar in this day and age, and very hard to defend over 40 minutes. It doesn't involve screens, and because few plays involve spot-up jumpers, the point guards don't get many assists. The offense does generate a high amount of wide open shots, inside and out, but it places a premium on good passing and movement without the ball and communication between teammates, and with injuries to Ced and Matt and the addition of two key freshmen and the apparent brain death of Dan Gadzuric, the Bruins have had their problems executing their offense consistently. In the last 5 games, they've cut their turnovers by almost 5 per game and Ced and Matt are expected back within 2 weeks. Imagine the possibilities… but Dan had better start giving them 12 ppg inside, or UCLA's progress will only go so far.
Defensively, UCLA will almost certainly stick with the 1-2-2 matchup zone for the whole season. Gonzaga showed what a good 1-2-2 matchup zone could do to Washington and Washington State. Minnesota did the same thing to Oregon. Michigan State used that defense against Arizona. In other words, if you play this defense really well, you can win a lot of games with it, and a lot of Pac-10 teams seem suited to have trouble with it. The Bruins' opponents have been shooting an average of 35% in the last 3 games as opposed to over 46% in the "man" days, and as I noted above, UCLA is causing 9 more turnover per game since they went to the zone. And this includes their performance against UC-I. Only time will tell if UCLA will improve their defense, or whether opponents will solve it. But we get the sense that UCLA is on the right track. A high-powered offense combined with a good defense that results in 6 extra possessions off turnovers and 7 off of rebounds usually leads to good results in the end. Then again, that's theory. We'll have to play the games to see what actually happens.
3. STANFORD (5-1)
Stanford, as usual, has a great coach and some pretty good players. As usual, they've managed to avoid playing any ranked teams, and lost to the only team on their schedule likely to make the NCAA Tournament this year. So, as usual, it's pretty difficult to get a good grasp on where this Cardinal team is at this point in the season. As usual, we refuse to bet against Stanford, though some might say that picking the Cardinal to finish 3rd in the Pac-10 is betting against them, since they've won the Pac-10 title three years in a row. Only time (and Curtis Borchardt's foot) will tell…
This review was written before Stanford clocked Belmont, but does it really matter? Belmont makes UC-Riverside look like a good team. The Belmont game did see Casey Jacobsen break free for the first time this season, but it's obvious that's already going to be an atypical affair this year. With four new starters, Mike Montgomery nevertheless has Stanford playing its usual brand of relatively mistake-free basketball, but compared to prior Stanford teams, the Cardinal are making more mistakes then in the past, and they're having a lot more trouble shooting it and defending it. What they're not having trouble with is dominating the glass, with a positive rebounding margin of better than 13 per game before the Belmont game and 15 after it, and when you compare such a huge rebounding advantage with a fairly low amount of turnovers, you can see that Stanford is definitely going to be in the hunt for the title and will compete in every game, because possessions are what really count, assuming you don't have an outstanding weakness in some other aspect of the game.
Unfortunately, Stanford might have an outstanding weakness. With the loss of those 4 starters, Casey Jacobsen is getting double-teamed, held, grabbed, punched and elbowed every night for 38 minutes per game, and even though the Pac-10 calls games closer than perhaps any other conference in the country, he might not get too much relief for the rest of the season. Most players might spend a lot of time complaining about getting mugged on a nightly basis, but Casey has taken the "what does not kill me only makes me stronger" route. He's made himself the "point-swingman" and true leader of the this Cardinal team, and he'll let the opposing defenders hurl themselves at him because he knows this is setting his teammates up for a lot of open looks. Casey is getting 19.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg and 3.8 apg per game, but he's only hitting 36.3% of his shots and 28.6% from 3 (he made 6-8 from 3 against Belmont, but they're really still a D 2 team, so I'm not sure that signals anything). Without the Collins twins to set bone-jarring picks, and without the reliability of Mendez and McDonald, I'm not sure Casey is going to be getting too many easy looks this year, and as a result Stanford has struggled offensively some nights, even though most of their opponents to date have been mediocre defensive teams.
Stanford is hitting 45.2% overall, 32.1% from 3 and a rather surprising 68.9% from the FT line. Their 13.0 turnovers per game, while still excellent overall, is below normal standards. They made 15 turnovers against Belmont. The Cardinal are causing 17.6 turnovers per game, but I suspect they will cause fewer turnovers in the Pac-10, and make more. And their rebounding margin will decrease somewhat, since they're Pac-10 schedule will be significantly more difficult than their preseason schedule. Unless Stanford can become a more efficient team offensively, they could struggle against all of the good Pac-10 teams, and there are 5 other teams in the Pac-10 besides the Cardinal who qualify as "good", and 3 more who can be good on their home court on a given night. That's why we're picking the Cardinal for 3rd: Just not as experienced as before, and just not as efficient as before.
Talent, on the other hand, might be a different issue, and if talent comes to the fore, the Cardinal might be laughing all the way to the Pac-10 title this season. Curtis Borchardt, 7-1 240 JR C is really playing only his first full season this year, and he's arguably the best true C in all of college basketball. He's averaging 15.6 ppg, 13.4 rpg, 2.8 apg and 3.0 bpg while sinking 60.4% of his FGs. His long arms and mobility enable him to play taller than his 7-1 height; he can step outside and hit the 12-footer on the baseline, can score with either hand inside, has been dominating on the glass, alters as many shots as he blocks and does an excellent job of dumping the ball back outside if he feels the double-team forming around him. His injured foot appears to be 100% and long behind him (or, at least, beneath him, where it belongs from the anatomical standpoint).
Josh Childress, 6-7 FR SF (13.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 41.2% from 3, 87.5% from the FT line) is suspect #2 in the talent department. Josh appears to be the leading candidate for Pac-10 FOY going into conference play. He's a superior all-around offensive talent who can hit the 3 or take it strong along the baseline for the monster jam. His one-on-one skills are very good, his defense is improving (he's a freshman, okay?). Josh has found more people who can guard him in college than in high school (no one could guard him in high school, actually), so he's had his share of off-nights, and it will be interesting to see how he responds to what will definitely be a stepped up level of competition and intensity in the Pac-10. Most likely, Josh will respond just fine and wind up winning the Pac-10 FOY award, though Jamal Sampson at Cal and Errick Craven at USC might want to discuss that issue with him. Curtis and Josh are the keys for Stanford. Everyone knows Casey Jacobsen will be a great player. The Cardinal need Curtis and Josh to play at an even higher level than they've shown so far if they want to compete for the title.
The Cardinal also start Justin Davis, 6-8 SO PF, and Tony Giovacchini, 6-2 SR PG. Both players have been solid, particularly Tony, for first-year starters, but they have their limitations. Justin just isn't as tall or wide as Jarron Collins, and his offense is very raw. He's getting 5.8 ppg and 3.6 rpg and he makes Gadzuric look good at the FT line. He needs to do a better job of setting screens, and he needs to stay out of foul trouble on the defensive end of things and just give Curtis better help inside. Tony is averaging 5.0 ppg, 4.2 apg and has an excellent A/TO ratio of 2.3/1. He's making 35.3% of his 3s, but only 30.8% of his FGs overall, and he will be facing some pretty nasty, quick PGs in the Pac-10, so he will have to step his play even more. However, he's been very solid for the Cardinal and has really played a big part in keeping the Stanford offense at a pretty high level of efficiency, as far as not turning the ball over. With Casey surrounded by a mob at all times, it's not Tony's fault if he can't get the ball to him.
The Cardinal bench has been solid, though not outstanding, but may be getting a big boost soon. Teyo Johnson, 6-5 SO PF, has finally joined the team after football season, and he was an excellent backup last season, a guy who could crash the boards, play taller than his height, and also hit the 3 as well. Give Teyo a month, and he might be challenging for a starting job. Julius Barnes, 6-2 JR PG/SG (8.4 ppg, 2.2 apg, 1.0 spg) has been the big gun for Stanford off the bench. He's only hitting 21.4% of his 3s, but he doesn't always exercise the best judgment on his shot selection. However, he's a great athlete who can score off breaks and penetrate and break people down off the dribble, and he gives the Cardinal a dimension on offense they don't otherwise have. Defensively, he can steal the ball and harass people, but sometimes takes too many gambles. Robert Little, 6-9 270 FR PF/C (4.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 61.6% from the field, 75% FTs) has been a pleasant surprise for the Cardinal. He's got incredibly soft hands and a real nice touch all over the place. He has a huge body like Isaiah Fox, but a little more vertical and he's played very good defense for a freshman. He will likely develop into a very good future starter for the Cardinal.
Joe Kirchofer, 6-9 SO PF/C (2.8 ppg, 1.8 rpg), Chris Hernandez, 6-0 FR PG (2.0 ppg, 1.2 apg) and Nick Robinson, 6-6 FR SF/PF (1.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg) all play valuable minutes off the bench. Joe is a big banger who has done a solid job so far, but will likely see his time go way down as Teyo gets into shape. Chris is a FR PG with great fundamentals who is just on a team with two very experienced PGs. His 1/5/1 A/TO ratio shows his savvy. He's also adjusting to college athletically, but he will be a very good player down the road. Nick is a 21-year old FR (Mormon mission) who has given the team some tough play inside despite the fact that he's really a 6-6 200 wingman. Now that Teyo is back, Nick could give the team an even bigger boost backing up Josh and Casey instead of having to hurl himself at beefy 6-10 guys.
Stanford has stuck with man to man all year and that won't change until Mike Montgomery retires. Chris Owens of Texas is the only player over 6-7 who scores in double-figures that they've played all season (though Travis Reed is listed as being over 6-7), and he killed Stanford inside. Some of the Pac-10 schools are solid inside, but I'm not sure Sam Clancy is over 6-6 and unless Dan Gadzuric changes his tune, Stanford might not be challenged inside too much. Only one team has shot better than 43% against the Cardinal this year, but then the Cardinal are going to face a lot more good teams soon. Stanford is a little slow up top, and Casey has to be foul conscious, even if he's getting fouled about 15 times per game, so again it's just too early to know how effective the Cardinal defense will be this season. Having Curtis Borchardt backing everyone up is a big help, though…
Offensively, the Cardinal have used more motion than in the past. Curtis is much stronger within 10 feet of the basket and he can't afford to get in foul trouble, so Montgomery is letting Casey and Josh create a lot off the dribble. Both player can go baseline extremely well, and they have very good one-on-one skills, especially given their ability to threaten with the jump shot, and Stanford has done a lot with Josh and others using Casey to set up scoring opportunities off of pick and rolls, or to score along the baseline when Curtis and Justin step out to set a mid-level pick, but we're not seeing as much high post play as in the past. With their huge rebounding margin and good turnover margin, the Cardinal get a lot of possessions, and they're scoring over 83 ppg even without shooting the ball all that well. Again, now that they'll actually be playing some real competition on a weekly basis, we'll see if they can keep it up. Our guess is, they probably can. Picking Stanford behind UCLA is pretty arbitrary and undoubtedly reflects our pro-UCLA bias more than anything else…
4. CALIFORNIA (6-1)
Cal is another Pac-10 team that has established a sexy record against a schedule that fails to arouse much interest. They did crush Fresno State in Berkeley with Melvin Ely sitting out for alleged NCAA infractions, but then the Bulldogs are 1-3 without Ely. But Cal won 20 games and made the NCAA Tournament last year and they return 4 starters from that team and have added one of the top FR in the conference. They're deep and experienced and disciplined. They're going to be good.
Joe Shipp, 6-5 JR SF (15.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.1 apg), formerly of Fairfax High, has emerged as Cal's go-to guy this season. Joe is hitting 40% of his 3s and he's an outstanding jump shooter with the ballhandling skills and smarts to take people off the dribble and big butt to back people down in low. Cal is a team like Stanford; they might not look like they should be able to get a lot of fast breaks, but if you let appearances deceive you, they will gladly get about 8 dunks and layups a game by looking for the break at every appropriate opportunity. Joe is particularly adept at getting out ahead of his defender and scoring a layup 20 feet ahead of a quicker player, leading to much laughter and embarrassment all around. He's developed into a solid defender as well.
Brian Wethers, 6-4 JR SG (9.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg) is another one of those opportunistic breakers. Brian is a superior athlete who still lacks a consistent J (only 29.4% from 3). He plays very good defense in Cal's man, and he's a tough slasher. Off the bench, Ryan Forehan-Kelly, 6-5 SR SG/SF (9.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg) gives the Bears another superior shooter (38.5% from 3), and like the rest of his teammates, he rarely makes mistakes. Cal is second in the conference in turnover margin, and like Stanford they always play a very nasty man to man defense in which everything clicks and opponents have a hard time shooting straight. By the numbers you're seeing here, you can see that the Bears are a very balanced, deep team with a lot of guys who can play multiple positions, so it's hard for anyone to focus on just one player as the key to shutting down the Bears' attack.
If Cal does have a key player, it's most likely ShanTay Legans, 5-10 JR PG. ShanTay averages 8.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg and 3.4 apg. His efficiency is somewhat down this year, as his A/TO ratio is down to 1.3/1 and he's only hitting 27.3% from 3, but I suspect his play will pick up as the season goes on. ShanTay is a cat-quick guard who can control tempo from the top of the key and whip the ball around to the J-shooters, or else he can slice right through a defense and get into the lane, and he's always on the lookout for break opportunities. If ShanTay's play has been a little down, Dennis Gates, 6-3 SR SG/SF, has been on the up in his final year. An intense defender and competitor, Dennis averaging 7.4 ppg, 3.7 apg, 2.3 spg and has an A/TO ratio of 3.2/1. He isn't a very good shooter, but he does everything else on the excellent scale. AJ Diggs, 5-9 SO PG (1/7 ppg, 2.0 apg) gives the team solid minutes off the bench.
Up front, even before 6-11 250 Amir Tamat joins the team (which could be within a week, if I've heard correctly), the Bears have one of the top 1-2 inside punches in the Pac-10. Solomon Hughes, 6-11 SR C (9.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.6 bpg) does an excellent job of playing weakside d in Cal's man to man, can go off for 15 points on a given night, and is worse from the FT line than Dan Gadzuric, something that is almost unimaginable. Jamal Sampson, 6-10 FR PF/C, gets 8.6 ppg and 7.6 rpb to go with 2.1 bpg. He's not much better than Solomon from the foul line, but Jamal has huge upside and will soon be the top C in all of the college basketball, maybe by as early as next season. He's been very consistent for the Bears and I think he will challenge for Pac-10 FOY this season. Both Solomon and Jamal have unusual mobility and athleticism for post players, and they both have really long arms. Cal could hurt both Arizona and Stanford (and USC) with their inside game.
As I noted above, Ben Braun's Cal teams always play tough man defense, and an opponent considers it a good night if they make 40% of their FGs. Until Tamat is up to speed, Cal is somewhat susceptible if one of their big men get into foul trouble. They could also have trouble with a team like UCLA or Stanford that employs multiple tall wings who can shoot, because Cal's wings just aren't very tall or athletic. Of course, this is all theory. Someone will have to break down Cal's defense on the actual court if they want to win the games…
Offensively, Cal runs a very straightforward Midwestern-style motion offense. Solomon likes to lay people out, but in the Pac-10 that could get dangerous. There were at least 10 Pac-10 games last year where Solomon's PT and play were affected by his foul problems, so that's an area to watch. Joe, Ryan and (theoretically) ShanTay can just flat-out spot-up and shoot, so they don't necessarily need screens to score. Solomon and Jamal do a good job of kicking the ball back out if the defense collapses on them, and then they both do a very good job on the offensive glass once the shot goes up. Again, Cal will break a lot, and with their turnover margin they will get enough high percentage possessions to score effectively enough to win, since their defense is always so good. Despite the two big men, Cal does have a problem rebounding the ball, and that could get worse in the heightened intensity of the Pac-10. Then again, Tamat could have a big impact. He's from Israel; I have no idea how good he is.
Cal gets picked for 4th because they simply aren't as hard to guard as the three teams ahead of them, they don't rebound as well as those teams, and if the startling change in turnover margin that occurred with UCLA after they went to a zone and put Jason Kapono at the point even continues at 50% of what it's been so far, the three teams ahead of Cal will get more possessions than the Bears. It's always hard to pick against outstanding defensive teams, and Cal is an outstanding defensive team, but they were an outstanding defensive team last year and went 11-7 and finished 4th. Without Sean Lampley, they have less firepower than last year and their interior defense and offense is very dependent on a FR and a foul-prone SR. So, Cal gets 4th. Plus 20 wins and another trip to the NCAA Tournament…
5. USC (6-2)
Another wimpy preseason schedule leaves us with more questions than answers. The Trojans did lose to Fresno State when they had Melvin Ely and they were ranked. That will be a "good loss" for RPI purposes. Maybe. Now that Ely's status is uncertain, FSU might struggle to make the NIT. USC did its job in fending off local rivals Long Beach State and UCSB, so at least they are not total screwups like UCLA, who went out and lost to Pepperdine… oh… never mind.
In any event, Coach Henry Bibby took his team to the Elite 8 last year, and he returns 3 very good starters as well as a solid 6th man and some exciting newcomers. He changes his lineups and rotations at a pace that would make Steve Lavin dizzy, and sometimes he just seems to get mad at certain players, so you can never tell if someone is going to play or how long they'll play or how well they'll play with fear sitting on their shoulder. OTOH, this guy got to the Elite 8 last year. If someone wants to argue with Coach Bibby, go ahead. But leave me out of it…
Other guys get more notice, but Brandon Granville, 5-9 SR PG, is the heart, soul, brain, lungs and pretty much every other organ for this team, especially the one that counts. He scores 12 ppg, dishes out 5.5 dimes per game, with an excellent A/TO ratio of 2.3/1 and also rips 1.5 spg. He does this while making 41.9% of his 3s and 83.3% of his FTs. Granville is a true "coach on the floor" player. As the point guard, he places tremendous pressure on opposing PGs and makes it difficult for any of USC's enemies to find their rhythm. The Trojans lead the Pac-10 in FG% defense (36.7%) and they're 4th in turnover margin, and Granville plays a big role In that. He really controls the tempo of the whole game, and he can burn you with 3s or just slice through your defense if you get in his face. Henry Bibby was the only Pac-10 coach to offer Brandon a scholarship out of Westchester High School.
Sam Clancy, 6-7 240 SR PF, and David Bluthenthal, 6-7 220 SR SF/PF, are the guys who are supposed to be the big guns for the Trojans. Sam is averaging 15.9 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 1.5 spg and 2.1 bpg. He's been the focus of opposing defenses, and a lot of teams are zoning the Trojans, and those two factors have been limiting his touches this season. He's a true power player who mostly scores on dunks, 3-foot turnarounds and offensive rebounds. He's developed a nice 15-17 foot step-back J, but doesn't put the ball on the floor much. He alters more shots than he blocks, and he's a very underrated, savvy and effective defender. He's a mediocre foul shooter. I think he's barely 6-6.
David is probably 6-7, but he sure looks like he weighs more than 220, and it ain't muscle. Right now, David is averaging 9.8 ppg and 6.6 rpg and hitting just 29.7% of his 3s, all of which represent a big falloff from last season. David has been in Bibby's well-publicized "dog house," which is so big they should call it a "corral," and he's often seemed sluggish and uninvolved on the court. He woke up big time against UCSB, drilling 5 straight 3s in the second half, and the Trojans desperately need David to wake up and step it up if they want to return to the NCAA Tournament. David is another Westchester High product (well, like Brandon [St. Bernard's in Playa Del Rey], David actually only played one year at Westchester after he transferred from Venice High), and we are rooting for him to come out and cap of his college career with a strong finish.
Errick Craven, 6-2 170 FR SG, has come out and apparently seized control of the starting "2" guard spot. He didn't use any special ray gun or Lex Luthor mind control device, he just used his skills. Errick is averaging 10.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg and 1.1 spg. More importantly, he's hitting 34.8% of his 3s. That might not be so hot compared to Billy Knight or Jason Gardner, but it's a pretty good percentage and the Trojans need all the help they can get from the outside. Errick is a quick, super-athletic and tenacious defender, with a keen understanding of the fundamentals of the game, which he picked up in high school from Doug Mitchell at Bishop Montgomery High in Torrance. Errick has also demonstrated his unselfishness and his ability to penetrate into the lane, and he might develop into a PG down the road. For now, he's already challenging Josh Childress for the Pac-10 FOY award.
Desmon Farmer, 6-4 225 SO SG/SF, began the season as a starter and will no doubt start more games for the Trojans this season. He's producing 8.7 ppg and 4.9 rpg on 31.6% shooting from 3. Farmer is a high-energy sort of guy whose facial expressions can be inspiring, annoying or amusing. He's actually a pretty good shooter who just plays out of control too many times and that affects his shooting percentage. Sometimes, his drives to the basket are spectacular and sometimes they result in a fairly obvious charging foul everyone in the arena anticipated three seconds before the play started. Desmon is very good and sneaky on the offensive glass, as is Errick, and I'm curious to see whether a zone team can keep Errick, Sam, David and Desmon off the glass for 40 minutes since no one will be boxing them out. Fresno State and Pepperdine both zoned them for 40 minutes, and the Trojans still got the rebounds, even if they couldn't get the wins.
Jerry DuPree, 6-7 SO SF/PF (5.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg) and Rory O'Neill, 6-11 220 FR C (4.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.2 bpg) have both started up front for the Trojans, but now seem to be coming off the bench, but don't be surprised to see them starting again soon. Jerry is a super-athletic JC transfer with raw offensive skills. When he's focused on the game, which isn't always the case, he can use his quickness and long arms and really contribute at both ends. Rory has one of the most beautiful shooting touches of any big man in the country. Sometimes, it seems as if Rory would never miss a shot between 2 feet and 18 feet. He's already become a solid banger underneath the glass, and he's shown surprising skill as a shotblocker. He's not a great athlete, but shotblocking has a lot more to do with timing, footwork and positioning, and most 18-year olds don't have that stuff down, but Rory is more advanced than most 22-year olds in that respect, and it is easy to see developing into one of the top Cs in the conference down the road.
For now, Rory must share time in the pivot with Kostas Charissis, 6-11 250 JR C (2.5 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 1.0 bpg) and Nick Curtis, 6-8 220 FR PF/C (1.9 ppg, 1.4 rpg). Kostas just got let out of NCAA jail, where'd he'd been unlawfully imprisoned for some weird ex post facto, de facto nonsense. Res ipsa loquiter, and all that. Anyway, he's just gotten back and will undoubtedly get back into shape in a few weeks. Nick is really a forward and will likely play there for the rest of the season. He's long and lean and quick and aggressive and he'll be a good player for USC for the next 3+ years. And we can't forget Robert Hutchinson, 6-1 JR PG (1.6 ppg, 1.2 apg). Robert is really 5-11, but who cares? He backs up Granville with an A/TO ratio of 3.3/1. He also makes 40% of his 3s. Not bad for a backup…
The name of the game for Henry Bibby and his USC Trojans is defense. They have the best FG% defense in the Pac-10 (36.7%) and Bibby just does a great job of switching a series of intense defensive systems at opponents. His speed and quickness enables him to employ fullcourt pressure, halfcourt traps, a very aggressive, extended 1-2-2 or 2-1-2 matchup zone, straight man, and a 2-3 zone. The Trojans have very quick guards and wings, and it really shows on defense. When they go "big" with Bluthenthal, Clancy and O'Neill, they can be pretty tough with a straight man. The key to breaking down USC's defense is getting the ball into the paint, either by dribble penetration from the wing or along the baseline, or, better still, by flashing someone into the paint just below the FT line. If you can't force major shifts in their defensive positions, you will not hit 40% against this team.
Offensively, USC is mediocre, at best. They're 9th in the conference in FG%, 6th in 3-point percentage, and 9th in FT percentage. With Bluthenthal playing below par, USC just doesn't have any consistent perimeter threat. Granville has gotten hot, you can't count on streaks every game. If the Trojans work the ball into the paint, it's usually Clancy trying a power move or Granville penetrating. Well, Clancy shoots 59% from the FT line and Brandon is actually worse, at 53%. Apart from Rory, USC doesn't really have anyone taller than 6-7 and the two 6-7 guys (Bluthenthal and DuPree) are finesse players. Apart from Brandon, the Trojans have a lot of players who don't always focus on offense and as a result the team gives the ball up almost as much as they take it away, negating their fine defense almost as much as their poor shooting does. The Trojans do rebound the ball well, despite their size, with Clancy Bluthenthal, Craven and Farmer getting up there. So, USC gets 7 more rebounds per game than opponents, and that helps with possessions.
The question is, will USC continue to rebound and defend so well now that they're playing a lot better teams? Unless David Bluthenthal snaps out of it, I can't help but feel that the Trojans are in for some rocky times in the semi-strong, but very balanced Pac-10. Apart from Arizona, the Pac-10 doesn't seem to have any dominating teams. UCLA and Stanford are pretending to be top 20 teams, but that remains to be proven. Apart from Arizona's amazing run, UCLA is the only other team in the conference to beat a nationally ranked opponent. Some of the Pac-10's teams haven't even played a single opponent who is a likely candidate for the NCAA Tournament. I don't know about you, but I don't think that's very smart. Anyway, the conference is supposed to be very balanced this year, and it's full of teams who have avoided being seriously tested as much as possible. Based on their great Tourney run last year, we'll go with USC to not only finish 5th, but to make the Big Dance as well.
Next up: Part Two of our Preview. Be patient, it might not come until Sunday or Monday. Sheesh, this is hard work. And all of it just to look like an idiot…