Beach's Bits - Ranking the Pac-10

The 2011 Pac-10 conference season is off and running, and though the conference is better than last season, it's still pretty week once you get beyond the top 4 or 5 teams. With two weeks gone, Washington has already begun to separate itself form the pack. Here's how things stack up.

1) Washington (4-0). Despite losing point guard Abdul Gaddy to a season-ending knee injury, the Huskies remain the clear favorites to win the conference title. Their opening weekend sweep of UCLA and USC on the road provided substance to the hype. Shaking up the rotation and Inserting 7-foot workhorse Aziz N'Diaye into the starting lineup after the loss to Texas A&M was a bold gamble for UW Head Coach Lorenzo Romar, but six wins in a row show it's been an undeniable success to this point. Isaiah Thomas has responded brilliantly to Gaddy's injury averaging nearly 20 points and 9 assists the last two contests, earning him Pac-10 Player of the Week honors for his play against Oregon and Oregon State. The biggest improvement for Washington has come by way of Matthew Bryan-Amaning, whose 19.5 points and 10 rebounds a game earned him Pac-10 Player of the Week honors, last week, the first time different Huskies have won in back-to-back weeks since the conference first started handing out the award in 1983-84. Freshman Terrence Ross and junior Scott Suggs are making their presence felt as two of the top three-point marksmen in the conference. As much firepower as UW possesses, it's their defense and rebounding that have been most impressive en route to their undefeated run in Pac-10 play to date.

2) USC (2-1). When transfer Jio Fontan became eligible December 18, the Trojans suddenly became a legitimate Pac-10 threat. Three games into conference play, the Trojans are 2-1, with quality wins over Washington State and UCLA, as well as a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Washington Huskies at the Galen Center. Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson make up the most physically imposing front court in the Pac-10, ranking first in second in rebounding at 10 and 8.7 boards per game, respectively. They are also getting solid contributions from their trio of point guards - Fontan, Maurice Jones, and Donte Smith. With such imposing posts, it's no surprise they're one of the toughest defensive squads in the conference. They aren't very deep, but as long as they stay healthy, they'll remain one of the most difficult match-ups in the Pac-10.

3) Washington State (2-2). The Cougars haven't been as impressive as their non-conference success suggested, but they are still a quality team. After an anti-climactic opening weekend that saw them lose twice in southern California, the Cougars returned home from their epic two-week long road trip to dispatch the Oregon schools. Both Klay Thompson and Faisal Aden have cooled off a bit from their torrid run through December, but point guard Reggie Moore appears to be fully healthy after missing the first three weeks of the season. When the Cougars are hitting from outside, they can keep up with anyone, but it's their defense that has propelled them to 12-4.

4) Arizona Wildcats (3-1). As expected, the Wildcats have looked pretty raw at times out of the conference gate; yet, holding a 3-1 record, things are off to a good start. That could change though, as Sean Miller's youngsters hit a meaty spot in conference schedule, with series against the Washington and southern California schools in the coming weeks. Arizona has a wealth of young talent, but they play like it and are still learning how to close games and execute in critical moments. They almost lost a big lead at home against California. Derrick Williams is putting up Player of the Year numbers, and his supporting cast has been solid, but small. Seven-footer Kyryl Natyazhko has been a non-factor so far. Their loss on the road against Oregon State last week was an RPI killer. Still, the Wildcats are another impressive defensive squad that will improve significantly between now and March.

5) UCLA (1-2). The Bruins are still a tough team to peg because on paper there is so much talent assembled on the roster, and they look the part of contender at times. They earned a solid win at home over Washington State last week before losing to Washington last Saturday and their cross-town rival USC Sunday evening. The Bruins can play with anyone when they're clicking, but that hasn't happened much. Key contributors Tyler Honeycutt, Malcolm Lee and Josh Smith are talented but inconsistent. Sophomore Reeves Nelson has been a rock, averaging 18 points and nine rebounds a game. The Bruins have been hamstrung by poor outside shooting, inconsistent defensive focus and lack of a consistent shot-maker in the back court. Like Arizona, the young Bruins are bound to improve significantly over the course of the season but they're probably another year away from earning a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

6) Stanford Cardinal (2-1). The Bottom half of the conference is a tough one to call, simply because the teams that reside there are so closely matched. Stanford has started out conference play well with wins over Arizona State and Cal, but neither of those teams are very good. Jeremy Green can put up big numbers when he's hot, and forward Josh Owens is one of the most dynamic athletes in the Pac-10. But like several other Pac-10 clubs, they're woefully undersized in the middle. The Cardinal are going to need big contributions from their talented freshman class if they have aspirations beyond where they currently reside.

7) Oregon State (2-2). The Beavers gave Pac-10 fans the first shocker of conference play, upsetting Arizona in Corvallis and opening conference play with a 2-0 record. It was short lived, of course, losing to Washington State before getting run off the court at Washington. They are a competitive group, and their 1-3-1 zone defense is disruptive and effective against the right match-ups. They are also more athletic than typical Oregon State teams. There's no reason to believe they are cellar-bound this season, especially with youngsters like Jared Cunningham and Roberto Nelson in the fold.

8) California (1-2). Head Coach Mike Montgomery entered 2010-11 knowing he was in for a rough season after losing four starters from last season's Pac-10 championship squad, but his Golden Bears have proven to be a resilient bunch. Jorge Gutierrez already owned the reputation as one of the best defenders in the conference, and has also turned out to be their go-to player on both ends of the court. Mark Sanders-Frison and Harper Kamp are solid under the basket, but there isn't much help beyond talented freshman Allen Crabbe, who has scored 17 points in three of his last four games. If they can stay healthy and don't get run down over the course of a rigorous Pac-10 campaign, Cal can ride those four players a long way. But is that realistic?

9) Arizona State (1-3). The conference's biggest disappointment has to be the Arizona State Sun Devils – last year's conference runner-up and a team that lost just two starters. The culprit doesn't appear to be any player specifically; it's a team mess. Herb Sendek's gimmicky match-up zone has been a disaster, and their offensive execution inept. They' have quality athletes in Ty Abbott, Carrick Felix, and Trent Lockett, but Sendek's system is so slow, so their impact has been limited. Wasn't Sendek bragging about going up-tempo during the offseason? Maybe next year.

10) Oregon Ducks (0-4). You've got to hand it to the Ducks – They're trying. Truly they are. They hung tough during the first half versus Washington, but they're so outgunned that moral victories might be the best they're going to get as they sweep up the conference cellar.


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