Beach's Pac-10 Rankings

Heading into conference play, one might make the observation that the conference isn't a strong as many people thought, and you'd be right. That doesn't mean that the conference isn't still ultra-competitive, because the next two months should feature some of the most exciting games the Pac-10 has ever seen.

Washington State and UCLA are far above the rest of the league, but there are cracks in the armor - especially for the Bruins. After the two frontrunners, it gets really muddy; five teams will battle for the next tier, all flawed in some way or another, but potentially spectacular as well. The teams that manage to harness that untapped potential lying just beneath the surface will be battle-tested and ready to take on the best the country can offer during tournament time. Without further ado, here are my Pac-10 rankings heading into conference play:

1) Washington State. As easy as it would have been to put UCLA in the top spot, right now the Cougars are the best team in the conference. A WCC-worthy non-conference schedule not withstanding, second-year coach Tony Bennett has his team playing at an unmatched level of team chemistry, and with the nation's most stifling defense, the Cougars are healthy and the most experienced, balanced team in the Pac-10. If they can get through a daunting first three games, which includes Washington, UCLA and USC on the road, they could find themselves topping the national rankings for the first time in school history.

2) UCLA. The Bruins have far more talent than Washington State, but something's missing; chemistry. A third of the way through the season, Ben Howland still doesn't know what he has, and a schedule full of home games against patsies hasn't helped them establish any identity. Josh Shipp refuses to pass to Kevin Love. Darren Collison can't stay healthy. The Mbah a Moute experiment at small forward was a failure. Mike Roll is completely lost in the system…and so on. Whether or not the looming NBA payday for several players has them looking beyond their careers at Westwood may ultimately determine this team's prospects in March. On the positive side, their defense hasn't missed a beat in the absence of All-American Arron Afflalo, Russell Westbrook has established himself as a premier player in the conference, and Kevin Love has been everything advertised. Conference play will quickly determine whether the Bruins are a legitimate National title contender rather than merely an NBA audition for its players.

3) Stanford. What do we know about Stanford? They have the most physically imposing front court in the Pac-10 in decades, are getting more reliable point guard play from Mitch Johnson, and have yet to play a single meaningful game this year. Basically we know nothing, except that opponents are going to have to get pretty creative if they plan on establishing any sort of post presence against the Cardinal. The bad news is that Lawrence Hill seems to have taken a step back, and the team has demonstrated an alarming bout of what one might describe as general malaise. The team has often looked like they don't really care that much, which may be due to in-house turmoil surrounding the Lopez twins, as well as an underwhelming schedule that presents no challenge. Washington State didn't suffer a similar affliction though and it's a poor excuse anyway. A conference opener against UCLA should iron things out quickly.

4) Washington. The Huskies belong here for a couple of reasons. First, a daunting schedule with games against Texas A&M, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Utah, Oklahoma State, and LSU leaves the Huskies battle-scarred, but definitely ready for conference play. Besides the debacle at Oklahoma State, the Dawgs could just as easily have been 12-1 heading into conference play if sharp-shooting senior Ryan Appleby had played in the NIT, and if the clock operator had a lazy thumb against the Panthers. Appleby is back and the Dawgs, featuring a veteran starting lineup and a vastly improved perimeter defense, finally look at home with each other on the court. That doesn't mean all is well with Washington. They are extremely vulnerable to 3-point shooters, and in a conference loaded with long range marksmen, they need to find a way to stretch the floor or face a constant barrage from downtown. Until Quincy Pondexter establishes himself as a consistent secondary scoring option - and games against Syracuse and LSU showed he has it in him – Washington will struggle against teams like Washington State that have the ability to contain Jon Brockman and Appleby. Despite some challenges, the Huskies are in fine position to capture an upper-middle tier finish and return to the NCAA tournament.

5) Arizona. The Wildcats went the route of trial by fire in the pre-season, with mixed results. They earned good wins against Texas A&M and Illinois while looking awful in games against No. 2 Kansas (don't let the overtime fool you, it was one of the ugliest games featuring elite teams I've ever witnessed) and Memphis. Jerryd Bayless is an enigma; he's a brilliant shooter and scorer, but a mediocre point guard at best. Nic Wise isn't a reliable frontline Pac-10 guard yet, leaving interim Coach Kevin O'Neil with few options, especially with Bayless out with a knee sprain. Jawaan McClellan hasn't taken a step forward, and while Jordan Hill has looked great at times, he's been maddeningly inconsistent - though he's finally showing sings of a permanent breakthrough in recent weeks. As Memphis showed 'Cat opponents, force Hill into foul trouble and the paper-thin Arizona roster crumbles.

6) USC. Give the Trojans credit for scheduling real foes, unlike many of their conference opponents. That should pay dividends as the season winds on. Unfortunately, they lost the big ones, though they did get a nice win against a decent Oklahoma squad. SC is a team that's going to see their share of ups and downs this year, because of their inexperience and lack of post presence. But on the wing, the Trojans are unrivaled. While OJ Mayo has been inconsistent and a bit of a disappointment, he hasn't upset the team's chemistry like many expected. On the flip side, Daniel Hackett, Dwight Lewis and Davon Jefferson have admirably replaced last year trio of Nick Young, Gabe Pruitt and Lodrick Stewart. They turn the ball over too much and often make head-scratching decisions, but the potential on this roster is undeniable. They may stumble through the first half of conference play, but should become a factor once they find some consistency and learn to play as a team.

7) Oregon. The Ducks have flaws...big ones. There was little doubt heading into the season that Aaron Brooks' departure was going to have a significant affect on the team, but few expected things to collapse this quickly. The Ducks have floundered out of the gate against a schedule full of cupcakes, including an inexplicable loss against Oakland in Detroit. They also had to muster a come-from-behind victory at home against Mount St. Mary's in their final tune-up for Pac-10 play. Listless on defense and totally reliant on 3-point shooting for their offense, this year's Oregon squad is reminiscent of the seasons prior to last year's Elite-Eight run; loaded with talent, but lacking the desire or coaching to do much with it.

8) California. The Bears are a tough team to place, surrendering just two losses during their non-conference schedule - including wins against struggling Missouri and Nevada, while losing to Utah and Kansas State. Ryan Anderson is a bona-fide star and as expected DeVon Hardin is a force under the hoop, but the biggest surprise has been the play of guard Patrick Christopher, who is averaging 17 points per game. Point guard play has been a mixed bag with Jerome Randle at the helm, but he is shooting 50 percent from three, keeping defenders from collapsing on Anderson. Cal is a team that has yet to be tested by a Pac-10 caliber team, so it's hard to forecast what to expect. They'll be competitive for certain, but moving out of the bottom-third of the conference is going to be tough.

9) Arizona State. The Sun Devils are going to make some noise in the conference, that much is clear; but whether or not they have the chutzpah to go on a run against such a competitive group of opponents remains to be seen. Herb Sendek is getting excellent production out of his young roster, including a win against then-17th-ranked Xavier, and they are completely buying into his defensive system. Freshman James Harden is the offensive force, and Jeff Pendergraph has been solid, if not spectacular. Unfortunately, beyond that the Sun Devils don't have any other reliable scorers in a conference that likes to light up the scoreboard. They're headed in the right direction, but it's not going to happen this year.

10) Oregon State. They stink. If they win a conference game this year, they'll be celebrating in Corvallis, but Jay John may not be there to see it. Top Stories