Beach's Bits: Pac-10 Predictions Revisited

SEATTLE - It's official; the Pac-10 isn't nearly as good as the last couple of seasons. In fact, the argument could be made that this season's top team, UCLA, would have had a tough time cracking the Pac-10‘s top-5 last year. Finishing among the top-5 in conference play isn't an NCAA tournament guarantee either; not with the way the non-conference schedule has gone for the Pac-10 thus far.

With most of the Pac-10 teams in tune-up mode against cupcakes until the first week of January, here's an updated look at the Pac-10 based on my pre-season predictions.
1) UCLA. Record 5-2. Previous rank 1st, Holding

The Bruins aren't as good as the last three seasons, but they still appear to be the class of the conference. Darren Collison is every bit the All-America candidate he should be, and UCLA finally looked comfortable in their loss at No. 6 Texas. However, the Bruins have a lot work to do to return to the Final Four. Post play has been mediocre at best, and the top-rated freshman class has struggled to find their groove. But the Bruins are already solid and have the most potential upside of any team in the conference. If Ben Howland can coax some consistency out of James Keefe and Alfred Aboya, they should have no trouble winning the conference title, though they'll likely relinquish their No. 1 seed in the West to a loaded Gonzaga squad come tournament time.
2) USC. Record 5-3. Previous rank 2nd, Falling

There isn't a clear-cut second place team in the Pac-10, but despite their inconsistencies in the early going, the Trojans' performance in a heartbreaking loss to No. 5 Oklahoma showed their potential. The backcourt adjustment after losing OJ Mayo to the NBA has taken more time than initially anticipated, and they need better play out of freshman phenom Demar Derozan, who hasn't come close to living up to the considerable hype that accompanied his arrival. Despite the challenges, the Trojans remain one of the conference's deepest and most balanced teams.
3) UW. Record 5-3. Previous rank 3rd, Holding

Washington got off to an ugly 2-3 start, including an especially disappointing blow-out loss to Kansas in Kansas City, but the Huskies have turned it around since. The team's defensive maturation has been steady, and UW has had five different scoring leaders in their eight games thus far – a far cry from the offensive predictability of a season ago and an example of how much depth Lorenzo Romar has assembled on his roster. As teams try to slow Jon Brockman the Huskies are facing more zone, and they are slowly adapting to the defensive emphasis placed on the bruising senior. Though the Huskies are still a work in progress - six of the nine players in their rotation are freshmen or sophomores - the signs are promising that after two years of mediocre basketball, Washington is finally pointed back in the right direction.
4) ASU. Record 7-1. Previous rank 4th, Holding

The Sun Devils may be considerably better than fourth in the conference, but their early craven schedule has left them unproven and undeserving of higher placement. Their only real test came against a solid Baylor squad, and it resulted in a loss. It's hard to justify a top-25 ranking for Arizona State at this point. James Harden is absolute poetry in motion on the floor and a legitimate candidate for National Player of the Year honors, and his teammates have improved immensely from outside, which will take pressure off of Harden. But ASU has no depth in the post beyond the foul-prone Jeff Pendergraph. In short, they are a solid squad, but once you cut through all of the hype surrounding Harden, we are still no closer to knowing how good they really are than we were before the season started.
5) Arizona. Record 6-2. Previous rank 6th, Rising

Like most of the conference, the Wildcats have beaten those they should and have lost to opponents of quality. Arizona fans can take solace in the fact their two heart-breaking losses (Texas A&M and UAB) have come by a combined two points, but the real test comes over the next three games when they face No. 4 Gonzaga and Kansas. The 'Cats are getting excellent production out of their three stars - Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill and Nic Wise - but otherwise their roster is paper-thin and their starters are playing big minutes. Of serious concern is that Interim Head Coach Russ Pennell risks wearing out the legs of his horses before the start of the grueling conference schedule. If the Wildcats can find some rest and stay healthy, they'll be in the hunt for an NCAA tourney bid and an upper division finish, but only time will tell.
6) Cal. Record 7-2, Previous rank 7th, Rising

California, under new head coach Mike Montgomery, been a mixed bag to start the season. On the positive side, Jerome Randle has become a devastating offensive threat from outside. The career 36 percent shooter is currently shooting over 60 percent from 3-point distance. The Bears have been carried by Randle, Patrick Christopher and forward Theo Robinson - who missed last season with a hip injury; they are currently second in the conference in scoring at 76.3 points per game. Unfortunately for Montgomery, their early success masks the fact that his team has yet to earn a quality win: their best victory came against a mediocre Utah squad after being routed by Missouri 93-66. Cal is still extraordinarily thin in the post and the first four games of conference play will likely tell us whether they are for real, or not.
7) WSU. Record 6-3. Previous rank 5th, Falling

The Cougars entered this year with nine freshmen on the roster, and head coach Tony Bennett scheduled the early part of their season accordingly. As a result, Washington State raced out of the gate to five straight wins: Unfortunately for them, losses to No. 3 Pittsburgh, No. 22 Baylor and No. 4 Gonzaga in three of their next four games brought the boys from the Palouse hurtling back to earth. The Cougars tenaciously defend as always under Bennett, but offensively they have taken several steps backward. Their offense almost entirely revolves around senior point guard Taylor Rochestie, who has wilted at times under the added pressure of being the team's primary scoring threat. There's no doubt the Cougars are going to be competitive, but whether or not they have enough scoring punch to propel them into the upper half of the conference remains to be seen.
8) Stanford. Record 4-0. Previous rank 8th. Holding

With only four games played so far in the opening month of the season, it's still impossible to tell what kind of team new Stanford Head Coach Johnny Dawkins has on his hands. The Cardinal have soundly beaten their four lousy opponents, but that tells us very little about their future fortune. Their non-conference schedule only gets easier with such standout opponents as Northern Arizona, Texas Tech and Northwestern. Until Pac-10 play starts, the Cardinal aren't really worth mentioning.
9) Oregon. Record 4-4, previous rank 9th, Rising

Give Oregon head coach Ernie Kent credit for throwing his young Ducks right into the fire: With an early season schedule that included No. 1 North Carolina and No. 6 Texas, the Ducks have seen the best that the country has to offer. A solid win over Kansas State showed that the freshmen are starting to gel while preparing for a big boost from freshmen sensation Michael Dunnigan and forward Joevan Catron when they return soon from injury. The Ducks are incredibly inexperienced, but Kent's focus on the 3-point shot can be a major equalizer when players like Tajuan Porter and Garrett Sim heat up. Oregon is shooting 40 percent from three and has already launched a conference-leading 180 attempts from long range. They probably aren't going to compete for a tournament birth, but they have the ability to play the role of spoiler - especially when they are hot from outside.
10) Oregon State. Record 1-5, previous 10th, Falling

The Beavers are so bad, Division-II teams actually look forward to playing them for the extra practice time.


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