Beach's Bits

I'm not going to update my predictions, because frankly, there's way too many conflicting games to be able to make sense of what we're about to see come conference play. The 1-8 spots in the conference aren't separated by much at all, and while I don't see any top ten teams in the mix, there are an awful lot of lower top-25 caliber squads out there.

My favorite source for projecting - Ken Pomeroy - has the conference ranked second in the country, ahead of the big East - which is absolutely crazy. It just goes to show how hard it is to project the Pac-10 this year. Despite the fact that the conference is obviously weaker than last season, the Pac-10 top to bottom remains incredibly balanced and competitive and it seems likely to earn five NCAA tournament berths.

If I had to put money down, I'd still pick UCLA (10-2) as the conference favorite, even though they have some glaring flaws that aren't going to go away. Ben Howlands' system is proven, and when run correctly allows his players to think less and focus on execution. That said, their post situation is ugly and Alfred Aboya is about the only reliable post player on either end of the court, even if he isn't much of an offensive threat. James Keefe has been a disaster, and freshmen Bobo Morgan appears to be a year or two away from meaningful production, leaving freshman Drew Gordon the task of emerging as an impact big man.

Fortunately for the Bruins, the UCLA system emphasizes guard play first and foremost, and their guard situation is much better, though they're still waiting for a breakthrough performance out of freshman Jrue Holiday. Preseason All-America canidate Darren Collison is shooting the lights out from downtown and Mike Roll is too good to sit. Josh Shipp is one of the more overrated players in the conference, but he's serviceable even though he's been dreadful from outside. Overall, this isn't the same UCLA squad we've seen the last three years, but their defense is still in solid shape. With Howland at the helm as one of the best in the business, it's hard to see them taking a major step backwards. I expect them to remain at the top of the heap this season.

After that, it's a pretty big jumble. ASU (11-1) seems the most likely to hit the ground running, even if what you see is exactly what you get. They're one dimensional as hell, but James Harden is nearly impossible to stop even when you know he's coming. He's flanked by a host of interchangeable parts who all know their roles (support Harden) and they've got it down to a science. They don't have the upside of USC or Washington, but they're playing better basketball overall.

Up until playing Texas Tech, I didn't think too much of Stanford (10-0), but that was a pretty convincing game. They're an incredibly versatile team with a host of athletes that can cover just about every position, and they play similar roles on offense. The Cardinal spread the floor incredibly well and move the ball around the floor fluidly. It's a case of the sum being better than its parts. Even though the Cardinal are still a tough one to figure, it's pretty clear now that they aren't going to be ignored.

Arizona (9-3) is easily the most dangerous team in the conference, since they have no idea what team is going to show up on any given day. How do you gameplan for a team that has no game plan? Like most Arizona teams, they don't care about defense and would rather simply outscore their opponents than try and defend them. Jordan Hill has taken an immense leap, and looks like a future NBA power forward, and Chase Budinger and Nic Wise have their ups and downs, but are still members of the best 1-2-3 punch in the conference. Jamelle Horne appears to be the missing link, and if he dials it in with some consistency, watch out.

The Washington Huskies (9-3) are another team that's tough to put a finger on. In a lot of ways, they're far superior to the last two seasons. Mainly their versatility on both ends of the court is vastly improved over recent years. In other ways though, they draw a lot of comparisons to the prior two seasons. They're still terrible from the free throw line, which will prove to be their undoing no matter how much they've improved the rest of their game, and they still suffer from stretches of erratic guard play.

The biggest piece of good news for the Huskies is that freshman Isaiah Thomas appears to be on his way to Freshman of the Year honors, while becoming one of the conference's most dynamic and dangerous scorers. Conversely, Quincy Pondexter appears to be still stuck in his basketball cocoon, but the emergence of Mathew Bryan Amaning has given the Huskies the best front court tandem in the conference. Is it enough to push them into an upper division finish?

USC (9-3) has been the most wildly inconsistent of them all. They're loaded with NBA quality talent, but for all of their sensational athletes the Trojans are extremely inefficient offensively. They're also a lousy shooting team, and often suffer from a lack of chemistry on the court while turning the ball over at a potentially disastrous clip. Defensively, they have gelled nicely. They block a lot of shots and steal the ball at a decent rate. Taj Gibson has become a legitimate force now that he's seeing consistent shot attempts every game and freshman Demar Derozan is finally starting to score the ball the way fans expected he would when he signed with Tim Floyd. The guard play, with Daniel Hackett at the point, has been a work in progress, and Dwight Lewis has emrged as one of the better scorers in the Pac-10. Given that their backcourt has a sizable height advantage against the other Pac-10 squads, they're in a pretty unique situation if they can exploit it.

The Washington State Cougars (8-4) will remain one of the most difficult match ups in the conference this season with their plodding style of play, even if offensively they are a mess. They developed a consistent pattern during non-conference play, remaining competitive in games as long as they maintained a lead or manageable deficit, but the minute they surrendered a scoring run, they wilt like roses in a Pullman winter. Taylor Rochestie has staggered under the weight of being the teams primary scoring threat, and though Freshman Klay Thompson has shown promise, without a defacto, go-to scorer, the Cougars collapse at the end of competitive games. Their style ensures they'll remain competitive this season, despite their offensive deficiencies, but there are just too many holes to expect them to finish with a level conference record.

California (11-2) emerged from their non-conference schedule the most difficult to place. They've played a mediocre schedule, but they've done it convincingly enough that they have to be mentioned in the conversation. They're shooting the ball from outside at an absurd 51 percent clip and one has to wonder if they can keep that up, but despite they're small size, there doesn't appear to be any glaring flaws. Jerome Randall is doing a better job of running the point, and though Jamal Boykin is the only player averaging more than four rebounds a game, they've held their own with an extremely efficient offense and solid defensive play. Still, something doesn't quite smell right with the Bears, and I wouldn't be surprised to see them fall out of the hunt pretty quickly.


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