Pac-10 Mid-Season Report Card

We've reached the mid point of the 2008-2009 college basketball season, and with Pac-10 play well under way, it's time to take a look at the mid-season conference report card. Who has overachieved? Who has underachieved? Who has lived up to expectations?

Arizona State (14-2, 3-1 Pac-10)

Why they'll win the Pac-10: James Harden is one of the top players in the country and nearly impossible to slow down, even when he isn't scoring. His teammates are beginning to follow his lead and assert themselves on the offensive end, reducing the scoring imbalance and allowing Harden and Jeff Pendergraph an occasional breather. Rihards Kuksiks has emerged as a consistent double-digit scorer and has shooting the lights out from the perimeter. Their 2-3 match-up zone can be stifling at times and ranks near the top of the conference in nearly every defensive statistical category.

Why they won't: The Sun Devils are getting improved production from Eric Boateng, but with Pendergraph slowed by nagging injuries they are woefully thin underneath. As Cal proved last week, the Devils are vulnerable to hot shooting, up-tempo teams.

Outlook: Despite middling talent behind Harden, Arizona State is on a roll and playing the most consistent quality basketball in the conference.

UCLA (13-2, 3-0 Pac-10)

Why they'll win the Pac-10: The Bruins have the most proven, effective system in the conference, with one of the finest coaches in all of college basketball at the helm in Ben Howland. Darren Collison is every bit an All-America candidate and can create chaos, inside or out, on either end of the court. The Bruins feature a wealth of complimentary pieces, each understanding their roles. They have bought into the team concept completely. Surprising production from Michael Roll and Nikola Dragovic bring some needed punch off a deep bench.

Why they won't: The Bruins' frontcourt is league-average at best, and they lack a reliable inside scoring threat. James Keefe has been awful, recently relinquishing his starting duties to Dragovic. Their interior defense has been surprisingly porous, but their perimeter defenders have still historically provided a difficult match up. Free throw shooting has been mediocre to bad, and rebounding hasn't been great either.

Outlook: This isn't the same UCLA squad of the previous three seasons, but neither is the Pac-10. Offensively, the Bruin's are capable of lighting up the scoreboard, but so are their opponents. The Bruins have a wealth of freshmen talent starting to earn their stripes, and are a team that could really catch fire in the latter half of Pac-10 play.

California (15-2, 4-0 Pac-10)

Why they'll win the Pac-10: The Bears are among the finest shooting teams in the country, and Patrick Christopher is the most underrated player in the Pac-10. The Bears spread the floor extremely well and bomb away from outside if given a sliver of space. The Bears are getting unexpected production from their interior players when their names have been called, and have proven to be more rugged defenders than expected.

Why they won't: Coach Mike Montgomery's team lacks any scoring punch off the bench, which handicaps the Bears when they find themselves in foul trouble. Jerome Randle is having a breakout year, but still struggles when the defensive pressure gets ratcheted up.

Outlook: A 4-0 start against teams not from Oregon says this team is for real, and a legitimate contender for the conference title. Like Several Pac-10 squads, they're extremely thin, but as long as the Bears' big three scorers remain healthy and on the floor, they'll remain one of the conference's top teams.

Washington (11-4, 2-1 Pac-10)

Why they'll win the Pac-10: The Huskies boast the top front court in the conference and are brutally physical under the hoop. Their defense has improved immensely over the last two seasons, and Coach Lorenzo Romar is getting 40 minutes of consistent play from a team that has struggled with that aspect in recent years. They are also one of the best rebounding teams in college basketball, led by bruising senior Jon Brockman. Freshman Isaiah Thomas has been everything advertised and than some, and the Huskies' bench goes nine players deep with quality.

Why they won't: Though improved from last year, the Huskies are still a lousy free throw shooting team, which could single-handedly eliminate them from title contention. Quincy Pondexter and Justin Dentmon have been inconsistent at key moments, leaving Washington without reliable scoring from two scoring positions. Without reliable outside shooting, the Huskies have become a one-dimensional offensive team.

Outlook: There's little doubt the Huskies are vastly improved over last season and can compete with any team in the conference, but their free throw shooting makes every game more interesting than need be. The good news for Washington is that freshman marksman Elston Turner should return to action for the Oregon series, giving them more options from outside. Bottom line: The only thing standing between the Huskies and an upper tier Pac-10 finish is themselves.

USC (10-5, 1-2 Pac-10)

Why they'll win the Pac-10: The Trojans are loaded with talented, NBA-caliber athletes who are all capable of scorching the box score. Taj Gibson has emerged as one of the premier post players in the country and freshman phenom Demar Derozan is finally starting to live up to his Lil' Romeo-sized reputation. The Trojans are the longest team in the conference and play smothering defense, especially down low.

Why they won't: The utter lack of anything resembling team chemistry culminated in an embarrassing loss to Oregon State last week in Corvallis. The Trojans aren't any better at taking care of the ball today than they were at the start of the season, lacking a point guard to tie it all together, and their touted depth has been decimated by injury and player transfer.

Outlook: Similar to Arizona, the Trojans are one of the conference's most dangerous teams with so many stars on the roster. On a good night, they can play with any team in the country, but on a bad night...well, they can lose to Oregon State. The Trojans' margin for error is very thin, especially with the added pressure of a triple-digit RPI hanging over their heads.

Arizona (11-5, 2-2 Pac-10)

Why they'll win the Pac-10: The Wildcats feature the most dangerous trio in the conference in Jordan Hill, Chase Budinger and Nic Wise, and are getting occasional glimpses of the Jamelle Horne they thought they recruited out of high school.

Why they won't: Where to start? The Wildcats are terrible defensively and give little more than a token effort on most nights. Interim Head Coach Russ Pennell's cupboard is so bare on the bench that he's forced to play his three stars almost the entire game. Budinger's confidence is slowly slipping beneath the waves as his lack of toughness becomes more obvious with each game. The 'Cats often appear to quit when things don't go their way.

Outlook: Arizona is the Pac-10's most dangerous team – deeply flawed but capable of beating anyone when the stars align. The odds of them stringing together enough wins to propel them into a shot at the title or even a tournament berth are pretty slim, but they've got enough talent if things come together.

Stanford (11-3, 1-3 Pac-10)

Why they'll win the Pac-10: The Cardinal opened some eyes during their non-conference action as they charged into the Pac-10 schedule undefeated, but were quickly exposed during the first two weekends of league play. The Cardinal feature a veteran line-up full of versatility. They take excellent care of the ball and make few mistakes. They also shoot the ball extremely well, with their entire starting line-up capable of knocking down shots from behind the arc.

Why they won't: The Cardinal have little depth, especially in the post where they are forced to play Lawrence Hill and Josh Owens out of position without any back-up option off the bench. They simply aren't equipped to handle quality post opponents. For that reason, they are a poor rebounding team and often fall victim to second chance points due to their deficiencies on the glass.

Outlook: Barring a minor miracle, their 1-3 start to conference play pretty much dooms their chances of making a run at the postseason, but the Cardinal are still experienced enough that they may cause trouble against smaller teams without reliable post threats. As such, they are not to be completely overlooked.

Washington State (9-6, 1-2 Pac-10)

Why they'll win the Pac-10: Head Coach Tony Bennett is a stickler for staying with his game plan, and the Cougars are masters at slowing the pace to their liking. It may not be overly entertaining to watch but it's effective at preventing opponents from gaining any separation. Defensively the Cougars are as tough as ever, and their brutal swarming strategy makes it near impossible to get going offensively in the paint.

Why they won't: They don't have any notable consistent offensive scoring threat, especially in close games. That means they typically crumble when their deficit nears double-digits. The Cougars are a poor shooting team, and aren't taking care of the ball nearly as well as they have the last two seasons. Without Kyle Weaver working his magic, they're also more susceptible to 3-point shooters than in previous years.

Outlook: The Cougars remain one of the most difficult opponents in the Pac-10 because the Bennett system makes it so hard for opponents to find any rhythm on offense. They aren't going to leave anybody in the dust, but they aren't going to go quietly either. They play the entire 40 minutes as if their whole season depended on every possession.


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