Beach's Breakdown - The Aftermath

Washington sits alone atop the Pac-10. The question now becomes: Are they good enough to stay there? With a bold weekend of inspired basketball, the Huskies (15-4, 6-1) have catapulted themselves into the top spot of the Pac-10, as well as a top-25 ranking in the AP poll. But their work has only just begun.

Three weeks into conference play, Lorenzo Romar's resurgent squad faces their most grueling test yet, kicking off a four-game road trip against the University of Arizona in Tucson Thursday night.

We already know what we're looking at with the Huskies. They're winning because they are playing the most consistent 40 minutes of basketball of any team in the conference, exploiting opponents' depth while relentlessly attacking the basket and going to the foul line. They also play excellent defense and aren't reliant on one particular player for their scoring. Though they've likely started to reach the upper end of their potential this season, it's hard to see them falling off; they don't rely on a gimmicky game plan that can easily be countered, and their strategy of pounding the cup can be replicated successfully every night against most opponents.

They aren't without their concerns, even if there aren't any glaring deficiencies. Washington doesn't shoot the ball particularly well, nor have they shown themselves to be a consistently good free throw shooting team. They've improved that aspect of their game dramatically in recent weeks, but they need to show it on the road to establish a trend of cashing in at the line when the opportunities present themselves. They also lack guard depth, and the Huskies aggressive pressure defense on the perimeter often leaves Justin Dentmon or Isaiah Thomas in foul trouble. That, coupled with Elston Turner, Jr's development being stifled due to a high ankle sprain, leaves Romar with Venoy Overton as the only reliable guard option off the bench. And right now, Overton has become an essential cog to making the Huskies' machine go.

As you can tell, these are minor quibbles. Washington is a solid, quality team, and though they may lack the outrageous athletic upside of a team like USC, they are nearing the point where success surpasses potential on the importance scale. But what about the rest of the conference? The good news for the Huskies is that the rest of the Pac-10 is, for the most part, flawed.

USC (13-6, 4-3) is easily the most talented team in the bunch, with a roster loaded with NBA-caliber athletes. Unfortunately for Trojan fans, raw ability hasn't translated to wins and Tim Floyd's players don't play like a team. Individually, there isn't a lineup on the West Coast that can match their athleticism or size, but they've been stuck in neutral pretty much the entire season because they lack a captain to tie it all together. Will they make a play for a shot at the conference title? They should with their obvious talent, but I've been saying that all season. At some point, it has to translate into something more than high flying dunks and turnovers, and they are quickly nearing the make or break point in the season.

It's become pretty obvious that UCLA (15-4, 5-2) isn't the same team they've been the last three seasons. They get little productivity from their post players beyond the occasional 3-pointer, and their much ballyhooed freshman class is one of the more overrated collections of players in recent memory. That's not to say that this isn't a good UCLA team, though. They've still got Darren Collison, and Josh Shipp is surging at the right time. They play quality perimeter defense and the Pac-10 has few teams in the conference with the depth down low to exploit their vulnerable post situation. They also have the brilliant Ben Howland at the helm, even if he needs to wake up and give his freshmen their chance to shine. They're going to take a dip, but they won't fall too far.

Arizona State (16-3, 5-2) is a team that knows exactly what it is: USDA Prime Filet (James Harden); a nice baker with all the toppings (Jeff Pendergaph), and some mixed vegetables spread around the plate that occasionally get picked at. Meanwhile chef Herb Sendek is basking in the glow of his nationally recognized feast, even though all he did was put the steak on the grill. Harden is brilliant, and even when you know he's coming weeks in advance there's not much you can do to game-plan against him, unless you can throw a host of NBA athletes at him like USC did. The Sun Devils are going to win their share of games because Harden is going to single-handedly will them to victory. They play good team defense and don't make many mistakes, but they have very little upside and have been essentially the exact same team the entire season. Only time will tell if Harden is good enough to win a Pac-10 title all by himself.

The most surprising team in the conference other than UW this season has been the California Bears (16-4, 5-2). Mike Montgomery has done a splendid job assembling the remnants of a mediocre Ryan Anderson-dominated squad into a team capable of competing for a Pac-10 title. Despite finally starting to cool off from beyond the arc after a scorching first half of the season, the Bears are getting excellent production from their starters, as well as quietly consistent contributions from their role players. This isn't a deep group, and they're vulnerable in the paint, but Patrick Christopher has emerged as one of the top players in the conference. With apologies to Dentmon, Jerome Randle is the most improved player in the Pac-10, and Theo Robertson and Jamal Boykin have developed into key components of their lineup. There isn't much doubt the Bears are a tournament team, and they've got enough talent in their starting lineup to justify higher aspirations.

Washington State (11-8, 3-4) is improving. Stud freshmen Klay Thompson is becoming confident on offense, and Taylor Rochestie seems to have rediscovered his stroke from outside, giving the Cougars a much needed lift. Likely watching the tournament at home due to their rough start to conference play, Washington State is still a threat on any given night due to their unnervingly slow pace. It's boring, but it'll keep Washington State in the hunt for a tournament spot. The next two weeks on the road are going to decide their post-season potential.

The Stanford Cardinal (13-4, 3-4) entered Pac-10 play undefeated and one of the biggest conference mysteries. Reality quickly reared its ugly head as the Cardinal dropped three of their first four Pac-10 games before upsetting Cal on January 7th, further muddying the conference waters. The Cardinal have no post presence, but they've got enough quality athletes to make life interesting for their opponents. They probably don't have enough horses in the stable to compete for a conference championship, but they do have the talent for an outside shot at the tournament.

For the Washington Huskies, who play six of their next eight games on the road, the time is now for them to decide their Pac-10 fate. A 3-3 road split would be an acceptable outcome since 13 or 14 wins will probably win the conference this year. Assuming Washington beats the Oregon Schools and WSU at home, the Huskies need two additional wins in eight chances to likely guarantee themselves a NCAA tournament appearance.


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