It’s been a mediocre year in Pac 10 basketball, with the struggles of UCLA and a string of teams battling for the top spot. Here’s a look at the strengths and weaknesses of some of college basketball’s best teams in the Pacific 10.
California: The Bears have used a strong home court edge and a dynamite backcourt to have a solid season. The three-guard offense leads the team in scoring behind senior Jerome Randle (19.8 ppg), 6-5 senior Patrick Christopher (16 ppg) and 6-6 junior Theo Robertson (13.7 ppg).
Throw in 6-8, 240-pound senior Jamal Boykin, and this is an experienced team. Cal is not a dominant defensive team, but does a lot of little things right, including free throw shooting (74%), which can help with close covers. Cal is on a 10-5 ATS run. All that experience could come in handy during March tourney play.
Arizona State: The Sun Devils are doing it with defense, allowing 58 ppg, plus allowing 38.5% shooting in conference play and 56 points per game, both tops in the Pac 10. There are no standout players, like last year. Instead, they are team-oriented, with 6-6 junior Rihards Kuksiks (11.9 ppg) and 6-10 senior center Eric Boateng (8 ppg, 6.8 rpg) attacking the low post.
Coach Herb Sendek inserted 6-foot-4 freshman guard Trent Lockett into the starting lineup Jan. 16 to replace injured guard Jamelle McMillan. Since then, McMillan has returned, but Lockett hasn’t gone back to the bench, a sign that Sendek trusts him. The Sun Devils have a shot at their first Pac 10 title, but are currently in the middle of a tough three-game road trip, ending Saturday with a showdown game at Cal. Last year Arizona State was great as a dog. This year: 0-4 SU/ATS.
USC: After stumbling in midseason, the Trojans just ripped off three straight wins using defense, topping Cal, Stanford and rival UCLA. 6-5 senior Dwight Lewis (13.7 ppg) leads the team in scoring, but it’s the defense that is most impressive for first-year Coach Kevin O’Neill, allowing 59 ppg and 40% shooting, both second to Arizona State in the conference.
The physical frontcourt sports 6-10 sophomore Nikola Vucevic (11.6 ppg, 9.8 rpg), 6-9 junior Alex Stepheson (9 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and 6-6 senior Marcus Johnson (10 ppg, 4.6 rpg). USC starter 14-5-1 under the total. The standout weakness is road play, losing 6 of their first 7 road contests. They end the regular season at both Arizona schools.
Washington: The Huskies have junked the slow down, defensive approach of several Pac 10 teams and instead run a wide-open attack, leading the conference in scoring (86 ppg) and rebounding. They have a dynamite one-two punch with 6-6 senior Quincy Pondexter (20 ppg, 8 rpg) and 5-foot8 sophomore Isaiah Thomas (17.5 ppg).
They have a great home record, but, like USC, lost 6 of their first 7 road games. That is a concern as they end the regular season with three straight road games. That lone road win was last week, a victory at Stanford, matched their first loss at home. That win was the first in 357 days on an opponent’s court! "It’s been a long time coming," senior Quincy Pondexter said. "That’s all it’s been. We’ve been waiting for this. Usually on the road, we keep the ball to one side. We don’t rotate. Little things like that. But this game we reversed the ball." They have been money-burners all season, starting 2-10 ATS.
Arizona: February has not been kind to the Wildcats, stumbling to start the month. Oregon State had a 63-55 stunner as a +7 dog at Arizona, accomplished with a methodical offense and a hard-nosed 1-3-1 zone defense that frustrated the young talent of first-year Wildcats coach Sean Miller. It was the Beavers’ first victory in Tucson in 27 years.
Youth is a part of the problem, not only with a first-year coach, but the centerpiece of the team is 6-8 freshman Derrick Williams (15 ppg, 7 rpg). He doesn’t have a lot of help as the Wildcats are one of the worst rebounding teams in the conference. "I really felt we reverted to the team we were back in November or December," Miller said after the loss to Oregon State. A coach doesn’t want to have to say that with March just around the corner.
Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Jim Feist