Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Pac-10 Conference Tournament

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The Pac-10 Conference was obviously not as good as it was last season, when it had tons of lottery-level talent and a few premier teams. With most of that talent lost, it led to a wide-open conference race, with surprising Washington emerging as the league champion with a 14-4 record. UCLA was a close second, finishing 13-5, while Arizona State and California tied for third at 11-7. After that, USC and Arizona went 9-9. The surprise of the league was Oregon State, which went from 0 conference wins last season to a 7-11 record this year.

Favorites: No one saw Washington as the Pac-10 champion coming into the year, but the Huskies played solid basketball from start to finish, lost just one game on its homecourt, and ended up on top. They do it by grabbing offensive rebounds and getting to the free-throw line. Jon Brockman is one of the most underrated players in the country; he is a 15-12 lock every night out. Isaiah Thomas is one of the most difficult players in the country to stay in front of, while Justin Dentmon has improved dramatically this season. Quincy Pondexter is solid. UCLA is not the Final Four threat it was predicted to be at the season’s outset, but the Bruins are hitting their stride at the right time and should be not be overlooked in the NCAA Tournament. They are phenomenal shooting team and can score from every position. Darren Collison and Josh Shipp are the go-to-guys on the perimeter, while Jrue Holiday has not lived up to his lofty expecations. Alfred Aboya is much-improved down low, and Nikola Dragovic is an inside-outside threat.

Contenders: Arizona State has been an enigma all season long. The Sun Devils swept UCLA but were swept by Washington State and lost by double-digits to Stanford at home. ASU is home to one of the league’s best inside-outside duos, though, in All-American James Harden and inside force Jeff Pendergraph. Harden is a fantastic all-around player. Forward Rihards Kuksiks is an inside-outside option and Derek Glasser is a solid distributor. California has been a surprise in the Pac-10 under new head coach Mike Montgomery. The Golden Bears shoot the ball exceptionally well from behind the arc, but can struggle when their outside shots aren’t falling. Jerome Randle is a jitterbug at the point and can score in a multitude of ways. Patrick Christopher complements him perfectly, while Theo Robertson can shoot the three. Jamal Boykin leads the way up front.

Sleeper: Washington State has been the talk of the Pac-10 lately, beating UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State in consecutive games two weeks ago. The Cougars are playing their best basketball at the right time. Taylor Rochestie can do-it-all at the point guard spot, and Klay Thompson is a stud freshman. Aron Baynes provides a consistent player down low. With the outstanding defense this team plays every night, and the slow-down pace they utilize, they can frustrate teams and pull multiple upsets.

Prediction: Although the Pac-10 is down this season, that does not mean we won’t see some terrific basketball on display at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. In addition to the four favorites, two bubble teams, Arizona and USC, need to win their respective quarterfinal games to have a shot at an at-large bid (Arizona could get in anyway, while USC is barely on the bubble as is). There is no clear favorite, although the location favors UCLA. Arizona State will likely oppose the Bruins, as the Sun Devils have the ability at both ends of the floor to beat Arizona and Washington. In the final, UCLA’s ability to shoot the ball – and Ben Howland’s propensity not to lose to a team three times in a season – will be the difference as the Bruins get the auto bid.

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