Commentary

Pac-10: It's still UCLA's title to lose

Updated: December 24, 2008, 11:40 PM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Favorite: UCLA. The Bruins haven't stood out nationally yet, losing to Michigan and then falling to Texas. So the Bruins still have room to grow, especially in the post. They still have the top point guard in the conference in Darren Collison, the best freshman in the league in Jrue Holiday and, when healthy, a Final Four veteran player in wing Josh Shipp. The Bruins may be devoid of a consistent scoring presence in the post but the defense is still Ben Howland-solid and the Bruins have the core experience in this league that will make it hard to dethrone them from the conference title in March.

[+] EnlargeChase Budinger
AP Photo/David J. PhillipDespite offseason turmoil, Arizona still boasts top-level talent and is a tough out with the likes of Chase Budinger.
Most surprising team: Arizona. Stanford or Cal would have been easy choices here, but the Wildcats were expected to fall flat without Lute Olson. Arizona also lost its top incoming freshman in Jeff Withey after Olson departed. But the Wildcats still have three talented players, two of whom could be the best in the conference at their respective positions in big man Jordan Hill and wing Chase Budinger. And Nic Wise has been more than serviceable at the point. Arizona's win over Gonzaga in Phoenix signaled that the Wildcats have figured out how to play together again. Arizona did completely botch the end of the UAB game, fell flat at UNLV and couldn't close out a road game at Texas A&M. But the win over San Diego State was convincing and the second-half explosion in a victory over Kansas signaled that the Wildcats should be a major factor in the league race from January to March.

Most disappointing team: Washington. The Huskies returned the core of their team, including potential player of the year Jon Brockman. UW may still wake up and go on a roll in the conference. But Washington whiffed in its two high-profile games in the CBE Classic, losing to Kansas and Florida. That came after starting the season with a road loss at Portland. The Huskies have yet to be impressive. Beating Portland State, the top team in the Big Sky, by one point isn't going to scare any conference opponent.

Mystery team: Cal. During the preseason, Mike Montgomery said the Bears were far from good because they were learning everything from scratch. But Cal clearly understands Montgomery's system as witnessed by quality wins over UNLV and Utah on the road and over Nevada at home. But setbacks to Florida State on a neutral court in Las Vegas and Missouri in Columbia (a blowout loss) exposed a bit of the Bears' deficiencies. Yet a 9-2 start certainly puts the Bears in the mix heading into the Pac-10.

Best player: James Harden, Arizona State. Harden has been sensational for the Sun Devils. He's averaging 23.7 points, 4.2 assists and 6.3 rebounds, and is shooting 57.7 percent from the floor, 80 at the free-throw line and 47.9 on 3s. With Harden on the court, the Sun Devils have a real shot to compete for the league title.

Top performance: Harden again. He lit up UTEP for 40 points in November's 76 Classic in Anaheim. He was proficient in making 14 of 25 shots, all six of his 3-point attempts and 6 of 7 at the free-throw line. He also grabbed eight boards. He has had only one single-digit game -- nine points against IUPUI -- and that was only a one-point win for the Sun Devils.

Strangest score: Howard 47, Oregon State 45. Craig Robinson had a rough debut with a road loss to one of the MEAC's weaker teams. Howard lost eight straight games after that one, including 90-54 to the same Beavers in Corvallis. The Beavers have since figured out Robinson's system and beaten teams like Nebraska and Fresno State, the latter on the road. Oregon State will likely win a couple of Pac-10 games -- up from zero last season -- and winning up to four in the league isn't out of the question, either.

[+] EnlargeJames Harden
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesThe numbers say it all when measuring James Harden's impact for Arizona State this season.
What you might not have realized: Stanford did return three starters in Anthony Goods, Lawrence Hill and Mitch Johnson. Sure, the Cardinal lost the Lopez twins. But the Cardinal probably should have been given more preseason credit for the return of their veteran guards. Johnny Dawkins, with his experienced staff of former head coaches in Dick Davey and Rodney Tention, had enough to work with to get a great start on the season. Josh Owens and Landry Fields have been quality impact players for the Cardinal. Stanford is putting itself in position to possibly earn an NCAA berth, quite an accomplishment for a program that was supposed to go through an upheaval.

Reason to brag: Arizona gave Gonzaga its first loss of the season, and was without question the better team on that day. That win will be the kind that gets the Wildcats noticed on Selection Sunday.

Reason to worry: Washington State. The Cougars desperately need to beat LSU in Baton Rouge on Saturday for a nonconference win that will stand out in March. The Cougs had a difficult stretch, but losses to Pitt in New Jersey and Gonzaga and Baylor at home help the power rating, if not the image, of a possible NCAA team. Washington State did beat Mississippi State in New Jersey, but the Bulldogs aren't looking NCAA-ready now.

Who's going dancing?: UCLA and Arizona State should make it with some room to spare. Arizona is playing well enough to likely warrant a spot. USC is figuring out how to defend, freshman DeMar DeRozan is improving and the Trojans will likely be a tough out. OK, so that's four spots the Pac-10 likely can count on in March. Stanford and Cal have done enough to be in position to earn bids if they can challenge for a top-five finish in the league. Washington State and Washington have work to do.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com