Commentary

The good, the bad and the ugly

Originally Published: January 18, 2009
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Arizona State couldn't afford to get swept in Los Angeles this weekend and still expect to keep pace with UCLA for the Pac-10 title.

[+] EnlargeJames Harden
AP Photo/Gus RuelasFoul trouble limited James Harden in the first half, but in the second half and overtime, he led Arizona State to a win over UCLA.

That's a fact. The Bruins would have been 5-0 in Pac-10 play. ASU would have been 3-3 with a road game pending at Arizona.

Was it a must-win Saturday in Pauley Pavilion? It's hard to put that type of tag on the Sun Devils' game at UCLA, but after they blew a halftime lead against USC on Thursday, the answer is, well, yes.

Arizona State super soph James Harden wouldn't go so far as to put the must-win tag on the victory. But he came close.

"It was needed," Harden said as the Sun Devils prepared to fly back to Phoenix from Los Angeles on Saturday night after beating the Bruins 61-58 in overtime. "We would have been going to Arizona on a two-game losing streak. Now we've got a good win on the résumé against a great UCLA team. Arizona State isn't known for beating UCLA."

Arizona State isn't known for winning the Pac-10, either. Yet the Sun Devils are a trendy pick to snatch the conference title from the Bruins with an All-American like Harden on the squad. And losing at Cal has hardly turned out to be a blemish for the Sun Devils. Until the Bears lost at Stanford on Saturday night, they were undefeated in the Pac-10.

Arizona State had been erratic in the first few weeks of Pac-10 play. ASU blew out Stanford by 30, allowing the Cardinal only 60 points. But the Sun Devils gave up 81 to Cal and scored only 49 points in their loss to USC. In nonconference play, ASU beat BYU by one point, needing a last-possession defensive stop to beat the Cougars in Chandler, Ariz. ASU also needed overtime to beat IUPUI by one in Phoenix.

Had the Sun Devils not come back and won Saturday, catching the Bruins, and maybe even Cal, would have been difficult.

"It would have been tough with so many great teams in the league, Cal being a very good team, Washington being a good team," Harden said. "It's early, but [UCLA] would have had an advantage over everyone else."

Harden said ASU coach Herb Sendek told the Sun Devils after the loss to the Trojans that if they wanted to have a great season, they'd better defend. They did Saturday, holding UCLA to 58 points even with five extra minutes to score.

[+] EnlargeDino Gaudio
AP Photo/Mary Ann ChastainDino Gaudio doesn't want his Wake Forest team to get comfortable after beating Clemson.

Still, there is a stigma with the Sun Devils when it comes to the NCAA tournament. ASU didn't earn a bid last season, and Sendek was extremely disappointed by the perceived snub.

"We have to be one of those teams that doesn't let last season affect you," said Harden, who cited teams such as Syracuse and Ohio State, both of which are having good seasons after disappointing endings to last season that didn't include invites to the NCAA tournament. "We had to be mature about this game after the USC game. We have to pull games like this out if we want to be in the [NCAA] tournament."

What else did we learn on Saturday's mega-slate of games, besides the fact that Arizona State wants to be taken seriously in the Pac-10 race?

Let's see …

• Wake Forest should be No. 1. The Demon Deacons have won at Clemson, at BYU and at Boston College. They've beaten Baylor in Anaheim and North Carolina at home. Duke's best wins are over Davidson and Georgetown at home, Xavier in New Jersey, Michigan in New York, at Purdue and at Florida State. The Blue Devils also lost at Michigan. Duke has played great, but Wake has done a wee bit more so far this season and is the only team in the country without a loss after Pitt fell at Louisville.

"If our goal is to be No. 1 on Jan. 17, we're not who I think we are," Gaudio said late Saturday night after the Demon Deacons beat Clemson 78-68. "We've come a long way, but we have a long, long way to go. We go from the hunter to the hunted. We'll see how we'll handle everyone's Game 7."

• The ACC title race will be just as wild as the Big East's. North Carolina returned to form with a resounding 82-65 win over Miami on Saturday. That, combined with Wake Forest's ascension and Duke's continued dominance in Durham, indicates the top three should wrestle for the crown into the final weekend of league play. Wake is done with Carolina but still will play Duke twice. Duke still must play Carolina and Wake twice, so the advantage goes to Wake.

[+] EnlargeJerel McNeal
David Butler II/US PresswireJerel McNeal and Marquette improved to 5-0 in Big East play with a win over Providence.

• The Big East title chase is officially wide open. Louisville is undefeated in the league. So, too, is Marquette. Pitt and Connecticut are still the favorites, even though each has lost once. Discounting Georgetown and Syracuse would be foolish, too.

Marquette needs to be taken very seriously. The Golden Eagles were sensational in the final few minutes Saturday to pull away from Providence 91-82. The Golden Eagles can score in a variety of ways and have the toughness to win on the road. They pose a real threat to compete for the league title with one of the top home-court advantages in the country and the most experienced perimeter play in the conference.

Louisville, meanwhile, has gotten its groove back. The Cardinals closed out a game without fumbling down the stretch and giving it back. They won Saturday's game against Pitt rather than handing it back, as they nearly did against Kentucky and Villanova.

• Oklahoma is the team to beat in the Big 12. The Sooners followed up a monster home win over Texas on Monday by winning at Texas A&M 69-63. The Sooners thus have a road win that others might not get in the league.

• Washington is right in the thick of the Pac-10 race. The Huskies cruised through the Oregon schools over the weekend, ending it with a crushing 85-59 win over Oregon State in Corvallis on Saturday. The Huskies' only loss in the Pac-10 has been a triple-overtime heartbreaker to Cal at home on Jan. 10. They haven't played the Arizona or Los Angeles schools yet, but they have a possible Pac-10 Player of the Year candidate in senior forward Jon Brockman. Washington is even with UCLA and Cal with one loss each in the Pac-10 title chase. ASU has two.

[+] EnlargeNick Calathes
AP Photo/Phil SandlinNick Calathes' 28 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists led Florida to a convincing win over Arkansas.
Nick Calathes will chase Jodie Meeks of Kentucky for SEC Player of the Year honors. Florida's Calathes scored 28 points, grabbed 10 boards and dished out seven assists in a 15-point win over Arkansas. Florida had an odd 3-point night, too, going only 3-of-17 in the first half but 8-of-13 in the second. The Gators are 3-0 in the SEC.

Also in the SEC, Mississippi State is back in the chase for an NCAA bid. The Bulldogs are off to a 3-0 league start after beating Vanderbilt 73-66. Meanwhile, Arkansas, which looked like a favorite in the SEC West before the start of league play thanks to home wins over Oklahoma and Texas, still looks for its first league win after playing three conference games.

• Michigan State could run away with the Big Ten title. Well, at least it looks that way because of how the Spartans are playing. Sure, Minnesota has only one loss, but it was to Michigan State at home. Illinois gave MSU fits until the final minutes, but the Spartans are in such a rhythm that it's hard to see them fading anytime soon.

• Memphis is still the king of Conference USA. The Tigers still need to play UTEP, but they shot down a challenge from Tulsa during the week and handily took out UAB on Saturday, winning 81-68.

• The Currys are off the charts in scoring. Stephen Curry scored 28 in Davidson's win over Georgia Southern. Brother Seth scored 35 in Liberty's win over VMI on Saturday.

• Poor Jamelle Horne. For the second time this season, the Arizona forward inexplicably didn't know the time and score. In November, he committed a foul in a tie game against UAB on a desperation shot that put Paul Delaney III at the line, where he made a free throw with one second left to win the game. On Saturday, he did the same thing, this time fouling USC's Daniel Hackett in a tie game. Hackett hit a free throw with 1.2 seconds left to beat Arizona 65-64, as the Wildcats fell to 2-4 in the Pac-10.

• Jonathan Xavier needs to chill. Look, there's nothing wrong with sticking up for your brother, Jeff Xavier. But every fan in the building knows you don't go on the court, as Jonathan did during Saturday night's Marquette-Providence game. With 17 minutes left, PC's Jeff Xavier was hit in the face, and when the players were at the free-throw line, Jonathan came down from the stands, jumped over the bench and confronted a referee before anyone from security could get to him. Thankfully, this issue ended peacefully.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com