Commentary

A Pac-10 primer for conference season

Originally Published: December 29, 2010
By Diamond Leung | ESPN.com

The Pac-10 remains shut out of the national rankings, and its teams still suffer the occasional embarrassing nonconference loss. But hey, it's better than it was a year ago.

The league is looking as if it'll send more than two schools to the NCAA tournament, and a number of teams might be knocking on the door and could be dangerous in March. As conference play begins Wednesday, here's a full rundown:

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Thomas
Jesse Beals / Icon SMIWith Isaiah Thomas leading the way, Washington is the favorite in the Pac-10.

Team to beat: Washington

The Huskies might not be the clear favorite they were projected to be in the preseason, but they remain the team likeliest to win the regular-season title. With so much experience and depth coming off a season in which they went to the Sweet 16, they've managed to blow out all the teams they should have beaten. To no one's surprise, Isaiah Thomas (15.8 ppg) has emerged as the team's leading scorer, and the Huskies' defense is even better with 7-foot center Aziz N'Diaye in the starting lineup.

Close losses to Kentucky and Michigan State at the Maui Invitational and Texas A&M on the road have revealed that the team needs to improve its rebounding, start showing the maturity it takes to win away from home and find a reliable go-to guy to take the final shot. But with fine-tuning and some statement wins against its would-be conference challengers, Washington should still win the title.

Player of the year: Derrick Williams, Arizona

Arizona released a highlight video of Williams' season, and it gives a look into why many think he eventually will be an NBA lottery pick. Take out the amazing dunks and he is still a do-it-all player who can score around the basket (19.3 ppg), hit the 3-pointer (13-for-19), defend (12 blocks) and rebound (7 per game). The 6-foot-8 sophomore has scored in double figures in every game and is the main reason coach Sean Miller's rebuilding project is ahead of schedule. The Wildcats should be able to end their NCAA tournament "drought" at one year. They're 11-2 with the reigning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year leading the way.

Early surprise: Washington State

Despite a last-place finish last season, those who follow the Pac-10 closely knew the Cougars were going to be good. But did anyone think their talent level would be this high? Not only did Klay Thompson regain his shooting touch but Wazzu has had another scorer in the backcourt emerge in junior college transfer Faisal Aden. The Cougars have beaten Baylor, Gonzaga and Mississippi State -- three wins that should help their cause with the NCAA tournament selection committee.

[+] EnlargeMike Montgomery
Kyle Terada/US PresswireIf Cal's freshmen struggle, it could be a long season for Mike Montgomery in Berkeley.

The big unknown: Cal

What was expected to be a rebuilding season began well with wins against New Mexico and Temple, but then came the infamous five-point first half against Notre Dame on Nov. 26. Since then, freshmen wings Gary Franklin and Allen Crabbe haven't quite been the same, and the Bears have seen their lack of depth play a factor in losses. Coach Mike Montgomery could work his magic and have this team playing with swagger as it defends its regular-season conference title. But if the freshmen continue to go through growing pains, it could be a long season in Berkeley.

Early dud: Oregon State

The Beavers will improve as freshman Roberto Nelson continues to get acclimated after becoming eligible this month. But before his arrival, the perception was that they had enough talent to have not lost to Seattle, Texas Southern and Utah Valley. OSU is a young team that's still learning to win, but a 5-6 nonconference record, the worst in the Pac-10, isn't a good start.

Scrappiest teams: UCLA, USC, Arizona State

The Bruins might not be all the way back, but they certainly have enough grit to challenge for a postseason bid. Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson can score and rebound, and 6-10, 305-pound center Joshua Smith is the conference's best freshman and has emerged as a force in the middle.

UCLA came close to knocking off Kansas, as did crosstown rival USC, which will play tough defense under coach Kevin O'Neill. The Trojans begin the second part of their season with guard Jio Fontan eligible as a transfer and already averaging 16.3 points per game (through three games), which helps free up post players Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson to do more.

Arizona State has young players in Trent Lockett and Kyle Cain, who lead the Sun Devils in scoring and rebounding. And ASU should get better as Ty Abbott and Rihards Kuksiks work out some early-season shooting woes.

Best of the rest: Stanford and Oregon

Stanford has one of the conference's top shooters in Jeremy Green but is still working on developing the freshmen surrounding him. Dwight Powell is the best of the group, and Aaron Bright appears poised to take over at point guard.

[+] EnlargeJoevan Catron
Andrew Shurtleff/US PresswireOregon's Joevan Catron has started his season strong, averaging 17.5 ppg and 6.6 rpg.

Oregon is behind schedule because first-year coach Dana Altman hasn't had much time to bring in his own recruits yet and has patched together a roster after losing so many transfers. Coming off a medical redshirt year, fifth-year senior Joevan Catron is having a big season, averaging 17.5 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.

Grading the preseason picks (based on official media poll)

1. Washington: Maybe the Huskies aren't going to run away with the title, but they still belong at the top.
2. Arizona: If you thought the emergence of Williams would lead the Wildcats to finish here, you'd be right.
3. UCLA: At times, the Bruins have played like a team that belongs in the upper half, but they also have had enough lapses to signal that they won't finish better than third.
4. Arizona State: Fourth seemed a bit high in the preseason, and the Sun Devils' struggles seem to indicate they certainly won't finish higher than that.
5. Washington State: The Cougars look very much as though they'll finish in the top half of the conference, if not in the top two. Writers might not have gone high enough even by vaulting them to fifth.
6. USC: Defense alone makes the Trojans a middle-of-the-road team, and a lot will depend on Fontan.
7. Cal: The Bears likely got preseason sympathy votes for being defending champs, and, as it turns out, they probably are better than seventh.
8. Oregon State: Unfortunately for the Beavers, this might be too high.
9. Stanford: That's about right, as the Cardinal remain very young.
10. Oregon: The Ducks are going to struggle, but are they last-place bad? A win against Big West favorite UC Santa Barbara and a close loss to Missouri say no.

Best place to watch a game this season: Hec Edmundson Pavilion, Seattle

The Dawg Pack student section should get fired up this season as the road to the Pac-10 title goes through Hec Ed, where the Huskies are 122-23 (.848) in nine seasons under coach Lorenzo Romar. The crowd noise can be deafening and lead to frazzled nerves and plenty of turnovers from opposing teams.

Worst venue: Gill Coliseum, Corvallis, Ore.

Not to take away from the old-school charm of the building, but the crowds there could get pretty lifeless if the Beavers fall out of contention early in the Pac-10 race.

Must-see games

1. Washington at Washington State, Jan. 30
2. Arizona at Washington, Jan. 20
3. Washington State at Washington, Feb. 27
4. UCLA at Arizona, Jan. 27
5. Arizona State at Arizona, Jan. 15

Predictions

NCAA-bound (3): Washington, Arizona, Washington State
Sweet 16: Washington
NIT: UCLA, USC
CBI: Arizona State
CIT: Cal

Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at diamond83@gmail.com.