Commentary

Rest of Pac chasing Stanford

Originally Published: January 4, 2010
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

Stanford lost more than two conference games just once in the past five seasons and appears to be at least as strong, if not stronger, this season than at any point during that run. At a time when recent contenders Arizona State and California are reloading and six other programs have been under the direction of their respective coaches for three or fewer seasons, it's not a recipe for cooking up championship intrigue.

Race for second

[+] EnlargeIfy Ibekwe
AP Photo/Tony AvelarArizona's Ify Ibekwe has the rare distinction of averaging double-digit rebounds (12.2) and leading her team in assists (32).

Arizona State seemed to show enough in recent losses against Texas A&M and Baylor to earn its presumed place as the league's No. 2 team. Then came losses to USC and UCLA in Tempe to open Pac-10 play.

Charli Turner Thorne said in November she thought this could be a great rebounding team, and the Sun Devils are that, Sunday's effort against UCLA notwithstanding. What opens them up to challenges from at least California, USC and UCLA is an offense that relies too much on Danielle Orsillo. Credit her for doing what she can, but in the long run, it's not Sun Devils basketball if one player is forced to take twice as many shots as anyone else. That opens things up for some input from both Los Angeles schools and a young team from Berkeley.

Question to answer

Is there any hope in the Pacific Northwest? The latter part of the decade just closed was not kind to the Pac-10 representatives in Washington and Oregon. In what is otherwise a region with booming populations, talent galore exited or escaped the Pac-10 in basketball -- Briann January, JJ Hones, Courtney Vandersloot, Alex Montgomery, Angie Bjorklund, among others most recently. Not coincidentally, Oregon State's LaVonda Wagner is now the dean of the league's coaches in the Pacific Northwest in just her fifth season.

Team to watch

USC played more games at home during the final two weeks of 2009 (three) than it did during the season's first five weeks (two). But all the travel and all the tests of a rigorous early schedule could pay off in the new year. In addition to wins against Arizona State, Texas and Mississippi State, USC pushed Xavier to overtime and was within two points of Duke in the final minute on the road. The Trojans are undersized in the post and undermanned overall, but they shoot the ball well from outside and, not surprisingly, have found a defensive identity under Michael Cooper's tutelage.

Player to watch

How many players averaging double-digit rebounds per game also lead their team in assists? It's not a long list. Arizona's Ify Ibekwe has yet to emerge as a dominant scorer this season, but that's like complaining about vegetarian options at a steakhouse. Arizona's junior rebounds as well as anyone -- better than all but four players in the nation, in fact -- is a dominant defensive presence and moves the ball as well as her assists numbers suggest (even if Arizona would be best served if its guards picked up the assists pace). And about that scoring -- Ibekwe still has all the tools that helped her average better than 15 points per game last season.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.