UW, ASU -- not Stanford -- lead Pac-10 early

Updated: December 28, 2005, 11:29 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Arizona State guard Jill Noe missed the last two seasons with ACL injuries, but has returned to become the 10-1 Sun Devils' third-leading scorer thus far. Most games this season, she will be the best comeback story on the floor.

Jill Noe
AP Photo/John MillerAfter missing the past two seasons with ACL injuries, Jill Noe's back and bolstering ASU.

But she surely won't mind ceding that title Thursday to Washington's Kayla Burt, who is in her second season after suffering a cardiac arrest on New Year's Eve 2002.

Thursday's game between the Huskies and Sun Devils in Tempe, Ariz., would be worth watching -- you can catch it on Fox Sports Northwest or Fox Sports Arizona at 8 p.m. ET -- just to marvel at these two remarkable kids. But this is also a matchup of the two Pac-10 teams with the best records.

There are a lot of intriguing things going on in the Pac-10, and right now, the Sun Devils and Huskies are on top of that list. Both played very good nonconference schedules and have experienced teams. And the Huskies already have beaten Stanford, which is still the gold standard for where you rate in the Pac-10.

This is the first week in the league season when the two Pac-10 states furthest apart from one another meet up. Thursday's other matchup in that group has Washington State at Arizona. Then Saturday, they switch, with the Cougars going to Arizona State and the Huskies to Arizona.

Washington State is 6-4 and lost its first two Pac-10 games. You can't really say it's a rough season for the Cougars, because every season seems to be. They haven't had a winning record in the league since Pac-10 play began for women in 1986-87. The best they've done is .500 twice, most recently in 1995. Hard to predict when the forecast in Pullman will be anything but gloomy for the Cougars.

Meanwhile, Arizona, 4-6, is dealing with a much more profound cloudiness, a period of mourning and grief that is not going to lift, but fade only gradually. The Wildcats are dealing with the loss of their best player and a close friend, Shawntinice Polk, who died in September after a pulmonary blood clot.

"As we started practice, everyone was focused and playing hard," Arizona coach Joan Bonvicini said. "As we went on the [recent] road trip, our kids lost some of their fight. It's difficult to say where the grieving process is. … We're a much better team than what we've been showing."

The road trip the Wildcats went on the week before Christmas included a game at Fresno State. That was supposed to be Polk's homecoming; she was from Hanford, Calif., not far south of Fresno. The juxtaposition of being there, and the nearness of the holidays, made it next-to-impossible for the Wildcats not to be greatly affected.

She's a weapon; she can get by the first line of defense and sometimes the second. She's very creative and athletic, can make some solid moves. The other thing is her defensive improvement; she puts pressure on the ball.
UW coach June Daugherty on Husky junior Cameo Hicks

Washington, meanwhile, went through the scare three years ago of almost losing a teammate. It was her fellow players that helped saved Burt's life, performing CPR until paramedics arrived.

Burt sat out the rest of that season and the 2003-2004 season. But after testing negative for a heart syndrome that initially had been diagnosed, she came back to the court last season. She played in 29 games, starting 16, and averaged 9.6 points and 3.6 rebounds.

Thus far in 2005-2006, Burt is averaging 8.0 points and 2.3 rebounds for the 9-2 Huskies, whose only losses have been in the Lone Star State: at Baylor and Texas A&M. Washington started Pac-10 play just before the holiday break with a sweep of the Bay Area schools, beating Cal, 62-55 and Stanford, 77-72.

Burt is one of three redshirt seniors for Washington; the others are guard/forward Kristen O'Neill and guard Nicole Castro.

"The last two years, we did not have the good fortune of having seniors," said coach June Daugherty, looking to get the Huskies back in the NCAA Tournament field after missing it the last two seasons. "Now we have three who are tri-captains, and we felt this was the year we could challenge ourselves with a great preconference schedule.

"It helps to have the veterans, no doubt about it. We try to enjoy the travels of the Pac-10; we want to close [the season] out well for our three seniors."

Andrea Plouffe
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonAndrea Plouffe and UW, which beat Stanford 77-72 on Dec. 22, hope to return to the NCAA Tournament after a two-year absence.

However, it's a junior, guard Cameo Hicks, who is leading the Huskies at 16.6 points per game.

"She's a lefty, and has worked hard in the offseason to develop her right hand and with her outside shot," Daugherty said of Hicks, who has added to her already formidable slashing ability. "She's a weapon; she can get by the first line of defense and sometimes the second. She's very creative and athletic, can make some solid moves. The other thing is her defensive improvement; she puts pressure on the ball."

Meanwhile, Arizona State's only loss so far has been to North Carolina, which might be as good as any team in the country. The Tar Heels were also the ones that bounced Arizona State from the NCAA Tournament last season, in the Sweet 16 in Tempe. The Sun Devils were 24-10 overall and 12-6 in the Pac-10 in 2004-2005.

And they once again, are a team in coach Charli Turner Thorne's image: They will scrap and battle and bump and grind.

"I don't think Charli has ever backed down from anything," Daugherty said. "We know they are going to bring pressure defense. They are blue-collar; every possession you have to fight for it. On the other end of the floor, that's an unselfish team."

And Bonvicini -- whose Wildcats fell to Arizona State 83-59 on Dec.22 -- notes something else about the Sun Devils this season.

"The biggest difference I'm seeing is that they are running," Bonvicini said of Arizona State utilizing fast-break opportunities more. "By doing that, you increase points you're scoring and your field-goal percentage. They're playing well."

Certainly, it's not a coincidence that Noe is back and the Sun Devils are playing more up-tempo. She's averaging 11.8 points, behind senior forward Kristen Kovesdy's 13.4 and junior forward Emily Westerberg's 12.3. Noe (36), Westerberg (35) and fellow starter Reagan Pariseau (32) are 1-2-3 on the team in assists.

Noe, a 5-foot-10 junior out of Tualatin, Ore., averaged 12.6 points as a freshman in 2002-2003. In October 2003, she suffered a torn left ACL and missed that season. Then in June 2004, ready to come back to play that fall, she reinjured the ACL and had to miss last season, too.

"She had a tremendous first year for us, then had a devastating knee injury and worked her tail off to rehab," Turner Thorne said. "Then [the next summer] to go down again … it took her about a week to get over it. To say, 'OK, I've got to do this again.' She is a tough, resilient, positive, hard-working kid. You see that spirit when she plays."

Then Turner Thorne laughed.

"She doesn't always do what I want her to, but she finds a way to get it done. She's a fun, free-spirited competitor."

And she's one of many reasons the Pac-10 should boast compelling competition for the next few months.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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