Pac-10 basketball roundtable: What to look for the rest of the season
Recently, five writers from around the Pac-10 basketball conference gathered digitally for a roundtable, answering five pertinent Pac-10 questions before the start of conference play on Wednesday, when UCLA plays host to Washington State at Pauley Pavilion and USC plays host to Washington at the Galen Center. The writers: Ben Bolch (Los Angeles Times), Percy Allen (Seattle Times), Bob Clark (Eugene Register Guard), Jeff Faraudo (Contra Costa Times) and Doug Haller (Arizona Republic).
PERCY ALLEN: Regardless of what the coaches may say, I'm surprised the conference hasn't improved from last season. The scarcity of meaningful non-conference wins is alarming and suggests we're looking at another year when the Pac-10 sends just two teams -- if that -- to the NCAA tournament. At this time (Dec. 14), there's not a Pac-10 team that's ranked, and I don't know when that will change. I wouldn't be surprised if we went through the Pac-10 season without a team in the polls.
BEN BOLCH: Oregon’s not-so-terrible start. Having been picked by the media to finish last in the Pac-10, the Ducks didn’t figure to have much to showcase when they opened Matthew Knight Arena next month. But Oregon has won pretty much every game it should have won and nearly upset ninth-ranked Missouri. Senior forward Joevan Catron has blossomed into one of the better big men in the conference, and sophomore forward E.J. Singler has stepped up as a formidable rebounder. Coach Dana Altman appears to have the Ducks poised for a run at the middle of the Pac-10, and that’s saying something in the wake of the mess left by predecessor Ernie Kent.
BOB CLARK: Faisal Aden. I thought he was supposed to be a backup for Klay Thompson. He's the third-leading scorer in the league. He's making 43% of his threes. His addition has me wondering if the Cougars can go from last in the league to contending for first. Next up might be Cal's competitiveness, ignoring that five-point first half. I didn't see how the Bears would score points, but maybe that was discounting the coaching of Mike Montgomery. On the other end, I thought both Oregon State and Arizona State would be better than they've shown. I know they're both counting on a lot of new players, but some of those results have been mystifying. And disappointing.
JEFF FARAUDO: Probably the fact that Oregon is better than I expected, and Oregon State is worse. Not sure why, especially with regards to the Beavers. But they have been awful against an awful schedule.
DOUG HALLER: Washington State. I picked them sixth in the preseason media poll, partly because of how they finished last season (last in the Pac-10) and also because I didn't know what junior-college transfer Faisal Aden would bring. As it turns out, the Cougars are much improved, especially on defense, and Aden is one of the Pac-10's top scorers. Add in Klay Thompson, who's playing at an All-American level, and Reggie Moore, possibly the conference's top point guard, and the Cougars are a conference contender.
2. Is Washington still the overwhelming favorite?
ALLEN: No. The Huskies have shown they have problems winning on the road against big, physical teams. Granted, there are not a lot of those in the Pac-10, but UW hasn't shown the maturity to win on the road.
BOLCH: Yes. The Huskies have too much talent, too much depth and too good of a coach not to finish atop the Pac-10 during another down year for the conference. The Huskies have so many options that senior guard Venoy Overton ranks among the conference’s leaders in assists -- and he comes off the bench. Junior guard Isaiah Thomas continues to cement his legacy as one of the best players in school history, senior forward Justin Holiday is an explosive scoring threat, and sophomore guard Abdul Gaddy is significantly improved from a year ago. What’s not to like?
CLARK: That might depend on your definition of overwhelming. I'd say solid favorite, but the Huskies are going to need to win a few games out of Seattle, and they can't count on scoring 100 points very often against Pac-10 defenses, which is how they've won so far. But, yes, they have a lot of what is needed to win a title: experienced guards, some options on the inside and a bunch of people with the ability to score. And who has the overall depth of the Huskies?
FARAUDO: The favorite, yes. Overwhelming? Not sure I'd categorize it that way. The Huskies must demonstrate they can beat good teams. They have been competitive with the best opponents on their schedule but haven't gotten over the hump. We also need to see how they fare on the road, because that's been an issue for them in recent seasons, and teams that rely so heavily on three-point shooting sometimes don't travel well. At home, with that crowd, they are virtually unbeatable.
HALLER: Yes, it's just a matter of how quickly the Huskies put it together. They have all the pieces: experience in guards Isaiah Thomas and Venoy Overton. An inside presence in Matthew Bryan-Amaning. Justin Holiday is one of the Pac-10's more complete players, and C.J. Wilcox might be its best shooter. On top of all that, they have the best depth in the conference. For some reason, Washington still struggles away from home (losses to Kentucky, Michigan State and Texas A&M), but last season's team took a while to gel before making a Sweet 16 run. I think this one will do the same and maybe advance a step further.
3. Which team might surprise?
ALLEN: By surprise I'm assuming you're talking about a team outside the top five in the preseason media poll. In that case, I'll say USC. Not sure if transfer guard Jio Fontan is the real deal or not, but coach Kevin O'Neill believes he is. O'Neill said he's the team's best player, which is high praise because forward Nikola Vucevic may play in the NBA someday, and Alex Stepheson is one of the top post players in the conference.
BOLCH: USC. The Trojans are going to be Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates in that you never know what you’re going to get. They will pull off some upset victories (see Texas) and suffer a few bad defeats (see Rider). The addition of junior transfer Jio Fontan should help stabilize the Trojans’ inconsistent ways and could thrust them into the Pac-10 title race. Coach Kevin O’Neill’s signature stingy defense will also help USC win some games it probably shouldn’t given that the Trojans don’t boast overwhelming talent and often appear lost on offense. But their front-court tandem of Alex Stepheson and Nikola Vucevic is probably better than anyone else’s in the conference except the UCLA duo of Reeves Nelson and Joshua Smith.
CLARK: Honestly, if the Cougars do stay healthy and out of foul trouble, might they end up in the NCAA tournament? They've got that win over Gonzaga, which will become more important as the season goes on, and a close loss to Kansas State won't hurt the view of the selection committee. That tournament in Honolulu could play big, if WSU could beat a Mississippi State and a Baylor, and those teams went on to play well in their own leagues. And then there's this -- laugh if you want, but Oregon may surprise a team or two, on a night when the Ducks shoot well, and their full-court pressure wears down the ball handlers on another team.
FARAUDO: USC, without a doubt. The Trojans own perhaps the Pac-10's two best non-conference victories so far -- at home versus Texas and on the road versus Tennessee. They have two big, physical front-court players in Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson, good young guards and a newcomer in point guard Jio Fontana who coach Kevin O'Neill says is his best player in every way. At this point, USC will be a disappointment if it doesn't finish in the top three or four in the conference.
HALLER: USC is the easy answer, but UCLA could surprise by challenging Washington. The Bruins have the Pac-10's best front line in Tyler Honeycutt, Reeves Nelson and Josh Smith. Problem is, you never know what you're going to get with the Bruins. The team that took Kansas to the wire and beat BYU or the team that lost to Montana at home.
4. Your pick for Pac-10 player of the year?
ALLEN: I think it's a two-man race between Arizona's Derrick Williams and Washington State's Klay Thompson. We've seen in the recent past the player with the best statistics doesn't always win this award, and the coaches sometimes give a vote to the best player on the best team. For my money, Williams and Thompson have separated themselves from everyone in the league right now. They're playing at a high level.
BOLCH: Isaiah Thomas, Washington. Klay Thompson will score more points. Nikola Vucevic will grab more rebounds. But in terms of making a difference, no one will eclipse Thomas. He is the leader of one of the nation’s most prolific offenses, a player equally comfortable passing and shooting. In fact, he is so unselfish that his scoring average was down a bit from last season in the early going. But whether he adapts to whatever opening an opponent presents by scoring 25 points or getting 12 assists, no one can match his impact.
CLARK: I don't think one Husky will stand out from the others enough, so I'd look to Klay Thompson of WSU or Derrick Williams of Arizona. Yes, I know, all I'm doing there is pointing out the league's top two scorers (at this date). But Thompson also leads in assists, and Williams is close to the lead in field-goal percentage and rebounds. Very nice all-around players. And if one of them leads his team to the title, or at least is in contention to the final week, he'll have the edge.
FARAUDO: Arizona's Derrick Williams is the best and most efficient player in the league. He can score without hogging the ball because he gets to the free-throw line so often. Plus he's added three-point shooting range from a year ago when he was primarily a low-block player. He means more to his team's success than perhaps any other player in the Pac-10.
HALLER: Klay Thompson. His maturity has elevated the Cougars. Example: In Washington State's win over Gonzaga on Dec. 8, Thompson scored just three points in the first half. Last season, this would've bothered him. This season, he stayed patient, using his defense to trigger his offense. He found an offensive rhythm in the second half, finishing with 24 points, six rebounds, six assists and seven steals.
5. Your pick for Pac-10 freshman/newcomer of the year?
ALLEN: Talk about a void of talent. Everyone likes to talk about the dearth of seniors in the Pac-10, but where are the outstanding freshman? Simply put, there aren't many. There's not a freshman currently among the top 20 scorers in the league. I say, when it's all said and done, UCLA big man Josh Smith will stand taller than anyone else.
BOLCH: Joshua Smith, UCLA. The arrival of the super-sized McDonald’s All-American in Westwood was a big deal not just because Smith tipped the scales at well over 300 pounds (don’t believe his listed weight of 305). The 6-foot-10 freshman can score, rebound, move people out of the way as if they’re made of straw and has some of the best hands for a big man Coach Ben Howland has ever seen. After a slow start plagued by foul trouble, Smith started to show the difference he could make with a double-double against Kansas. But you have to check some more obscure stats to fully appreciate Smith’s impact. He helped the Bruins upset Brigham Young by taking a charge and is the runaway leader on his team in that category. Smith will be in the middle of everything UCLA does as it tries to get back to the NCAA tournament.
CLARK: WSU's Faisal Aden is the best newcomer right now, but I've never seen Jio Fontan play. USC Coach Kevin O'Neill said Fontan will be his best passer, defender, scorer and leader, which is a lot to put on a transfer before he's seen any action. If he does all that and turns the Trojans into a first-division team, then he'll be pushing Aden for best newcomer. Just one question, though: How did a player that good end up at Fordham? And nobody between New York and Los Angeles tried to land him before the Trojans welcomed him across the country?
FARAUDO: I'm going with (real) big Joshua Smith of UCLA. If he can stay out of foul trouble, he should produce good numbers on a front line with two excellent forwards in Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson. Smith seems to have a better skill set than I had imagined. And at 6-foot-10, 305 pounds, he's gigantic.
HALLER: Smith is the freshman favorite, and with his size, he could develop into a real force as the season progresses. But Arizona State's Kyle Cain can make this an interesting race. Yes, he's raw offensively, but he could possibly lead the conference in rebounding. He already has games of 17, 16 and 14 boards. Outside of those two, no other freshman has really emerged.