Pac-10 Hoops Weekly Wrap: Washington is the new No. 1

Welcome to the first edition of the 2009-2010 Pac-10 Weekly Wrap, which looks at the state of the conference's hoops featuring my personal power rankings and analysis of the state of each team. I suppose the season's been going on for about two weeks now, but everyone's got enough games under their belt now that we can actually have some semi-meaningful analysis.

We came into the season suspecting the Pac-10 to be way down this year, and while I'm going to be one of the few to say that has yet to be proven, I think one thing has most certainly confirmed another suspicion: This is going to be the most wide-open conference race in years. There is no 300-pound gorilla this year, as every team in this race has not just little flaws, but big-time flaws that could be exploited on any given night.

In other words, prepare for a wild ride where the conference champ has at least five losses. While I initially dismissed it, all that talk about this being a three-bid conference just might be spot on.

On to the rankings and recaps. (When I say preseason rank, that was my own personal preseason rankings ...)

1. Washington

Preseason rank: 2
Record: 4-0

The Huskies have done what they were supposed to do, win all of their games, but they move up to the No. 1 spot more out of default than anything else. Playing all four games at home, they've posted two dominant wins (Belmont, Portland State) and two wins where they were firmly in control (Wright State, San Jose State). They do get credit for not stubbing their toe, but there's just not a lot here to go off of yet.

Bright spot: Count me among those who were/are skeptical they can replace Jon Brockman's interior presence. However, all signs are good so far. They're still an offensive rebounding machine -- currently an absurd 47.6 percent, good for fifth in the country -- and they're doing a competent job on the defensive glass. Of course, that's against overmatched competition, but that's what they're supposed to do ...

Question mark: The shooting. Their effective field goal percentage (what's that?) is a pedestrian 51.7, inflated by one superbly hot shooting night against Portland State. Otherwise, they've been under 50 percent in their other three contests. Not good. As a team they're shooting just 32.8 percent from 3-point range -- somebody has to fill Justin Dentmon's void.

An honorable mention for the question mark would be the defense: It's been merely average.

2. California

Preseason rank: 1
Record: 2-2

Nothing like getting slapped around by a couple of Top 25 teams early in the year to bring an excited fanbase back to reality. Seriously, I feel sorry for Cal fans. Their football team was considered a worthy challenger to the USC throne (we all know how that's turned out, although beating Stanford certainly takes out some of that sting), and now their basketball team is off to a rocky start. Theo Robertson is out indefinitely, and Harper Kamp is touch and go as he recovers from a knee injury. To not even be in those two games is not the kind of start you'd expect from a team returning so many players, even without those two guys.

Bright spot: Jerome Randle can still shoot -- 50 percent on 26 3-point attempts this year. He's well on his way to following up last year's breakout campaign.

Question mark: The defense. It was atrocious against both Syracuse and Ohio State, which ought to be pretty disconcerting, since that was a target for improvement this year. Here's what Basketball Prospectus 2009-2010 had to say about the Bears' efforts to improve there:

We’ve seen this script play out before. You know, the team that can score at will but can’t get stops. But they return everyone from the previous season…and this time they mean business! They’ve been thinking about defense all summer, blah, blah, blah. Last year at this time, these words were being spoken about Baylor, and to a lesser extent Notre Dame. Two years ago it was NC State. Each of those teams failed to improve their defense and fell short of lofty preseason expectations.

Cal is a good team that is going to win a lot of games this season….But they’re also a team with a significant weakness. One that history says is very difficult to overcome, even with hard work.

Four games in, this is looking downright prophetic. It might not cause a huge issue in the Pac-10 this year -- assuming Robertson comes back healthy to complete the three-headed monster on offense -- but they better shore it up if they don't want a repeat of their first round exit against Maryland.

3. Arizona State

Preseason rank: 7
Record: 4-0

Who wants to be No. 3 in the Pac-10? Step right up, Sun Devils! When you start to look at the remaining eight teams and figure out who the third-best team in the conference is right now, your options are somewhere between OK and really bad. So, congratulations on being OK, Arizona State, after more or less destroying your annual parade of cupcakes at home (a close, 52-49 game with TCU notwithstanding). They've done it with a balanced attack (four different guys are averaging double figures, despite only averaging 62.9 possessions as a team) and pretty good defense.

Bright spot: The Sun Devils can still shoot -- their 62.3 effective field goal percentage is third nationally. I don't care who the opponent is, that's impressive. They're shooting 49.4 percent from 3-point range, and when you're shooting 3s on nearly 40 percent of your possessions (79th nationally right now), that's a recipe for some blowouts. Rihards Kuksiks, Derek Glasser, Ty Abbott and Jamelle McMillan are all shooting better than 45 percent from long range.

Question mark: There was one game, however, where the Sun Devils did shoot poorly; care to guess which one? If ASU's offensive effectiveness is going to be that closely tied to their shooting, their fans are in for one roller coaster ride of a year.

4. Arizona

Preseason rank: 4
Record: 2-0

The Wildcats have only played two games, but they handled both Rice and Northern Arizona effectively. Nothing here yet to really suggest moving them up or down. We'll know more pretty quick -- they take on Wisconsin in Maui tonight, then face either Colorado or Gonzaga tomorrow.

Bright spot: By the time Sean Miller left Xavier, he had molded the Musketeers into an excellent defensive squad. It appears the Wildcats are buying in early, holding NAU to 91.0 efficiency (what's that?) and Rice to 67.8.

Question mark: The Wildcats were a pretty good offensive rebounding team last year, thanks mostly to some guy named Jordan Hill. With Hill gone, Arizona is currently 246th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage (what's that?) -- despite playing vastly inferior competition. And it's not a style thing, since Miller's Xavier teams were routinely one of the better offensive rebounding teams in the country.

5. Washington State

Preseason rank: 7
Record: 3-0

Congrats, Cougs for not puking up a game against an inferior opponent! Given what's going on around them in the conference, winning three games is no small accomplishment, especially when you note that two were blowouts and one was a blowout until a late run by a veteran squad brought the margin uncomfortably close. This team is young and is going to be inconsistent, but as you look around at the rest of the conference, you realize just how valuable of a commodity Klay Thompson is. There are a number of other teams that would absolutely kill for a scorer like him.

Bright spot: Thompson looks to be every bit the big-time scorer and leader we hoped he would be. Also, did we mention that a young squad with a new coach has played well enough to dominate the better part of three games?

Question mark: This one's easy -- the rebounding brought about by a thin frontcourt. The defensive rebounding has been merely average, and that's against some inferior competition. Not necessarily a good omen. Problem is, there's really no ready solution, since they're not likely to get taller or bigger.

6. UCLA

Preseason rank: 3
Record: 1-1

A lot of people thought the Bruins could survive their early defections on the coaching wizardry of Ben Howland. The early returns aren't great -- UCLA opened the season with a double OT loss to Cal State-Fullerton, then trailed Cal State-Bakersfield through much of the first half before pulling away late. Injuries to guys like Tyler Honeycutt have slowed the team down, and it hasn't helped that Nikola Dragovic went and got himself arrested for felony assault and subsequently suspended.

But if you're really looking for a reason why UCLA has slipped the last year-plus, look no further than highly touted recruiting classes where guys that were supposed to come in and make an immediate impact just haven't. If I were ranking purely on accomplishment, the Bruins would be down near the bottom of the conference right now. But I've got to balance performance with potential, and the smart money is still on Howland figuring out a way to squeeze a Tournament berth out of these guys.

Bright spot: The Bruins are getting only 2.1 percent of their shots blocked, eighth nationally. They've got that going for them. Which is nice.

Question mark: Can the Bruins survive the beginning of the season until they get healthy without tanking their NCAA Tournament chances? They're going to face some teams in the 76 Classic that will likely be on the bubble come March; losses there could be costly.

7. Oregon

Preseason rank: 8
Record: 3-1

The Ducks cruised through their first three games, even flashing some decent defense along the way. Then came a loss on the road to Portland in which the Ducks allowed 88 points on 66 possessions(!). Now, the Pilots are looking as if they might really be a threat to knock off the Zags in the WCC -- they have yet to shoot less than 58.3 eFG% in three games -- but if the Ducks want to get up into the top half of the conference with all that purported talent they have, they're going to have to do better than that. Granted, it was without Michael Dunigan ... but still.

Bright spot: Tajuan Porter is scoring efficiently, and I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've ever used the words "Porter" and "efficiently" in the same sentence. He's got a 129.1 offensive rating through four games. That's enough of a sample to suggest that he's doing some things right.

Question mark: Can Dunigan ever stay on the floor long enough to be the impact player his McDonalds All-American status suggested he should be? Last year it was fouls, this year injury. The Ducks need him to be a force.

8. Stanford

Preseason rank: 10
Record: 2-2

I actually looked at numbers for about five minutes trying to figure out how to rank OSU, Stanford and USC 8, 9 and 10. Then I realized I was spending actual time trying to figure out how to rank OSU, Stanford and USC 8, 9 and 10. They all stink right now. Badly. So they're in a relatively arbitrary order. I'll give Stanford some credit for having two wins and almost winning a third. But holy crap is the bottom of this conference awful. That alone should give the Cougs (and other middling teams) hope that they can get up into the NCAA Tournament conversation, because there are wins to be had.

Bright spot: The Cardinal are 14th nationally in turnover percentage and 22nd nationally in defensive rebounding percentage!

Question mark: With the lack of size up front, the Cardinal are already showing they're going to have a heck of a time defending the paint -- teams are shooting 51.8 percent from inside the arc against them. That's 241st nationally. Against teams like San Diego, Oral Roberts, Cal Poly and Florida A&M ... well, the only word that comes to mind is "ouchie."

9. USC

Preseason rank: 9
Record: 1-1

USC fans knew that offense was going to be hard to come by with this squad, so it's fortunate that defense is Kevin O'Neill's calling card. Unfortunately for the Trojans, their defense has been awful, and when you combine that with a subpar offensive night, you get a bad loss to Loyola Marymount at home. Ugh.

Bright spot: Nikola Vucevic is giving them some quality offense -- he's playing 97 percent of the minutes so far, using 23 percent of USC's possessions, and posting 123.0 offensive rating. Not bad at all.

Question mark: So many directions we could go with this one, ranging from Dwight Lewis failing to show up in the loss to the Trojans allowing their opponents to get to the line at an absurd rate. But, we'll go ahead with this one: Opponents are shooting 50 percent against USC from 3-point range. Obviously, that number is going to come down, but when your two opponents have shot 3s on 26 percent of their possessions -- 46th nationally -- and are hitting at that kind of a clip, that says something about your ability to close out on shooters. Ouch.

10. Oregon State

Preseason rank: 5
Record: 1-3

Are the Beavers really the worst team in the conference? Probably not, as two of their three losses were fairly close. But they get a penalty for failing to live up to preseason hype -- especially when Craig Robinson did little to downplay Oregon State as a contender for an NCAA Tournament bid. Usually teams wait until conference play to crumble under the weight of expectations; OSU did it in the first two weeks. 

To say the Beavers have been atrocious on offense just isn't strong enough. Pick your synonym -- abysmal, abominable, awful, dreadful, painful, terrible, unspeakable -- and it probably doesn't do them justice, either. You would think they would be more efficient in their second year in Robinson's Princeton offense. Guess not. Only one player is averaging double figures, and I don't care what pace you play at, that's just brutal. Or awful. Or dreadful. Or whatever.

Bright spot: They didn't lose to South Dakota.

Question mark: How does Robinson get this offense rolling? The Beavers have been abysmal in ever facet of the offensive game -- they're even shooting under 60 percent from the free throw line. One has to believe there's some regression coming, but four games is more than 10 percent of the season, and to be that bad suggests something more than mere small sample size. OSU better get its crap together, right quick.

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