With the conference season tipping off tonight, I figured I'd give you my quick look at where we stand heading into the 18 games that truly will decide each team's postseason fate.
What follows is a short breakdown of each team, ordered in my own little power ranking. (I didn't take into account tonight's games, FYI, since I started working on the post this afternoon.) And don't look now, but the "weak" Pac-10 is now the No. 2 rated conference by Ken Pomeroy.
1. UCLA (10-2)
Pomeroy Ranking: 16
Quick Take: The Bruins are still the class of the Pac-10. They might not be the 1,000-pound gorilla they've been over the past few years and might not be a shoo-in for their fourth consecutive Final Four, but they're still very, very good. The team defense is down just a tick, and J'Mison Morgan hasn't exactly been the replacement for Kevin Love that UCLA fans thought he might be, since he's only averaging 7.2 minutes a game.
But they still generate a ton of turnovers, and Darren Collison is one of the most efficient players in the country (No. 45 in offensive rating and No. 53 in eFG%). The most pleasant suprise for UCLA has been the play of guard Michael Roll. The junior supersub has the No. 2 offensive rating in the country, and is shooting a ridiculous eFG% of 73.4, which would also be No. 2 if he had played enough minutes to qualify.
The Bruins have been destroying some less-than-impressive competition since losing to No. 7 Texas so who knows how much they've improved since that loss, but with an experienced squad and Ben Howland on the sidelines, they're still my odds on favorite to win the conference title.
2. Arizona State (11-1)
Pomeroy Ranking: 9
Quick Take: The Sun Devils are the highest rated Pac-10 team by kenpom.com, but it's tough to know just how good they really are after yet another typically creampuff nonconference schedule. ASU has played just one true road game (for the second consecutive year), and lost its only real test against Baylor.
But the Sun Devils have the No. 1 effective field goal percentage and No. 4 adjusted offensive efficiency in the country thanks in large part to a weapon that no one in the conference can match: James Harden. Want to know just how good Harden has been? Read this piece at Basketball Prospectus. It's a couple of weeks old, but still relevant. The guy is an absolute stud, ranking in the top 100 nationally in percentage of his team's shots taken, offensive rating, effective field goal percentage, free throw rate and assist rate. He's a one-man wrecking crew.
Jeff Pendergraph has also been very good, but the Devils are thin up front. Depth there might be an issue against Pac-10 teams with better big men than the Devils have faced this season.
3. USC (9-3)
Pomeroy Ranking: 41
Quick Take: The offense has been inconsistent, but the defense has been typically sound under Tim Floyd. Only the loss to Seton Hall raises eybrows, as losses to Missouri and Oklahoma -- especially with as close as the latter was -- are nothing to be ashamed of. The offense has been inconsistent at best, but that's to be expected as the Trojans figure out how to replace to production of OJ Mayo and Davon Jefferson.
Dwight Lewis has taken on the bulk of the scoring load, while Taj Gibson has been his usual beastly self inside, posting seven double-doubles already to go along with the No. 17 block percentage in the country. But what truly makes this a team on the come is freshman sensation DeMar DeRozan, who Floyd says is "growing in front of our eyes right now." Also keep an eye on junior Daniel Hackett. He's a player I've been down on in the past, but he's quietly blossoming into one of the top point guards in the Pac-10.
If there's one thing Floyd has proven, it's that he can grow a team over the course of a year so that it's playing its best ball by March. He's well on his way to doing it again.
4. Cal (11-2)
Pomeroy Ranking: 32
Quick Take: And here we have our first big surprise of the season. I said before the year that the Bears could be the surprise team of the conference, and don't look now, but Mike Montgomery has the Bears playing some mighty fine basketball. Their only two losses came to a decent Florida State in Las Vegas and a very good Missouri on the road -- no shame in that.
How have the Bears done it? By turning a mediocre defense in 2007-08 (No. 152 adjusted defensive efficiency) into one of the better ones this year (No. 66) while maintaining the offense, even with the loss of Ryan Anderson to the NBA. I thought Patrick Christopher might be one of the surprise players in the Pac-10 this year, but it's been point guard Jerome Randle who's been the difference maker for Montgomery. His stats are up across the board, as he's averaging 19.5 points and 4.8 assists.
I believe now more than ever that Cal is poised for a WSU-like jump into the top half of the conference.
5. Arizona (9-3)
Pomeroy Ranking: 42
Quick Take: The Wildcats have played far better than anyone had any right to expect in the wake of Lute Olson's retirement just after the start of official practices. Forget about the comically absurd loss to UAB and the close loss to Texas A&M; the Wildcats have impressive wins over Gonzaga and Kansas to hang their hats on come Tournament time.
It doesn't hurt that they've got the most talented trio in the conference with Nic Wise, Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill. The three account for 65 percent of the Wildcats' scoring, 56 percent of their rebounds, 59 percent of their assists. Hill has been especially impressive, leading the team in scoring and averaging a double-double.
Coach Russ Pennell deserves a lot of credit for getting this team to play as well as it has and on track for yet another NCAA Tournament berth. For all the hand-wringing by Olson and the players about the slower pace played under Kevin O'Neill last year, Arizona is playing at an even slower pace this year, although they've played faster recently. Pennell is clearly doing something right.
6. Stanford (10-0)
Pomeroy Ranking: 30
Quick Take: The Cardinal finished the nonconference slate without a loss, and while there isn't really a win over an impressive opponent in the bunch, most of the wins were by double digits, including a 111-66 thrashing of Texas Tech. Stanford's adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency are both ranked in the top 40 nationally under first-year coach Johnny Dawkins.
Anthony Goods has really stepped up his production, leading the way with 18.4 points per game, but it's been a balanced attack, as the Cardinal feature four players averaging double figures. Part of that is due to Stanford playing much faster this year than at any point in recent memory, averaging more than 71 possessions, a pace befitting the smallish squad left in the wake of the defections of the Lopez
sisters twins and graduation of Taj Finger.
But that small frontcourt might prove to be the Cardinal's undoing. They're already giving up the 40th highest 2-point field goal percentage in the country and blocking only 7.7 percent of their opponents shots (203rd). Contrast that with the sixth-best 2-point field goal percentage and No. 36 block percentage last year, and you wonder how Stanford will hold up against legitimate big men, which most teams in the Pac-10 possess.
7. Washington State (8-4)
Pomeroy Ranking: 40
Quick Take: The Cougs were the picture of consistency in the nonconference schedule, beating the crud out of teams they were supposed to beat, going 1-1 against middle-of-the-road SEC teams, and going 0-3 against ranked teams. If this team has any hope of making the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row, it's going to have to make some hay in the conference schedule.
The defense has been as good as ever, holding all opponents but Baylor, Gonzaga and LSU to efficiencies under 100. But the offense ... oh, that offense. It's bad. Real bad. And if the Cougs want to get up into the top half of the conference, Tony Bennett's going to have to come up with some answers in a hurry. The defense is good enough to win some games all by itself, but unless the offense gets better, this is shaping up to be a remake of 2005-06.
8. Washington (9-3)
Pomeroy Ranking: 24
Quick Take: The Pomeroy Ranking suggests I ought to have the Huskies higher than this, but let's just say I'm a little bit skeptical considering they lost all three games they played away from Hec Ed, including a season-opening debacle at Portland. But there's no denying UW has been impressive at home, posting a dominant win over Oklahoma State (No. 49 Pomeroy) and a nice win without Jon Brockman over an underrated Portland State team (No. 88 Pomeroy) that would be Gonzaga in Spokane a little over a week later.
Brockman has been his usual dominant self inside, averaging a double-double, and the Huskies have gotten improved play on the perimeter from an unlikely source: Justin Dentmon, who is averaging 12.4 points. Additionally, Isaiah Thomas has shown flashes of being the explosive scorer the Huskies hoped for.
The thing that has Husky fans hoping this year will be different than the past two is that the defense seems to be better -- 17th in adjusted defensive efficiency, fueled largely by a much improved shooting defense (No. 64 in opponents' eFG%, compared to No. 234 and 193 the past two years).
One thing to keep an eye on, though: Washington's defensive efficiency is fairly significantly correlated to opponents' turnover percentage (-.74). Will the defense be as good against Pac-10 teams that figure to take care of the ball better than some of their more overmatched opponents? Kansas and Florida posted the two highest opponents' efficiencies while posting two of the three lowest TO%.
9. Oregon (6-6)
Pomeroy Ranking: 93
Quick Take: Poor Ernie Kent. With his keister firmly on the hot seat, he sure picked a terrible time to play the toughest nonconference schedule of any Pac-10 team -- 38th nationally according to Pomeroy. The Ducks got soundly beat by the good teams on their schedule, but also lost a couple of not-so-good games to Oakland and San Diego.
It's the same old story with the Ducks. They're playing the fastest pace of anyone in the conference (73.7) and chucking up a ton of 3's, which they're still pretty good at making (37.5 percent, 61st nationally). Where the offense is struggling, though, is in getting easy baskets -- the Ducks are an appalling 269th nationally in 2-point field goal percentage after being 14th last year. Much like Washington, the defense is actually quite improved so far thanks to a high number of steals.
Tajuan Porter has proven to be mediocre as a leading man. Don't let the fact that he's leading Oregon in scoring fool you; he's posting just the team's fourth best offensive rating. Freshman Michael Dunigan has been solid, but team's might start employing a hack-a-Shaq strategy on him if he doesn't improve on that 51.1 percent from the line.
10. Oregon State (5-5)
Pomeroy Ranking: 175
Quick Take: Nobody's going to confuse the Beavers with a Pac-10 contender, but nobody's going to confuse them with last year's edition that went 0-18 in the Pac-10, either. This team is improved under new coach Craig Robinson*, especially on the offensive end. Their adjusted offensive efficiency is higher than the Cougs', thanks largely to improved play in the paint -- OSU is 10th nationally in 2-point field goal percentage.
Expect this team to get much better as the season rolls along. Robinson employs a version of the Princeton offense, which players don't exactly pick up overnight. The growth is already palpable; the Beavers soundly beat Howard University at home on Dec. 20, whom they lost to by two in their season opener just a month before. This team that quit on Jay John last year is playing hard for Robinson. It might not translate into five or six wins, but it'll translate into two or three over teams that don't come prepared to battle the Beavers.
* Notice how I wrote Craig Robinson's name without mentioning that he is Barack Obama's brother in law? Oh, wait ... dang! I just did it! Dangit!!!