Pac-10 Men's Basketball Midseason Report
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Category: Sports > Winter > Basketball (Men's)
Player of the Year: Derrick Williams, Arizona
Would Arizona be tied atop the Pac-10 standings without the sophomore forward? Are those GEICO commercials funny anymore?
(Hint: heck no).
Williams, the conference's second-leading scorer (19.8 points per game) is currently the only Wildcat averaging double digits. Because of his efficiency from the field (64.6 percent shooting), knack for getting to the foul line and ability to drill the occasional three-pointer, the La Mirada, Calif. native can single-handedly dominate any game.
While Williams may be a front-runner now, he is far from a lock to receive the award, which should end up being a very competitive three-player race between him and a terrific pair of guards: Isaiah Thomas, the quarterback of conference-leading Washington, and Klay Thompson, the Pac-10's top scorer.
How their respective teams end up in the standings could loom large in this decision.
Coach of the Year: Mike Montgomery
If you hear a warning siren in the background, it's because this is a homer alert. So I'll spell out a few facts here:
First, at the end of this season, Mike Montgomery will not win Pac-10 Coach of the Year. The committee will probably give it to Washington's Lorenzo Romar again or maybe Arizona's Sean Miller because of win totals. Montgomery's team will probably not have made the NCAA Tournament and will have lost at least 10 games. Now let's look at the circumstances the veteran coach faced entering this season:
Fans tend to remember that four starters graduated from last year's team. What those fans may not realize is that one other reserve player graduated (Nikola Knezevic), two players transferred (Omondi Amoke was dismissed from the team and D.J. Seeley followed him to Cal-State Fullerton), one opted to play professional basketball in China (Max Zhang), and one cornerstone to this year's freshman class transferred because he thought his NBA prospects would improve elsewhere (Gary Franklin). That's nine players gone.
UCLA's Ben Howland lamented about how much coaching his team requires because of its inexperience. What's amazing is that Howland is looking at a bench comprised predominantly of high school superstars. When asked what he thought about Howland's comments, Montgomery chuckled and said "Bring 'em on over!"
Through all of this, Cal is 5-4 in conference play, has lost its two toughest road tests (Arizona and UCLA) by a combined four points, and only been soundly defeated once (at home against first-place Washington) since Franklin's abrupt departure.
Who knows what the conference will decide at the end of the season, but nobody is coaching harder or more effectively than Montgomery.
Freshman of the Year: Allen Crabbe, Cal
Coming into the season, Crabbe wasn't even the most heralded freshman on his own team - that honor would go to former guard Gary Franklin. And at the start of 2010-2011, more press went to Joshua Smith, UCLA's behemoth in the paint. But in the heat of conference play, no one has been blossoming more than Crabbe.
After a quiet start, the Los Angeles native is averaging 17.4 points over his last eight games, and has not been held under double figures since Cal's Pac-10 opener; he is currently the only freshman in the conference's top 20 scorers. Yet he has done more than just put the ball in the basket for the Bears. Crabbe plays solid defense and is currently team's second-leading rebounder (5.6 per game).
Don't let the conference's lack of freshman star power diminish Crabbe's performance this season.
Biggest Surprise: Oregon's Improvement
Last year, Oregon was one of the biggest jokes on the West Coast. Here was a team that lost to Portland, Idaho, Missouri (by 37 points) and was routinely routed in conference play. Montgomery described last year's team as "pivot, pass, tear ass," but their fast-paced play was disorganized and ineffective.
This year under new coach Dana Altman, the Ducks are hustling even harder than last year and with greater purpose. They sprint to switches on defense, curl hard off of screens and give it their all for all 40 minutes. Last year's team gave up routinely. Altman won't let his team surrender.
For a team that tried to lure some of college basketball's biggest names (Tom Izzo, Mark Few and Mike Anderson), Oregon's hiring of Altman was one of the most understated and, in turn, underrated hirings. Look for the Ducks to keep improving.
Biggest Disappointment: Oregon State's Inability to Improve
When Craig Robinson took over the Beavers two years ago, critics and fans saw a young, energetic coach that could teach an untalented group to play hard with a variety of zone defenses and the famous Princeton offense. While Robinson's methods have periodically worked, this year's Oregon State team doesn't inspire much confidence and is bottoming out in the conference.
The Beavers look to be wasting an explosive young talent in point guard Jared Cunningham with a flat, hardly talented supporting cast. The one-trick pony that is the 1-3-1 zone can be either outrun (as Washington proved) or outcoached (as Cal proved). The Beavers rack up wins by flustering other teams, but they don't even do that all that well.
Craig Robinson was once rumored as a potential coach for a high-profile college team. Those rumors have since died and don't appear to be reviving anytime soon.
Second Half Storylines:
How good is Arizona?
In last week's power rankings, I predicted that Arizona was "in for a surprise" when UCLA and USC traveled to the McKale Center that weekend. How wrong I was. The Wildcats blew out both the Bruins and Trojans and are probably the hottest team in the conference right now.
With that said, I still think that Arizona will falter in the second half of its schedule. One of its bigger tests comes this weekend against Cal and Stanford. Both are teams that Arizona probably should beat from a talent perspective, but both home tilts against these teams were a bit rocky. The Wildcats have already finished their toughest road trip of the season (the Washington schools), but for a team that is supposed to be one of the most talented in the conference, its road performances have been lackluster.
Star player Derrick Williams is efficient anywhere he plays, but he hasn't gotten to the free throw line nearly as often on the road in conference play (41 free throw attempts) as he does at home (an eye-popping 62 attempts).
If Arizona sweeps this weekend, then I think that it is a legitimate tournament team. If not, then my overrated suspicions will be confirmed.
Is there a third NCAA tournament team in this conference?
In a word: doubtful.
This is not to say that the three main teams in consideration - UCLA, Washington State and Cal - have terrible resumes. They all have a top-65 RPI, and can boast at least one notable non-conference victory (the Bruins beat BYU, the Cougars beat Baylor, and the Bears beat Temple and New Mexico).
Yet doubts still abound.
Will UCLA be consistent enough to build on its successful first half of conference play? And how would the committee judge embarrassing losses to VCU and Montana (the latter coming at home)?
Meanwhile, Cal's lack of depth means even one injury is a major set-back - and the team still has to make a very difficult Northwest trip.
The guess here is that Washington State has the best chance of sneaking in. A recent victory over the Huskies shows that the Cougars can beat anyone in the conference, while Klay Thompson is explosive enough of a scorer to spark them in a Pac-10 Tourney run.
In the end, a late surprise streak at the Staples Center is what the conference most likely needs to send a third team to the Big Dance.
Will more freshmen stand up?
Looking back just three years, it's amazing to see the level of freshman talent that resided in the conference. O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love, Jerryd Bayless, James Harden - all were dynamic Pac-10 players right off the bat, with all four finishing among the top 10 conference scorers (in the top seven, to be exact).
It's safe to say that the past few incoming classes have not had similar success - witness just one current freshman (Crabbe) in the top 20 scorers. Will the Pac-10 see any more newcomers step up and give some added starpower?
To be sure, there are players who could raise their games over the next couple of months. Dwight Powell and Anthony Brown of Stanford are both rangy, versatile players how have looked terrific in spurts. Joshua Smith of UCLA can be a force inside, despite his inconsistency, and Terrence Ross has had some big scoring games for Washington.
For now, however, the Pac-10 has none of its past freshman star-power, and whether the conference can regain it in the near future remains to be seen.
Ed Yevelev and Gabriel Baumgaertner cover men's basketball. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org
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