It is safe to say that the Pac-10 has been less than stellar so far this season. Several poor showings in non-conference games have revealed a conference with no teams rising to elite-level status and weakness at the bottom. As a result, it has taken a bit of a bashing nationally, falling somewhere in the second tier of top leagues (behind the ACC, Big East, Big 10, and SEC).
UCLA gets the job done in several ways, but it's mainly the brilliant play of one of the nation's best backcourt duos (sophomores Arron Afflalo and Jordan Farmar) that makes the whole thing work. Both can score, defend and make big plays.
Washington gets it done with a very deep bench and the ability to seemingly score at will – averaging 96 points per game so far this season. The Huskies also have the league's best all-around player, Brandon Roy, and a nice blend of experience, youth and talent. Add to that, an underrated defense and strength on the glass, and the Huskies are definitely a team to keep an eye on.
However, both UCLA and Washington have missed the contributions of key starters from last season. For the Bruins, that meant a loss of offensive power as they waited for Josh Shipp to come back from hip surgery. For the Huskies it meant having to wait until last week to get Mike Jensen back after undergoing shoulder surgery. Once these players are back to full speed, both teams will be undeniably better.
I'm also keeping an eye on Arizona, a team that has shown the most potential on defense because of its ability to really pressure the basketball (to date, the Wildcats are forcing 22 turnovers per game). They're not yet as proficient on offense, but I expect they will only improve – especially when Jawann McClellan becomes eligible.
If the Wildcats' offense can catch up with their defense, they have a good shot at winning the Pac-10 title. If they fail, the title will go to Washington. UCLA will be in the hunt as well, but if they're going to take the title, they must get stronger play from seniors Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins.
The way I see it, the Pac-10 will belong to one of these three teams.
Elsewhere in the conference, Stanford is struggling at both ends of the floor, shooting just 41 percent from the field while allowing opponents to get easy baskets. The Cardinal hit speed bumps last year too, but on the upside there is experience and talent for an upper-conference finish – if they can just find a way to put it all together.
California, USC and Washington State could also crash the upper conference if they can get a few road wins. But these teams are quite young, so winning on the road will be a challenge. The attention to detail, attitude and focus needed to win on an opponent's court in conference play is an acquired taste. Teams that win road games have talent and attitude, and they play defense.
Cal has sufficient talent and firepower, but the Bears need to tighten up on defense. Washington State, on the other hand, has been solid on D thus far, holding teams to just 35 percent from the field, but they lack consistent and timely scoring, and finding that rhythm will be a challenge.
USC is looking strong on defense, keeping teams to around 39 percent. I was impressed by what I saw in its December 21st win over North Carolina. The Trojans maintained intense, bothersome defense the entire game, disrupting an otherwise competent and confident Tar Heels team. But the question remains: Can they build on that kind of effort once conference play begins?
The Trojans and Cougars also are my candidates for biggest surprises in the conference (despite just one senior in the playing rotation between both teams). USC has three very good perimeter players in Gabe Pruitt, Lodrick Stewart and Nick Young, while Washington State gets scoring from seven-to-eight different contributors. In addition, I think the Pac-10 coach of the year could come from one of these schools.
The Sun Devils, while a good shooting team, have struggled at the defensive end of the floor. The Beavers play tough at home, but have not had as much luck on the road on the road, having just one win on an opponent's floor so far this season. But it's the Ducks that I find the most intriguing of these three. They have played a good non-conference schedule (Georgetown, Illinois and Vanderbilt), and have a strong perimeter attack led by Malik Hairston. They also have a potentially dominant scorer inside in Ivan Johnson. The only thing that's missing is the ability and desire to play hard and together at all times.
Four or five teams from this conference have the potential to make the NCAA tournament, and all could win a game or two once there. Arizona, Cal, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington and Washington State are the teams that I think will merit tournament consideration in March. However, no Pac-10 team looks to be Final Four caliber right now. But with improvement and the right matchups, Arizona or Washington could be.