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MRI Basketball Preview - The Pac-10

November 23, 2010  |  By Jeff Popelka

Isaiah Thomas, Washington Huskies, college basketball, Pac-10

As a basketball conference, the Pac-10 has been a powerhouse for the better part of the last decade. While they haven’t sent the most players to the NBA (that honor belongs to the ACC with 56), if you account for the difference in size between the conferences, the 48 NBA players who played for Pac-10 schools turns out to be the highest “graduation” rate of any conference in college basketball.

This is important because this phenomenon had a great deal to do with the huge struggles of the conference that began with the 2009-2010 season.

The Pac-10 suffered through last year, ultimately sending just two teams to the NCAA tournament. The highest seed (a No. 8) went to California, with Washington being the other representative.

Arizona saw their impressive streak of 25-straight NCAA appearances come to an end, and even storied UCLA spent the season struggling to look competitive against teams like Cal State Fullerton and Portland.

The primary question for the new season is whether the incredibly young teams that struggled last season have matured into winners, or at the very least, into somewhat competitive also-rans.

CHAMPION

Favorite: Washington. While it isn’t a bold prediction, this is the clear preseason choice. The Huskies lost Quincy Pondexter to the NBA, but they return a stellar backcourt led by Isaiah Thomas (no, not the Hoosier, HoF Piston and destroyer of the Knicks franchise) that should have them running an exciting, uptempo offense. While they lose a key mid-range and interior power in Pondexter, they recruited some frontcourt players who should at least provide defensive solidity on a team that has plenty of scoring. If this team gels, they should cruise to the conference title.

Darkhorse: Arizona. While it’s tempting to put UCLA here, their incredibly poor play at the point and a possible reliance on a Juco transfer to solidify their backcourt makes them less likely to really contend for a title. Arizona also has a question mark at the point, as MoMo Jones looks to bring more control to his game as he steps in for the departed Nic Wise. What Arizona does have is four returning starters, led by the conference’s best big man, Derrick Williams. While outside shooting could still prove to be a big weakness, if they can get any production from the outside, they’ll be very dangerous.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Isaiah Thomas, Washington - Much like his namesake, this diminutive guard should not be underestimated. Given a lot of leeway in the offense by coach Lorenzo Romar, Thomas plays an instinctive, aggressive game that really suits this roster of players. Perhaps surprisingly given his style of play, Thomas is also very protective of the ball, turning the ball over only seven times in three tournament games while dishing out 19 assists and averaging nearly 16 points. This season the Huskies have less of an inside game following the departure of Pondexter, and Thomas will have both the opportunity and the burden of carrying the offense. If he can continue on this pace and stay healthy, Thomas looks likely to be the conference player of the season.

Derrick Williams, Arizona - Williams was one of only a couple bright spots for last year’s Arizona team, and without Nic Wise, Williams’ role will be greatly increased. His smooth, powerful game and excellent size make him a difficult matchup for opponents who often lack his size, agility, or more often, both. Not only does Williams have a nice post game, his shooting touch is excellent, which allows him to pad his scoring numbers from the line. If Arizona is going to make it back to the tournament, it will largely be on the back of the talented Williams.

Josh Smith, UCLA - Providing much needed reinforcements to a team that has been badly depleted by defections to the NBA, Ben Howland was able to sign the second-ranked big man in the nation. Smith possesses a huge frame, coming in at 6-8 and 290 pounds, but he’s shockingly agile for such a big man. He’ll physically overwhelm opponents, much in the same way we saw DeMarcus Cousins push around opposing centers last year. Smith needs a lot more polish on his game to make him effective outside of about six feet, but I have little doubt that he’ll improve under the tutelage of the UCLA staff.

Klay Thompson, Washington State - The leading scorer in the Pac-10 last season, Thompson is a natural scorer and has excellent range as a shooter. Under first year coach Ken Bone, Thompson actually saw his offensive load increase, even as the Cougars focused more on slowing the tempo and playing more solid defense. Thompson should again be the focal point of this offense, but he may also have some help from center DeAngelo Casto, which could create even more space and open shooting opportunities for both Thompson and fellow guard Reggie Moore.

TOURNAMENT PREDICTIONS

In expected order of finish: Washington, Arizona, UCLA, Arizona State

Just out: Washington State, California

Way out: USC, Oregon State, Stanford, Oregon

   

Posted November 23, 2010 3:00 PM

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