Here's a special treat just for New Year's Day and for you avid SportsLink readers. We've put together a team-by-team look at the Pac-10 basketball race. It's not going to be printed in the S-R, so this is the only place to see it. Read on.
• So here is the Pac-10 preview, my guesses just for you …
PULLMAN – Some years they the mountains emphasized in the Tour de France are the Alps. Other years the Pyrenees. But there are always mountains.
Just like the Pac-10 basketball season.
Though last season was the Himalayas.
The peaks included seven NBA first-round draft picks, including three of the first five. There were six teams in the NCAA Tournament with UCLA making the Final Four and Stanford and Washington State making the Sweet Sixteen.
So even though the mountains may not be as tall this season, they are still there.
"I think the league is very capable this year," WSU coach Tony Bennett said this week. "Maybe (it) doesn't have the powerhouses or some of the marquee players of last year, but it's a little better than maybe early on some of the people thought.
"It seems to be solid. Certain teams have definitely improved that weren't as good as last year. And some teams, like the Cals or Stanfords, who some people thought might be a little down – or even us, for that matter – in stretches they've shown they'll be able to compete."
Which means there are some Alps-like hills ahead.
"You can't get away with just a half of basketball or two-thirds of a game," Bennett said. "You're going to have play, not perfect, but solid, for the entirety of the game in most Pac-10 games."
Conference play begins today, with 12th-ranked UCLA traveling to Oregon State, USC at Oregon, 17th-ranked Arizona State at Cal and Arizona at undefeated Stanford.
Here's a look at each team, in the predicted order of finish:
• UCLA (10-2 in nonconference)
Coach: Ben Howland
Leading scorer: Guard Darren Collison (14.3 points per game)
About the Bruins: This is not the same group that made it to the Final Four last year, UCLA's third consecutive appearance there. This year's highly touted freshmen, Jrue Holiday and J'Mison Morgan, have been hit and miss. Holiday is a hit, averaging 10.6 points a game and running the offense when Collison sits. Morgan, who was thought to be able to take Kevin Love's spot in the middle, has been a miss, playing less than 10 minutes a game. The Bruins have lost away from home to Texas and Michigan, with their best win being against DePaul.
• Arizona State (11-1)
Coach: Herb Sendek
Leading scorer: Guard James Harden (23.8)
About the Sun Devils: There is little doubt this is the least tested of the Pac-10's top teams. ASU has played one ranked team, Baylor, and lost by nine in a preseason tournament. Other than the Bears, Arizona State's toughest opponent was probably BYU, which the Sun Devils edged 76-75 when the Cougars' winning basket was controversially waved off at the end of the game. ASU does have the most dominant offensive player in the conference in Harden, but there is little inside depth to help senior Jeff Pendergraph. The Sun Devils' matchup zone isn't as effective against conference teams who prepare for it twice each year.
• USC (9-3)
Coach: Tim Floyd
Leading scorer: Guard Dwight Lewis (16.1)
About the Trojans: There may be no more O.J. Mayo, but this group is playing defense like Floyd wants. They're physical, playing with intensity and executing the aggressive defense Floyd likes. How well are they playing? They are limiting teams to 38.5 percent shooting against them, second-best in the conference. Plus, with Lewis, Taj Gibson (15.7 points, 11.6 rebounds) and freshman DeMar Rozan (11.6, 4.6), they can score (averaging 72.2 points per game) and rebound (plus 8.9 in rebound margin, second best in the Pac-10).
• California (11-2)
Coach: Mike Montgomery
Leading scorer: Guard Jerome Randle (19.5)
About the Bears: Is first-year coach Montgomery a miracle worker? No, but the former Montana and Stanford head coach's voice is different than Ben Braun's. And it seems like the Bears are listening, especially Randle. The diminutive one was out of control much of last year and was one of the guys who had seemed to quit listening to former coach Braun. He's playing like a professional point guard right now, scoring and dishing (4.8 assists per game) while also running down 3.1 rebounds. Cal is being more patient when they get in their half-court offense – the Bears would rather run, averaging 78.8 points a game – and is shooting 49.6 percent from the floor, including an NCAA-best 50.6 from beyond the arc. Cal also has some of the conference's best wins (by 18 at UNLV, at Utah) and a hard-to-fathom loss (by 27 at Missouri).
• Arizona (9-3)
Interim coach: Russ Pennell
Leading scorer: Center Jordan Hill (18.9)
About the Wildcats: One Sunday in December Arizona upset then No. 4 Gonzaga in Phoenix. Six days later they lost by 15 at UNLV. Such is the nature of this enigmatic team. With Hill dominating inside, Chase Budinger able to score from anywhere and Nic Wise blowing by people out front, this group can score – when the Cats are hitting shots and taking care of the ball. The UNLV loss was built on 19 turnovers and 39.7 percent shooting. The Wildcats seem to be getting more comfortable with interim coach Pennell, who took over early in the season when long-time coach Lute Olson stepped down.
• Washington State (8-4)
Coach: Tony Bennett
Leading scorer: Center Aron Baynes (11.4)
About the Cougars: Bennett's plan was to play enough tough nonconference games to prepare his inexperienced team for the gauntlet of the Pac-10 schedule. The Cougars played four – ranked teams Baylor, Gonzaga and Pitt along with a visit to LSU – and lost them all. But even with those defeats, the WSU defense hasn't faltered and still leads the nation in shooting percentage defense (34.0) and scoring defense (49.3). Where the Cougars have faltered is on offense, where they've failed to execute in key situations. For WSU to compete in the conference, they'll need to improve its assist-to-turnover ratio, which is even (147 of each).
• Washington (9-3)
Coach: Lorenzo Romar
Leading scorer: Forward Jon Brockman (16.5)
About the Huskies: How good is Washington? It's hard to tell. The Huskies have played just one true road game – a loss to Portland – and two neutral site games – both losses, to Kansas and Florida. After the close defeat to the Gators, UW has played its last seven games at home, all wins, with only Portland State offering a test. Despite playing nine games in the cozy confines of Hec Edmundson, the Huskies still have a negative turnover-to-assist ratio (one of four Pac-10 teams with that problem) and shoot just 63 percent from the foul line (worst in the conference). Will those things haunt them on the road in conference? Or will their prowess on the boards (plus 11.4, best in the Pac-10) overcome their flaws?
• Stanford (10-0)
Coach: Johnny Dawkins
Leading scorer: Guard Anthony Goods (18.4)
About the Cardinal: Stanford is another "who knows" team. The Cardinal's schedule hasn't been overpowering, but they haven't slipped yet either. Their recent 111-66 rout of Texas Tech seems impressive, but the Red Raiders have struggled on the road all year, having yielded 80 or more points in all but one game away from Lubbock. Still, Stanford may have lost the Lopez twins, but it did return some solid starters for first-year coach Dawkins, including Goods, Lawrence Hill and Mitch Johnson. Sophmore Josh Owens, a 6-foot-8 forward, has stepped up, averaging 11.7 points and 5.5 rebounds a game.
• Oregon (6-6)
Coach: Ernie Kent
Leading scorer: Guard Tajuan Porter (14.4)
About the Ducks: A young Oregon team is the only one in the conference who went through the preseason being outscored by the opposition. At least the Ducks won their final two nonconference games to even their record. But Oregon is being outshot from the floor (by 4.1 percent as it is shooting 41.8 percent, worst in the conference) and are being outrebounded (by 4.7 per game). So where is Oregon shining? The Ducks use their quickness to force turnovers. They lead the conference with nearly 10 steals a game and have forced more than 200 turnovers. And they shoot it from beyond the arc, making 7.8 a game. They have a shooter's chance in every game.
• Oregon State (5-5)
Coach: Craig Robinson
Leading scorer: Guard Calvin Haynes (18.8)
About the Beavers: This isn't last year's Oregon State team. New coach Robinson, President-elect Barack Obama's brother-in-law, has instilled a new offense, added an emphasis on defense and instituted more discipline. It's worked – to an extent. The Beavers probably won't go winless in conference again, but they should still finish last. OSU started slowly, but, with the return of Omari Johnson and, four games ago, Haynes, has won four consecutive games, including avenging a season-opening defeat against Howard. Utah transfer Daniel Deane has played OK, averaging 9.3 points and 5.9 rebounds, but has 34 turnovers. OSU has 20 more of those than it has assists.
• Those are my thoughts. Feel free to add yours. One thing I will say, there are a lot of ways to look at this year's Pac-10 race. Which team will emulate WSU of a couple years ago and rise from nowhere? Will it be Stanford, my choice Cal or someone else? Which team that looked good in the preseason will struggle? Who will challenge UCLA and ASU for the top of the conference? Good questions. We'll be back later …