Johninho Previews the Conference of Champions (Again This Year, Too – Sorry!)

Greetings, freaks!

Me llamo Johninho, and my job here at Storming… is mostly to stay up and watch all the great late night hoop you’re missing while you sleep, drink, snack, catch Letterman, etc. I’ll be covering the West Coast in general, and the Pac-10, Mountain West, WCC, Big West and Big Sky conferences. Like Tom Brady with his bastard children, I will occasionally forget one, so hang on, and if you’re not getting your Northridge State or USD love, for example, by all means go to the papers and squeal like a little girl. Or post a thoughtful little diatribe in the comments.

Anyway, this’ll be the Pac-10 Preview. We start with dessert around here – the sugar wears off that buzz a little quicker. Follow me like an Oregon State defender trails a breakaway dunk, after the jump…

The Pacific Ten Conference is counting on seven of its teams, according to the mags, to begin postseason play in the Dance, one bubble team that may or may not make a deep run in the NIT, and two teams that are mostly good for a D-1 W, girls gone wild, and the traditional ganj-and-pizza outings post-game. Of those, pundits expect three Pac-10 teams in the Sweet 16, 2 in the Elite Eight, and a champion (as in National) to come out of this conference. In my best pre-turning point Jerry Bertier in Remember the Titans, we won’t need any of your people for defense, we’ve got that covered…

On to the teams.

UCLA

So, okay, yeah, UCLA’s a few people’s choice to return to the Final Four and add more rotting drapery to Pauley Pavilion. They’re the best starting five top to bottom, only lost Afflalo from last year, grab arguably the #1 incoming big man in the country, and have a coach who is, arguably, the best to helm the Bruins at least since Lavs and his hair gel prowled the sidelines in Westwood, if not the Wizard himself.

UCLA won the recruiting battle again, so expect this year’s shallow bench to be more momentary than permanent.

I’m not as high on #1 signing Kevin Love as everyone else, but maybe that’s because I’ve been lured to my doom by the dazzle of such promising post men as Bryant Reeves, Paul Davis, and Shavlik Randolph. But even if I liked the kid, I still think it would be a mistake to start him right away, especially since my dark-horse pick for Conference Player of the Year, not to mention for a recurring role as Ugly Betty’s love interest, senior center Lorenzo Mata, can already kill everyone else in the conference with dirty work, double figures despite nothing in the offense, banging to remind the oldsters of Trevor Wilson and a tougher Dijon Thompson, and for the weaker schools, staredowns. That face is worth at least six points at home, but even more, he’s the hardest working big in the Conference.

Aside from serious damage inside, UCLA can inflict stifling defense at the perimeter, and for those of you who saw Howland’s Pittsburgh teams defend like mothers, expect that to the letter in Westwood. Darren Collison is back to run the show, and Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya will perform capably at the 2. Expect Collison also to pick up a scoring load to fill the void from Afflalo’s departure. Cameroonian Prince Luc Richard Mbah a Moute will complete the starting lineup again with a balanced 3 role, and although the rotation is at best, eight, this team can, and will, challenge for the national title, believe it.

The funny thing is that even though UCLA is built for six in a row in March, they probably won’t run the table in conference, and it’s possible they don’t even win the regular season. The Pac-10 system is to pair up the teams and do roadies or host both schools each week – it’s grueling, especially at Washington State in January, and many good, even great teams, get chewed up on the Washington or Oregon swings. As you’ll come to find out if you read on, there are only two possibly easy games.

It bears scant resemblance to the Dance, however, and that is where the Bruins will most likely emerge as Champions.

Oregon

As much as I live and breathe this basketball team, I’m loathe to put them here in conference runner-up land. I don’t like this mix, I’m not impressed with the players, and even Ernie’s freaking me out. First the God Squad, now the torn rotator cuff (running into his assistant – kthxWTFbbq is that?). But maybe you’ll see them as the Elite Eight team that Athlon does. Second it is, then.

Aaron Brooks parlayed his years of service into a contract with the Rockets (where nine of him, laid end to end, will equal one Yao Ming), but Tajuan Porter, a dude even I tower over, slots directly in at point midget. At least he can bang the three like Brooksie, and he’s for real, Pac-10 quick. So I can believe that.

Oregon also loaded up on wing-type guys, and Bryce Taylor is the best of the lot of them, and as good a two as the Ducks have seen in a long, long time. He’ll be the bread truck, if teams don’t immediately smother him at the arc, and it’ll be in his hands at the end of tight games. He has delivered, and to my eyes, he is the one sure thing we’ve got on this team. It remains to be seen, however, if he can be the man every time now that Brooksie is gone, and if he can’t, or doesn’t, there are plenty of young hungries with a stroke and a step who’d love to get some of that. We should be one of the best backcourts in the land, no worries.

But here’s where it begins to get crazy for me. As we go into the Oregon frontline, we have an undersized Parade 50 wing who is perpetually poised for his breakout year in Malik Hairston; a guy who although he made all-Pac-10 freshmen, and worked his ass off defending guys tougher than him, I still think is out of position at the 4 in Maarty Leunen; and Ernie’s endless rotation of centers, including a guy I thought I’d seen the back of by now – just how long HAS Mitch Platt been in an Oregon uniform? The best of them is either Ray Schafer, a 7-footer from Alaska that I’d describe as Joel Przybilla with a wicked drop-step, or new big Frantz Dorsainvil, a Jerome Moiso type who could destroy. For Ernie Kent, a big is 6-9, no taller.

So if Frantzie or Ray can defend like a monster, maybe Oregon stays top half, and gets a Dance bid, but I still think the pundits are banking on a lot of promise from the U of O, and not actual results. I know Elite Eight last year, but if you’ve got the tape, look at how they went out. Because the whole squad collapsed (and believe me, HAD to – the last time we were there, Collison and Gooden went apeshit inside for Roy Williams’ Kansas) on Noah and Horford, we got smoked on the perimeter (despite having better shooters) by Lee Humphrey because no one could get back out for the kick to shooters. That’s not a team that knows itself or defends very well, for starters, and hustle or toughness inside doesn’t even begin to enter the conversation. Oregon doesn’t win like that, and they’re going to have to toughen up to justify such a lofty ranking.

Washington State

The alterna-mop is back in the finest of Ridnour/Jackson/Morrison tradition. Unfortunately, so too are games at cold places on the road that don’t crack the fifties. The Big Ten Way has come to the Pac, and for that, we can thank Tony Bennett, son and coaching understudy of the former Wisconsin legend Dick Bennett, who enjoyed a working retirement out here a year or two before, and we can also merely hope they still call Pac-10 fouls in Pullman. But we doubt it, and believe that will once again make the Palouse into the fortress it was back in the day, when none other than Kelvin Sampson began his vagabond lifestyle as a pimp (not to mention a menace to the Compliance Committee) with the Cougs.

Here, it’s all about Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver, two hygenically-challenged lads who form the Cougar backcourt, and know the system with the suffocating defense like the back of their dirt-encrusted hands. Weaver’s even from Wisconsin, and probably lays a mean body check. They also score it in bunches, and they’ve probably got pictures of Kirk Penney on their walls.

The rest of it’s just like the Wisconsin system. Wazoo has a bunch of guys you’ll never remember who are big, beefy, wear 50s, go hard to the glass, and lay on their opponents to wear them down. They’ll be good for a squeaky clean run through the home games, enough of the cupcakes to get a few more on the road, and then they’ll hit the Sweet 16 by default just because nobody wants to play them.

Cougin’ it, my green and gold ass. WSU finishes a spirited third, and probably wins the most boring Pac-10 Tournament since its inception.

Washington

Here’s where Athlon and I seriously part company. Much as I hate them,Washington is scary loaded, probably has Stanford covered on point guard alone, and is oh, so much better than Arizona. Hawes won’t be there for the Dawgs to stand around and watch anymore, and as long as the other guys continue to be their usual pains in the ass, the Huskies will be a tough, tough out well into March.

Lorenzo Romar’s a freaking genius, too. Anybody who can take St. Louis off the deck and do something with the likes of that talent deserves serious props in my book, and other than being responsible for the new rule, Never Seed U-Doob #1 in a bracket, he has done equally well in Seattle. Apple Cup hoop between UW and WSU will matter this year, twice, and it’ll probably mean a #3 or a #4 at Selection Time for the team that can gain advantage. But just in case, Romar’s going to the “woe is me” card very early this year.

Guys like Jon Brockman and Quincy Pondexter probably never saw themselves as Jordanaires for Hawes, anyway – now they get to prove it. Ryan Appleby looks like Johnny Fairplay, I kid you not, and is just as punchable, but also provides an outside threat. Justin Dentmon works hard and completes the nucleus of returning starters, but Washington also loaded up, and among the noobs is the second coming of Christian Welp – a Portland boy named Joe Wolfinger who’s 7-feet tall and likes to shoot it from deep, coming off medical redshirt.

It’ll suck to play them, especially at that freaking barn they call Hec Ed, but at the risk of being greedy, this is the last member of the quartet of teams from this conference that should easily hand you your lunch into the second and third rounds of the Dance. May they at least all get food poisoning in January, but the University of Washington is, at the very least, fourth best in the Pacific Ten, and probably better.

Stanford

So now it’s time for the Robber Barons, er, Rocket Scientists, uh, Cardinal. I’d like this team, except for some glaring oversights on a few key matters: head coach, where no one who’s patrolled the home sideline at Maples since, could lift Mike Montgomery’s jock with a Hyster; point guard, where Coach Trent Johnson is Saul Smithing it with his own spawn – destined to end in disaster; and finally, the 4 and 5, where the Stanford Men’s team has apparently now resorted to stealing recruits from legendary ballcoach Tara Vanderveer, in twin posts Brook and Robin Lopez. Actually, I’m kidding, but only about that last part.

Expect the talented Lopez to carry the team in scoring from the frontline, and the other to go all Dikembe upside the rest of the league. I rate Washington slightly ahead of them based on who is back and at what spot, but Stanford will give anybody a game, and do well enough for itself to probably overachieve in the Tournament, provided they can get the ball upcourt and run their offense. Which means you can expect to snicker at least twice a year when Tiger Woods is spotted at Maples to watch them get blown out of their own gym.

USC

I diverge again from the mags to note that Tim Floyd has worked his pimp ass off, and it deserves props. The Trojans have a new gym, some pieces back from that stealth Sweet Sixteen team of last year, and a recruiting class every bit as good as Pete Carroll’s, including the guy who, for my money, is the biggest impact freshman in the land this year, no exceptions, Kentucky high school phenom O.J. Mayo.

This kid, more so than Love, will take games by the throat, and will his team to victory at crunchtime. This guy is one and a half hairs shy of the next Lebron, I kid you not, and he’s wearing that hideous crimson and gold for the University of South Central. Floyd didn’t stop there, either – he brought another top fitty kid in Davon Jefferson to slot in beside the other returning bigs. The Trojans are covered. They’ll get into the Dance even with a sub-500 conference because they’ll beat anybody else’s ass, and even when they flame out, no one will even piss and moan about it except Dick Vitale.

Arizona and Cal

These are two similar teams that are perceived in opposite directions. One looks worse right now than they will be by the end of the year, and will be the last team in the Dance. The other looks loaded, but will disappoint, and will get an NIT bid. Each has a serviceable veteran stud, a decent recruit, and a legendary coach. Neither has a clue about the difference between perception and reality, and just from sheer pig ignorance of their place in the pecking order, will seize a couple of cheap wins versus better teams. Neither is worth talking about, although in deference to Lute Olson’s longevity in the game, I will say that Arizona replaced Shakur (for now), and that might tip it: Jerryd Bayless will run the show, and there are probably enough other pieces for Arizona to get the best of Cal during the season and the Pac-10 tournament should they meet. I still don’t think all these pieces make a team for the Wildcats, and so it’s probably a cup of coffee and a Happy Meal at best in March.

Arizona State and Oregon State

These are two teams that suck, but are headed in opposite directions.

Jay John will be fired in midseason because the Beavs suck, and he won’t deserve it, because that team could barely get the 5A high school championship done even if Majerus, Chaney or Tarkanian coached them.

On the other hand, Herb Sendek must be getting controlling interest in Ping or something, because his squad is going to get their asses beat so brutally, they’ll need grief counseling by Christmas. Yet he left a decent NC State program that he’d brought back from the dead to take this gig. Although, if the Sun Devils win 4 games in conference, Sendek should be up for Coach of the Year. Of course, none other than Bill Frieder left a CHAMPIONSHIP Michigan team at the altar to take this job. Byron Scott left a long time ago, and so did Ike Diogu. WTF?

This space would have contained some extra venom for Oregon State, where I got $20 ripped off of me years ago at a frat party. But I’m above that, I guess.

That concludes your Pacific 10 Conference preview. Any questions, direct them to the Comments, and we’ll be sure to give you a smart-ass answer whenever we feel like it.

Kisses,
Johninho

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