The consensus was just about unanimous amongst the media and fans: Washington was going to win the Pac-10. One lonely, prophetic soul tabbed Arizona as the team to beat. Did he somehow know that Derrick Williams would transform himself from Pac-10 freshman of the year into an All-American? While playing essentially the same amount of minutes in 2011 as he did in 2010, Williams has been scoring 4 more points per game despite taking the same number of shots and having teams game plan specifically to stop him. He's added an impressive jump shot to his ability to bang inside and draw rebounds, transforming into one of the most well-rounded players in the nation.
Williams had virtually already won Pac-10 player of the year before Saturday's game against Washington, but Arizona certainly had not won the conference. One epic, 87-86 game later (with a Sunday night assist from the Bears) the Wildcats have taken a gigantic step towards their first conference crown since 2005, the last great team of the Lute Olsen era. And much like the rest of the season, it was Williams who was everywhere when Arizona needed him. He got points inside, drew fouls, nailed three pointers, and just for good measure made a fantastic block to seal the game after a horrible baseline turnover gave Washington a second chance.
Now, Arizona just needs a win over UCLA to clinch at least a tie atop the conference, and will likely be favored in at least three of their last four regular season games. Now, we don't want to make any premature pronouncements, considering how sure we all were of Washington's inevitable triumph less than a month ago. Is there a way for Arizona to blow this? Can the Oregon schools ruin another team's title hopes? I doubt it, but you never know . . .
Around The Pac
Arizona 79, Washington St. 70 ; Arizona St. 71, Washington St. 69
Losing to Arizona? Not a shocker. But Washington State's long shot at-large NCAA chances were finally killed with one of the single worst losses for any team in conference play this year. Arizona St. came in with nine straight losses. True, ASU had been competitive in a few of those games, but they had also lost five of them by ten points or more. Plus they were playing without Ty Abbott. But Washington St. was without Faisel Aden, and Ken Bone made the potentially questionable decision not to start Klay Thompson for a violation of team rules.
Arizona St. jumped out to a quick lead and pushed it as large as 13 in the first half. Washington St. did come back to take the lead briefly in the 2nd half, but their first half troubles were ultimately too much to overcome. Thompson did finish with 28 points, but he needed 28 shots to get there. Trent Lockett went for 20, and Chanse Creekmur (who?) more than doubled his previous career high with 18 points to lead ASU.
So what happened to this Cougar team that so many were so excited about? CougCenter argues that maybe we've all been guilty of overrating them all year long, in part because of Thompson:
But let me play devil's advocate for a second... Why did we think this year's team was going to be so great to begin with? Klay Thompson will play at the next level, and he's great, but he's not Kobe Bryant. He's not going to drain every three he takes in the final minutes. The rest of this team is young, thin and a mismatch of personnel designed for one style of play (Bennett) versus another (Bone).
I think that's a pretty good explanation. When a team has one player who can go for 30 any night and appears nearly unguardable at times, you tend to assume that they're going to make some noise. But Thompson can have off-nights, and his talent doesn't mean the rest of his team is ready to hold up their end of the bargain.
USC 78, Cal 75 ; USC 69, Stanford 53
The Trojans had won just one conference road game - by two points, over last place Arizona St. So it has to be a pretty big surprise that USC swept the Bay Area road trip, and with relative ease. True, I do think Cal would have won with a healthy Allen Crabbe. True, Cal made things interesting at the end because of a few freak Markhurki Sanders-Frison three pointers, but USC was in control throughout. And they absolutely manhandled Stanford.
So what happened? Well, USC had two excellent shooting nights, which makes you wonder what could have been if USC found anything resembling that level of offensive execution all season long. Nikola Vucevic showed the physical skills and versatility that makes him so difficult to guard, Alex Stephenson was a load on the glass, and Maurice Jones and Donte Smith both continue to drive other teams insane with their ability to nail threes and score despite their tiny stature. Against Cal I was particularly impressed with their ball movement and patience, as they found a good shot on essentially every possession. It was markedly different from their performance against Cal in L.A.
It's too little too late for USC for an at-large spot, and they probably don't have the depth to win three in a row at the Staples Center. But they'll be a tough out if they play like they played this weekend.
Cal, Stanford at Oregon, Oregon St.
Arizona, Arizona St. at USC, UCLA
Washington St. at Washington
For the 3rd time in the last four weeks Arizona will be involved in the biggest game of the week, this time against UCLA in what could very well be a title clinching opportunity for Arizona if they take care of business against USC on Thursday. Thanks to their combined 1-3 record last week the Apple Cup matchup in Seattle has lost some of its luster, but if Arizona stumbles it could impact the conference race.
Everything else is about jostling for Pac-10 tournament seeding, as everybody will be fighting to avoid the dreaded play in games that go to the bottom four teams in the conference. Arizona St. and Oregon St. are all but assured two of those four spots, but every other team from 4th to 8th place is in danger of playing that extra game. Of particular importance will be Cal and Stanford's visits to Oregon's blinding Matt Court.