This wasn't supposed to be a defining week of Pac-10 play. It was supposed to be a prelude to bigger and better matchups. After all, Washington still needs to travel to Arizona. The L.A. schools won't visit Washington and Washington St. until the last weekend. But three stunning upsets in the state of Oregon and the single best Pac-10 game of the year changed just about everything we thought we knew. Arizona is back as a Pac-10 power. Oregon isn't a cratered program just beginning to rebuild. And maybe Ben Howland and UCLA haven't been entirely passed by the rest of the conference.
Usually I don't talk about Cal games in this column, because the rest of this site is devoted to breaking those games down. But in my recap of Saturday night's triple overtime thriller I didn't really talk about the Wildcats beyond expressing begrudging respect and an undying hatred of Momo Jones, who could potentially be around another two years to torture us all. But I'd be remiss if I didn't use this space to recognize that Arizona has undoubtedly stolen the conference lead from Washington by winning a truly remarkable game that showed why they're more than a mediocre team taking advantage of UW's struggles.
We already knew that Derrick Williams is the type of player that can single-handedly carry a team to a victory. But Arizona won on Saturday despite not having Williams at his best and then not having him at all for 15 minutes of overtime, and they won anyway in a (I'd like to think) very hostile environment. I don't know if the Wildcats knew that UW had blown it against Oregon St., but they played like a team that can smell a conference title.
Around The Pac
In which we take a look at a few of the more interesting and/or important games that happened last week
UCLA 64, USC 50 ; UCLA 66, St. Johns 59
Fair or not, this was an incredibly important week for Ben Howland and UCLA. After three straight final fours the Bruins have fallen quite far, to the point when NCAA tournaments and victories over USC were no longer assumed. It's still shocking to me that USC managed to win four straight over UCLA, particularly as the Trojans tried to usurp UCLA's mantle as the team that beat you with stifling man-to-man defense.
But it was UCLA's defense and the dynamic inside play of Josh Smith that carried UCLA to two huge victories that helped quiet Howland's critics and pushed the Bruins closer to a spot in the NCAA tournament. Both USC and St. Johns were held below 40% shooting and Smith scored 15 and 19 points respectively despite playing less than 30 minutes in both contests.
After a year and a half in the woods the Bruins finally seem to have found a winning formula. Reeves Nelson has really locked down the glass, Josh Smith has been a prolific scorer as long as he can stay on the court, and Malcolm Lee and Lazeric Jones have combined to play above-average defense and a knack for scoring when UCLA needs it most.
Oregon 69, Washington St. 43 ; Oregon 81, Washington 76
Oregon's sudden surge forwards in Pac-10 play is scary for a number of reasons. First of all, Dana Altman now had Oregon winning different types of games. On Thursday the Ducks just completely shut down Washington St.'s offense, very much including Klay Thompson. Granted, some of WSU's 25% field goal percentage was just missing make-able shots, but Oregon's defense seems pretty legit.
Then they turned around and outscored Washington, despite the Huskies shooting an eFG% over 60. Joevan Catron got his points, but he was helped along by excellent performances from E.J. Singler and Tyrone Nared. If Oregon has found a few players to compliment Catron's offense then they'll be a tough out for any team down the stretch.
The other scary thought for Cal fans? Matt Court, hideous though it may be, might be a huge home court advantage for the Ducks. Four teams have played in Eugene since the arena opened, and all four were favored. Three of those teams left with losses, and two were beaten rather badly. It's possible that I'm overreacting to a few unconnected, random results. But I can see how a re-energized home crowd and a goofy court design might give Oregon an advantage, at least through the rest of Matt Court's inaugural season.
What happened to Washington?!?
When Abdul Gaddy went down with a season-ending injury many wondered if it would hinder Washington's title run chances. But Isaiah Thomas slid into the point guard slot and had spectacularly effective games. In back-to-back games at Cal and vs. Arizona he recorded over 10 assists and 20 points. He was a revelation, and I even wondered if Gaddy was holding Washington back just by virtue of preventing Thomas from playing the point.
Now, after three straight losses we can again wonder how much Washington misses Gaddy. In Washington's three straight losses Thomas has been significantly less effective - recording no more than 6 assists in any one game and shooting less than 30% from the field. Washington has also averaged more than 17 turnovers during the losing streak.
Is it just a slump? A three game fluke? I can't help but pessimistically expect Washington to play focused and angry against the Bears on Thursday as they attempt to atone for their potentially fatal lapse in play. But hopefully whatever Washington St., Oregon and Oregon St. did to beat the Huskies can be repeated by the Bears in Seattle.
Cal, Stanford @ Washington, Washington St.
Oregon, Oregon St. @ UCLA, USC
Arizona @ Arizona St.
No marquee matchups really jump out - the top three teams in the standings don't face each other this week. But there are a ton of games that will help sort out the muddled middle of the Pac-10 pecking order. As it stands right now just two games separate Cal at forth from Oregon St. in 9th.
Washington and Washington St. will try to lick their wounds and rebound at home against the Bay Area schools. The major story line? What in the world happened to Washington, and is it a chronic problem?
Meanwhile, USC was probably looking forward to a visit from the Oregon schools to help end a 2-5 slide. But with the recent play of the Ducks USC may be in for no relief. And who will win the matchup between two of the hottest teams in the conference on Thursday between the Bruins and Ducks?
Oh, and conference leaders Arizona travel to Tempe to take on their rivals, losers of seven straight. Everybody will assume a Wildcat romp, which means Rihards Kuksiks will hit nine 3's and ASU will win by 15. Just because.