After a few years in the wilderness for the conference, Derrick Williams spent the 2011 season simultaneously resurrecting the Arizona basketball program and national respect for the Pac-10. And on Thursday night against Duke, with the entire college basketball nation outside of Durham pulling for them, the Wildcats played arguably the best half of basketball by any team this year. The Wildcats dropped 55 points against the usually stingy Duke defense highlighted by multiple ferocious slam dunks. So, is Pac-10 basketball back?
Well, that might be premature. For one thing, a couple upsets doesn't immediately reverse multiple years of mediocrity. And Arizona wasn't able to capitalize on their chance when they fell to Kemba Walker and UConn in the West regional finals. The Wildcats looked lost when Derrick Williams had to spend long stretches of the game on the bench with foul trouble. And that's a pretty big deal with Williams projected as a top 10 NBA draft pick.
Likely, how far the Pac-10 rises in 2012 will depend on the decisions made by multiple underclassmen. Nikola Vucevic has already announced his intentions to leave school early. He could very well be joined by Williams, Klay Thompson, Tyler Honeycutt, Malcolm Lee and even DeAngelo Casto. If the majority stay and there aren't any surprising early declarations, the Pac-10 could potentially return as a true power conference on the level of the ACC and Big 10. If they all leave it might be a smaller step up. Luckily the collection of coaches seem stable and successful (outside of crazy ol' Kevin O'Neill, at least), which should ensure long term stability.
Meanwhile, the Pac-10 has been performing like a powerhouse on the diamond. In his season preview Ryan Rosenblatt highlighted just how deep the conference is this year, and nothing that happened in the nonconference portion of the season changed that perception. Seven different teams are ranked in the top 25 of one of the four major polls. Not surprisingly, Arizona St. has gotten off to an excellent start. The Sun Devils have impressive wins over Rice, Oklahoma and Cal State Fullerton and opened conference play by taking two of three from Arizona. That should be enough to maintain their top 5 national ranking.
The only Pac-10 team that has underperformed is probably UCLA, which came into 2011 with huge expectations largely because of a trio of spectacular pitchers in Trevor Bauer, Gerrit Cole and Adam Plutko. The UCLA pitching staff has lived up to expectations - they have a collective ERA of 1.97. But the Bruin bats haven't held up their end of the bargain and UCLA 'only' managed a record of 9-7 prior to Pac-10 play. They did take two of three from USC on the road this weekend.
Cal did just what they needed to do this weekend by sweeping one of the weaker teams in the conference at home. Until ace Chad Arnold is 100% Washington St. probably isn't as dangerous as they were last year and Cal took advantage with great pitching and timely hitting. Like UCLA, Cal has been getting spectacular play from their staff - their team ERA is actually a tick lower than UCLA at 1.93. But the Bears will be looking for a little more from their offense if they want to compete with the Arizona States of the world. They will get a good test in two weeks against top 25 Arizona and their .337 team batting average in Tucson.
This is still some basketball to play, and some of it is, in fact, worth watching. It might be your last chance to watch Klay Thompson and DeAngelo Casto in college as the Cougars try to finish their season on the right note at Madison Square Garden. WSU plays Witchita St. on Tuesday night on ESPN2, and if they win will face either Colorado or Alabama on Thursday night, again on ESPN2. The thought of Thompson going against Alec Burks and the rest of the Buffaloes is actually pretty exciting. Pretty good for the 'not invited tournament,' huh?
In significantly less exciting basketball news, Oregon is still alive in the CBI presented by Zebra Pen! They will face Creighton in the best of three series starting tonight and continuing Wednesday. If they split those two games they will face each other for a final time on Friday in Eugene. All three games are on HDnet, and I can hear you all scurrying to call your cable provider to ensure you get that channel for such a thrilling event.
As for baseball action, here's the conference schedule for this weekend:
USC @ Cal
Stanford @ Washington St.
Washington @ UCLA
Oregon St. @ Arizona
Oregon @ Arizona St.
The best action will be in the desert state as four nationally ranked teams face off, though Stanford's trip to Pullman could be interesting as well. Meanwhile, Cal and UCLA will both try to take at least two of three from weaker teams at home.