USC’s preseason wins prove that they could be a dangerous team come tournament time, but first, they have to qualify. Photo by Leon Bennett After the first weekend of conference play, the Pac-10 looks improved from last year--but only slightly.By Michael Brown,Sentinel sports writer You know things have changed in west coast basketball when the best college team from the region doesn’t play in the Pac-10, but the Mountain West Conference.Is it shocking? Yes, but not surprising. Following several years of players opting to leave school early for the NBA Draft and numerous coaching changes, the Pac-10 only qualified two teams for the NCAA Tournament last year, and projects the same this season.San Diego State, off to a 15-0 start and ranked No. 6 in this week’s Associated Press poll, looks better than any team in the Pac-10 and could make a deep run in the Big Dance. To make matters worse for the Pac-10, not only are the Aztecs perhaps the best team on the west coast, but the Mountain West, which will certainly get three bids in the tournament if 15th ranked BYU and 25th ranked UNLV hold serve, may be the best conference.Ex-heavyweights like UCLA and Arizona have hit the skids the past few years. Other than Washington, the other programs haven‘t stepped up and met the challenge. After the first weekend of conference play, it’s obvious why Washington (No. 23) is the only ranked team.Aside from the Huskies, the rest of the conference can win or lose to each other regardless of where the game is played. Fans should expect many of the teams to win between seven and 10 games in-conference this year, and a lot of mediocre and inconsistent play.Washington is the only team that I would say is a shoo-in to receive a bid, but the Pac-10 should qualify at least three teams this season for March Madness.The highlighted teams assessments that follow are for squads that I think have a shot at qualifying for the tournament. The bottom-five, Arizona State, the Bay Area and Oregon schools, are teams that would have to win the Pac-10 Tournament in March at the Staples Center to receive an automatic bid.USC Trojans (9-6 overall, 1-1 in the Pac-10) Coach Kevin O’Neill’s team has the best resume thus far of any Pac-10 team, and has shown an ability to not only play in hostile environments--but win.The Trojans lost a nail-biter at No. 3 Kansas by two points due to the late-game heroics of Jayhawks freshman phenom Josh Selby. USC followed the disappointing loss a few weeks later by winning at Tennessee. The Trojans also defeated 12th ranked Texas at the Galen Center.USC’s preseason wins prove that they could be a dangerous team come tournament time, but first, they have to qualify. Losing at home to teams like Rider and on the road to Nebraska will hurt their RPI score.If USC stays healthy, and Nikola Vucevic (16 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks per game) continues to stay out of foul trouble--they are the conference’s only team that I think can reach the Sweet Sixteen. But, injuries could derail the Trojans.UCLA Bruins (9-5, 1-1) It’s pretty simple with the Bruins this season. Two newcomers will determine whether they make the tournament or not.Freshman center Joshua Smith is six-foot-ten and more than 300 pounds of raw potential and an impact player--provided he stays on the floor. Smith averages 10 points and seven rebounds in just 20 minutes of play.Coach Ben Howland can’t play Smith extended minutes due to him being out of shape and because he’s prone to pick up quick fouls. Other than Reeves Nelson, Smith is the only impact front court player on the Bruins’ roster. When he’s not playing, UCLA is vulnerable on the block.The play of junior college transfer guard Lazeric Jones is important. Jones doesn’t have the talent of recent UCLA guards, but he provides a sense of stability at the position.UCLA’s early resume is terrible to be frank. They beat BYU at the Wooden Classic, but they have also lost at home to Montana, and struggled to beat Pepperdine and UC Irvine.The Bruins look like a team that will be sweating beads on selection Sunday unless Smith, Jones and a player such as Tyler Honeycutt perform consistently.Washington Huskies (10-3, 2-0)Fresh off a clean L.A. sweep of USC and UCLA last weekend, Washington is the favorite to win the conference.The Huskies were the best Pac-10 team last year and made it to the Sweet Sixteen before losing to West Virginia. Coach Lorenzo Romar’s squad could do the same or go even further.Led by junior point guard Isaiah Thomas, the veteran Huskies have the talent to play with many a lot of teams. Washington dropped close games to Kentucky, Michigan State and Texas A&M during non-conference play.Romar rotates 10 players and the Huskies play at a frenetic pace resulting in 88 points per game, third-best in the nation. Washington has the best guards and wings in the Pac-10 collectively, but they’re vulnerable in the post.Washington State Cougars (10-4, 0-2)The Cougars are the Pac-10’s biggest tease. After starting 10-1, they’re on a three-game skid, losing to a middle of the road Butler team and then being swept by USC and UCLA.On the other hand, during Washington State’s hot start, they beat Gonzaga, Mississippi State and Baylor, which will certainly garner it a positive reaction from the NCAA Selection Committee come March.The Cougars are the epitome of a one-man team if there ever was one. Junior Klay Thompson is the best player in the Pac-10 and is a likely lottery pick. Thompson, the son of former Lakers Mychal Thompson, averages 22 points, five rebounds and four assists a game.Thompson will almost solely determine the tournament fate of the Cougars. The Cougars will have to become more balanced in scoring so that Thompson doesn’t have to shoulder the entire burden.
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