SI Vault
 
Wild, Wild West
GRANT WAHL
January 22, 2007
With an infusion of homegrown talent and a new emphasis on smothering defense, the Pac-10 has become the nation's top conference
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
January 22, 2007

Wild, Wild West

With an infusion of homegrown talent and a new emphasis on smothering defense, the Pac-10 has become the nation's top conference

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2

Look around: The Pac-10 has dangerous teams coming out the wazoo, none more surprising than Wazzu (sidebar), which last week came within a 71--68 overtime loss to Stanford on Saturday from sweeping Cal and the Cardinal on the road. Washington State, which earned its first national ranking since 1983 after takedowns of Arizona and Gonzaga, hasn't been to the NCAA tournament in 13 years--but that drought looks likely to end.

What's going on? For starters, the Pac--10 has become a magnet for respected, proven coaches who've changed the metabolism of the conference--on the court and on the recruiting trail. "When I first came into the league, they filled coaching positions with assistants from successful programs," Olson says. "The difference now is that we're getting the head coaches from those programs." Seven new Pac-10 coaches have signed on in the past five years, including five who had already been Division I head coaches: Howland (at Pittsburgh), Sendek (at N.C. State), Washington's Lorenzo Romar (at Saint Louis), USC's Tim Floyd (at Iowa State) and Stanford's Trent Johnson (at Nevada).

Their impact has been immediate and profound, not the least because they've instilled a new commitment to defense and grit that belies the Pac-10's historically soft reputation. "Years ago you probably saw more high-scoring games, but now teams are improving defensively," says Braun, who's in his 11th season in Berkeley. No coach has been more responsible for that change than Howland, who laughs at the misbegotten notion that he brought "East Coast toughness" from Pittsburgh to Westwood. "I'm from Santa Barbara," says the UCLA coach, who once dreamed of following in John Wooden's footsteps with the Bruins and who has rebuilt the program on the twin bedrocks of rebounding and defense.

At the same time, the Pac-10 has hardly lost the league's hallmark fun-and-gun offensive fireworks. Long one of the game's top innovators, Olson has unleashed an attack that has more wings than a Chernobyl butterfly: Arizona's top three swingmen (sophomore Marcus Williams, freshman Chase Budinger and junior Jawann McClellan) could all become first-round NBA draft picks. "When I first came from the Big Ten four years ago, I was surprised because the individual talent in the Pac-10--especially the athletic wings--was on another level," says Washington State's Tony Bennett, who was an assistant to his father, Dick, at Wisconsin. "But it's also become more of a defensive league, not the loosey-goosey Pac-10 I'd always heard about. Now you've got seven half-court defensive teams."

What's more, nearly every outpost in the conference is blessed with a blend of new and experienced talent. The league lost only two early entries to the NBA after last season ( UCLA guard Jordan Farmar and Cal forward Leon Powe), while a host of fence-sitters ( UCLA's Afflalo, Oregon guard Malik Hairston and Arizona's Williams and Shakur) decided to stay in school. They've welcomed a breathtaking array of freshmen, who comprise four of the league's top 20 scorers, five of its top 20 rebounders and the top three shot blockers. "There's no way any other conference has as good a group of freshmen as there is in this league," says Howland, and it's hard to argue with him when the list includes Budinger, USC forward Taj Gibson, Washington center Spencer Hawes and forward Quincy Pondexter, Cal forward Ryan Anderson, Stanford center Robin L�pez and Oregon guard Tajuan Porter.

The primary source of those gems is no mystery. The West Coast is home to some of the nation's top hoops hotbeds-- L.A., Seattle, the Bay Area, Portland, even Fresno--and these days a lot of that talent is staying in the Pacific time zone. The key to Romar's fifth-year rebuilding project at Washington has been holding on to Seattle-area stars. "When we came in, we knew the ninth-, 10th- and 11th-grade classes here were loaded," Romar says. "So if we could do a decent job keeping some of them at home, we'd have a good foundation." The results have been better than decent: After losing local standout Marvin Williams to North Carolina three years ago, Romar has since landed Seattleites Brandon Roy, Jon Brockman and Hawes, a 7-footer who spurned the Tar Heels for the Huskies.

Next season the Pac-10 might welcome its best freshman class yet, headlined by Arizona-bound guard Jerryd Bayless; forward Kevin Love, who's headed for UCLA; and USC's Mayo, a guard. Yet even without the latter pair, the Bruins-Trojans thriller on Saturday ratified the Pac-10's distinction as the top league in the land--at least until March.

"The bottom line is, our conference will be judged by how we do in the NCAA tournament," says Howland. "How many teams do we get in and how far do they go?"

Maybe so, but that means something else, too, something a little bit scary: Perhaps the Pac-10 hoops revival has only just begun.

1 2