Whoever is writing the Pac-10 story this year definitely saved the best for last. For the top five teams in the Pac-10, the final weekend could bring the pinnacle of the regular season or a harsh dose of reality. With victories at Arizona State and Arizona, Washington (22-5, 11-5) could claim its first share of the conference championship since 1985. UCLA (22-6, 12-4), the current leader, could claim its first championship in nine years with a sweep through the Bay Area starting with California (17-8, 11-5) Thursday. For Arizona and Stanford, a loss would deal their NCAA Tournament hopes a heavy or fatal blow, respectively.
With five schools vying for first and second place and all ten schools headed to next week's Pac-10 Tournament, there are enough tie-breaking scenarios to crash the main servers on the Microsoft campus. Yet with six consecutive victories, the fourteenth-ranked Huskies have played themselves into a controlling position. The hottest team in the Pac-10, Washington can ensure no worse than a 2-seed in the Pac-10 Tourney with a triumphant tour of the desert.
If only that were as easy as climbing aboard an air-conditioned bus through the Grand Canyon State. The Sun Devils have proven themselves to be a mercurial, yet dangerous adversary. Arizona State (10-15, 4-12) burned the Golden Bears with a double-overtime victory in Berkeley on Feb. 18. The Sun Devils were then humbled by Arizona last Saturday, 68-47, as they were held to 13 points in the first half.
"We've had too much experience in the past to overlook them," coach Lorenzo Romar said of the physical, emotional series with ASU. "They are as scrappy as any team in this league. And when you watch them play, you would think that they've got a chance to win the Pac-10 championship every game that they go out on the floor because of how hard they play. Whenever we've played Arizona State, there's either been a potential fight about to break out or there's been some flagrant foul somewhere."
The prominent roles played by a handful of freshmen are a major subplot to the battles in Arizona. The Sun Devils' center Jeff Pendergraph has emerged as a Pac-10 freshman of the year candidate after missing the first month following surgery to remove a patellar (kneecap) tumor. After a relatively quiet start—he had six points and six rebounds in their 91-67 loss to the Huskies in the Pac-10 opener—the 6-foot-10 Pendergraph has scored in double figures each of the last six games, including three double-doubles. Amongst the freshmen leaders, Pendergraph's averages (10.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg) trail only Arizona's Marcus Williams (12 ppg) in scoring, and UCLA's Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (8.5 rpg) and Jon Brockman (7.0 rpg) in rebounding.
Washington's candidates for the Pac-10 All-Freshman team have filled critical roles for the second-place squad. Brockman leads the team in rebounds and leads the conference in FG percentage (.527), with a workmanlike 8.9 points per game. Justin Dentmon leads the conference freshmen in assists (3.8) and free throw percentage (.830). With his first assist in Tempe, the point guard will break the UW freshman assist record (103) set by Eldridge Recasner in 1987.
"Jon Brockman has given us an identity," said Romar. "He has given us a physical presence. I hear all the time, different people throughout this league say, 'You guys are as physical as any team in this league.' We hadn't heard THAT before. We had heard that we we're scrappy.
"Justin Dentmon has been able to come in and replace Will Conroy and Nate Robinson. Brandon Roy has certainly helped quite a bit, but Justin, for a freshman, has helped us in an area that was really lacking before the season started. That was a big void."
Arizona State's efforts will be led by one of the most underrated players in the Pac-10, Kevin Kruger, who leads the Sun Devils in scoring (14.2). An ironman at shooting guard, Kruger is ranked in six of the conference statistical categories, a distant second behind Roy's ranking amongst the league leaders in nine categories. Roy became only the second player in Pac-10 history to be named the Pac-10 Player of the Week three consecutive times, tying ASU's Eddie House (1999-2000) for the longest streak in conference history.
"We're going to be in for a dogfight (at ASU), and especially on Saturday at Arizona with their Senior Night," said Husky co-captain Bobby Jones. "I'm pretty sure they're going to be feeling the way we felt on our Senior Night. We know that they're going to come out focused and wanting to win on the last game at home, too. It's probably going to be one of the toughest weeks of the season."
With an impressive first half versus ASU last weekend, Arizona looked, well, better than Barry Bonds in drag. The Wildcats (17-10, 10-6) used a season-high 16 steals as the catapult for 18-0 run that gave Arizona a 36-13 halftime lead. The 'Cats quick perimeter has pounced on opponents for a league-leading turnover margin (+6.1), but even 6-foot-10 forward Ivan Radenovic got in on the thieving with six steals against the Sun Devils.
Despite the desert swarm forcing 26 turnovers, the Wildcats shot only 40-percent for the game, hinting at their Achilles' heel. An inconsistent team throughout the season, Arizona has raised its FG percentage to fifth in the conference (.444), but still has the worst 3-point FG percentage (.307) in the Pac-10—not to mention the worst 3-point FG defense (.448). The 'Cats double-overtime victory in Seattle featured season-highs from guards Hassan Adams (32 points) and Mustafa Shakur (23 points), as Adams, who's shooting .279 behind the arc for the season, hit 5 of 7 attempts from tripletown.
While freshman Marcus Williams, an alumnus of Seattle's Roosevelt High, quickly emerged as their second-leading scorer, Radenovic has been a potent force in the last five games, averaging 18.4 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 3.2 assists while shooting 62-percent from the field. The junior's recent assertiveness has helped the Wildcats to four wins in their last five games, for a share of fourth place, one game behind Washington and Cal. The Huskies' post defense, meanwhile, was a big part of settling the score with the Bay Area schools as they held Matt Haryasz and Leon Powe well below their season averages. The Dawgs have also had some success with their "green" package, using the halfcourt trap or doubling the ball up top to add a get-up-and-go element to the defense.
"As the year goes on and you get into the Pac-10 and NCAA Tournament, defenses get tougher so it gets a lot harder to score points," said sophomore Ryan Appleby. "I feel that if we can turn other teams over, it will help us get some easy buckets. Getting points off of their turnovers will probably be a big stat for us. If we can keep getting points in the paint, that will be a big stat for us too. Getting that production inside from more guys than just Jamaal Williams, who you know you're going to get that from most nights. I think those two things will be a big key for us."
The defense of Chris Rodgers, the senior who was suspended from the Wildcat squad in midseason, will also be a factor. The erratic Rodgers is Arizona's best on-ball defender and will likely see some minutes against Roy in an attempt to prevent the UW catalyst from repeating his 35-point performance from the first meeting. Foul trouble plagued the Dawgs in the extended game as Roy, Jones, Brockman and Dentmon all fouled out.
Jones recalled how the loss at Stanford in the final game cost the Huskies a share of the regular season championship last year. Stanford will host UCLA on Saturday, as those results and the 'Cats and Dawgs dustup will have major ramifications for the seeds in the Pac-10 and NCAA Tournaments.
"If we can get two wins, it would do so much for our confidence," said Jones. "We're already feeling pretty confident, but if we can go to the Pac-10 Tournament winning eight straight, that would be a great feeling to have."