February 26, 2009

Pac-10 has fully embraced defensive style

The Pac-10 once provided a haven for fans who preferred the type of fast-paced action they rarely would see in the other major conferences.

Not anymore. Perhaps no league has altered its image as much over the past five years.

"There's no question this league has gone from an up-and-down league to a league that's known more for playing defense," UCLA coach Ben Howland said.

When Arizona State (21-5, 10-4 Pac-10) plays at Washington (20-7, 11-4) tonight in a game to determine the conference leader, the Pac-10's past and its present will be on display.

Washington still runs up and down the floor as much as possible, a strategy that has helped the Huskies surge to the top of the Pac-10 standings while leading the league in scoring. Arizona State has put together two consecutive 20-win seasons under coach Herb Sendek, who employs the deliberate style favored by many of the Pac-10's newer coaches.

The trend started five years ago when Washington State hired Dick Bennett, who retired after three seasons and was succeeded by his son, Tony Bennett. The Cougars have topped the Pac-10 in scoring defense every season since the Bennetts took over and lead the nation in that category this season.

Arizona State made a similar move two years ago by landing Sendek, a former North Carolina State coach who has the Sun Devils ranked 11th in the nation in scoring defense. This season, new coach Craig Robinson has brought the Princeton-style offense to Oregon State.

All these coaches favor slower tempos, though they don't entirely agree with that premise.

"Our goal in our offense is to get quality shots," Bennett said. "Certain guys have a green light, if they can get their shot and are open, to shoot it. We don't purposely try to run the shot clock down. We work to get good, open shots. Certain times you have to be patient and grind somebody out, but to us, it's about quality shots."

Slowing it down out west
The Pac-10 has shed its reputation as a run-and-gun conference by slowing the tempo considerably over the past few years. The Pac-10 ranks fifth of the six major conferences ahead of only the Big Ten in the average point total of each conference game. These statistics don't take into account non-conference games. Statistics are through Tuesday.
LeagueAverage points
Big East148.8
ACC148.2
SEC144.5
Big 12141.0
Pac-10134.1
Big Ten125.3
But at least one player has noticed the difference. Washington senior point guard Justin Dentmon said the league's style has changed since he arrived, and he offers at least one reason for the shift in philosophy.

"Players can get fatigued, and a lot of coaches want to keep their starting five in as long as possible before making substitutions," Dentmon said. "We've got a deep bench, so it doesn't affect us as much, but other teams want to keep their top five or top six in there."

The results are evident in the statistics through Tuesday's action.

Oregon topped the conference in scoring last season at 76.6 points per game, the lowest average for a Pac-10 scoring leader since 1985-86. This season, Washington leads the Pac-10 with 79.4 points per game, the lowest average for a leader from any of the other "Big Six" conferences aside from the Big Ten. UCLA ranks fifth in the Pac-10 in scoring defense and has allowed 63.3 points per game, a figure that would lead the ACC or SEC.

The average Pac-10 game has produced a total of 134.1 points, the lowest figure for any of the Big Six conferences other than the Big Ten.

A deeper look into the numbers provides more evidence of the Pac-10's changing nature. On his Web site devoted to various college basketball statistics, Ken Pomeroy has a category called "tempo/pace" that measures each team's possessions per 40 minutes. Five years ago, Arizona ranked fourth, Washington seventh and USC 18th in the nation in this category. This season, Washington (No. 25) is the lone Pac-10 team higher than 90th. Iowa of the Big Ten and Denver of the Sun Belt are the only teams in the nation with fewer possessions per 40 minutes than Oregon State and Washington State.

"A lot more teams are playing deliberately and controlling the clock and walking the ball up and down the floor," said Oregon coach Ernie Kent, whose team ranks second in the league in possessions per 40 minutes. "Maybe they're running on steals or some misses. Definitely on makes, they're walking up and down the floor. That's a big reason why the scores are down. Teams are winning more by keeping the games close, keeping the score down and keeping the possessions down."

The changing nature of the conference has produced mixed results for the teams that still like to play at a faster pace. Oregon has won just one conference game all year in a season that has put Kent's job in jeopardy, but Washington appears on the verge of reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006.

Dentmon said playing a different style than most of their conference rivals has allowed the Huskies to get those teams out of their comfort zone. "I think it's an advantage," he said.

Most of the other Pac-10 teams believe playing at a slower tempo will work to their advantage, particularly in March. They can take inspiration in the way Howland has reshaped UCLA's program.

UCLA averaged at least 75 points per game in each of the 18 seasons leading up to Howland's arrival in 2003 but hasn't reached that mark since. Yet the Bruins have made three consecutive Final Four appearances. Howland said he believes the slower tempos and improved defenses also can benefit his Pac-10 foes.

"At the end of the day, in the long run, it's going to help this conference perform, especially when it gets to the NCAA tournament," Howland said.


ACC tickets available

This obviously wasn't the best year to hold the ACC tournament in a domed football stadium away from the league's Tobacco Road base, but that less-than-ideal situation has created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for fans.

For the first time since 1966, the ACC is selling tournament tickets to the general public. Fans can buy an 11-game book of tickets for $363 through Ticketmaster starting Monday. The tournament runs March 12-15 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

ACC commissioner John Swofford cited the economic downturn and the Georgia Dome's large capacity (about 36,000 for this event) as reasons for the public sale. Tickets normally sell out well in advance through the conference's 12 member schools.

Swofford did note that the ACC already has sold enough tickets to exceed the capacity at any of the other venues where the tournament traditionally is held.

The last time the ACC held its tournament in the Georgia Dome, the league didn't have nearly as much trouble filling the place. The 2001 event in Atlanta set NCAA conference tournament records for total attendance (182,525), attendance per session (36,505) and single-session attendance (40,083).


Uncharacteristic carelessness

Pittsburgh center DeJuan Blair fouled out of Providence's 81-73 victory over the Panthers on Tuesday and has been in foul trouble in each of his team's three losses. He also fouled out of a 69-63 loss to Louisville and was called for four fouls in a 67-57 setback at Villanova.

But that hasn't necessarily been the deciding factor in Pittsburgh's losses. Blair has averaged 24.3 minutes per game only two minutes below his average in Pittsburgh's losses. The Blair situation has overshadowed another area that could have a greater impact on Pitt's success: When the Panthers take care of the ball, they always win.

Pitt ranks second in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, yet the Panthers have averaged 18.3 turnovers and only 13.7 assists in their three losses. Pitt is 3-3 when it has more turnovers than assists and owns a 22-0 mark in all other games.


Bluejays flying high

Conventional wisdom has suggested the Missouri Valley Conference will be a one-bid league for the second consecutive season, but Creighton's recent surge may have changed that thinking.

A victory at home against Illinois State on Saturday would allow Creighton (24-6) to end the regular season on a 10-game winning streak. That could help the Bluejays earn an NCAA bid even if they don't win the conference tournament.

Creighton dropped four of its first nine conference games, but the Bluejays haven't lost since and have climbed to 45th in the RPI.

The Bluejays have capitalized on the hot shooting of senior guard Booker Woodfox, who has shot 51.3 percent from 3-point range this season and has made 56 percent (25-of-45) of his attempts from beyond the arc during this winning streak.

Creighton also has benefited from the recent slide of Northern Iowa, which led the MVC for most of the season before losing four of its past six games, including a non-conference setback at Siena. Creighton and Northern Iowa are tied for the conference lead with 13-4 league records.


Team of the week

Kansas: Sure, the Jayhawks benefited from Blake Griffin's absence Monday in their victory over Oklahoma, but that shouldn't take away from the extraordinary job Kansas has done to take over first place in the Big 12 standings while returning only one starter (Sherron Collins) from last season's national championship team. Freshman guard Tyshawn Taylor scored a career-high 26 points Monday in the 87-78 victory over Oklahoma. Collins has averaged 22.3 points and 4.8 assists during the Jayhawks' four-game winning streak, while center Cole Aldrich ranks among the nation's most improved players. If Kansas goes on to win the Big 12 title, Bill Self should be the front-runner for national coach of the year honors.


Team in trouble

Georgetown: The Hoyas just blew their last regular-season opportunity to prove they belong in the NCAA tournament. Georgetown could have made a statement with back-to-back home victories over top-10 teams. The Hoyas instead fell 78-72 to Marquette and weren't even competitive in a 76-58 loss to Louisville. Even if Georgetown sweeps Villanova, St. John's and DePaul in its final three games, the Hoyas still would finish 8-10 in conference play. Those early season wins over Memphis and Connecticut can't outweigh the Hoyas' struggles since 2008 turned into 2009. It's hard to imagine this team earning an NCAA bid unless it makes a miraculous run in the Big East tournament.


Tip-ins

Arkansas plans to honor its 1994 national championship team this weekend in a sign that former coach Nolan Richardson has made peace with the school since his bitter departure seven years ago. Richardson reportedly spoke to the current Arkansas players before they knocked off Alabama 89-80 on Jan. 29 for their only SEC win of the season.

We already have endorsed Kansas' Self for national coach of the year, but LSU's Trent Johnson also deserves praise for the remarkable turnaround he has orchestrated in his debut season. After going 13-18 last season, the Tigers clinched at least a share of the SEC regular-season title Tuesday with an 81-75 victory over Florida. While skeptics can downplay LSU's accomplishment because the SEC is struggling, it's tough to find much fault in a 24-4 record.

Oklahoma has lost two in a row and received even more bad news Tuesday when Blake Griffin's dad indicated the player was "nowhere near ready" to return to action after sustaining a concussion Saturday at Texas. But this trying week could help the Sooners in the long run as long as Griffin returns in time for the NCAA tournament. Oklahoma lost to Texas and Kansas without Griffin, but the Sooners proved they weren't a one-man team in the process as they remained competitive against two tough Big 12 rivals. Freshman guard Willie Warren has looked particularly impressive while averaging 25 points in the past two games. Warren's maturation could help him and Griffin form a postseason dynamic duo that could rival any tandem in the nation.

While Oklahoma ought to bounce back from its recent slide, USC has legitimate reason to worry. The Trojans (16-10, 7-7 Pac-10) looked like a shoo-in to make the tournament a few weeks ago, but they head into a Bay Area trip with four losses in their past five games. If that isn't troubling enough, USC guards Daniel Hackett and Dwight Lewis reportedly were involved in a confrontation Saturday after a 60-51 loss to Washington. Both players say they have moved on, and they denied reports that their argument ever got physical.

Steven Moore isn't a familiar name to even the most dedicated fans, but his departure from Arkansas-Little Rock could have a major impact on which team the Sun Belt sends to the NCAA tournament. UALR (20-7) leads the Sun Belt West Division and is tied for the overall conference lead with a 13-3 league record, but the Trojans could have a tough time winning the conference tournament without Moore, a 6-foot guard. He was averaging a team-high 13.6 points before being dismissed from the team Monday. Moore's problems stemmed from a Feb. 19 incident in which he briefly sat in the stands after getting benched during a 78-69 loss to Western Kentucky.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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