Saturday, January 31, 2009

Decision Saturday Looming in Pac-10

Welcome to the most important Saturday of the Pac-10 season.

By the end of today, all 10 teams in the conference will have played, and around 11:30 PM, we're all going to have a much clearer picture of what's going to happen through the rest of the conference season.

It's very rare that every single game on a conference schedule on any given day carries some sort of actual meaning, and as I perused game previews and trends this morning, it's pretty clear to me that Saturday, January 31 is going to be a pivotal one in the Pacific-10.

The day starts in the Old Pueblo 40 minutes from now as Washington State takes on Arizona on CBS at 11. Both of these teams are coming off upset wins on Thursday; WSU obviously taking down the Sun Devils while the UofA hung 106 on frontrunning Washington. With each team under .500 in conference play and hovering in the bottom half of the standings, this will prove to be a bubble buster for each team's fledgling chances of getting into the NCAA Tournament. A loss for each could prove to be disastrous in the long run. 

At 1:30, the Bruins hope for a home court sweep of the Bay Area as Stanford faces UCLA at Pauley Pavilion on ABC. After heartrending losses at home to Arizona State and on the road in Seattle (where the Bruins are as successful as the kid with braces on prom night). UCLA grabbed a convincing win on Thursday over streaking Cal. Combined with Washington and ASU's losses on Thursday, a win here for the Bruins throw them right back in the race for 1st in the Pac-10. As for Stanford, they've lost four of six since their 11-2 start and desperately need a win on the road today to try and right the ship before the season is lost.

Of course, then we have the big one. Washington visits Arizona State in a battle of 1st and 2nd in the conference. We all know what the stakes are for ASU...there's a huge difference at the halfway point between 6-3 and 5-4. A win also puts them at least into a tie with UCLA for 1st in the conference as well. There's also the necessity to get up off the mat after getting flattened and stomped on by Wazzou on Thursday. For Washington, today is another chance for them to prove they actually do belong in the upper echelon of the conference. It's certain that no one expected the Huskies to be this much of a contender at this point in the season and for that matter, still have their doubters. A win over the Sun Devils on the road will go a long way to cementing them as a serious threat.

In the game with the least bearing yet is still interesting for some reason, Oregon goes to Oregon State at 5:30. Oregon is dreadful and a loss today drops them to 0-9 to start Pac-10 play for the first time since 1992-93 (Fun Fact: Antoine Stoudamire, a cousin ofperennial dumbass Damon Stoudamire, started for Oregon in that miserable year). However, they've won four straight in the Civil War series, so they've got that going for them, which is nice. For the Beavers, they've already surprised everyone by actually winning basketball games this year against teams that arent Cal State Bakersfield and have a chance in finishing the first half of their schedule with a respectable 4-5 record. Nice job, Barack's half-brother!

Finally, the nightcap sees two bubble teams duke it out as California plays USC at the Galen Center. USC barely eked out a win over tenacious Stanford on Thursday night and a win would convince me (if no one else) that they're a legit tournament bid contender. They could also certainly use the win for their record as well; the second half of their schedule includes road games at UCLA, Arizona, ASU, Washington and Washington State. California has been a great story so far this year and a win today puts them certainly in the top four of the conference for the rest of the season.

As for me, I'm pulling doubleheader duty today, as I'll be taking in Washington/ASU at Wells Fargo Arena and then gunning Herbie halfway to Los Angeles to catch America's sweetheart Jochen Hecht and the Buffalo Sabres take on the Phoenix Coyotes. If I'm not too tired tonight, I'll have a recap of today's action tonight.

If I'm deleriously tired, you might end up with a Sabres/Coyotes recap. Either way, prepare yourself for both.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Scott Wolf things Vontaze is gone

Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News is one of the most consistent, fair and accurate USC reporters in Los Angeles. If you don't read his blog, you're missing a ton of great information about the Pac-10.

With that said, I just made my daily stop at his blog and he just gave his update on his confidence level on USC's soft verbal commits.

Needless to say, he's not very enthused about Vontaze Burfict's chances to go to USC.

Out of a very creative (yet odd) ranking system, he gave Burfict "one Euro" out of four on his scale...four Euros means that their LOI is pretty much in the mail.

Says a lot about how much the USC community feels about Burfict being a Trojan anymore.

LA Daily News - Inside USC

No Surprises Here: Hall to UA

If this takes you by surprise, keep walking.

Adam Hall, the stud Mr. Everything from Tucson Palo Verde High School, committed to the University of Arizona, where his dad starred in almost 30 years ago.

Hall scored 38 touchdowns last year on offense, defense and special teams as he saw action everywhere; it's unknown now where coach Mike Stoops will utilize him.

Wherever he's utilized, though, he's sure to most likely be a beast.

More info right here, including video, from our buddy Eric Hess at the Arizona Daily Star.

Still waiting on official word from Vontaze Burfict, however, I have a very strong gut feeling that he'll be committing to Arizona State sooner rather than later. Just a hunch. A strong hunch.

The 1st Ever PFN Live Chat

We're rapidly expanding. Check out the podcast later today for an exciting announcement.

To sweeten the deal, I'm announcing a new feature right now.

Since we'll all be suffering from a Super Bowl hangover next week, I figure we're all going to need an outlet since the focus of all of us will be on (of course) ASU.

So next Tuesday at 6:00 PM we'll be hosting the first ever Pitchfork Nation live chat. I'll moderate and take your questions, but for the most part, I'll sit back and let you loyal readers duke it out and have a tremendous discussion on all things ASU.

I hope you'll join up on Tuesday night. See you there!

This Is What Happens.

When you take a step back and really think about the reasons that #14 Arizona State fell and fell hard to Washington State 65-55 at home last night, the reasons it happened become crystal clear.

There's no sugar coating anything that happened last night. It was an ugly game played by two teams in which it seemed like at times neither squad wanted to actually win.

In the end, it was freshman Klay Thompson that defeated the Sun Devils.

Every time ASU has lost or almost lost, I find myself constantly telling other people "This is what happens when..."

Being a top 25 team carries a lot of responsibility in college basketball. It's not like football where, for the most part, the teams within the rankings stay the same yet fluctuate in their order from week to week. In basketball, two bad losses and two wins by another team can bounce you to the receiving votes category.

Consistent top 25 teams in this game have one thing in common: they do all the little things right. Teams that stay in the rankings don't often make the same little mistakes over and over again and expect them to just remedy themselves.

Last night, every single one of those things that have plagued the Sun Devils caught up to them.

This is what happens when...ASU misses from long range. The usually surehanded Rihards Kuksiks is 3 of his last 20 from outside the arc. It's becoming increasingly clear that Ty Abbott can only consistently hit treys against California. The Devils went 4-for-17 from 3-point land in the 2nd half alone, including a five minute stretch where they missed seven consecutive long shots. At the start of that drought, ASU was up 43-41. By the time Jamelle McMillan missed the 7th in a row, the Devils were down by 8. This was the kind of game where, apparently, ASU was going to live and die by the long range shot and, thanks to 18 bricks, they died.

This is what happens when...ASU doesn't hit free throws. We've griped all season about the Devils missing foul shots, and while the seven misses from the charity stripe wouldn't have made an ultimate change on the final score, making a few of those would have certainly made a difference between it being a nine point deficit late and being, maybe, a 3 or 4 point gap. That changes the entire late game strategy of defense and intentional fouling.

This is what happens when...the matchup zone fails. We all know that the ultimate strength of running any zone defense is to take away a team's offensive inside threat and forces them to take a lot of low percentage shots from outside. Well, what are you going to do when Klay Thompson is 7-for-7 from three point range midway through the 2nd half? Maybe...I don't know...put a MAN on him? After the game, WSU head coach Tony Bennett told the media that there was no reason to expect ASU to change their strategy because he knew Herb Sendek wouldn't deviate from the zone.

As clean and pretty as watching Thompson's stroke was, with every shot he nailed, my frustration grew. He seemed to find himself wide open for at least 5 to 10 seconds on every possession with nary a defensive soul near him. His first miss was a long, uncontested airball. His other miss was an uncontested baseline shot that rimmed out. Every single one of Thompson's threes was uncontested. On a singular possession with about 12:30 left in the 2nd half, it seemed to me that ASU was trying to switch into a man-to-man look to try and contain the hot shooter. When Jamelle McMillan and Jeff Pendergraph tried to execute a switch, they ran into each other and kind of looked at each other for long enough for me to comment, "Are they just going to keep staring?" Luckily, Aron Baynes missed a jumper on that possession.

There has to be something done about this inability to adapt the defensive strategy when an opponent shoots as well as Washington State did last night. The Devils have now been burned more than once by this and it makes for a short run in March if they can't find a way to defend a hot shooter from outside the arc.

This is what happens when...mental mistakes rear their head. I already discussed the defensive lapse that allowed McMillan and Pendergraph to collide. The one other mental mistake that really bothered me occured late in the game while ASU was fouling. With the game still somewhat in reach for the Devils and Aron Baynes, a 77% free throw shooter, at the line, the Sun Devils took a sloppy, lazy lane violation after Baynes missed the front end of a one-and-one. Baynes then sank the next two. That's inexcusable. In situations like that, that can't happen. It doesn't need much more explanation.

Despite all of this, they have to put it behind them, because there's an angry Washington team who just had 100+ points smacked on them by Arizona heading up I-10 and desperate for a win of their own.

A win pulls ASU even at the top of the Pac-10 standings.

A loss puts them two critical games back.

Most important game of the season on Saturday? You bet.

Shameless plug: Look out this afternoon for a new Pitchfork Podcast.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A March Bidding War

If you haven't noticed yet, it's January 29.

Long past the date when America should put on their bracketeer hats.

There are three times in every calendar year where pundits obsess over how many teams from each conference will get into the NCAA Tournament. These are during the release of preseason polls, near the midseason of conference seasons and the morning of Selection Sunday, when more or less the field is set save the official champions of the ACC and the Big XII.

And having the strange, wandering mind I have, while watching Mike Tomlin and Ken Whisenhunt have their press conferences this morning three days removed from Super Bowl XLIII, all I could do was read and reread standings and RPI rankings this morning and try and figure out conference bid totals.

Obviously here at PFN, we've got a very small, almost unnoticable bias toward the Pac-10.

(About as unnoticable as a kick to the crotch.)

But in the interest of full disclosure and honesty, anyone who has watched any Pac-10 basketball this season can easily tell that the strength of the conference is way down compared to previous seasons. We've seen every team in this conference look great and awful at least once this season...except for Oregon...we've seen nothing but concentrated garbage coming from Mac Court this season. On that note, I don't think anyone actually expected Washington to be King of the Hill at this point, nor did anyone really expect Arizona to be 2-5. And then there's Oregon State, which made the Bay Area schools look as easy as Sunday morning a few weeks back.

Let's be realistic here though. Oregon State is not going to make the Tourney. Neither is Arizona. Washington State needs to kick their offense into gear while Stanford has cooled off dramatically after their surprising start.

So that leaves five teams that are going to probably go through the rest of this conference season that will be competing for spots in March Madness: Washington, ASU, California, UCLA and USC.

With that, you have to take a look at the other power conferences (and some of my favorite Mid-Majors) to see how many "locks" they'll have and other teams that will try to muscle their way in. That will definitely have a major impact on how many teams the weakened Pac will send to the dance. Let's go conference by conference:

ACC: Duke, Wake Forest, North Carolina and Clemson are locks right now. You've got upset-minded Virginia Tech, Boston College, always-a-bridesmaid Florida State and Miami still hanging around as well. Let's be realistic and say that the Hokies and Hurricanes muscle their way in, giving them 6 bids.

Big East: There's a reason I call this behemoth the lumbering giant. Marquette, Louisville, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Providence and Syracuse look pretty nice right now with their resume and RPI rankings. On the bubble and teetering toward being in are Georgetown, Notre Dame and Villanova. On the bubble precariously are West Virginia and Cincinnati. I have a nagging feeling this conference will get 9 bids.

Big XII: Oklahoma is awesome. Kansas, Texas and Baylor are all but in. Texas A&M, Missouri and Oklahoma State need some big wins down the stretch to beef up their resumes. Beyond any other conference, the Big XII has the clearest distinction between the top and bottom, making it easier to distinguish who is for real and who isn't. It's realistic to say that this conference will get 5 bids.

Big Ten: Like the Pac-10, I haven't seen one team emerge as this conference's dominant leader. Michigan State looks great one night and loses to Northwestern the next. Purdue hasn't been wowing the nation like we expected. And Penn State...PENN over .500 after eight conference game, something I'm pretty sure hasn't happened since America kept cool with Coolidge. MSU, Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota look nice right now and I can't make a case for anyone else right now, leaving the Elite 11 with 4 bids.

Other conferences: The WCC could send three (Gonzaga, Saint Mary's and San Diego), St. Joseph's, Xavier and Dayton are strong out of the A-14, Northeastern, Virginia Commonwealth and George Mason are all legit out of the Colonial, the Missouri Valley could find themselves with three or four again and the Mountain West and WAC each could send two.

Which leads us to the conference that will help the Pac-10's case the most...

SEC: Clearly the weakest out of any power conference up to this minute. Just a year or so removed from Florida taking home back-to-back national titles, can you believe the SEC has ONE team in either of the polls (Kentucky #24 AP) and the only other team even receiving votes is the Gators? Florida and Kentucky might be the only two locks right now out, with South Carolina, Tennessee, LSU and Mississippi State making less than convincing statements. Unless another one or two of those teams make a strong statement in February, the SEC might only end up with 3 bids.

Which leads us to the Pac-10. Lucky for our conference, it seems to me that the top four right now in the standings: Washington, ASU, California and UCLA, have made strong enough statements to be with USC being the only strong looking bubble team at this point.

Further strengthening the case of the Pac-10 against the SEC is the general RPI strength of the conference and their individual teams. The Pac and SEC are 5 and 6 respectively in conference strength but are separated by a wider margin than any of the other top five. Also, a sampling of the top six teams in each conference shows a glaring disparity between them:

ASU: 21
Washington: 28
California: 35
UCLA: 40
USC: 54
Stanford: 64

Tennessee: 19
Florida: 29
Kentucky: 50
South Carolina: 62
Mississippi State: 76
LSU: 80

At the top, there's clearly a similarity between Tennessee/Florida and Washington/ASU, but beyond that, the Pac-10 has an obvious edge.

Of course, this all could change week...late February...but all that matters is what our situation is on Selection Sunday, and it's in the Pac-10's best interest to just keep winning.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Relaunch

As Ricky Ricardo might say to his blushing bride..."You've got some 'splaining to do."

And I guess I do too.

It's been an upward struggle to have any time in my personal life lately. Between the incredible pickup at my actual job (and I hope you've all been still listening to The Fan), some distinct changes in my personal life and some other extraneous circumstances, my beloved Pitchfork Nation has had to take a backseat for the past few weeks.

I once thought that I'd only take a hiatus from writing at PFN when the Arizona Cardinals went to the Super Bowl. That always seemed about as likely as falling into an alternate universe populated by the guys from the Take On Me video.


As I sat next to Tiki Barber and Tony Bruno at the NFC Championship Game and saw, yes, the Arizona Cardinals win the conference title and make a date for this Sunday's Super Bowl, I somehow came to a moment of clarity: the only thing that kept me sane about this entire world of covering pro sports was the fun I had in sharing the rampant thoughts of an insomniac about the Arizona State Sun Devils.

And with that, I'm back. And I promise to never ever ever ever leave you again.

The roundtable will be back. The podcast will be back. We'll have our thoughts on recruiting, next week's National Signing Day and of course everything going on with James Harden, Jeff Pendergraph and the Devils as they march toward...well...March. 

In the mean time...some random meandering thoughts to kick us back off...

-Jamelle Horne is absolutely my favorite basketball player in the whole wide world. If there's a player out there as dumb/entertaining as him, point him way was so I may fart in his general direction.

-I never had an actual inkling that stud Desert Vista recruit Devon Kennard would actually pick Arizona State over USC...not after last season. And while I wish him success on a personal level, I still hope he likes sitting on the bench with 9 others at his position that could be starting and starring at other major programs. Maybe he and Everson Griffin can sit in the dorms at SC talking about how much they don't miss Arizona, possibly even culminating with the creation of a Friends Forever collage!

-If you weren't jumping around your living room as James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph combined to pound UCLA into the ground in the 2nd half, don't ever call yourself a Sun Devils fan ever again. That was a defensive performance unlike any I've ever seen in watching college basketball and ranks easily within the top 5 moments in ASU basketball history.

-I might be absolutely convinced that the ASU women will never lose to Arizona ever again. This year's game at WFA was more of a 40 minute punch line than an actual basketball game.

-Oh, and for the record, I never get a response from Louisiana-Monroe about their schedule change that no one in Tempe actually wanted to confirm. I'm over it. However, it's certainly going to be a CAN'T MISS first two games of the season with Idaho State and the Warhawks coming into Sun Devil Stadium.

I can't wait, and I'm about as serious as a game of schpoople.

Did you expect anything else from me?

Welcome back, friends.