Pac-10 MEN'S BASKETBALL PREVIEW
Daniel Hackett, a freshman at USC, could still be in high school but rushed to conclude his final graduation requirements to join the Trojans a year early.
He nonetheless looks right at home in the Pac-10.
`He's mature beyond his years,' USC coach Tim Floyd said. `He acts older than a lot of our guys who have been in college for two or three years.'
Welcome to the Pac-10, where youth isn't being served so much as doing the scoring, pulling down the rebounds and handing out the assists. From Tucson to Seattle, as the league season sets to tip off Thursday, the year of the freshmen is already well under way.
`This group of freshmen will have as big an impact on games in our conference as any group of freshmen in some time,' said Lute Olson, in his 24th season coaching at Arizona.
There's always a freshman or two of note. This is a team or two of freshmen worth noting.
Five of the league's top 10 scorers are freshmen, as are two of the top four rebounders. Two other freshmen not among the top scorers or rebounders are 1-2 in the league in blocked shots. A freshman is first and another second in three-point shots made.
Big, like the 7-foot Lopez twins at Stanford, or not, like 5-foot-6 Tajuan Porter at Oregon, the future is now for this group. It matters not whether the team is a contender, like Arizona with Chase Budinger, or destined for the second division, like Oregon State and Arizona State, freshmen are in the starting lineup.
`A lot of teams are depending on these freshmen to make an immediate impact,' Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said, `and they have been doing just that.'
Beyond talent, they are playing with the savvy and poise of seniors. Three teams have employed freshmen as their starting point guards, and a couple of others regularly entrust that difficult assignment to freshman backups. One freshman has the league's top free-throw percentage, and young Mr. Hackett, a semester of college out of the way before his classmates in high school have had Christmas break, is third in that category.
`It tells you the strength of our conference will be really good for years to come, as long as we keep them here,' UO coach Ernie Kent said.
If that threat of the young being restless enough to leave early for the NBA is there, the fact some of these players are here for the Pac-10 season is also due to the NBA. Without the rule that keeps players from being eligible for the NBA Draft until a year after their high school class has graduated, would 7-foot Spencer Hawes be at Washington?
Would all of these freshmen be at Pac-10 schools? Or would teams from around the country have raided the West Coast, instead of finding talent closer to home that wasn't headed from the senior prom to the NBA Draft. This freshman phenomenon certainly isn't limited to the Pac-10.
`We're seeing more talent in the college game than we've seen in 10 years,' Floyd said. `It's good for the college game, it's creating more interest.'
More uncertainty, too, as everybody waits to see how these teenagers handle the rigors of a full college season.
UCLA, unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the nation, is the Pac-10 favorite maybe because it won't have a freshman starter, and can be assessed more surely. There is, in fact, some thought the Bruins might be a better team this season than the one that claimed the Pac-10 regular season and tournament titles last March, and then reached the NCAA championship game.
Better? That's saying something, considering the Bruins lost Jordan Farmar to the NBA Draft. Except, Darren Collison has played so well in place of Farmar, who really misses last year's point guard?
Ben Howland, for one.
`We'd be better if we still had Jordan,' the UCLA coach said, pointing out that Farmar and Collison could have been on the court together. `There's no question that if Jordan was still at UCLA, we would be better.'
Still, the Bruins are good enough that their talented freshmen hardly play. Not so, almost everywhere else in the conference.
At Arizona, Olson is counting on Budinger to be his next Sean Elliott, and he isn't one prone to hyperbole.
`The biggest thing I said to Chase is don't wait around and feel like the upperclassmen don't want you to do everything you can do,' Olson said, adding that his message concluded with `I don't want you to hold back to make sure you're not stepping on an upperclassmen's toes.'
Ditto that at Washington, where the Huskies will bid for a fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament with as many as three freshmen starters. Oregon's leading scorer and USC's top rebounder are in that freshmen class, as are the top scorer at California and ASU. Stanford will be working around its tall and talented twins.
Other than UCLA, the only team not starting a freshman is Washington State, which maybe is one reason the league fears the seasoned Cougars are a threat for the first division, rather than the last-place finish forecast by the media back in October, before WSU opened 11-1.
Maybe it's time to revise that. Then again, who knows?
`It's going to be a wild ride,' Romar predicted of the Pac-10 season. `Good luck to those who feel like they can predict it.'
What the league has established is a solid record in nonleague games. The 10 teams were 91-22 entering the Christmas break, and 14 of those defeats were recorded by three teams, ASU, California and OSU. At the other end were two unbeaten teams, and three others with but one defeat.
Four teams are ranked in Top 25 polls, the first time the league has had that many so highly thought of in five seasons. Even the computers seem to like the Pac-10, putting it fourth nationally among leagues.
`Our teams are very good,' Howland said. `It's nice we're finally getting some national recognition.'
Or avoiding the ridicule of last season, when Pac-10 teams suffered nonleague defeats to the likes of UC Davis, Oral Roberts, Portland State and Tennessee Tech.
Whoops, there is a loss to Portland State again this year, but otherwise, the Pac-10 cleaned up on nonleague opponents. On the other hand, have teams been tested?
Stanford won't leave the state of California until its league opener, and UCLA will play its first true road game Jan. 4 at Oregon State. Washington left Seattle but once, for a game in Spokane. USC played but once on the court of an opponent.
Arizona was the notable exception there, with its usual rigorous nonleague schedule.
`We feel the best way to make progress is to play the best teams possible even if you take some lumps here and there,' Olson said. `I've always said you learn more losing a close game than winning a game by 30 or 40 points.
`It's just a difference in a coach's philosophy, I guess.'
The influx of freshmen isn't all that's different in the Pac-10 this season.
There are new coaches at Washington State, where Tony Bennett replaces his father, Dick, and at Arizona State, where Herb Sendek becomes the latest coach brought from a faraway program to attempt to solve the puzzle of equaling that success in Tempe.
There is also a new arena, the Galen Center, which finally puts a quality facility on the USC campus. All that's been lacking are fans in the seats, with the Trojans averaging 3,667 for their first nine games in their new home.
`We're going to have to earn (better attendance) by bringing in quality (opponents) and playing better than we've played,' Floyd said. `We have to put a product on the court that reflects the building.'
A couple of freshmen have helped in that regard, and more are on the way. Not just next year for the Trojans, but every time a Pac-10 team shows up this season.
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|Title Annotation:||Sports; The Year of the Freshman is under way in the Pac-10 Conference|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Dec 26, 2006|
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