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Pac-10 may be down, but it offers fascinating conference title race

Bashing the Pac-10 has been a sport within a sport this season, but I'm here to tell you something that may surprise you: This is going to be the most fascinating race inside any of the big six conferences.

The first reason I say this is that this thing could not be more wide open. It appears that no fewer than six of the league's 10 teams have a legitimate chance to win this thing -- and I'm not even including UCLA, which may have a little life in them yet.

Then there are the intriguing storylines to tickle our fancy. Can USC still contend for a title even though it is not eligible for the postseason? Will Arizona, which is off to a 2-2 start in the league, keep its nation's-best 25-year NCAA tournament streak alive? Inquiring minds want to know.

I realize calling a league race "wide open" is the same as calling it "mediocre," but you have to admit, the early results have been pretty wacky. Based on the first week of action, the only thing you can predict is unpredictability. Struggling UCLA clipped California in Berkeley by one point on Michael Roll's late jumper. Stanford got waxed on the road at Cal by 26 points and then swept the L.A. schools at home. Oregon, led by always-on-the-hot-seat coach Ernie Kent, sat atop the standings after the first week with a 2-0 record, but then the Ducks lost on Sunday night at home to Oregon State. That's the same Oregon State team that last week lost to Seattle by 51 points.

You can't make this stuff up.

But the main reason this league is going to be must-see TV is because everybody knows that NCAA tournament bids are going to be hard to come by. Personally, I think three bids (including the automatic) is the minimum, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that the Pac-10 only puts two teams into the tournament. That will put a much greater urgency on finishing in the top tier that you won't find in any of the other power conferences. And there's nothing more fun than watching teams play that are desperate.

So keep bashing the Pac-10 all you want. Skip their late-night games and get your sleep. I, for one, plan to drink lots of coffee and set my DVR to catch as much of the action as I can. Who would have guessed that a bunch of games between mediocre west coast teams could be so much fun to watch?

• Here's the YouTube special of the week. I dare say this has never happened in the history of basketball. And if you say I'm wrong, you better have video (hat tip to Ballin' Is A Habit):

• If everyone is saying John Wall is the runaway choice for national player of the year, why does the race for national freshman of the year feel so titillating? Texas guard Avery Bradley has to be in that mix after his best game of the season Saturday, a 29-point, nine-rebound, three-assist gem in the Longhorns' rout of Colorado.

• The best thing about Georgia guard Travis Leslie's dunk over DeMarcus Cousins is how coolly Leslie reacted. Dude looked like he had just tapped in for bogey.

• Three stats from last weekend that will raise your eyebrows: Georgetown guard Austin Freeman's 28 points in the second half against UConn alone would have topped his career high. Wisconsin guard Trevon Hughes only needed three shots to score 14 points against Purdue. Memphis scored just two field goals in the entire second half against Southern Miss but still won by two.

• Speaking of the Badgers, it's a great sign that sophomore guard Jordan Taylor had a career-high 23 points against a great defensive team like Purdue. I know Taylor can't produce like that every game, but if he can give Wisconsin a consistent scoring pop off the bench (especially while creating his own shots), it will be a game-changer for this team.

• All the love being showered on Duke's Jon Scheyer has overshadowed the fact that Kyle Singler is not having a great season. I don't know if the move to small forward is throwing him off or if he's just in a slump, but Singler simply has not shot the ball well. His three-point percentage has sunk from 38.3 percent last season to 34.7, and his overall field goal percentage has gone from 44.1 percent to 41.0. Singler had his worst performance of the season in Saturday's loss to Georgia Tech, going 2-for-13 from the field and finishing with nine points. It's nice that Scheyer is playing like an All-American, but for Duke to be at its absolute best, Singler, not Scheyer, needs to be its best player.

• I realize teams need to make their own luck, but my goodness Marquette is snakebit. The Golden Eagles' 78-76 loss at Villanova was their fifth loss by five points or fewer, and their fourth by two points or fewer.

• That was obviously a terrific win by Georgia Tech, but the Yellow Jackets still suffer from their guards' inability to properly feed the post. That's why Derrick Favors has so much trouble scoring in the half court. Even while upsetting Duke on Saturday, the Yellow Jackets only had seven assists on 22 made field goals.

• I knew Ben Hansbrough's scoring ability would help Notre Dame after he transferred from Mississippi State, but I had no idea he was this good of a passer. Hansbrough had 10 assists in the Irish's upset of West Virginia to raise his season average to 5.2 per game, which ranks fifth in the Big East.

• You're gonna hear it a hundred times this week, and each time it will be true. Jerry Wainwright is one of the smartest, coolest, most likeable, most honest and above all funniest men in the coaching profession. I'm sorry to see his tenure at DePaul end like this, but nobody can say they are surprised.

• Tennessee pulled of the big upset over Kansas, but now comes the hard part. Emotion can carry through a game or two, but not over the long term.

• Ole Miss is not blessed with great size, so the Rebels' speedy guards need to do a better job driving to the basket instead of settling for threes. They took just 13 free throws in Saturday's loss to Mississippi State, compared to 33 for the Bulldogs. No way a team should suffer that kind of disparity playing at home.

• Me to Big East head coach: "What is Seton Hall's biggest weakness?" Big East head coach to me: "They give up a lot of points."

• I think it's silly when coaches complain about being forced to begin league play with a tough stretch of road games. These things always balance out. If you have a tough stretch early, you'll get a break later on -- and vice versa.

• I hope Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio changes his mind about wanting to alter the format of the Skip Prosser Classic. The first installment of the 10-game series was indeed a classic, with Wake prevailing over Xavier in double overtime 96-92. Given the close ties between the two schools, Gaudio wants to create a doubleheader where they both play other teams from the same location. Gaudio says Prosser would have wanted it that way, but if that's true, then Skip would have been wrong. The game may be hard on the coaching staffs who are good friends, but it's great for the fans.

• I give Kansas State coach Frank Martin enormous credit for doing something Bob Knight has never done: apologize in front of a bunch of sportswriters. Martin slapped the wrist of one of his players in anger towards the end of K-State's loss at Missouri, but the coach did not even wait to be asked about it afterwards. He began his postgame press conference by apologizing for what was really a minor transgression -- literally a slap on the wrist. Even more revealing was the fact that the player involved, Chris Merriewether, referred to his coach as "Frank." Seems you can be an old-school taskmaster and still make your players feel like you're their friend. Bravo, coach.

• Just once -- once! -- I'd love to see a guy block a shot towards a teammate instead of batting it 20 feet out of bonds.

• Illinois' biggest problem is that its players are not defensive-minded enough. That's understandable for the freshmen or the muscle-deficient big men, but there's no excuse for Demetri McCamey not to be a better defender. I know it's driving Bruce Weber mad.

• Another Illinois-related thought: I feel badly for Alex Legion, the Illinois guard who announced that he was transferring to Florida International, but this is clearly a young man who has made a lot of bad decisions (and no doubt gotten some bad advice) during his brief career. As a highly regarded high school player, Legion originally committed to Michigan, then backed out and committed to Kentucky. He didn't even stay in Lexington for a full semester before he transferred to Illinois. Now he's off to FIU. That's four schools in three years if you're keeping score at home. Here's hoping young Alex has learned some lessons and can finally just settle down and play some ball.

• Got a sleeper freshman for ya: Rutgers 6-foot-6 swingman Dane Miller. He won't grab many headlines this season because his team is struggling, but he's a gifted athlete who can really pass the ball.

• Two things I never thought I'd see: 1) The Virginia Tech-Seton Hall game in Cancun was played without time clocks over the baskets. So while the game was being played, the players had no way to tell how much time was left because they couldn't see the overhead scoreboard; 2) When UTEP forward Derrick Caracter stepped to the free throw line with his team trailing Texas Tech by five points with 34 seconds left, he made the first free throw and then asked his coaches if he should miss the second. Even the refs got a chuckle out of that one.

• How's this for an idea. Hold an exhibition game between two decent teams and let the players make their own calls. Just for fun.

• I was watching a game from the early 1990s on ESPN Classic recently, and I was amazed how much I missed having a scoreboard on the screen at all times. Instead, the network just put up a quick graphic each time the score changed. My recollection is that there was much hand-wringing when networks started putting the scores up all the time, but now you wouldn't want to watch a game (especially a basketball game) without it.

• It is truly a pleasure to watch Cornell run their half-court offense.

• I find it ironic that South Florida junior center Jarrid Famous is not very well-known.

• It's may be a cheesy gimmick, but I have to say I like it when coaches put the names of their school on the back of their jerseys instead of the surnames of their players. Two coaches I've seen do that for this year are UAB's Mike Davis and Texas Tech's Pat Knight.

• It has to gall Michigan fans to see how much success 6-10 junior center Ekpe Udoh is having at Baylor after transferring from Michigan two years ago. I realize Udoh is a shot-blocker/rebounder type who does not have the Pittsnogle-esque skills to thrive in John Beilein's system, but still, the kid is playing his way into the lottery while the Wolverines are struggling just to get to the bubble.

• I just love watching games I've recorded when I don't know who won.

• As a public service, I will now update Erving Walker's shot-o-meter. Through last weekend, Florida's sophomore point guard has attempted 87 three-pointers to 46 free throws. Keep in mind he is shooting 32.2 percent from three-point range this season and 78.3 percent from the foul line. Gotta reverse those numbers, young fella.

• I'm amazed at the way Butler junior center Matt Howard has regressed this season. A year after being named the Horizon League's Player of the Year, Howard's numbers have fallen drastically across the board: points (14.8 to 10.8), rebounds (6.8 to 4.9), field goal percentage (55.0 to 42.2). Worst of all, he has already fouled out seven times, compared to three times all of last season.

• Zen Hoop Thought: A good player knows how to play well when he's not playing well. Think about it.

• It's pretty striking the way Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett has virtually cornered the market on players from Australia. The Gaels have five Aussies on their roster, two of whom are starters. I'm only surprised Randy hasn't tried yet to recruit the Wiggles.

(Last week's rankings on my ballot in parentheses)

1. Texas (2)2. Kentucky (3)3. Kansas (1)4. Villanova (6)5. Purdue (4)6. Duke (7)7. Syracuse (8)8. Georgetown (14)9. West Virginia (5)10. Wisconsin (NR)11. Tennessee (13)12. Michigan State (11)13. Connecticut (9)14. North Carolina (10)15. Kansas State (12)16. Gonzaga (15)17. Dayton (19)18. Temple (18)19. Pittsburgh (21)20. Northern Iowa (23)21. Baylor (24)22. BYU (25)23. Ole Miss (17)24. Virginia Tech (NR)25. Siena (NR)

Dropped off my ballot: New Mexico (16), Cincinnati (20), USC (22).

Skinny: Heading into the weekend, I assumed the most perplexing question would be how far to drop Tennessee in the wake of Tyler Smith's dismissal and the suspensions of three other players. Instead, my voters and I had to decide how high to rank the Vols after their upset of top-ranked Kansas -- and by extension, how far to drop Kansas. Such is the emotional-roller-coaster life of a college basketball pollster.

My general rule is to try not to overreact to one game, so I couldn't quite push the Vols into the top 10, and I didn't see fit to drop the Jayhawks past No. 3, especially since Purdue, Duke and West Virginia also lost last week. It was a close call deciding how to order Purdue and Villanova. They both have one loss coming on the road, Purdue at Wisconsin and 'Nova at Temple. I went with Villanova because they have more quality wins, though none with the singular quality of the Boilermakers' throttling of West Virginia. These things will work themselves out in due time.

Elsewhere, not surprisingly Georgetown made the biggest jump this week due to its impressive comeback win over UConn. (I'm not counting Wisconsin because I only left them off last week by mistake.) New Mexico suffered the biggest fall, dropping off my ballot completely following losses to San Diego State and UNLV. Given that the Lobos have also lost to Oral Roberts, I have a feeling they are playing more at their true level now after overachieving (to their credit) the first two months.

As you can see, I'm back on the Siena bandwagon. The Saints are off to a 5-0 start in the MAAC, and all of their losses are respectable (at Temple, at St. John's, at Georgia Tech, at Northern Iowa). And they didn't have their best player, Edwin Ubiles, during that St. John's game because he was hurt.

As for the teams that didn't make my ballot, the hardest cut was Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets knocked off a very good Duke team at home, but they also lost at Georgia the previous game and have lost to Florida State at home. And much as I would like to rank Northwestern, I still think they have not put together a top 25-worthy resume. Yes, they won at Michigan on Sunday, but we all know Michigan is not very good, and the Wildcats struggled to beat Texas Pan-American the game before. They have Wisconsin and Purdue at home this week, followed by a road game at Ohio State next week, so they have plenty of opportunities to make their mark.

Finally, I thought about ranking Mississippi State after its win at Ole Miss, but the Bulldogs lost at Western Kentucky in their previous game. I need another quality win from them before I can put a number next to their name.

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