The cream is rising to the top in the Pac-10.
Heading into a full conference schedule this week, it's amazing how many teams have a legitimate shot at earning a conference title.
At the moment, everyone has their sights set on knocking UCLA (19-4, 8-2) out of the top spot. Coach Ben Howland's Bruins are living up to the expectations of fans and experts alike.
Of the teams chasing the Bruins, only Arizona State (18-5, 7-4) was expected to challenge for the Pac-10 crown. The Sun Devils aren't even in second place at the moment.
Other than loyal Husky fans, few expected Washington (17-6, 8-3) to be a contender for the conference championship. Coach Lorenzo Romar has his troops driving opponents crazy. Their size up front matched with speed and quickness at the guard position has proved to be a winning combination.
Then there is another UC team that is playing great basketball. When Coach Mike Montgomery took over the Cal Bears (18-6, 7-4) basketball program, just about everyone expected it would be a couple of years rebuilding. Wrong. The Cal basketball program is having a love-fest. Players love the coach. Coaches love the players. Fans love seeing their team win. It's a "Season of Love" in Berkeley.
If any of the top four teams is going to make a move this week, the likely candidate is Washington.
Here's a quick look at key games around the Pac-10 this week.
Oregon State vs. Washington
When the Huskies traveled down to Corvallis, the Beavers were still learning to believe in their coach and themselves. Coach Romar's troops left no question who was the better team that game, trouncing OSU (10-12, 4-7) by a final of 85-59. If the Dawgs think they can phone this one in, they'd be wrong.
Coach Craig Robinson has the Beavers playing good basketball and doing something unheard of last season. They are winning conference games. This game will turn on Oregon State's ability to eliminate second chances by the massive front line of Washington. Do that and they might leave Seattle and head over to Pullman with their fifth Pac-10 win.
UCLA vs. Arizona State
Coach Herb Sendek's Sun Devils host UCLA in Tempe Thursday night. ASU has only swept UCLA once in a season since joining the Pac-10. They have the first game tucked away in the win column. Getting a second on their home court is a distinct possibility.
If you love scoring, this game isn't likely to hold your attention. If you enjoy seeing two coaches in a battle of wits, this game is a "can't miss". UCLA's mission will be to contain the best player in the Pac-10, James Harden. ASU's mission will be to play disciplined offense. The Bruins literally steal games from the opposition with their quickness and team defense.
Stanford vs. Cal
Stanford (14-7, 4-7) has been able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory throughout conference play. One of their highlights thus far was defeating Cal in their first meeting 75-69. The Cardinal managed to frustrate the Bears on offense forcing 15 turnovers and sub-par shooting from behind the arc. Can they repeat that performance? Not likely. Cal is coming off a very nice couple of wins over Washington and Washington State. Coach Montgomery not only has the ears of his players, they are executing.
Oregon vs. Washington State
No doubt you're wondering how this matchup could be a game to watch. Here's why the pick: This game might be the last chance for the Ducks (6-17, 0-11) to win a Pac-10 game.
WSU outscored Oregon 74-62 when they met in Eugene. The upset in that game was two-fold. The Cougs not only scored over 70 points in a game, they gave up 62 on defense. It will be interesting to see if the young guns of Washington State can bounce back from a humbling road trip to northern California last week. WSU has only one conference win at home, so the table is set for Coach Ernie Kent to begin righting his ship. Should Coach Kent get his players to play some team basketball, they might just win one. Then again...
By this time next week there should only be three teams left with a chance to win the Pac-10 title and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Expect that.
Then again, expect the unexpected this season.