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Around the Pac-10: What Happened to Arizona State?

Except for the fact that Stanford once again flexed their muscles as the favorite to win the conference, opening weekend in the Pac-10 could be looked upon as a sign of parity.

As it stands now, let’s just say the Pac-10 might be even more unpredictable than people expect.

Previously ranked Arizona State University dropped two games at home.

The University of Washington won a conference game on the road.

And Washington State University actually tried to run with Paul Westhead’s University of Oregon team....and came within six points.

The following (which I hope to do weekly) is an overview of the past week in the conference in addition to a few player awards.

So what exactly happened to ASU?

Entering conference play, it was known that ASU was a young, inexperienced team with freshmen point guards that were mistake prone.

That goes a long way to explaining why ASU struggled the way they did this weekend – they turned the ball over 12% more often against USC on New Year’s Day and turned the ball over on 48% of their possessions in an ugly first half against UCLA on Sunday (their first half turnover percentage against USC was 39%).

The turnover problem is not new – ASU has now lost 4 of their last 5 games (including their two conference losses) and on the first loss of that slide against Texas A&M they committed 27 turnovers for a turnover percentage of 37.29%.

Put simply, it’s difficult for any team to win when they come down the court and literally give the ball back to their opponent on anywhere close to half of their possessions, especially when shooting is not their strong suit.

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"I think our team needed to go through this," said Turner-Thorne. "I think they needed this game to figure things out because we really haven’t figured things out. …I really like this team. They know they aren’t doing the things they are supposed; they’re not happy about it. …But, at the same time, obviously, it’s not good enough."

For most of non-conference play, ASU was able to off-set their turnover problem by forcing more turnovers than they committed. However, the rate at which they’re turning the ball over now makes it difficult to accomplish that task.

This week they look to turn it around against similarly turnover prone Washington team and a Washington State team that has struggled to shoot efficiently. In addition to what should be a lower turnover differential, Arizona State should have a rebounding advantage as they travel to face the Pac-10’s northernmost teams.

MVP: Jasmine Dixon, UCLA (41.14 MVP rating based on David Sparks’ MVP rating)

The Pac-10 named Oregon guard Taylor Lilley Women’s Basketball Player of the Week for the week of Dec 28th – Jan. 3rd and having seen both of her games this past weekend in Eugene, I can certainly say it was well deserved.

However, it is odd that UCLA forward Jasmine Dixon was not even nominated for the honor.

Although she’s not getting attention as such, she’s one of the most well-rounded players in the Pac-10.

Perhaps part of the reason for the oversight is that people simply don’t know much about her since she’s only had 4 games of eligibility after transferring from Rutgers University. Fair enough.

Perhaps another part of the problem is that she saved her stronger performance for Sunday in a road victory against ASU: she recorded a double-double, scoring 21 points on 8-10 shooting in addition to 4 assists and 3 steals. But even a rather pedestrian performance against Arizona demonstrates what an efficient, well-rounded player she is.

Against Arizona, she recorded a meager 10 points and 7 rebounds on 4 of 8 shooting.

So what is she doing so well?

It’s hard not to like a strong, physical guard who can not only score efficiently, but rebound at one of the highest rates on the team on both ends of the court. Although she could stand to cut down on her turnovers – she had 3 in each game this past weekend – she has been outstanding in almost every other way for UCLA and was clearly the player that made the largest individual contribution to her team this weekend.

With ASU’s losses this past weekend, UCLA has to be catapulted into the discussion of teams who will challenge for the honor second in a conference that Stanford University has traditionally owned. UCLA’s strength thus far is clearly their defense – in addition to hounding ASU into turning the ball over on 48% of their first half possessions, they had a turnover percentage differential of 24.13% to 13.97% against Arizona.

Dixon’s ability as a versatile scorer offensively – in addition to the steals she gets defensively – make UCLA even more dangerous.

Newcomer of the Week: KiKi Moore, Washington State

With Dixon claiming MVP, Washington State University freshman point guard Kiki Moore deserves credit as the newcomer (defined as freshman or transfer) of the week.

Moore was nominated for Player of the Week and was just behind Dixon for MVP despite losing both of their games on opening weekend. Also like Dixon, Moore is a strong, physical point guard that relentlessly attacks the rim.

Moore led the team with a 37.5% free throw rate in non-conference play and continued to demonstrate her ability to get to the line during WSU’s Oregon road trip – against Oregon State on New Year’s Day, she was 4-6 from the free throw line. Against Oregon on Sunday, she was 8-10 from the free throw line.

"I mean, wow -- I like them," said Westhead of Moore and her backcourt companion April Cook after Oregon’s victory. "I didn’t have time to really enjoy them, but they’re quick, they’re fast. They didn’t hesitate shooting the ball. They didn’t hesitate going to the basket. I think they’re going to be a team that’s going to challenge and beat people."

Against Oregon, Moore’s approach was simple – if she recognized one-on-one coverage, she’d take a few dribbles, put her head down and go to the rim. Once she got near the basket, she didn’t necessarily muscle up a shot, but found creative ways to draw contact and get to the free throw line.

Not to be confused for a player who just collects points on freebies from the line, Moore also shot 7-14 from the field and grabbed 6 rebounds in both road games. She picks her spots well, not only just charging for the rim, but possessing the athleticism to pull up for jumpers and hit threes.

Earlier in the season, WSU coach June Daugherty claimed that Moore brings leadership and calmness to the court. Thus far in conference play, Moore is also making among the largest individual contributions to her team’s success of any player in the Pac-10 (against Oregon State, she deserved 34.90% of the credit for the win statistically). Daugherty: Young CougGals fight inconsistency
"KiKi Moore is one of those special kids; they don't come along too often," said Daugherty, who have a nod to the excellent coaching more had in high school. "She's a pretty experienced young lady in knowing how to win."

Statistics cannot tell us about the intangibles that figure into leadership. However, having watched Moore play against Oregon, the statistics seem to corroborate what might be gathered from observation and her coach’s assessment of her intangible qualities.

Most of all, she’s just a freshman and Cook is only a sophomore.

It’s likely that they’ll be doing more beating than merely challenging people in the future.

Player to Watch: Mackenzie Argens, University of Washington

Also nominated for Player of the Week honors was University of Washington forward Mackenzie Argens. While I mentioned her as a "key contributor" in my Pac-10 preview, she was easily the team’s MVP in the team’s road trip in the state of Oregon.

"She kind of surprised us a little bit with her offensive attack mode," said Paul Westhead. "She was kind of a spontaneous scorer that really helped them early in the first half."

However, more than just "spontaneous" scoring, there’s a pattern of success developing for Argens, as summarized on the UW website.

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• Mackenzie Argens has scored 47 points in her last three games, which is exactly half of her point total from all of last season (94). She's averaging 15.5 ppg in conference play, tops on the Huskies.

• Argens is now second on the team in field goal percentage (.524), behind Regina Rogers (.544).

• Washington is holding teams to 38 percent shooting from the floor, which ranks sixth in the Pac-10. The Huskies are also sixth in the conference in shooting percentage (.415).

• UW is second in the league in blocks (4.6 per game), which ranks a hair behind Stanford (4.8).

• Argens is seventh in the Pac-10 in blocks with 1.3 per game.

At some point, teams will no longer be surprised and start to expect strong performances from Argens as Washington senior guard Sami Whitcomb already does.

"It really doesn’t surprise me," said Whitcomb. "I feel like it was a matter of time for her to start playing the way she’s been doing. She shows us that in practice it’s sort of her game. She just needed a couple of breakthrough games I think for her to get that confidence back and realize that’s what she does best. She rebounds, she’s a physical player, and she’s solid for us. If she can continue to do that, I wouldn’t be surprised at all."

While coach Tia Jackson has noticed a change since Argens dropped the knee brace she was wearing early in the season, part of her improvement is mental. As an observer, the most impressive thing about watching her play over the course of this season is that not only has she looked more active in the paint, but she has looked more and more comfortable and decisive with the ball in the post.

"I’m a little more calm down low and I just feel like I’m going up a lot stronger and that’s helping me finish my shot more," said Argens prior to practice yesterday.

With opponents, teammates, and Pac-10 voters recognizing her contributions, her teammates are starting to respond by getting her touches earlier and more often.

"I feel like we always try to look for our posts, but now maybe earlier on we’ll look for her because she’s been so consistent for us," said Whitcomb. "She’s proven game in and game out that she’ll do that for us these past couple of games. So I think maybe now we’ll look for her from the start rather than waiting for her to sort of prove herself in the game."

Stanford is still…Stanford

Not much to say here except that Stanford is good – and forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike has easily been the best player on their team.

Ogwumike had arguably the best game of any player in the conference in her performance against Cal recording a double-double with 24 points on 10-17 shooting, 16 rebounds, and 2 blocks. Even though she had 4 turnovers, she does so much else for her team that they’re offset.

Based on Sparks’ metrics, she deserved 21.94% of the credit for that game and earned 30 MVP points. Had she played a second game or led her team to a mild upset as Dixon did, she'd easily be MVP of the week.

She has got to be the early favorite for Pac-10 Player of the Year.