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In Defense of the Pac-10: Underclassmen Pave the Way for Brighter Future

After beating Washington State on the Sunday following New Year's Eve, University of Oregon coach Paul Westhead commented that WSU was a team that could "challenge and beat people" in the Pac-10 this year.

Prior to visiting a WSU team last weekend that sat at 2-15, Westhead reiterated his point in describing his impressions of the Pac-10 after his first year coaching in the conference.

"I've been saying all along: I thought Washington State was one of the best," said Westhead after their final game at Mac Court. "Look at where they are now: 1-12, 2-12 something like that...they're a very good team. They just can't beat people because there are others slightly better."

So perhaps it's fitting that WSU beat Oregon last weekend for their third win of the season. Regardless, Westhead's consistent praise of WSU speaks to the fact that this team has more talent than their record indicates.

Watching WSU was difficult at times - they were probably the first team that demonstrated opponents could actually run with the Ducks, but they missed countless fastbreak layups. Part of the explanation for WSU's rocky season is that their primary contributors were freshmen and sophomores - they have 6 sophomores on the team and their most notable underclassman is probably KiKi Moore who was named to the Pac-10 All-Freshman team.

Ultimately, that was the problem that plagued them all season - they could get the scoring opportunities, but simply could not convert. They could play teams close but not finish off games. So yes, it was a rough year on paper for WSU, but it would be premature to write-off a program full of young talent that played multiple teams in the conference close.

That speaks to a bigger point that Westhead made - there is quite a bit of talent in the Pac-10.

"I think it's a very, very competitive league," said Westhead. "There's Stanford, who is the dominant team. And then there's a whole handful of very good teams. And they spin you around: you win, you lose, you win, you lose. It's not like whether it's three great teams and four poor teams and a couple in the middle - it's more balanced than that."

So just as it's probably premature to write off WSU, it would be wrong to entire write off the Pac-10 at this point.

Certainly, the entire conference has been wildly inconsistent for most of this season - after non-conference losses to schools that some people had never heard of and Arizona State University's rapid fall from the rankings early in conference play, people jokingly referred to the conference as a mid-major and an automatic bid-only conference. Although such derisive comments might be justified based on lackluster non-conference play and a RPI that makes them the worst of the six "major" conferences, the future is actually quite bright.

If you want hope for the future of the conference, look no further than Cal who sees WSU's crop of sophomores and raises them a class of 6 very talented freshmen with a strong recruiting class coming in as well.

Although senior guard Alexis Gray-Lawson was unquestionably the leader of this Cal team this season, the board work of DeNesha Stallworth - she was among the conference's top rebounders for most of the season - led to a Pac-10 All-Freshman team selection. On the defensive end, Eliza Pierre is easily one of the conference's best on-ball defenders as a freshman and earned a spot on the All-Defensive team.

Their other freshmen are no less talented - forward Genifer Brandon was also among the conference's best rebounders and guard Layesha Clarendon has shown flashes of being a steady point guard capable of leading an offense. Both earned honorable mentions for the All-Freshman team.

"I remember looking at the game at one point in the Cal game," said Jackson days after their loss to Cal at home. "There were two seniors on Cal's team and two seniors on our team on the floor. All the rest were sophomores and freshmen. And I'm thinking, ‘Holy cow, look at the future - look at the future of this program and the future of theirs. It's exciting." 

While Cal has a group of freshmen poised to lead the team into the future, a number of teams had underclassmen leading the way this season.

Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Davellyn Whyte was undoubtedly the team's leader showing the ability to score extremely efficiently as a freshman. Yet as good as Whyte was, she might not have been the best freshman in the conference.

UCLA's  Markel Walker is talented as well, though not necessarily for her scoring. She was selected to the Pac-10 All-Freshman team on the strength of doing pretty much everything else.

Three Bruin Basketball Players Honored By Pac-10 Conference - UCLA OFFICIAL ATHLETIC SITE
She was selected the Pac-10 Player of the Week on Feb. 1 and ranks amongst the Top 10 in the conference in five statistical categories - No. 8 in rebounding, field goal percentage (.480) and defensive rebounds (4.7); No. 6 in steals (2.1); and No. 5 in offensive rebounds (2.9).

Just to put that type of performance in context, Walker is the only player in the Pac-10 who came close to what Ken Pomeroy describes as a 10-20-30 player.

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Vermont’s Marqus Blakely, a rare 10/20/30 guy. (Hat tip to my pal Lou from Burlington for bringing this to my attention.) Currently he sports offensive and defensive rebounding rates north of 10% and 20%, respectively, along with an assist rate better than 30%. When he’s not rebounding or setting up teammates, you can find him at the free throw line where he leads his conference in free throw rate (and converts at 71%).

There were a few games where Walker put up those kind of numbers -- and there were games where the rebounding rates, not the assists, were the only reason for her falling short -- which speaks volumes about her all-around talent.

Walker's versatility made her arguably a more productive player overall than Whyte, although Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year Jasmine Dixon was unquestionably the team's leader. A case could be made for either Walker or Whyte as the top freshman. Most of all, Walker stands out even in a conference with some very strong post players.

Across town at USC, sophomores Ashley Corral and Brianna Gilbreath led the way, with Gilbreath a strong candidate for Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. However, fans also cannot forget that USC expects Jacki Gemelos to have three more years of eligibility at USC, essentially making her a freshman this year. With time to learn how to play with one another, USC could have a very dangerous perimeter trio in two years.

Returning to Washington State, statistically, Kiki Moore was arguably only the second most effective freshman on her own team - freshman center Carly Noyes was arguably the bigger statistical contributor due to Moore's much higher turnover percentage (22.42%) and much lower field goal percentage (38% eFg). Along with sophomores April Cook and Jazmine Perkins - both of whom also struggled with their shooting, Perkins with a 20.24% turnover percentage - the team has plenty of potential for growth - they are young, athletic, and have shown that they can play with most teams in the conference despite glaring flaws from growing pains.

Even the University of Washington, whose fans have spent almost two seasons calling for coach Tia Jackson's head after transfers, bad losses, and last place expectations from coaches and media alike, showed glimmers of hope in their final home stand of the season.

"We've got some impressive young players, impressive young players," said Jackson after end conference play with a home sweep of the Oregon schools. "It's nothing to take away from our upperclassmen - I think they have truly, truly been pioneers for us, have set the tone for what we want to do in our effort on the floor, our focus on the floor. The young ones are extremely gifted and when they can figure out how to take that focus and that discipline and that effort consistently -- which I feel like we've done as of late - we're impressive...I'm just smiling because I go, ‘God, they have finally figured out just how to do a few things that we have been lacking in the past.' So I'm really proud of our young kids."

The question of course is whether anyone at all can beat Stanford. Of course, the answer is "not likely" right now and unfortunately, for opposing fans at least, Stanford has a strong group of young talent as well.

It's hard to believe that a player as dominant as Nneka Ogwumike is only a sophomore - with the improvement she's shown between her first and second years, it's scary to imagine what's possible in the next two years. Adding to the unfairness of Stanford is the fact that Ogwumike's sister, Chiney, will be coming to Palo Alto next fall and is said to be the better of the two.

Perhaps lost in the shuffle of the talented Cardinal frontline is a talented freshman of their own, Joslyn Tinkle. Although Tinkle is certainly not as physically dominant as senior Jayne Appel, she has had a very solid season in limited minutes and offers Stanford a different sort of look - whereas Appel almost never operates from the perimeter, Tinkle is very comfortable shooting the ball from three point land. That's not to say she doesn't rebound either - among the teams regular players, she had the fourth highest defensive and offensive rebounding rate, nothing to be ashamed of on a team with one of the most talented frontcourts in the nation. Had she played for a team that wasn't ranked #2 in the nation, she could have earned a spot on the All-Freshman team instead of the honorable mention she received.

On the sidelines, when you look at coaches like Westhead and USC's Michael Cooper who are still getting accustomed to women's college basketball after winning championships in the WNBA, the likelihood that their teams will improve through recruitment and just adjusting to a different game is high. Throw in the rapid development of Pac-10 Coach of the Year Nikki Caldwell and the potential on the sidelines is almost as great as that on the court.

"I see a lot of excitement," said Jackson. "Love what Paul is doing at Oregon and what Nikki's doing at UCLA. Also what Coop is doing with the kids that he's bringing in. I am not at all overlooking us because as much as we have several seniors on our floor, there are two who are newcomers - they're just in their second year."

Does this mean the Pac-10 will skyrocket to the top of the RPI standings next season? Probably not. But it's not impossible to imagine more than two teams making their mark on the national scene and the NCAA tournament in the near future.