The Ways of the West



by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

Thursday in college hoops usually means a focus on the Western half of the nation. The Pac 10 has been o a regular Thursday-Saturday schedule for years. The West Coast conference, which has been making just as many headlines in the Big Dance as the Pac 10 the last several seasons, is also prominent on those days.

It's natural then, for those two leagues to be our points of focus today as we continue our first dash through college conference assessments. After a break for NBA notes on Friday, we'll be back Saturday to finish off that trek with a study of the Atlantic 10 and Mid American Conferences.

If this is your first visit to the NOTEBOOK, here are the two key indicator stats we're showcasing this season:

*MARGIN AVERAGES in conference play, because you're looking at the point differential between teams who are playing within a confined schedule.

*TWO-POINT DEFENSES for the season. We consider this the most important indicator stat in college hoops because it tells you about the team, about the coaching style, and gives you a sense of how well they'll play in a tournament format

Because St. Mary's is visiting Gonzaga tonight on ESPN2 in what might be the game of the year in the West Coast Conference, we'll start with that league.

St. Mary's: +19.6
Gonzaga: +6.2
San Francisco: +3.0
Santa Clara: +0.8
Portland: -3.4
Loyola Marymount: -6.6
Pepperdine: -6.8
San Diego: -11.8

Though St. Mary's did have a disappointing result this past Saturday afternoon when they travelled cross country to face Vanderbilt, they're still the class of this conference by a good bit. The numbers above suggest tonight will be their toughest test of the regular season in league play. Gonzaga is second best in the numbers (though currently third in the regular standings because they have two losses). Your road game against second best is as tough as it gets if you're the best!

We do believe St. Mary's has dropped off from last season in terms of March potential. They don't have the same inside presence...and inside presence means so much in playoff style basketball. Maybe they'll make some headlines anyway. Maybe the road loss at Vandy was just a bad day at the office. We'll learn more about that tonight, and then in the first round of the Dance. This is such a soft conference once you get past the powers that St. Mary's and Gonzaga have to be judged mostly in their non-conference games.

Is San Francisco good enough to make the WCC a 'big three' this year? They did beat Gonzaga in overtime last week. But, they were 10-point home underdogs! The market is saying no way. The Dons may well be 'the best of the rest,' but we can't take them seriously as a full season threat. And, you're about to see why!

Gonzaga: 44%
St. Mary's: 45%
Loyola Marymount: 46%
San Francisco: 48%
Portland: 49%
Santa Clara: 50%
San Diego: 51%
Pepperdine: 52%

There you go. The best two defenses inside the arc are the best two teams in the conference. San Francisco is down at 48%, which is actually upper half for this weak league, but not at all something that a team can get away with for a full season unless the offense is just incredible.

The number of poor defenses here really emphasizes how far the conference as a whole has to go to become competitive. And, it also explains why Gonzaga and St. Mary's aren't very battle tested entering March. Gonzaga does schedule tough. That hurt them this year because they weren't ready for it. St. Mary's was exposed at Vandy as somebody who probably wouldn't thrive if they had to play a full season in a major conference.

This Week's West Coast Conference Schedule

St. Mary's at Gonzaga (big game!)
San Francisco at Loyola Marymount
San Diego at Portland
Santa Clara at Pepperdine

St. Mary's at Portland
San Diego at Gonzaga
Santa Clara at Loyola Marymount
San Francisco at Pepperdine

As handicappers, you want to study all teams and all games in hopes of finding bettable edges you can exploit in Las Vegas. If you're just a casual fan, the two games St. Mary's and Gonzaga play against each other are probably the only times to pay attention to this league in January and February! One of those is tonight, so check out some of the action before you hit the sack.

Moving to the Pac 10...

PAC 10 MARGIN AVERAGES (thru Monday)
Washington: +14.4
Arizona: +3.7
Washington State: +3.3
USC: +2.9
UCLA: +1.9
Stanford: -2.4
California: -3.7
Oregon State: -3.9
Oregon: -10.1
Arizona State: -10.9 (5 road games)

We have to be a little careful here. The Pac 10 is deeper into league play than most, with some teams having played as many as eight games. But, some odd home/road splits have created some potential illusions.

*USC has only played two road games, compared to five at home. So, a +2.9 is actually a poor showing in that light. They're likely to fall back below zero once the schedule evens out. In fact, USC is the only team to lose to Oregon so far this season. An EXTREMELY disappointing showing for a team that beat Texas, and took Kansas to the buzzer.

*California, on the other hand, has played five road games and only two home games. Maybe they won't make it all the way to net zero once the schedule evens out. Or, maybe they will. They're likely better than the numbers above suggest. In fact, they're only 0.2 ahead of Oregon State when...

*Oregon State has played just two road games. The Beavers grade out poorly despite a home friendly schedule. This has been an inconsistent team under this head coach, so they're capable of anything on any given night. Just be aware that there are usually more negatives than positives.

*Arizona State will have a chance to climb out of the cellar after equalizing a schedule that's seen them play five road games and just two home games. Note that ASU beat Oregon at Oregon, suggesting it's the Ducks rather than the Sun Devils who are the worst team in the conference.

*Speaking of Oregon, we have to comment on that new home floor. Critics were fairly harsh when they first saw out shaded outline of trees dotting a neon gold floor. In our opinion, the critics weren't harsh enough! ARE YOU TRYING TO BLIND PEOPLE?! DO WE HAVE TO WEAR SUNGLASSES TO WATCH BASKETBALL GAMES PLAYED ON THIS FLOOR?!

We won't be talking much about Oregon this season because they are truly bad. Wanted to make sure we joined the chorus on that eyesore...

Washington State: 43%
USC: 43%
Washington: 44%
Stanford: 45%
California: 46%
UCLA: 46%
Arizona: 48%
Oregon: 48%
Arizona State: 48%
Oregon State: 53%

Washington looks to be the best overall team in the league, and is much better defensively than people realize. They're thought of as a run-and-gun team that outscores people. That inflated tempo disguises a defense that does a good job inside the arc. Washington State is a team we think more people should be paying attention to. They're third in margin average but first in internal defense.

We're very much looking forward to Washington at Washington State this Sunday. Is THAT the game of the year in the Pac 10? Seems odd to say it, but it's those two and Arizona who are playing best in the league. Southern Cal has the defense to compete with anybody, but managed to go 0 for Oregon on their only road trip.

This Week's Pac 10 Schedule

USC at Arizona State
UCLA at Arizona on ESPN
Oregon at Stanford
Oregon State at California

UCLA at Arizona State
Oregon at California
USC at Arizona
Oregon State at Stanford

Washington at Washington State on Fox Sports (big game!)

It's very much up in the air how many teams from the Pac 10 will earn Dance bids this year. Three would seem to be safe, and USC's going to have a decent non-conference resume for fourth if they can win some league games. The bread and butter of conference action will go a long way toward determining if it's going to be three, four, or five teams earning invitations. We'll talk more about that on future Thursdays.

That wraps up today's report. Back tomorrow with an NBA update in one of our pet stats. We finish our first run through the conferences on Saturday. Sunday and Monday's reports will study key stats from the marquee matchups on the weekend slate. There's a great slate of Saturday action in the colleges. Boston plays the Los Angeles Lakers for the first time this season in the NBA on Sunday.

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From East to West and back again, NOBODY KNOWS BASKETBALL LIKE JIM HURLEY!

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