Pyschiatric Explorations of the Fetus with Needles

We both watch a lot of Pac-10 basketball, to the point where more than half of our college posts will probably cover the conference. Before writing several posts about Ben Braun’s Cal teams and their curious habit of incurring shot clock violations after timeouts, though, it seems important that we describe the aesthetic experience of watching every Pac-10 program. In all honesty, this post is a bit more formulaic than what we want to do in our NCAA posts, but the groundwork within it is necessary if we ever want to get where we hope to go.

In the NBA, UCLA would be a boring team reliant on defense and one or two scorers. In college, their ball pressure can be so overwhelming that it becomes legitimately thrilling to watch (especially live). There’s also something enthralling about the way they seamlessly segue from steals into the quickest transition game in the conference. It’s possible that their shtick will get old after five or ten years of conference championships, but for now it’s pretty exciting to watch. When you get right down to it, this is one of the few teams in the conference that can make a 52-48 game exciting.

In theory, the USC Trojans are the Hollywood counterpart to the workmanlike Bruins; the basketball programs could switch office locations and it would make perfect sense. This year, USC brings in OJ Mayo, indisputably the most compelling player in the conference. Mayo is supremely confident, a virtual lock to forgo college if he’d had the option. His arrival at USC could signal a major shift in the way one-and-done players approach college. In the past, even the best players (e.g. Carmelo, Oden, Durant) have successfully assimilated themselves into the team/program concept. No one knows for sure if Mayo will go down that road, too, but his arrogance suggests that he could try to run the Trojans on the court much as Kobe does a short drive away. If they play well with Mayo taking nearly half the shots, expect a dramatic change in how coaches and top-flight recruits approach their lone year in college; program prestige might not make a difference.

Stanford has long been thought of as the antithesis of flashy, and that characterization still holds mostly true. Coach Trent Johnson, though, has been recruiting more combo guards and forwards and generally seems to give more positional and play-running leeway than Mike Montgomery ever did. Skilled big man and likely lottery pick Brook Lopez is easily the most talented player on the team, but default point guard/real shooting guard Anthony Goods and forward Lawrence Hill were the best indicators of the team’s success last year; when they were on, the team almost always won. Like the Monty teams, this year’s Cardinal will win with defense and rebounding, but the complete lack of a point guard will likely cap the team’s potential. It will be interesting to see how much the core (2-5 capable of a big run in the tournament) can achieve with sketchy point guard play. (Note: Carter and I both went to and root for Stanford and thus find the team more interesting than most.)

Along with Stanford, Arizona was the class of the conference for most of the late 90s/early 00s. Recent years have seen them fall off despite bringing in the same exceptional Lute Olson recruiting classes; leading some to question if Lute’s lost his heart for coaching 20-year-olds. This year’s class is no different from previous ones, with combo guard Jerryd Bayless highlighting things. The Wildcats have turned into a model of inconsistency in the last few years, and I’d expect that to continue next season.

After an out-of-left-field season last year and a likely preseason Top 10 ranking, the Washington State Cougars will have a lot of pressure on them next season to establish the program on the national scene. Their style of play is similar to UCLA’s in that they rely on defense, but at this point the Cougs don’t have enough offensive or defensive firepower (not to be confused with people who can score or defend well) to make them especially exciting to watch. I don’t care how young or cool Tony Bennett is; he’s still a Bennett.

If Wazzou can become a player on the national stage, they’d likely knock the Washington Huskies down a peg in the conference hierarchy for the foreseeable future. Last year, Lorenzo Romar had a bit of an identity crisis on his hands, with big men Spencer Hawes and Jon Brockman giving the Huskies a clear strength inside even though their system is designed for quick, athletic guards like Nate Robinson and Brandon Roy. With Hawes banished to Sacramento and no truly stellar guards on the roster, it remains unclear if Romar will return to the running style that got U-Dub to where it is today. It’s entirely possible that next year’s record will be inconsequential to the direction of the program.

With another year like the 2007 Elite Eight run, the Oregon Ducks would vault themselves onto the shortlist of the best programs on the West Coast. Of course, they also lost Aaron Brooks, the equivalent of Brandon Roy to Washington two years ago, and Coach Ernie Kent has a history of following one good year with three bad ones. This year’s team is led by 5-6 (he’s actually shorter) Tajuan Porter, but I’d be surprised if they go with the four-guard lineup again, which means that they’ll be the same old frustrating Oregon. Prove me wrong and remain exciting!

Cal had a transitional year after losing the bullish Leon Powe to the NBA, although things might have been different had DeVon Hardin, their major inside presence and likely first-rounder next June, not missed the entire conference season with an injury. Coach Braun adjusted to the loss of Hardin by switching to a four-out motion offense, which actually loosened things up quite a bit; they really looked like a much more fluid offense and would have been something with Hardin. The question now is whether or not Braun will return to the same dull sets (they basically run the Stanford offense, except Braun has no idea how to coach offense) he’s used for the majority of his time in Berkeley. Strictly in terms of players, the Hardin/Ryan Anderson post combo brings an intriguing mix of power, athleticism, and skill that you won’t really find on any other team in the Pac-10 (Lopez twins come close, but they’re similar enough that Anderson and Hardin are probably more interesting). They also have Jerome Randle, my favorite point guard in the Pac-10, although he nearly found himself in legal trouble last week.

Arizona State held the distinction of being the best worst team in any major conference in 07. They only won two games in conference last season, but they had a number of close contests against some of the best teams in the league and steadily improved. Their returning players aren’t particularly exciting at this point in time, although Jeff Pendergraph could play in the NBA and Derek Glasser looks like something approaching the next Chris Hernandez (high praise from this website). McDonald’s All American James Harden comes in for some extra oomph. In reality, they’re a few years from making real noise, and the Princeton offense isn’t exactly the most exciting thing to watch when it’s not being run by Georgetown.

That leaves Oregon State, the most uninspiring team in the conference by far. Watching a game broadcast from Corvallis is like happening upon a feed from a high school gym: deathly quiet, occasional cheering, general snuff film feel. Marcel Jones is pretty fun to watch, but other than that this team is just depressing. It’s been that way for a while; I guess there’s something to be said for uninspiring dependability.


Ben Q. Rock said...

Lute Olsen is down with Q-Rich and Darius Miles, evidently. Outstanding.

I find college basketball to be unwatchable for the same reason I find the Spurs to be unwatchable; all fundamentals, no personality. What makes basketball compelling is not the sport itself, but the personalities of which the league is composed: Take a player of Gilbert Arenas' skill, give him Tim Duncan's personality, and then see if anyone gives a damn about the Wizards. Does that make any sense?

My unfamiliarity with college basketball puts me at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to evaluating draft talent; luckily, Orlando's front-office is adept at trading draft picks, so I hardly ever have to worry about that.

Ty Keenan said...

Definitely makes sense and I know where you're coming from, but it's also the kind of thinking that we're trying to change. I don't mean to speak for you, so correct me if I'm way off base, but I think the difficulty you have in seeing personalities in college players is that the media too often packages them as kids playing for the love of the game, so if you're not paying a ton of attention the real people get lost a bit. (This hit a new low this year when Andy Katz said the Florida guys cared about social issues because they had a Bob Marley poster in their apartment.)

Like with all basketball, the personalities tend to come out in their games. DJ Augustin looked off of Kevin Durant constantly because he was concerned with his own rep (McD's All-American) and NBA stock, even though it made no sense to the team winning. You also get a ton of cases (many more than in the NBA, I think), where the Program Identity (coachball, basically) is more important than the individual skills of the players, and teams suffer because the coach is more interested in his brand.

That makes college sound more fascist than the NBA, and it probably is, but it's not all like that. You get the "But I was there!" thrill of seeing guys like Durant burst onto the scene for the first time. The random acts of mindfuck athleticism pop up less often than in the NBA, but they still happen. And the academic view of the individual pushing against the Great Structure is just as compelling as in the NBA.

It also could just be that I grew up in a UCLA house (my parents saw four championships in college), so interest in college basketball was always there.

Ben Q. Rock said...

I think you're right about the "real people getting lost" bit. Too often, the players seem like anonymous cogs in a greater machine. It's the exact opposite of the NBA, where games serve to drive players' storylines, not the other way around.

Another contributing factor -- and this is going to sound fucking obvious -- is that college players get a maximum of four years before making the NBA, Euroleagues, or sitting in a cubicle somewhere. As such, it's harder to build a personal connection with the players, especially when they're being marketed as anonymous "love of the game" types.

Ty Keenan said...

I think that's about right. Our point is that the games should be driving the storylines, and I think they do if you look at the right way (aka our way).

Ben Q. Rock said...

Should I invest some time in watching USC this year then? They sound oddly appealing.

Ty Keenan said...

If I weren't very familiar with college ball and could only watch one player in the NCAA this year, it would probably be OJ Mayo (maybe Derrick Rose, who's going to Memphis, but that's only because everything I've seen and heard about him makes it seem like he'll be one of my favorites for a while). That does not mean that USC is particularly exciting; they lose a lot of punch and their returning players don't have especially thrilling games.

I'm sure at some point we'll run through every conference and talk about the things worth talking about. Sorta like a shortened version of this thing.