BY Bob Sherwin 05:55PM 12/28/2010

Huskies a paper-thin conference favorite

UW will have challengers aplenty in run to title

Lorenzo Romar's Huskies are favored to win the Pac-10 title as league play begins on Wednesday / Getty Images

An assumption has been made, certainly prematurely.

The fans and the media generally are in agreement that the Washington Huskies will win the Pac-10 this season. It’s a reasonable conjecture. The Huskies were 26-10 last season and have four starters returning. They won the Pac-10 Tournament and advanced to the Sweet 16.

This is a team that has improved in virtually every area. It’s bigger with the addition and 7-foot transfer Aziz N’Diaye. It’s better offensively, especially with redshirt freshman C. J. Wilcox and his 49.1 three-point percentage. The Huskies are third in the nation in scoring at 90.5 ppg. It’s a team that’s more experienced, stronger and Tournament-tested.

The Pac-10 writers overwhelmingly selected Washington as the team to beat in the conference. The Huskies collected 33 first-place votes while Arizona and UCLA got one each.

Why not pick them, a no-brainer.

It seems that it’s a foregone conclusion that the Huskies will capture the conference title this season. That’s what most everyone projects.

Yet that’s all on paper. It’s different on the basketball court. With Pac-10 play beginning Wednesday, it has become apparent that there is no paved path to the championship. It’s a minefield.

Two conference teams, USC and UCLA, came within a basket of beating No. 2-ranked Kansas while Arizona lost by eight points. USC beat a pair of ranked teams, Tennessee and Texas. UCLA knocked off No. 16 BYU.

Arizona finished the non-conference slate at 11-2. Washington State had a glossy 10-2 record. The Cougars beat No. 15 Baylor by six points and won five of their six road games.

USC starts a pair of 6-foot-10 forwards. UCLA has three players with higher rebound averages than the top UW rebounder. Two of the nation’s two scorers, Arizona’s Derrick Williams and Washington State’s Klay Thompson, play in this conference. One of the nation’s top rebounders, UCLA’s Nikola Vucevic, patrols the Pauley lanes.

Don’t think it’s not all about Washington. Don’t think it’s a slam dunk. In fact, the Huskies begin play with probably their two toughest matchups, USC and UCLA in Los Angeles.

With the non-conference season virtually completed, here’s a capsuled look at Washington’s Pac-10 opponents. Teams are in order of when the Huskies play them:

Kevin O'Neill

USC (8-5, 1-3 on the road)

Non-Conference: Kevin O’Neill’s Trojans nearly beat No. 3 Kansas (70-68), then three days later they knocked off No. 19 Tennessee (65-64). They also beat then No. 19 Texas (73-56). They’ve only lost one game at home, but it was a lopsided result to Rider (77-57).

Starters: F Nikola Vucevic (6-10, Sr., 15.2 ppg, 9.6 rpg)); G Maurice Jones (5-7, Fr., 11.3 ppg, 4.2 apg); F Alex Stepheson (6-10, Sr., 9.8 ppg, 8.6 rpg); G Marcus Simmons (6-5, Sr., 5.5 ppg); G Jio Fontan (6-0, Jr., 16.3 ppg).

What to overcome: The Trojans can put a pair of 6-10 forwards on the floor, Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson. Between them, they are averaging 18.2 rebounds per game. Offensive rebounds will be particularly difficult so the Huskies’ shooting percentage needs to be stressed.

What to exploit: Newcomer Jio Fontan, a transfer from Fordham, enhances the team speed but overall the Huskies are quicker at virtually every position. USC will keep the game in the half court. Huskies need to push it at every opportunity but the Trojans get back quite well. When the game is fast, UW holds the edge. USC has more turnovers (167) than assists (158).

Notes: Guard Fontan has played just three games since becoming eligible after transferring from Fordham. He makes the team much better; three of the Trojans’ losses have been by a combined five points; their schedule has tested them, playing three top 20 teams (beating two); Maurice Jones is 5-7, 155 pounds.

Ben Howland

UCLA (8-4, 1-3 on the road)

Non-Conference: Ben Howland’s Bruins lost to Kansas by one point (77-76). The Bruins beat No. 16 BYU (86-79) and lost to No. 7 Villanova (82-70). It has been a team of streaks. The Bruins started the season with three straight wins, then lost four in a row but now are on a five-game win streak.

Starters: F Tyler Honeycutt (6-8, So., 14.9 ppg, 8.0 rpg); F Reeves Nelson (6-8, So., 14.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg); G Malcolm Lee (6-4, Jr., 12.1 ppg); G Lazeric Jones (6-0, Jr., 11.4 ppg); C Joshua Smith (6-10, Fr., 10.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg).

What to overcome: The Bruins have three starters averaging at least 6.8 rebounds per game. The Huskies have no one at that pace. Shot selection will be critical because the Bruins average 25.7 defensive rebounds (and 13.1 offensive rebounds). They also have 75 blocked shots, so those big guys inside can change how an opponent attacks the basket. One-and-done will be the case for most of the Huskies’ possessions.

What to exploit: Defensively, this is not a typical UCLA team. They are a middle-of-the-pack team in field goals allowed and near the bottom in steals. Like USC, the Huskies should have more team speed and need to play fast. If UCLA keeps it in the half court, the Huskies’ shooting percentage needs to be higher than usual.

Notes: Honeycutt had 33 points against Kansas but he has a sprained right shoulder. His status for the games against the Huskies and Cougars is uncertain; the Bruins have had five different leading scorers in 13 games; Josh Smith grew up in Seattle and played for Kentwood High.

Dana Altman

OREGON (7-5, 0-2 on the road)

Non-Conference: Dana Altman’s Ducks played only one true road game, a loss at Virginia (63-49). UW beat the Cavaliers by 43 points (106-63). The only other ‘road’ game for the Ducks was at the Rose Garden in Portland, a resounding loss to No. 1 Duke (98-71). The Ducks lost to Idaho (69-65), a 6-5 team, at home in their final non-conference game.

Starters: F Joevan Catron (6-6, Sr. 17.5 ppg); F E.J. Singler (6-6, So., 12.3 ppg); G Malcolm Armstead (6-0, Jr., 7.2 ppg); G Jay-R Strowbridge (5-11, Sr., 8.3 ppg); G Garrett Sims (6-1, Jr., 7. 1 ppg).

What to overcome: The Ducks put a lot of experience of the floor, two seniors and two junior starters, so they know how to deal with conference play. Because of two schools’ long-standing rivalry, the Ducks can get inspired. They surprised the Huskies last season at Hec Ed (90-79) in the second conference game, the team’s most unsettling loss of the season.

What to exploit: Oregon is not a good shooting team, as the Ducks are last in the Pac-10 at 42.6 percent and second-to-last in three-point percentage, 31.4. On the other side, they also are near the bottom in defensive field-goal percentage. If the Huskies play their usual tight man defense and use their quickness, they should hold a decent scoring advantage.

Notes: Ducks have lost their last two games; four players have fouled out this season for a total of six times, Armstead and reserve Johnathan Loyd twice each; Catron missed 28 games last season with an injury. He was granted a medical hardship year. He has led the Ducks in scoring nine times this season; E.J. Singler’s father played quarterback for Oregon State (1978-82) and his older brother Kyle plays for No. 1-ranked Duke.

Craig Robinson

OREGON STATE (5-6, 1-3 on the road)

Non-Conference: Craig Robinson’s Beavers lost to teams they probably shouldn’t have, such as Seattle U. (83-80), Texas Southern (66-60) and Utah Valley (70-68). Their final non-conference win over Illinois-Chicago (74-54) was their biggest. They have yet to be tested by a strong team.

Starters: G Jared Cunningham (6-4, So., 13.4 ppg); G Calvin Hayes (6-2, Sr., 11.2 ppg); F Omari Johnson (6-9, Sr., 10.5 ppg); G Lathen Wallace (6-3, Sr., 9.2 ppg); F Joe Burton (6-7, So., 7.5 ppg).

What to overcome: The Ducks are quick, leading the conference in steals at 11.9 per game. They will try to match the Huskies speed and hope the home crowd builds their momentum. They also are a good free-throw shooting team so they will try to take the game inside more to draw fouls.

What to exploit: The Beavers are at the conference bottom in scoring margin (+0.8), three-point percentage (30.4), rebounding (33.1), scoring defense (72.9), field-goal percentage defense (45.6) and three-point percentage defense (38.4). There are all areas in which the Huskies are among the conference leaders. This Husky team is supposedly deeper than its ever been in shooters. This is the game in which the Huskies perimeter shooters should thrive.

Notes: Unlike his brother-in-law, OSU coach Craig Robinson, brother of Michelle Obama, is not having a good fall. His Beavers have yet to score an impressive victory. The rebuilding continues.

Johnny Dawkins

STANFORD (6-4, 1-4 on the road)

Non-Conference: Johnny Dawkins’ Cardinal lost badly at Butler (83-50), a perennial Tournament team; won first four games; best DePaul in overtime (81-74) for only road win; beat Virginia (80-61), a team the Huskies beat 106-63; played Yale Tuesday to finish the non-conference slate.

Starters: G Jeremy Green (6-4, Jr., 16.5 ppg); F Josh Owens (6-8, Jr., 11.6 ppg); F Dwight Powell (6-10, Fr., 8.6 ppg); F Jack Trotter (6-10, Jr., 4.9 ppg); Jarrett Mann (6-4, Jr., 2.9 ppg, 3.3 apg).

What to overcome: Fundamentally strong in rebounding and defense. Giving up just 62 points per game. This will be a half-court challenge for the Huskies as the Cardinal likely will pack it in inside. Perimeter shooting will be at a premium.

What to exploit: The Cardinal do not defend well against the three-pointer, second last in the conference at 36.2 percent. UW is averaging 42.9 percent. If the Huskies can hit their outside shots early, that will force Stanford out of its alignments and be forced to gamble. That also will open the offense up for the Huskies.

Notes: Stanford starts four juniors and a freshman. No seniors on the roster. Center, 6-10 Dwight Powell, is a candidate for top freshman; point guard Jarrett Mann has 33 assists but 26 turnovers. Cardinal is last in the conference in assists, last in steals and last in assists-to-turnover ratio; junior forward Josh Owens played the first two years for the Cardinal then redshirted last season.

Mike Montgomery

CALIFORNIA (6-5, 2-2 on the road)

Non-Conference: Mike Montgomery’s Bears played a substantial non-conference schedule. Lost to No. 2 Kansas (78-63), No. 22 Notre Dame (57-44) and No. 7 San Diego State (77-57); finished non-conference schedule with Hartford Tuesday.

Starters: F Harper Kemp (6-8, Jr., 13.1 ppg); G Jorge Gutierrez (6-3, Jr., 12.6 ppg); C Mark Sanders-Frison (6-7, Sr., 9.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg); G Gary Franklin (6-2, Fr., 8.3 ppg); G Allen Crabbe (6-4, Fr., 7.4 ppg).

What to overcome: What stands in the Huskies path – literally – is 6-foot-7, 275-pound Mark Sanders-Frison. He fills the lane and is a load to move out of it. He’s averaging 7.8 rebounds per game, up from 3.0 last season. Husky inside players will have to deal with his strength and bulk. The offense may have to find another way to the basket.

What to exploit: Curiously, the Bears lead the conference in defensive rebounds, 26.8, but are last in offensive rebounds, 9.2. This means the Huskies, a highly aggressive team that has put an emphasis on rebounding, can find soft shots with some extra hard work in the offensive end. Huskies should have the height advantage at most positions and definitely the quickness edge.

Notes: Bears have used the same starting five for all 11 games; two freshman start for the Bears, Franklin and Crabbe; Jorge Gutierrez is a hard-nosed player who makes this team go. He is from Chihuahua, Mexico; Harper Kemp missed all last season with a knee injury.

Sean Miller

ARIZONA (11-2, 3-2 on the road)

Non-Conference: Sean Miller’s Wildcats won their first five in a row and eight of their first nine; lost to No. 2 Kansas (87-79) in Vegas; scorched by No. 23 BYU (87-65) in Salt Lake; beat North Carolina State in Raleigh (72-62).

Starters: F Derrick Williams (6-8, So., 19.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg); F Solomon Hill (6.6, So., 8.3 ppg); F Jamelle Horne (6-7, Sr., 7.8 ppg); G Kyle Fogg (6-3, Jr., 7.8 ppg); G Lamont Jones (5-10, So., 7.3 ppg).

What to overcome: Derrick Williams will battle WSU’s Klay Thompson for the conference scoring title, and possibly Player of the Year. He’s a very active player who shoots at a high percentage and can rebound well. Huskies need a plan to deal with him.

What to exploit: Like UW, Arizona is a team that likes to run, shoots well and plays solid defense. It’ll be a match of similar styles but the Huskies have better and more abundant shooters and are bigger inside with the emergence of 7-foot Aziz N’Diaye. N’Diaye needs to stay away from foul trouble. It may come down to free-throw shooting. Arizona leads the conference at 78.2 percent. Washington is ninth at 64.9.

Notes: Have won three in a row; McKale Center is one of the most difficult arenas for an opponent in the country; Derrick Williams led the Wildcats last season in scoring (15.7), rebounding (7.1) and shooting percentage (57.4). He is the first Wildcat freshman to do that since 1973.

Herb Sendek

ARIZONA STATE (7-4, 3-3 on the road)

Non-Conference: Herb Sendek’s Sun Devils have a solid non-conference record but it’s pretty soft. They lost to No. 15 Baylor (68-54) in Waco and beat Nevada (78-75) by just three points. UW beat the Wolf Pack by 30 points (90-60). Won two of three at the Great Alaska Shootout.

Starters: G Trent Lockett (6-4, So., 14.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg); G Ty Abbott (6-3, So,., 12.8 ppg); F Rihards Kuksiks (6-6, So., 11.5 ppg); F Kyle Cain (6-7, Fr., 8.9 ppg); G Jamelle McMillan (6-2, Sr., 6.1 ppg, 4.7 apg).

What to overcome: The Sun Devils are not a prolific scoring team but they also don’t give up a lot of points. They average 65.7 and give up 63.5 per game. They slow things down and are a type of team that if allowed to hang around, they can find a way to win. They’ve won three games by three points or fewer.

What to exploit: Sun Devils have the second-worst scoring offense in the conference (behind Cal) so the key is building a lead. The Sun Devils do not have the overall shooting ability from the three-point arc (32.9) or the free-throw (63.5) to mount effective comebacks.

Notes: Have won four straight heading into conference play; Jamelle McMillan, son of Nate McMillan from Bishop O’Dea High, is a senior already. He may win the conference assist title this season; Rihards Kuksiks ranks fifth in school history in three-pointers made (211). Ty Abbott is sixth (199); Abbott had games of 28, 29 and 30 points last season.

WASHINGTON STATE (10-2, 2-0 on the road)

Non-Conference: Ken Bone’s Cougars lost just two games in the non-conference schedule. The Cougars thrashed Gonzaga (81-59) and beat No. 15 Baylor (77-71) in the Diamond Head Classic. Lost in the finals to Butler (84-68) to end a five-game winning streak. Only other loss was to then 5th-ranked Kansas State (63-58) at home.

Starters: G Klay Thompson (6-6, Jr., 22.3 ppg); G Faisal Aden (6-4, Jr., 16.1 ppg) F DeAngelo Castro (6-8, Jr., 9.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg); F Abe Lodwick (6-7, Jr., 2.8 ppg); G Marcus Capers (6-4, Jr., 6.5 ppg).

What to overcome: Klay Thompson. He is the primary go-to guy on this team and probably in the league. He leads the conference in scoring and assists and is a strong Player of the Year candidate. He’s got the pedigree. He is the son of former NBA No. 1 draft choice Mychal Thompson, who played 12 seasons for Portland and Lakers, winning three NBA titles. He starts the offense and many times finishes it as the Cougars shoot for high percentage. The Cougs also lead the league in defense, allowing just 58.9 ppg. Aden gives the team a reliable second scorer.

What to exploit: The Cougars are not a good rebounding team. They play solid zone defense designed for one-and-done possessions. WSU has four players 6-foot-10 or taller but none of them is a skilled rebounder. The key for the Huskies is put an emphasis on offensive rebounds.

Notes: Coach Ken Bone, the former UW assistant, starts five juniors; the Cougars 45-point victory over Sacramento State (84-36) was the third largest since 1945; Faisal Aden is a transfer from Hillsborough CC in Tampa, Florida. He was born in Somalia but moved to San Diego as a child.