BY Bob Sherwin 06:39PM 03/01/2011

Pac-10 notes: Stepping up in February

Last month didn’t just belong to the triumvirate of Thompson, Thomas and Williams. Four others helped pull their teams through conference play.

Washington State's Klay Thompson is one of three leading candidates for Pac-10 Player of the Year. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

Washington’s Isaiah Thomas, Arizona’s Derrick Williams and Washington State’s Klay Thompson generally have been three most consistent players and the reason why it’s a three-headed debate for Pac-10 Player of the Year.

But those three also have had some toe-stubs down the stretch. A measure of a good player is how they are playing this time of year and here are four who are playing at a higher level the past few weeks:

California Junior guard Jorge Gutierrez: He is averaging 21.3 points in February (Thompson, the Pac-10 scoring leader, has a 21.4 average overall). Gutierrez has had six 20-point games in his last 10.

“He just makes plays,” Oregon Coach Dana Altman said. “Defensively, he makes steals that really impact the game. His instincts defensively are outstanding. He’s got good hands, long arms. He gets his hands on the ball all the time. He impacts the game defensively whereas a lot of players look just for their offense. I can’t think of a player off the top of my head that impacts the game like he does.”

Oregon State sophomore guard Jared Cunningham: He ranks among the best Beaver players ever in steals. He now owns the sophomore school record with 77 steals. Overall, it’s the fourth most ever in a season and the most since Gary Payton had 91 in 1988-89. He needs four more steals to enter the Pac-10′s single-season top 10.

“He’s not just the athletic Jared Cunningham that everyone saw last year. He worked very hard on his outside shot preparing for this year,” OSU Coach Craig Robinson said. “He worked on his body, doing a tremendous job in the weight room. He also has opened his mind to the cerebral part of the game and is making more assists and more smart steals. It’s all come together for him. He’s one of the best practice players I’ve ever had the chance to coach.”

USC’s junior forward Nikola Vucevic: He was named Player of the Week for the first time in his career after averaging 22.5 points and 11 rebounds in the sweep of the Arizona schools. He has had six consecutive double-doubles and leads the conference with 18. He has 28 in his career.

“Nik has made great strides in understanding what to do when we throw him the ball, which we do every time,” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said. “His last six games games, with the exception of one, have been really high-level games. He has not turned the ball over in the post, he’s making good decisions when to shot and when to pass. I always tell him there’s a lot of accountability and responsibility in being the guy we run our offense through. He has taken that to another level.”

Washington State forward DeAngelo Casto: He is shooting 70.8 percent (34 of 48) from the floor over the past six games. He’s averaging 15.5 points and 7.5 rebounds during that span.

“A lot of people don’t talk about him as much as other players around league. I chalk that up to he just doesn’t score as much,” WSU Coach Ken Bone said. “Where he’s at his best for us is his energy level, his motor never quits, he’s diving for loose balls, his deflections, his defense. Those are not statistical areas. I think sometimes he’s a little overlooked but his value to our team is really, really strong.”

Do we hear a fourth?
There is an assumption that the Pac-10 Conference should get three teams into the NCAA Tournament, Arizona, UCLA and Washington. Perhaps.

But can the league be greedy enough for a fourth?

“To be even talking about that at this juncture, is a bit amazing to me,” said Cal Coach Mike Montgomery, whose fifth-place Bears are 16-13, 9-7 in the league. “But we have 16 wins in a difficult schedule. The league is better than anyone wants to give credit to it, whether that’s going to allow anyone else to get in I don’t know.

“We probably need to win three more games to even get in the discussion.”

As an example of how the conference doesn’t get respect is the fact that Arizona is the only ranked team, at 18th, and UCLA has not cracked the top 25.

“I can’t believe UCLA is not ranked this week,” said O’Neill, coach of the Bruins’ cross-town rival. “I think it’s an absolute travesty.

“Our league for whatever reason doesn’t get the credit. All I hear about is BYU and St. John’s, every time I turn on the TV. UCLA beat them both. Maybe it’s because we’re like in a different country. We’re three hours behind everyone else. To me, they’re a top 15, 16 team. They’re really coming along and becoming a really good basketball team.”

UCLA Coach Ben Howland said right now “USC is the hottest team, having swept the Bay Area schools and the Arizona schools. Cal is really hot right now. You have a number of teams in our league, Cal, WSU, us, along with Washington, Arizona and UCLA, all with a chance to get into the NCAA tournament and do something when they get there.”

Here’s a quick look around the league:

Arizona: The Wildcats shooting/scoring averages took a hit when they were swept by the L.A. schools last week. They averaged just 53 points, 25.4 below their season average. They shot 33.6 percent, 15.6 percent below their norm…F Derrick Williams, the Player of the Week when the Cats played the Washington schools – and likely conference Player of the Year – scored eight points against USC. That ended his 36-game streak of double figures…the Cats are 15-0 at home with the Oregon schools coming in this week. They can become the 26th team over the past 32 seasons to be 9-0 in conference play at home.

Arizona State: Freshmen and sophomores accounted for 91 of the team’s 99 points last week in Los Angeles…sophomore G Trent Lockett averaged 17.3 while freshman G Keala King averaged 10.7…the Sun Devils will finish 10th but their first-round opponent in the Pac-10 Tournament is uncertain. It could be one of four teams as the final week will sort out the pairings.

California: G Allen Crabbe, the likely Freshman of the Year, averaged 22.5 points in the sweep of the Oregon schools last week. He made 10 of 16 three-point attempts.

Oregon: The Ducks had been on a roll – 6-2 over previous eight games – until a double loss week at home to the Bay Area schools…Junior G Malcolm Armstead had his first career start against Stanford and responded with 22 points, six assists and five steals… G Jay-R Strowbridge is making his senior year meaningful. He is averaging 17.0 points over his past three games. He had a career-high 26 points two week ago.

Oregon State: Freshman G Ahmad Starks had made just 9 of 48 shots (18.8 percent) in his previous 14 games before last week. Against the Bay Area schools, he hit 7 of 15 (46.7 percent).

Stanford: Aaron Bright, the freshman guard from Bellevue, hit 8 of 10 three-point attempts against the Oregon schools. He was 5-for-5 against Oregon State. Overall, the Cardinal made 20 of 40…Over his last eight games, junior G Jeremy Green is averaging 21.1 points. He’s hitting 48.1 (25 of 52) from three-point range…Bright and Green are being set up by G Jarrett Mann. He is averaging 6.6 assists over his last nine games…F Josh Owen had a career-high 31 points against Oregon.

UCLA: The strength of the Bruins in conference play has been their rebounding. They have a plus-6.1 rebound edge over their opponents over the past 14 games, 12 of them victories…Freshman F Josh Smith from Kentwood and sophomore Reeves Nelson combined to shoot 64.3 percent (27-of-42) in last week’s sweep of the Arizona schools. Nelson had a career-high 27 points against Arizona…the Bruins held the Wildcats a season-low 49 points.

USC: Since the Trojans are down to seven scholarship players, Coach Kevin O’Neill has severely limited his practice time. It’s a little more than a hour and a half a week. He gives the team Sunday off. They’ll have a half hour a film and half hour of lifting Monday, an hour practice Tuesday and 35 minutes Wednesday. They play Thursday with just a 15-minute morning shoot around, off Friday and play Saturday…the Trojans have a four-game win streak and during that streak have held their opponents to 35.9 shooting percentage. They also average just 7.3 turnovers during that stretch.

Washington State: Junior G Klay Thompson, who had a game-high 26 points in the Cougars’ 80-69 upset of Washington Sunday, has 17 games with 20-or-more points this season. He has 37 in his career. He has scored 1,622 career points now, third on the school’s list. He’s also 18 points ahead of Washington’s Isaiah Thomas among active players…between the Huskies and Cougars, it’s feast or famine. The Cougars swept the season series from the Huskies. It’s the eighth consecutive year that the two schools have not split.


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