The Washington Huskies are crowding the UCLA Bruins. Halfway through this Pacific-10 Conference men’s basketball season, the Bruins are atop the league standings, just as expected. But there beside them are the surprising Huskies.
There is UCLA’s Jrue Holiday, the former McDonald’s All-American, having a solid freshman season. But it’s no match for the spectacular one by UW’s Isaiah Thomas.
And there is UCLA senior guard Darren Collison making his case for Pac-10 player of the year – if he can beat out UW senior guard Justin Dentmon.
Yes, Dentmon, who has the Pac-10’s highest scoring average since the start of league play (19.6 points per game), as well as a coach willing to make his startling case.
“I think our guy, Justin Dentmon,” Romar said Tuesday, when asked for a midseason MVP during the Pac-10 coaches’ teleconference. “When you say, ‘Pac-10 player of the year,’ it doesn’t sound that way because he hasn’t played anywhere near player of the year basketball in the other years. But right at this point – right now – he is playing like a senior, and he is playing phenomenal basketball. … But (Arizona State’s) James Harden is having a fantastic year, as you knew he would. Darren Collison is also doing well at UCLA. There are some candidates out there.”
The few other Pac-10 coaches willing to weigh in Tuesday leaned toward Collison, even though he leads the league in no statistical category and ranks 10th in scoring.
“I guess beauty will be in the eye of the beholder, because it depends what you will fancy,” said Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins, who was a star guard at Duke. “But … Collison really impressed me. Not because he’s the leading scorer, but because he makes guys around him better.”
“He leads the league in Pac-10 championships and Final Four appearances and pulling games out when his team needs buckets,” Washington State coach Tony Bennett said. “And I applaud that.”
And now, our own Pac-10 midseason honors:
Pac-10 player of the half-season: Arizona forward Jordan Hill.
He is the league’s leading rebounder, is second in blocked shots, third in scoring and seventh in field goal percentage. He affects both ends of the floor and should be an NBA lottery pick.
Husky of the half-season: It’s a tough decision between Dentmon, Jon Brockman and Thomas. But my vote goes to Thomas, the freshman from Tacoma.
Brockman is a holdover from the 16-17 team of a season ago; and so is Dentmon, who only looks like a different guy. It is the addition of Thomas that has made everything click. His scoring ability has forced defenses to spread out enough to give Brockman some breathing room, and his ballhandling has allowed Dentmon to slip into an off-ball role where he can flourish.
All-Pac-10 first team: Harden, Collison, Hill, Brockman and Taj Gibson of USC.
All-Pac-10 team based on performance versus Huskies: Hill, Jeff Pendergraph of Arizona State, Patrick Christopher of California, Nic Wise and Chase Budinger of Arizona.
Coach of the half-season: Oregon State’s Craig Robinson by a nose, ahead of Romar. The Huskies have exceeded most expectations, but there is no transformation that suggests magic has been performed.
Meanwhile, the Beavers started the Robinson era with early losses to Howard, Yale and Montana State. They fell to 1-5 in league play with a lifeless home loss to UW. And now somehow they are 4-0 since the inauguration of Barack Obama, Robinson’s brother-in-law.
Picked last in the preseason poll, they are tied with Arizona and WSU for sixth … high enough to merit an opening-day bye in the Pac-10 tournament.
Freshman of the half-season: Thomas in a landslide. He leads Pac-10 freshmen in scoring and is second in assists and assists/turnover ratio. Honorable mention: Holiday and DeMar DeRozan of USC.
Projected NCAA tournament teams: UCLA, Washington, USC, Arizona State and Arizona.
Projected Pac-10 champion: Washington. The Huskies have a trait that often separates championship teams from merely good ones: Three players talented enough to demand an opponent’s special attention – Dentmon, Brockman and Thomas.
Expectations aside, the Huskies have looked every bit the Bruins’ equal. The teams’ schedules also are very similar, except for the potentially decisive difference that UW has to visit the Los Angeles schools this time around. But the Huskies have been solid on the road, and there was nothing fluky about their home sweep of the Trojans and Bruins.
The Huskies may simply be better: senior leadership, more inside-outside balance, three solid scoring options.
Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808