by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

College hoops in the West is not dead. Far from it, in fact. Indeed, this season’s WCC and Mountain West races look crowded at the top, with multiple teams in each loop appearing capable of landing Big Dance at-large bids. The Big West might not be a multi-bid league this year, but most regional observers believe the loop to be at its highest level in several years, with Long Beach State a candidate for an NCAA at-large berth if it doesn’t win the conference tourney. Even the WAC is showing signs of reviving, with recent upswings by Nevada, Utah State, and Hawaii suggesting that its race could be a crackling one as well.

But what about the flagship conference of the region? Where does the newly-named Pac-12 fit into the mix?

After nearly two months of observing college hoops action this season, the consensus among aficionados is that the league is in the midst of another down cycle. As the calendar turns to January, we are hard-pressed to view the Pac-12 as more than a two-bid league to the Big Dance, and even that might be generous.

When we presented our first “Bracketology” update of the season last week, we included only two Pac-12 entries into the field of 68. Since then, we would probably remove Oregon State and perhaps replace the Beavers with Washington as a play-in game participant. The Huskies, Stanford, Arizona, and the Beavers all have the look of fringe “bubble” teams at the moment. The only Pac-12 side we are reasonably certain to qualify for the Big Dance is Cal, yet all the Bears have done is lose their three toughest non-conference games, humiliated by Missouri (at Kansas City) and whipped at UNLV in the process. For now, we project Cal in the 8-9-10 seed range, but can’t be sure of any other conference rep making it into the NCAA Tourney. Significant Pac-12 intersectional wins are far outnumbered by defeats as conference play sets to commence this week.

Of course, it never helps the “Pac” when UCLA struggles, and the Bruins have done a lot of that in the early going this season. We’ll get more into a team-by-team rundown in just a moment.

Before we do, however, we’d like to relive some of the more intriguing college hoops chapters of our 55 seasons of publishing THE GOLD SHEET, and refer back to the golden era of John Wooden’s Bruins...from a bit different perspective.

Among the most glorious periods in college hoop annals was the Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) era at UCLA between 1966-69. The Bruins won national titles in all three of Alcindor’s varsity seasons, part of an incredible string of seven straight, and ten of twelve, crowns won by Wooden’s teams between 1964-75.

The Alcindor teams, however, might have been the best of all Wooden’s championship squads, with many believing the second of those during Big Lew’s junior season (1967-68) being the best of all. Alcindor’s dominance in the paint was complemented by an electric backcourt featuring senior Mike Warren and junior Lucius Allen, plus sharpshooting forward Lynn Shackelford and rugged power forward Mike Lynn. Wooden’s bench provided good depth that season, too, with guards Bill Sweek and Kenny Heitz and underrated frontliner Jim Nielsen. For the first half of the season, forward Edgar Lacey (who had been one of the nation’s most-dynamic players prior to a devastating knee injury in the 1965-66 campaign) added extra spark, although he left the team midway through the season after a sideline spat with Wooden in the “Game of the Century” vs. Houston at the Astrodome. Over those three campaigns, UCLA fashioned an 88-2 mark.

But, as usual with such astounding win streaks, the games that stick out are the rare losses and the close calls. And most hoops historians know all about the Bruins’ loss to the aforementioned Houston Cougars in that 1968 game at the Astrodome. What some might not recall is the identity of the team that inflicted the other defeat, and indeed gave UCLA the most fits over that three-year period.

That would be crosstown rival Southern Cal, in a series of games over a three-year span that still resonate among hardcore hoop followers more than four decades later.

The Trojans had mostly held their own vs. Wooden’s Bruins until the mid 60s, when UCLA began to rattle off its string of championships, but even then the contests vs. SC would often be hard-fought and tense. Among several nerve-wracking contests, Wooden’s second national title winner in 1965 had to barely escape a 52-50 upset bid by Troy at the end of the regular season. The next year, SC replaced Forest Twogood as head coach with Bob Boyd, a Trojan alum and former coach at Santa Ana College and the University of Seattle before taking a job with Joe Dean, Hot Rod Hundley, and former U of Washington All-American Bob Houbregs as one of the early reps for Converse shoes.

Talk about bad timing; Boyd’s career as Trojan head coach would begin at the same time as Alcindor would be making his ballyhooed varsity debut across town in Westwood!

In the first game of the Big Lew era, the Bruins and Trojans met in a non-conference game (as they sometimes would in those years, in addition to occasional collisions in the old Los Angeles Holiday Classic at the L.A. Sports Arena). All Big Lew did in his varsity debut was score 56 points vs. Boyd’s SC in a 105-90 Bruins romp. Meeting again at the end of December in the L.A. Classic, UCLA rolled once more, 107-83, with Boyd’s new idea of double-teaming Alcindor backfiring on the Trojans.

Boyd, however, was a shrewd tactician, and indeed had nearly knocked Wooden’s first national title team out of 1964 Big Dance in a nailbiter at the West Regional in Corvallis. Boyd’s Seattle side led that game deep into the second half until the Chieftains ran into foul trouble, and Wooden’s Bruins escaped by a 95-90 count. But Boyd realized he had to do something different to compete with the Alcindor’s UCLA and decided to dust off one of the oldest and least popular strategies in the books.

It was the stall, or, as Boyd prefers, the “slowdown” style. (To this day, the old coach will chafe when one mentions the term “stall” in his presence). Call it what you want, but Boyd reckoned (quite correctly) that the best way to combat the powerhouse Bruins was to take the air out of the ball. The lack of a shot clock in those days, and rules that made it possible to simply hold the ball, made the slowdown/stall worth a look, even if it had rarely been employed since teams used it in desperation against Wilt Chamberlain Kansas team a decade earlier.

And darned if the strategy reintroduced by Boyd didn’t turn college hoops on its ear. Not to mention providing Wooden’s UCLA with all sorts of fits.

After facing Alcindor (and getting dominated) early in the season, Boyd had devoted time at each practice on the slowdown he would eventually employ against the Bruins. “I had to sell it to the team,” said Boyd, “that this would only be used against UCLA. You know, at first my guys weren’t too crazy about it (the slowdown), but I convinced them it would be our best chance to win.”

The top-ranked Bruins were rolling, undefeated, and rarely challenged when they entered the February 4, 1967 AAWU meeting at the Sports Arena confident of dominating SC once again. But the savvy Boyd had other ideas.

Soon after the opening tip, Boyd unveiled his strategy. It helped that the Trojans never let the Bruins out of their sights in the first few minutes. And when SC had the ball, Boyd simply spread the court, keeping his center above the foul line, daring Alcindor to come out of the low post to play defense.

“I told (center) Ron Taylor,” Boyd said to us not long ago, “to just wait for Alcindor (Abdul-Jabbar) to come out and get him. If it meant holding the damned ball for five minutes, then he was going to hold it.”

The Bruins mostly refused to take the bait. Alcindor would mostly venture out only as far as the free-throw line, where he stood, occasionally bending over to touch the palms of his hands to the floor, but Taylor wouldn’t budge, on several occasions merely holding the ball while nothing transpired, just as ordered by Boyd.

Boyd’s genius, however, was reflected when Big Lew finally would move away from the low post. “We would then cut and back cut to the basket until we got a layup,” said Boyd. The strategy was working; SC took a stunning 17-14 lead into halftime.

Sensing his team was in trouble, Wooden opted for a quicker lineup in the second half, benching Shackelford and Kenny Heitz for the quicker Donny Saffer and Bill Sweek, but the Trojans wouldn’t budge. The game stayed in the balance until the final minute, when a pair of Allen free throws knotted the game at 31 apiece. The Trojans had the ball for the final shot, but forward Bill Hewitt’s jumper rolled in and out, and overtime beckoned.

To the rescue in overtime for UCLA rode the unheralded Sweek, who converted two steals into layups in the extra session to finally allow the Bruins to break clear and claim a 40-35 win (part of multiple memorable heroics provided by Sweek, who would also beat Purdue with a buzzer-beating jumper in the next season’s opener, a game detailed by us last spring in another feature story recalling Rick Mount’s debut game as a Boilermaker). The slowdown had also limited the contributions of Alcindor, who made only four field goals and scored only 13 points. And the shock waves from the stall were felt across the college basketball landscape.

Boyd came under severe criticism for his strategy, with Wooden pouring fuel on the fire. Asked if he thought other coaches would also consider stalling, Wooden agreed...sort of. “Yes,” said the Wizard, “but I don’t think most coaches will try it. Too many coaches think too much of basketball to do it.”

Boyd was vilified, and controversy raged, especially at the following week’s L.A. Basketball Writers Luncheon, when Trojan AD Jess Hill came to the defense of his coach. “Any team that attempts to run against UCLA is doomed for devastation,” said Hill. “I don’t see much difference in stalling the last four minutes of the game--all coaches do it--or at the beginning.”

Motivated by Boyd’s slowdown tricks, however, several underdog coaches were emboldened to try the same thing later that season. Dartmouth, beaten 74 points by Princeton in the first meeting, employed its own stall in the rematch and gave the Tigers a much better fight. Penn tried the same thing vs. Butch Van Breda Kolff’s Ivy heavyweight Tigers and was within a point with barely over a minute remaining before losing, 25-16. The next year, at the 1968 ACC Tournament in March, NC State coach Norm Sloan took the concept to extremes, ordering the deep freeze against a Duke team that had crushed the Wolfpack in the regular season. Sloan was hellbent to get Vic Bubas’ Blue Devils out of their zone defense, and the strategy paid off. Final score: NC State 12, Duke 10! Cries for the installation of a shot clock were reaching deafening proportions, thanks in part to Boyd bringing the slowdown/stall out of the dustbin against Alcindor’s UCLA.

Wooden thought he had an answer to any would-be imitators of Boyd and the stall. When Oregon coach Steve Belko tried the same stall trick a few weeks later in 1967 at Eugene, the Bruins found themselves in another tight game, leading only 18-14 at the half. Wooden, however, had conferred with his AD, J.D. Morgan, and decided to fight fire with, for the lack of a better term, a lack of fire. So, for the first time in his long career, other than end-of-game situations, Wooden ordered his UCLA team into a stall. In one excruciating nine-minute stretch of the second half at Mac Court, nary a shot was attempted, as Wooden seemed intent on sending a message that his team could employ the stall even more effectively than could any opponent, if the Wizard so wished. The Bruins won at Oregon, 34-25, only New Mexico State’s Lou Henson (in the 1968 West Regional semis) tried the stall on Alcindor’s UCLA again...until that man Boyd decided to try it again two years later.

Boyd had the Trojans continue to practice on the delay game, although he didn’t use it in the 1967-68 meetings vs. Alcindor’s Bruins, who won both games vs. SC by 101-67 and 72-64 scores. But in 1969, with UCLA entering the final weekend of the regular season unbeaten, top-ranked as usual, and facing back-to-back games vs. SC, Boyd was up to his old tricks again.

If anything, the UCLA team of Alcindor’s senior season might have been more susceptible to the stall, because those Bruins lacked the same quickness of the 1966-67 or 1967-68 teams in the backcourt. With Warren graduated and Allen ruled ineligible, Wooden scrambled to land a juco guard, John Vallely, to team with holdover Kenny Heitz in a new-look starting guard pair. Boyd’s SC, however, would hold a quickness edge in the backcourt, thanks in part to guard Mack Calvin, a juco transfer who arrived to the Trojans the previous year.

The 1968-69 version of SC was a good, but not great, team, bringing a 14-10 record and third-place in the Pac-8 into that final pair of games vs. the Bruins. Boyd, however, had started to prepare for UCLA on the first day of practice, and was ready to play slowdown ball again in the final weekend. The Friday night game would be held at the Sports Arena, and while SC didn’t quite deep freeze it like it did two years earlier, it was able to dictate pace and tempo and was within three points at halftime, down only 26-23. The Trojans’ pass-pass-pass-cut style lulled the Bruins to sleep in the second half, however, as Boyd’s team remarkably continued to control the pace of the game. The Bruins needed a pair of late free throws to level matters in the final minute at 43 before forcing overtime, much as the case two years earlier. Tied at 45 in the final moments of OT, SC’s Calvin drove the baseline and lofted an alley-oop shot over Alcindor and into the bucket to put the Trojans ahead, 47-45, with only four seconds to play.

Wooden called timeout, and Boyd thought he knew what was coming, with Alcindor unlikely to be a scoring threat in the full-court situation with just a few seconds left. “I told (guard) Steve Jennings to stick on Shackelford,” Boyd told us recently, as the Trojan coach reckoned that the Bruin lefty, famous for his arching “moon balls” from the corner, would likely provide UCLA’s best chance to score. “But he (Jennings) went for the interception instead.”

The Bruins inbounded to Alcindor near midcourt, who immediately looked for Shackelford. Jennings narrowly missed intercepting the pass, and Shackelford let fly a 30-footer, well behind the three-point line painted on the Sports Arena floor for the ABA’s L.A. Stars. The shot swished through the bucket and forced a second overtime, in which the Bruins immediately took control, finally winning by a 61-55 margin. A bullet dodged by Wooden’s unbeaten team!

The teams were scheduled to meet again the next night at Pauley Pavilion. Would Boyd dare try the slowdown once again?

The Trojan team was crestfallen and silent on the ride back to the Wilshire Hotel after the game. Some players had been crying, believing their chance at a monumental upset had slipped past. At the postgame meal, however, Boyd saw the despair and decided he needed to send a message for his troops.

“Guys, we’re going to beat them tomorrow,” said the coach. Moreover, the squad agreed with Boyd to try the exact same strategy the following night.

Wooden’s Bruins were concluding their fourth season at Pauley Pavilion, and to that point had never lost in the building, winning 51 straight. Entering the second of the back-to-backs vs. the Trojans, the UCLA overall win streak had mushroomed to 41 games since losing the Astrodome game to Elvin Hayes and Houston the year before. The conference win streak stood at 45 games, and the win streak over SC stood at 17.

Boyd and SC, however, were not deterred, as the Saturday night game simply picked up where the contest had left off the evening before. Alcindor’s impact was again mostly neutralized by the slowdown, with UCLA instead relying on the sparkplug Sweek, who hit five of six first-half shots, to help the Bruins to a 26-23 halftime edge. But SC was not blinking, and quickly assumed a 27-26 lead after the break. The game became a strategic duel thereafter, with Wooden failing to coax Boyd’s SC out of its deliberate shell. Remember, this was a Bruin side that was rarely challenged in those Alcindor years, and here were the underdog Trojans making a fist of it two nights running against Wooden’s almighty UCLA!

Amazingly, much like the previous night, UCLA was down in the late going until an Alcindor free throw leveled the score at 44-44 with 1:15 to play. Boyd’s Trojans were then playing for the last shot, and called a timeout to set up their play with 19 seconds to play. Trojan forward Ernie Powell received the ball on the perimeter and raced around a screen set by forward Don Crenshaw (who would play his game of the year, scoring 20 points) before firing a 20-foot jumper that rolled in with 6 seconds to play. Hurrying downcourt, the Bruins had a last chance to level, but it was Sidney Wicks, not Shackelford, trying to tie the game. Wicks’ 20-foot jumper missed and Boyd’s Trojans had slain the Bruin dragon, 46-44. Boyd’s SC had taken only 20 shots, making 12 of them from the floor, while again neutralizing Big Lew, who took only four shots and ended with a mere 10 points.

(Astoundingly, UCLA won 149 of its first 151 games in the building, with the losses coming only vs. Boyd’s teams in 1969 and the following year in 1970, when the Paul Westphal-led Trojans played it more conventionally and stole a late-season, 87-86 upset. Those losses to Boyd’s SC were UCLA’s only home defeats over an 11-season span.)

Following Powell’s game-winning shot, Trojan fans stormed the court, and SC radio play-by-play announcer Mike Walden was so excited that he had yelled himself hoarse before the postgame show had concluded. “They’re damned lucky we didn’t beat them twice,” roared a vindicated Boyd after the game.

Veteran hoop insiders in the region still regard Boyd’s tactics as among the most shrewd in recollections, with those back-to-back classics vs. the Bruins in ’69 rating among the best single-game coaching jobs of that generation.

And Boyd never again had to apologize for his stall (er, slowdown...sorry, coach!) strategy.

* * *

Following is a brief preview of the Pac-12 heading into the bulk of conference play, which commenced last week. Straight-up and pointspread records are through January 4.

Arizona (10-4 straight up, 6-7 against the spread)...The Cats have nothing to be ashamed about in their losses to Mississippi State, San Diego State, Florida, and Gonzaga, all likely Big Dance entrants, although a signature win avoided Sean Miller’s team in pre-conference play. Not a big team, and without a dominant player after F Derrick Williams’ earlier departure to the NBA after last season. But athletic and well-balanced, with several potential go-to scoring elements led by Fs Solomon Hill (12.1 ppg) and Jesse Perry (11.8 ppg), plus steady sr. G Kyle Fogg (11.6 ppg and 46.4% triples). Arizona could make a move in league play, however, if freshman guards Nick Johnson (now seven double-digit scoring games; 10.4 ppg) and Josiah Turner continue their improvement.

Arizona State (4-9 SU, 2-11 ATS)...This season has turned into a nightmare for the Sun Devils and HC Herb Sendek, feeling some heat (and not just the weather) in Tempe. Critics are focusing upon failed recruiting inroads and an inability to follow-up on landing James Harden (now starring for the Oklahoma City Thunder) a few years ago, and cite Sendek’s patient style of play as a turn-off to potential recruits. Looks like Herb is in some trouble to us. The Sun Devils have lost three times in their final possession, and their will might be crumbling, evidenced by three recent home losses, including setbacks to a Northern Arizona side that had just changed coaches after Mike Adras’ resignation, and a Fresno State team that had yet to win on the road all season. Sendek’s team is getting nos coring help from the post, while soph PG Keala King, though impressive at times, is still learning how to run the Sendek offense and has been guilty of more turnovers (3.9 pg) than assists (3.3 pg). More woes, as touted frosh G Jahii Carson (a local product from Mesa) has been declared ineligible. Outside of Utah, perhaps the loop’s weakest team.

California (12-3 SU, 8-4-1 ATS)...The Golden Bears look like the favorite entering conference play, but they have fizzled intersectionally, losing their only significant non-conference games vs. Missouri (a 39-point blowout on national TV at Kansas City), San Diego State, and UNLV (another lopsided defeat), downgrading their national profile. At their best, the Bears share the ball selflessly, with sr. PG Jorge Gutierrez and Minnesota transfer Justin Cobbs setting the tone. Smooth-stroking 6-6 soph swingman Allen Crabbe (15.9 ppg, 45% beyond arc) is the usual beneficiary, although the Bears have struggled mightily vs. ball pressure as they did a year ago. The frontline is a bit pedestrian (which isn’t too much of a hindrance in this league) and has been without F Richard Solomon the past few weeks with a stress reaction in his left foot. A player to watch might be 6-9 frosh PF David Kravish, who has impressed HC Mike Montgomery in recent outings.

Colorado (9-4 SU, 5-4 PSR)...The new edition Buffs are hoping that trips to boulder and the Coors Center (at altitude) prove discombobulating to conference opposition. Shrewd HC Tad Boyle is often running with four-guard sets that have been fortified by the emergence of true frosh G Spencer Dinwiddie (11.5 ppg; 51.4% from tripleville), proving a nice complement for backcourt mates such as 6-5 matchup headache Carlon Brown (Utah transfer scoring 12.8 ppg) and Andre Roberson (12.1 ppg). Boyle’s team will lock down on the stop end (reflected in recent 73-33 rout over Utah), but does not have much presence on the blocks outside of 6-9 Austin Dufault, who likes to spend some of his time on the attack end floating to the perimeter.

Oregon (10-4 SU, 3-8 ATS)...Here’s a team we might watch. Remember, Dana Altman had the Ducks rallying in the second half of last season and carried that momentum into the postseason, where UO caught fire and won the CBI. The recent availability of Minnesota transfer G Devoe Joseph (team-best 13.4 ppg), who became eligible in mid-December, has added some real bite to the Webfoot backcourt that already included dagger-thrower Garrett Sim, hitting 47% of his triples. Altman, however, is still looking for proper lineup combinations (he’s had seven different starting lineups), and frontline production continues to be erratic, with jr. C Tony Woods recently moved out of the starting five. La Tech sr. transfer PF Olu Ashaolu (8.1 ppg) has added depth to the frontcourt, but the area remains an area of concern for Altman. For now, the Ducks mostly live on the perimeter with Joseph, Sim, and versatile swingman E.J. Singler (12.8 ppg). Disparate efforts such as last week’s trips to the Washington schools, when the Ducks shot 69% in a blowout win at Washington State, and only 32% two days later when gettign whipped at Washington, could continue. Oregon has also lost just once at home (vs. Virginia) in nine games entering Thursday’s clash vs. Stanford.

Oregon State (10-4 SU, 7-3 ATS)...One of the pleasant surprises of the loop, Craig Robinson had his Beavers getting mention for NCAA at-large consideration before dropping both ends of the Washington-Washington State road swing last week. Robinson, a Pete Carril disciple, has further tweaked his modified version of the Princeton passing game to provide more clearance for electric 6-4 jr. G Jared Cunningham (17 ppg) and pint-sized (5-9) Ahmad Starks. OSU isn’t big, although it has a post presence in rugged 6-7 Devon Collier (12.8 ppg), who rarely ventures away from the blocks. Meanwhile, soph G Roberto Nelson (10.4 ppg) could be the league’s best sixth man. We still like the look fo the Beavers and suspect they will be in the postseason somewhere in March. Holding serve at home vs. the Bay Area schools this weekend will be crucial.

Southern Cal (5-10 SUR, 6-8 PSR)...Even though the Trojans’ straight-up mark is subpar, we won’t discount them from causing trouble in league play. SC has dealt with a rugged pre-conference slate and is still adjusting to the loss of G Jio Fontan, Troy’s most-creative offensive force who went down with a knee injury prior to the season. SC still employs HC Kevin O’Neill’s vexing defensive combinations and locks down on the stop end better than ay team in the league, allowing only 55.5 ppg, best in the Pac, with no foe scoring more than 66 points. But on the attack end, it’s often root-canal time for the Trojans, as PG Maurice Jones (14.4 ppg) is prone to forcing action and playing out of control, while 7-0 C Dewayne Dedmon is not a refined offensive threat. SC is scoring a Pac-12 low 54.5 ppg, and needs to involve Iowa transfer F Aaron Fuller (11.2 ppg) and promising frosh G Alexis Moore into the offensive flow to be anything more than a nuisance for the top contenders.

Stanford (12-2 SU, 7-4 ATS)...Along with Oregon State the most pleasant surprise in the league, the Cardinal looks to have matured into a possible Big Dance entry for the first time since the Lopez twins were on campus, and the first time in HC Johnny Dawkins’ four-season run. Improved backcourt play thanks to the arrival of smooth frosh G Chasson Randle (11.4 ppg) has stabilized the Cardinal and provided more room for soph G Aaron Bright (12 ppg & 48% from tripleville) to shine. Meanwhile, the frontline also has a more polished look with 6-9 soph Dwight Powell emerging as a consistent factor and complementing versatile 6-8 sr. Josh Owens (team-best 12.4 ppg and 60% from floor). Concerns are lack of size on the perimeter, perhaps making the Cardinal susceptible to bigger and more athletic wings, and ball-pressure defense which unnerved the Tree guards in a recent home loss to Butler. Best chance for a signature win was squandered in an honorable 69-63 late November loss to Syracuse at Madison Square Garden.

UCLA (7-7 SU, 6-8 ATS)...A major disappointment, although the Bruins did make a rally in late December after losing five of their first seven in often ugly fashion. But losses at Cal and Stanford in the first conference road trip last week have doused expectations once more. Coach Ben Howland’s roster doesn’t lack size, but in thick 6-10 soph Joshua Smith and the 6-10 Wear twins (transfers from North Carolina), UCLA is extremely slow on the blocks and cannot afford to play all three of those bigs in tandem, and the December dismissal of PF Reeves Nelson, though a distraction, could end up costly as it robs Howland of his most versatile frontliner. Further lack of quicks on the perimeter has resulted in several foes shooting holes in Howland’s defense. Recent improved efforts from Gs Lazeric Jones (13.6 ppg) & Tyler Lamb (10.1 ppg), and an occasional flash from frosh G Norman Powell, offer some hope. But Pac-12 observers can’t help but note how some who transferred out of Howland’s program (notably UNLV’s athletic wing Mike Moser) could have really come in handy for this Bruin edition.

Utah (3-10 SU, 3-9 ATS)...The Utes picked a bad year to move into the Pac, as new HC Larry Krystowiak was left with a threadbare and transfer-depleted roster. Widely acknowledged as the weakest pac-12 entry and one of the worst teams in the region, things don’t seem to be improving for the Utes, who were blasted in recent road games at Weber State and Colorado, losses by a combined 69 points. Utah continues to wear blindfolds shooting beyond the arc, converting just 27% of its triples, and top scorer G Josh Watkins (15.1 ppg) has been an easy target for foes to scheme out of the Utes’ offensive flow with no other comparable scoring threats. Watkins also hasn’t been doing his part on a consistent basis, reflected in converting only 19% on his three-point attempts. Seven of Utah’s first ten defeats were by 20 points or more. Bad team.

Washington (8-5 SU, 7-5 ATS)...Regional observers suspected the Huskies might struggle a bit as they looked to replace dynamite PG Isaiah Thomas, who opted to leave early for the NBA Draft last spring. Recent results (including a sweep of the Oregon schools last weekend) indicate that HC Lorenzo Romar might be finding the answers in a guard-heavy lineup now piloted by jr. Abdul Gaddy, who seems to be adapting to his new featured service role. Indeed, so good is Romar’s depth in the backcourt that he has moved explosive G C.J. Wilcox to a sixth-man role, with good results as Wilcox scored a career-high 24 vs. Oregon on December 31. Romar made that switch in the starting five to make room for 7-0 C Azaz N’Diaye, returning from injury. The Huskies still push the pace, with another guard, 6-5 frosh Tony Wroten, scoring a team-b est 16.8 ppg. How much N’Diaye can contribute and whether the Huskies can begin to succeed on the road (they lost their first four away from Hec Ed/Alaska Airlines Arena) will determine if they can get back to the Big Dance for Romar.

Washington State (9-5 SU, 6-6 ATS)...The Cougs have played through some injury problems and have looked menacing on occasion, but have also been prone to cold snaps, such as at the late November 76 Classic in Anaheim when finishing last in an eight-team field. Wazzu averted disaster in its first weekend of conference play when beating Oregon State on December 31 and avoiding getting swept at home (though the games were played in Spokane and not Pullman due to Christmas break) by the Ducks, who won resoundingly on Dec. 29, and Beavers. The emergence of frosh G DaVonte Lacy, who scored 17.3 ppg over the last three games of calendar 2011, gives HC Ken Bone a dangerous, three-pronged guard attack also featuring holdovers Reggie Moore (pac-10 assist leader) and Faisal Aden (13 ppg). The Cougs could muse a bit more frontline scoring help for 6-9 F brock Motum (team-best 14.9 ppg; 56% from floor), who has scored in double digits in every game save limited minutes vs. lower-division Western Oregon.

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