If you haven’t heard, this is supposed to be a down year for the Pac-10.
Over the summer the conference lost James Harden, Jordan Hill, DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday, Darren Collison, Taj Gibson, Jeff Pendergraph, Jon Brockman and Chase Budinger to the NBA Draft. Going back to 2008, the Pac-10 also lost O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, the Lopez twins, Jerryd Bayless and Ryan Anderson, all of whom would still been in school today had they not gone pro early.
Traditionally overlooked and underrated even when they are stacked, this year the Pac-10 is short on high-profile names and predictably being written off as a power player. After getting six schools into the NCAA Tournament in ’09, most experts have pegged just three to make the cut in 2010: California, Washington and UCLA. And it really didn’t help perception when Cal got destroyed by Syracuse on national TV last night, the same week UCLA was upset at home by Cal State-Fullerton on national TV.
Don’t believe all of the anti-hype, though. The Pac-10 has a ton of talent and will make some noise in the postseason. The Pac-10 also has Cal’s Jerome Randle and UW’s Isaiah Thomas — two of the best lead guards in the country and the two combatants in the NCAA’s most exciting head-to-head conference rivalry.
After watching Randle against Syracuse on Thursday and having seen Thomas play a couple times this season, it’s tough to determine who’s better:
* Physically, they match up pretty evenly. Randle is 5-10, Thomas is 5-8, and both are strong athletes with loads of speed, quickness and leaping ability. Thomas has the edge in pure athleticism; he can do windmills and dunk backwards easily, and he looks like he went on the Nate Robinson diet this summer. The kid is jacked.
* Style-wise, Randle and Thomas are score-first guards with exceptional handles who would fall into the Robinson/Randy Foye mold in the NBA. On perimeter-oriented teams, they are the respective go-to guys in crunch time.
* Randle’s greatest asset is his shooting. The senior from Chicago hit five threes last night, and I think all of them were from NBA range or beyond. A couple times he launched from about 27 feet — mostly because that’s all Syracuse’s vaunted zone D would allow — and looked comfortable. Randle’s outside shot forces teams to play up on him, setting up the drive. Last season he hit 46% from three while averaging 18.3 points, and this season has bumped those stats to 50% and 21.7 points. He’s also displayed a nice floater, which if he hits consistently, he’ll easily stay above 20 ppg this year.
* Thomas is the opposite; a driver and transition scorer whose slashing game sets up his jumper. Last year he put up 15.5 points per night, but made just 29% of his threes. This year the sophomore from Seattle is dropping 24.7 points and 52% from deep, making defenses pay for sagging off him. In UW’s opener against Wright State, Thomas looked like Allen Iverson, getting to the free throw line 18 times.
* Both are willing and capable passers, but Randle has the edge. Plus, he plays in a system where he is the primary playmaker and will rack up more assists. Thomas spends most of his time playing off the ball in Washington’s multi-guard lineup, since the Huskies have freshman Abdul Gaddy and defensive demon Venoy Overton who can play point guard.
So far this season, Thomas has yet to face an opponent as talented or a defense as complicated as Syracuse, and hasn’t matched up with anyone on the level of Orange PG’s Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche. His biggest upcoming tests are against Georgetown on Dec. 12 and Texas A&M on Dec. 22. Randle shined against his toughest opponent to date, and still has to face Ohio State tonight and Kansas on Dec. 22 before conference play begins.
By the time Randle and Thomas line up across from each other, on Jan. 16 at UW’s Bank of America Arena, it will be a crucial round in their fight for Pac-10 Player of the Year.