Now that the Pac-10 conference season is well under way, it's become abundantly clear that while the conference as a whole may be down, the race for conference championship is anyone's game. Coming into conference play, Washington (8-3; with losses to No. 9 Kentucky and then-No. 3 Michigan State), Arizona (11-2), and Washington State (10-2) seemed to separate themselves into a league of their own. Each team's respective star player(s) rose to the occasion and propelled their team to what looked to be the top of the conference.
Looks can be deceiving, though, as all three teams stumbled out of the gate. Washington struggled to beat USC in overtime and lost to Stanford; Arizona lost to Oregon State; and Washington State lost to UCLA, USC, and Cal.
Don't expect the trend to continue. At the very least watch for Washington and Arizona to make the necessary adjustments and establish themselves as the upper echelon in the Pac-10. The key to each team's success will be the play of their star players, namely Isaiah Thomas (Washington), Derrick Williams (Arizona), and Klay Thompson (Washington State).
Though the season is still young, these players have established themselves as front runners for the conferences top honor, Pac-10 Player of the Year (POY).
Klay Thompson, Washington State
Washington State has never been known for producing dynamite NBA prospects. In fact, the Cougars have sent just 14 players to the next level in the school's history, and only Don Collins (1980) was named Pac-10 POY. But this year WSU boasts one of the best overall records in the conference, and much of their success can be attributed to Klay Thompson. The 6-6 shooting guard burst onto the scene as a freshman, logging 33 minutes a game while averaging 12.5 points and being named to the All-Freshman Team. Since then he's increased his scoring output to 23 points a game, dished out almost three more assists per game, and increased his assist-to-turnover ratio to 1.27 from 0.89.
Thompson's junior year has been nothing but sensational thus far. The Ladera Ranch, CA, product is leading the Pac-10 in scoring by showing off a unique combination of versatility. More importantly, Thompson's been able to put up these outstanding offensive numbers while showing great efficiency. If he continues to perform the way he has proven capable, Washington State will compete for a spot in the upper echelon of the Pac-10 -- and Thompson will make a serious case for the POY.
Derrick Williams, Arizona
After not being rated among the Top 150 players in his high school class by Rivals.com, Williams certainly made his presence felt as a first-year star, winning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors and being named to first-team All Pac-10 in 2010. His sophomore campaign has been no different as evidenced by his marvelous statistical output. Aside from averaging almost 20 points and seven rebounds per game, Williams' effective FG and True Shot percentages are unreal. Let's compare Williams to the last three Pac-10 POYs:
Derrick Williams 71 77
Jerome Randle 55 62
James Harden 49 62
Kevin Love 59 66
With such impressive numbers, it's no longer possible for Williams to fly under the radar. In fact his stellar play has garnered nationwide attention, as Williams was recently named to the Wooden Award Mid-Season Top-30. He's also appearing at or near the top of the first round on several draft sites. It's going to be extremely hard for the voters to pass on Williams for Pac-10 POY.
Isaiah Thomas, Washington
Though Washington has arguably the deepest team in the conference (even without the injured Abdul Gaddy), the key to their success has been the consistent and energetic play of Isaiah Thomas. Since entering the league as a freshman, Thomas has always been able to score. But his relatively low per-game assist rates as a freshman and sophomore raised some questions about his ability to be a "true" point guard. Those questions have been answered this year. Thomas has silenced all critics by increasing his assists per game to 5.4 and posting a 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Furthermore Thomas has been able to maintain his scoring (16 per game) even as he distributes the ball.
Along with his stellar statistical performance this year, Thomas is also playing for the conference's top team. Why is this important? In five of the last seven seasons, the Pac-10 POY has come from the regular season conference champion. Considering his impressive evolution as a scoring point guard and the fact that he plays for the league's best team, expect Thomas to make a serious run at, if not win, the Pac-10 POY.
When it's all said and done, I expect Williams to beat out both Thomas and Thompson as the Pac-10 POY. Though Thompson leads the conference in scoring, and Thomas runs the offence for the conference-leading Huskies, Williams is the best all-around talent in the Pac-10. He has my vote.
Sam Rayburn was a member of the Cal basketball team from 2004 to 2008.