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Pac-10 gets little respect, but may have best small players in nation

UCLA senior point guard Darren Collison is an MVP candidate because he's the best player on the best team.

UCLA senior point guard Darren Collison is an MVP candidate because he's the best player on the best team.

Welcome to the Pac-10, the incredibly shrinking conference.

We mean that in two ways.

One, the conference is dwindling in national recognition. That was bound to happen, at least a little, after the high-water mark of last season, when the Pac-10 made a case for the best league in the country.

Not so much this season, as the Pac-10 is rated the fourth- or fifth-best conference in various rankings. Will four teams make the NCAA Tournament?

And, secondly, what’s with all the short guys?

The Pac-10 could win the national championship in a 6-foot-and-under league.

Three of the conference’s top five scorers in league games are Washington’s 5-11 Justin Dentmon, Washington’s 5-8 Isaiah Thomas, and Cal’s 5-10 Jerome Randle.

Beyond that, UCLA senior point guard Darren Collison is an MVP candidate because he’s the best player on the best team. He’s shrunk, too. He was listed at 6-1 last season, but is now at 6-foot. Weird.

There’s also Arizona’s 5-10 Nic Wise, who is as indispensable to his team as any player in the league.

Then there’s Oregon’s 5-6 Tajuan Porter, who averages 14.1 points in conference games and is one of the most prolific 3-point shooters in the Pac-10.

This is all quite a change for a league that was dominated by big men last season, and has had only one sub-6-foot player – Washington’s Nate Robinson – make the all-conference team in the past five years.

At the halfway point of the league race, Collison, Dentmon, Thomas and Randle figure to land somewhere on the Pac-10′s list of postseason all-stars – either first-, second- or third-teams. Wise and Porter have a shot, too.

But who is the halfway MVP?

Possibly a big man.

It’s a wide-open race, but the pick here is Arizona junior post player Jordan Hill.

Looking at just the stats from conference games – all the better to compare apples to apples – Hill is sixth in scoring (16.1 points per game) and second in rebounding (11.6).

ASU sophomore guard James Harden is another fine choice, second in the league at 19.3 points per game. But has he completely dominated as many thought he would?

“We create this amazing, mythological figure in our minds, and when reality doesn’t match our mythology, we begin to say, ‘Oh my goodness, what’s wrong?’” ASU coach Herb Sendek told reporters Tuesday.

“It’s not that this person is failing, but that our mythology is better reserved for Zeus.”

Here is our vote for the Pac-10 Midseason squad:

First team

C – Jordan Hill, Arizona

G – James Harden, ASU

G – Darren Collison, UCLA

G – Isaiah Thomas, Washington

G – Justin Dentmon, Washington

Second team

C – Aron Baynes, WSU

F – Jon Brockman, Washington

F – Chase Budinger, Arizona

F – Taj Gibson, USC

G – Jerome Randle, Cal

Third team

F – Jeff Pendergraph, ASU

G – Patrick Christopher, Cal

G – Dwight Lewis, USC

G – Taylor Rochestie, WSU

G – Daniel Hackett, USC

Midseason’s top freshman

Washington’s Isaiah Thomas. Unbelievably poised for a freshman, and he has made everyone around him better, such as backcourt mate Justin Dentmon.

Thomas has scored in double figures in 15 consecutive games, the most for any Pac-10 player. He’s one part Damon Stoudamire, another part Nate Robinson.

Watch for UCLA guard Jrue Holiday, who is heating up. He had a combined 28 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists last week in a sweep of the Bay Area schools. He also has been entrusted with trying to stop the opposition’s best wing player.

Midseason’s top coach

Oregon State’s Craig Robinson. He has led the Beavers to four conference victories and has the team tied with Arizona for sixth place in the conference.

He’s done wonders in his first year in Corvallis, Ore. What’s next? Secretary of state? He does have connections.

Most underrated

Oregon State center Roeland Schaftenaar. Arizona fans might not remember him much – he fouled out in 21 minutes against the Wildcats – and he’s not the leading scorer on his team by a long shot. That honor goes to guard Calvin Haynes, averaging 16.1 points.

The truth of it is, anybody who plays for Oregon State has a good chance to be underrated, especially Schaftenaar, a junior with a funny name who didn’t do much in his first two seasons on really bad teams.

But he was sizzling in a stunning road sweep of the Bay Area schools, totaling 40 points and 10 assists. Take note of that latter number. The slender 6-11 center has one of the most unusual skill sets in the conference.

Oregon State’s Princeton-styled offense runs through Schaftenaar.

Amid all the guards on the top 10 assists list, Schaftenaar ranks seventh in conference games at 3.7 per game. He averages 9.1 points for the season and is a good 3-point shooter.

“Some people have taken to calling him the tallest point guard in the Pac-10,” OSU coach Craig Robinson said recently, “and that’s exactly what I want.”

What about ASU?

The Sun Devils entered last week one game out of first place, already had a victory at UCLA in their pocket, and had a chance to knock off Washington at home.

Instead of rising to the top of the conference, Arizona State stumbled on Thursday against Washington State and came up empty against the Huskies on Saturday. The Sun Devils are tied for fourth at 5-4, wondering where in the world their outside shot went.

ASU has made 18 of 76 three-pointers in the past three games. That’s 23.7 percent.

“You miss a shot, so what?” senior Jeff Pendergraph said after Saturday’s loss to Washington.

“Everybody misses a shot; nobody is 100 percent. People, seems like, are weak-minded. They get down on themselves for no reason. If you go into the game thinking, ‘I’ve got to shoot well today,’ you’re going to suck.”

Key games

USC at UCLA, Wednesday – Trojans, one game back, have to win to have a chance at league title.

Notre Dame at UCLA, Saturday – Perceptions matter, and this is the league’s last chance to make a regular-season statement against a respected nonconference opponent.

UCLA at Arizona State, Feb. 12 – Bruins looking to avenge home loss to the Devils.

UCLA at Arizona, Feb. 14 – If the Cats don’t beat UCLA now, it might be a few years.

Washington at USC, Feb. 21 – The end of a key L.A. road trip for Huskies.

Second-half storylines

1. Can Arizona make it to 25 consecutive NCAA tournaments? UA likely will have to go 6-3 in the second half of the league schedule to make it.

2. Is UCLA the best team in the league? The Bruins, participants in the past three Final Fours, do have kinks, such as no big man to run the offense through.

3. Is Gonzaga coach Mark Few coming to the Pac-10? The Oregon native might have a chance to go home, if Ducks coach Ernie Kent doesn’t make it past the season. Of course, there’s always the Arizona job, too.

Arizona junior Jordan Hill is sixth in the Pac-10 in scoring (16.1 points per game) and second in rebounding (11.6).

Arizona junior Jordan Hill is sixth in the Pac-10 in scoring (16.1 points per game) and second in rebounding (11.6).

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UA HOOPS

Thursday: UA (14-8, 4-5) at Oregon State (10-10, 4-5), 6:30 p.m., FSNA

Saturday: UA at Oregon (6-15, 0-9), 1:30 p.m., ABC

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