The Pacific 10 basketball race will end this weekend, and there still is no clear-cut winner in sight.
USC (12-4) has a one-game lead over Oregon State and Washington, each 11-5, while Arizona (11-6) and UCLA (10-6) still have an outside chance to tie for the title.
The picture may not be any clearer after tonight, when USC will play Oregon (8-8) at the Sports Arena; UCLA will play Oregon State at Pauley Pavilion, and Washington will play California (4-12).
This logjam at the top doesn't surprise Oregon State's Coach Ralph Miller, whose Beavers have won or shared the title four of the last five years.
"I said at the start of the season that this would be the most competitive Pac-10 race in 20 years or more," Miller said. "I thought there would be four teams, at least, with a chance to be in title contention. Other coaches predicted that five losses would keep you in the act. I guess we were fairly right for a change."
Miller has the proper historical perspective. This is the tightest conference race since 1963, when it was a five-team league called the Athletic Assn. of Western Universities. Four teams finished a game apart that year.
"I thought that Washington and Oregon State would be in there and Oregon, too," Miller said. "Oregon has had a bad year, although they're playing better now. I definitely felt that Arizona would be a factor, while UCLA and USC were questionable."
USC, of course, is the surprise team. The Trojans weren't picked to finish any higher than seventh in a preseason poll of coaches and reporters.
"USC isn't that surprising because it had more experienced players coming back than any other team in the conference," Miller said. "I think everyone discounted them a little bit because of their poor showing last year (11-20). But they gained a lot of knowledge and experience from last year and they're playing very fine basketball now."
Miller said that Wayne Carlander's improvement is one of the main reasons that the Trojans are leading the conference. The senior USC forward was named the Pac-10 Player of the Year.
"Carlander used to carry the title of garbage man and, basically, it was apropos," Miller said. "He didn't do anything but grab some rebounds and put them back in and make some close-in shots. But now he's moving around and playing the game as a whole far, far better than I've ever seen him. He's pretty much of a complete player this year."
There has been speculation that the Pac-10 could get as many as four teams into the NCAA tournament this year, since it has been expanded to 64 teams.
"That certainly is in the realm of possibility," Miller said. "In some of the criteria the NCAA uses to select teams, the Pac-10 rates favorably with the rest of the country."
He was referring to the winning percentage of the Pac-10's nonconference opponents. The conference ranks No. 3 nationally, behind the Big Ten and Metro Conference.
That power rating, however, is not to be confused with the Pac-10's record in nonconference games. The conference ranks only eighth in that category.
The Big East has the best winning percentage against nonconference opponents, and the Atlantic Coast Conference has the second-best. But the winning percentage of the Big East's nonconference opponents ranks only 19th nationally. The ACC's nonconference opposition is rated 12th.
That isn't to imply that the Pac-10 is on par with the Big East or ACC. It's merely an index that helps the NCAA selection committee pick the tournament field.
In fact, the Pac-10, PCAA, WCAC and WAC conferences are dismissed by Eastern writers as the "weak, weak West."
There is a basis for such a slight. A Western school hasn't advanced to the Final Four since UCLA made it in 1980. Since then, Oregon State in 1982 is the only Pac-10 team that has avoided elimination in the first two rounds.
Miller says it's understandable that the Pac-10 doesn't have a stronger national image.
"It has been taken for granted that we (the conference) don't have any so-called outstanding teams to be compared with Georgetown or someone like that," he said. "None of us have had a real good, big center. Few teams are outstanding unless they have a good center.
"We haven't had one since Bill Walton was at UCLA (1972-74). I could say that our Steve Johnson was a good center for us, but he was only 6-10 and he wasn't a great defensive player. So he wasn't that dominating person I'm speaking of. Without that person, it's difficult to have a truly outstanding team."
Miller said that the Pac-10's image was hurt this season by UCLA's weak showings in nationally televised games in December. Other Pac-10 teams have had minimal national TV exposure.
"I think UCLA was in the worst position in many years from the standpoint of experience and even the seniors didn't have a lot of previous playing time," Miller said. "It was the most difficult December schedule UCLA has had, and they weren't prepared for it then.