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COLLEGE BASKETBALL 1998-99 | PACIFIC 10 CONFERENCE

Huskies Expected to Make More Noise

November 19, 1998|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Barely a grin crosses Todd MacCulloch's face as he tells a joke that was going around the Washington campus not long ago.

"Looking for a nice, quiet place to study?" MacCulloch asks. "Go to a Husky basketball game."

The humor rang all too true as Washington struggled through a string of poor-to-mediocre seasons this decade, lost in the shadow of a successful football program.

But the team's fortunes have improved thanks largely--very largely--to the 7-foot MacCulloch, who guided the Huskies on a surprising run through the NCAA tournament last season. Only a buzzer-beater by Connecticut kept them from advancing to the Elite Eight.

Now MacCulloch has the last laugh.

"The football team isn't even ranked this year," he said.

But the basketball team is No. 14 in the Associated Press poll and picked to finish near the top of the Pacific 10, the nation's toughest conference.

The Huskies aren't as talented from top to bottom as No. 3 Stanford, a bona fide national championship contender.

They don't have the explosive potential of No. 11 UCLA and No. 12 Arizona, each of whom will rely on highly touted freshmen.

But Washington has four returning starters, led by MacCulloch, who averaged 18.6 points and shot an NCAA-best 65% from the floor last season.

Coach Bob Bender's team can bang under the boards or go small, spreading the floor and striking with shooters Donald Watts and Deon Luton. His bench runs as deep as Puget Sound.

"The thing we have to learn from the football team is how to deal with heightened expectations," Bender said. "We don't have the luxury of sneaking up on people."

If his senior center can avoid foul trouble--reserve 7-footer Patrick Femerling has left to play professional basketball in Germany--and Bender can find a reliable point guard, the Huskies should do fine.

That means Hec Edmundson Pavilion will no longer double as a study hall. Even now, more than a month before the start of the conference season, the Huskies are drawing crowds.

"We've always held open practices," Bender said. "Now people actually come to watch."

A look at the teams in alphabetical order, excluding UCLA and USC:

ARIZONA

Coach: Lute Olson.

1997-98 finish: 30-5 (17-1 in the Pacific 10), first place in conference, lost in fourth round of NCAA tournament.

Returning starters: One.

Top players: A.J. Bramlett, Jason Terry.

Outlook: The last time the Wildcats had so many freshmen in pivotal roles, Sean Elliot came to the fore. Olson hopes for a similar success with highly touted Michael Wright and Ruben Douglas. This team might need time to gel, but last week's 73-72 victory over then-No. 9 Tennessee showed seniors Bramlett and Terry can carry the load early.

ARIZONA STATE

Coach: Rob Evans.

1997-98 finish: 18-14 (8-10), tied for fifth in conference, lost in first round of NIT.

Returning starters: Three.

Top players: Mike Batiste, Eddie House, Bobby Lazor.

Outlook: Evans inherits a team still shaken by a recent point-shaving scandal. He doesn't have Jeremy Veal, last season's leading scorer, or point guard Ahlon Lewis, who set a Pac-10 single-season record with 294 assists. But Batiste, House and Lazor could keep Arizona State in the hunt for a tournament bid.

CALIFORNIA

Coach: Ben Braun.

1997-98 finish: 12-15 (8-10), tied for fifth in conference.

Returning starters: Four.

Top players: Geno Carlisle, Michael Gill, Thomas Kilgore, Sean Lampley.

Outlook: Pac-10 coaches say they don't know what to expect from the Golden Bears, especially now that the explosive but unpredictable Carlisle has switched to point guard. Out from under NCAA probation, California could improvise its way into postseason play.

OREGON

Coach: Ernie Kent.

1997-98 finish: 13-14 (8-10), tied for fifth in conference.

Returning starters: Three.

Top players: Terik Brown, Flo Hartenstein.

Outlook: The Ducks are among several teams that could sneak into the NCAA tournament if the Pac-10 gets five bids. Chris Christoffersen, a 7-foot-2 freshman, has looked strong in practice, but Oregon must settle on a starting point guard and find some rebounding.

OREGON STATE

Coach: Eddie Payne.

1997-98 finish: 13-17 (3-15), tied for ninth in conference.

Returning starters: One.

Top players: Deaundra Tanner, George von Backstrom.

Outlook: When Corey Benjamin left for the NBA last spring, he took a big part of the Beaver offense with him. No wonder Oregon State is expected to remain at the bottom of the conference.

STANFORD

Coach: Mike Montgomery.

1997-98 finish: 30-5 (15-3), second in conference, reached Final Four.

Returning starters: Five.

Top players: Arthur Lee, Mark Madsen, Tim Young, Kris Weems.

Outlook: Listen to Montgomery downplay his team. Hear him say the Cardinal has no superstars. Hear him bemoan the high expectations placed upon this season. Watch him smile: "It's a nice problem to have."

WASHINGTON

Coach: Bob Bender.

1997-98 finish: 20-10 (11-7), fourth in conference, lost in third round of NCAA tournament.

Returning starters: Three.

Top players: Deon Luton, Todd MacCulloch, Donald Watts.

Outlook: Bender wants his players to remember their last-second loss to Connecticut in the Sweet 16. "It was a tough loss," he said. "But it was the kind that gives you a taste for winning." If Luton and Watts get hot at the right time, they could carry the Huskies on another tournament run.

WASHINGTON STATE

Coach: Kevin Eastman

1997-98 finish: 10-19 (3-15), tied for ninth in conference.

Returning starters: Four.

Top players: Chris Crosby, Blake Pengelly.

Outlook: Pengelly, the point guard, must protect the ball better than last season, when the Cougars had the conference's worst turnover ratio. Center Leif Nelson has done his part to provide a bigger target, eating his way above 300 pounds this summer.

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