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PREVIEW

Continued Quest for National Respect Starts at the Top

November 16, 2000|MIKE TERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Pacific 10 Conference hasn't received as much acclaim since UCLA stopped winning national championships annually. But things started looking up last season when conference co-champions Arizona and Stanford each received a No. 1 seeding in the NCAA tournament.

That respect was squandered, however, when neither the Wildcats nor the Cardinal made it past the second round (although Arizona was wrecked by injuries). Oregon was bounced in the first round. The Bruins did reach the Sweet 16 before being dismissed by Iowa State.

Last season, the Pac-10 was more of a day-care center than a basketball hotbed. Practically every team depended heavily on freshmen and sophomores to get it through the season. (California sometimes had five freshmen on the floor.) The basketball was, at times, harried, skittish and out of kilter, but never boring. And the experienced gained was invaluable.

Greater things are expected this season. Arizona is No. 1 and Stanford is in the top 10 of several preseason polls, yet neither figures to go through the conference unbeaten. UCLA and USC also are ranked and the Pac-10 is considered on par with the best conferences in the country.

"This is definitely a year where you can't experiment a lot," Washington Coach Bob Bender said. "The experience everyone gained last year will make it difficult for all of us. It could be the kind of year where the conference leaders have a number of losses, and the teams under .500 are much better than that."

Said Cal Coach Ben Braun: "I don't think I can remember a more competitive year in the conference. I think we could have more than one team go deep in the [NCAA tournament]."

The confidence is warranted. Despite all the young talent, Pac-10 teams went a combined 80-32 in regular-season nonconference games. Among the victims were Duke, Purdue, Auburn, Clemson, Kentucky and eventual national champion Michigan State. What is making the Pac-10 excel?

"There are some very good young coaches who are doing a good job recruiting," Arizona State Coach Rob Evans said. "And even the bottom teams in the league have really improved."

UCLA Coach Steve Lavin said the recognition should have come sooner.

"In my 10 years, both UCLA and Arizona have won national championships," he said. "Stanford has gone to the Final Four. Cal and Washington have gone to the Sweet 16 [and Elite Eight, respectively]. That has helped greatly with recruiting and visibility. And the quality of coaching, from top to bottom, is as strong as anywhere in the country."

More than anything, the conference would like to have more than four teams selected for the tournament. For that to happen, Stanford Coach Mike Montgomery said, the Pac-10 will have to be even more impressive in nonconference games and holiday tournaments.

"If you do that, then if you start beating each other in conference it's not as damaging," Montgomery said. "The ACC has the respect for everyone in its league because it wins big games outside the conference. We have to go out and beat people, so when we start beating each other in the Pac-10 it's because of the strength of the league."

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

ARIZONA

* Coach: Lute Olson.

* 1999-2000 record: 27-7, 15-3 in the Pac-10, tied for first place.

* Returning starters: Five.

* Top players: Gilbert Arenas (15.5 points), Jason Gardner (12.6, 4.7 assists), Richard Jefferson (11.0), Loren Woods (15.6, 3.9 blocks), Michael Wright (15.5, 8.7 rebounds).

* Outlook: Olson says this is his best team since the 1988-89 squad that went to the Final Four and featured player of the year Sean Elliott. All five starters are on the list for the Wooden Award.

ARIZONA STATE

* Coach: Rob Evans.

* 1999-2000 record: 19-13, 10-8, tied for fourth.

* Returning starters: Four.

* Top players: Alton Mason (6.2 points), Chad Prewitt (9.0), Shawn Redhage (8.3), Awvee Storey (9.3, 7.6 rebounds).

* Outlook: Evans' biggest problem is replacing guard Eddie House, the Pac-10 player of the year. It's not the 23 points House averaged, but his competitive fire--as well as his knack for getting under the opponents' skin--that the Sun Devils will miss the most.

CALIFORNIA

* Coach: Ben Braun.

* 1999-2000 record: 18-15, 7-11, seventh place.

* Returning starters: Three.

* Top players: Sean Lampley (16.6 points, 7.4 rebounds), Shantay Legans (9.4), Donte Smith (6.2), Nick Vander Laan (6.7 rebounds).

* Outlook: Cal returns its top nine scorers, led by the multitalented Lampley. The Bears want to go somewhere besides the NIT, where they've appeared the last two seasons. They must finish higher in the conference race for that to happen.

OREGON

* Coach: Ernie Kent.

* 1999-2000 record: 22-8, 13-5, third place.

* Returning starters: Two.

* Top players: Bryan Bracey (8.1 points), Flo Hartenstein (3.7), Frederick Jones (9.7).

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