'Tis the season to make New Year's resolutions, and millions of Americans are vowing to do what the Pacific 10 Conference already has accomplished.
Pac-10 men's basketball, which begins conference play tonight, has gone from flabby to fit around the middle.
Specifically, the conference that once featured three competitive teams--Stanford, Arizona and UCLA--and seven also-rans now boasts several schools capable of making a serious run at the NCAA tournament.
"The middle has gotten a lot better," Oregon State Coach Richie McKay said. "In some cases, being in the middle of the Pac-10 will get you dancing."
Stanford, Arizona and USC are the favorites to waltz away with the conference's top three spots, but Oregon, California and UCLA can put up a good fight when their games are clicking. Oregon State and Arizona State are talented, but both have had some rough luck lately. And the Washington schools, who make their Southern California swing this week, should finish in the cellar.
How's this for parity: Arizona went 25-9 in 1996-97 and won its first NCAA title . . . after finishing fifth in the Pac-10.
"That just shows you the depth and balance of our league," said Cal Coach Ben Braun, whose team tied for second in the conference that season. "I believe that if you're in the middle of our conference, you're probably a very good basketball team."
The jury is still out on Cal this season. The Bears have won seven in a row and have yet to lose in the East Bay--including a convincing victory over a solid Georgia team--but they are winless in games outside the Bay Area. That includes a loss at UC Irvine.
UCLA struggled to beat Irvine and already has four nonconference losses in nine games, although the Bruins are feeling good about knocking off Purdue on the road last Saturday. In the last few seasons under Coach Steve Lavin, they have been a sporadically dangerous team, one which loses games it should win and wins games it should lose.
In three seasons, Coach Ernie Kent has gone a long way toward putting Oregon basketball on the map. The Ducks made it to the National Invitation Tournament Final Four two years ago, and last season won 22 games and advanced to the NCAA tournament for only the second time in 38 years. Now, the team has the conference's leading scorer in forward Bryan Bracey (19.5 points a game) and a top-flight freshman point guard in Luke Ridnour.
Like many Pac-10 teams, the Ducks are something of a mystery. Oregon posted an 88-55 victory over Louisville last Saturday yet lost to unranked Auburn two weeks earlier.
Regardless, few people--if any--doubt Oregon will be ready for conference play.
"The future is bright for our conference," McKay said. "And it's only getting more competitive."
A glance around the Pac-10:
* 1999-2000: 27-7 overall, 15-3 in conference (tied for first)
The Wildcats are reeling from the loss of Coach Lute Olson's wife, Bobbi, who died Monday of cancer. Still, they're trying to focus on the task at hand. "The ship must go on," senior forward Gene Edgerson said. Talent-wise, there's no better team in the Pac-10, or possibly the country. There was early speculation that the Wildcats might go undefeated; a forgettable projection, considering they have lost four of 11. Nonetheless, they are an enormously skilled team, and all five of their starters were among the top 50 nominees for the John Wooden Award, presented to the country's top player. Currently, only center Loren Woods and forward Michael Wright remain on the list, which has been trimmed to 30. Woods, guard Gilbert Arenas and forward Richard Jefferson are likely NBA lottery picks down the road. More important, the Wildcats have Stanford's number.
* 1999-2000: 19-13, 10-8 (tied for fourth)
It's a tall order for the Sun Devils to replace now-departed Eddie House, the league's player of the year who scored 29% of his team's points. Arizona State needs to find those points somewhere, and lately have turned to forwards Awvee Storey (14.4), Donnell Knight (13.2) and Shawn Redhage (11.7). The Sun Devils are extremely young--Alton Mason is the only senior on the roster--and a Dec. 16 loss to San Diego State does not bode well. Storey is the team's best rebounder, averaging eight a game. That's slightly better than last season, when he averaged a team-leading 7.6 rebounds and grabbed more on the offensive end (105) than anyone else in the Pac-10.
* 1999-2000: 18-15, 7-11 (seventh)