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The Inside Track | Xs and O's LONNIE WHITE

Don't Expect Pac-10 to Be Caught Off Guard

March 08, 2003|LONNIE WHITE

What do Juan Dixon, Jason Williams, Mateen Cleaves, Khalid El-Amin and Mike Bibby have in common?

Each guard stepped front and center in leading his team to an NCAA championship since 1997. And the top four teams in the Pacific 10 Conference hope to continue this promising trend.

Arizona, Stanford, California and Oregon are counting on talented backcourt players to lead them deep into the tournament, just as those other guards have done in recent seasons at Maryland, Duke, Michigan State, Connecticut and Arizona.

The Wildcats, who enter today's game against Oregon ranked first in the nation and average a national-high 85 points, have been getting it done with guards Jason Gardner and Salim Stoudamire. Although neither ranks among the conference's top-10 scorers, they combine for 28 points a game.

What makes Gardner and Stoudamire special is that even though they can score, they can -- and do -- pass. So when you throw in versatile Luke Walton, perhaps college basketball's best passing big man, it's easy to see why Coach Lute Olson is hardly missing New Mexico's Ruben Douglas, the former Arizona player who leads the nation in scoring.

Stanford also has a strong backcourt leader in Julius Barnes, an explosive player who can make an impact offensively or defensively. Then there is Oregon's Luke Ridnour, who is gifted enough to lead his team to a Final Four bid.

But having a guard-dominated team does not guarantee a lengthy stay at the Big Dance. See: Duke's early departure in last season's tournament, despite having a more experienced Williams as the team leader.

Why Pac-10 teams will excel in the tournament: If the key to winning is scoring, the Pac-10 ranks with the best. Arizona and Oregon average more than 80 points and rank among the nation's top four scoring teams. Arizona State is not far behind, averaging 77.

Experience also plays an important part in the tournament, and the Pac-10 has plenty of that. Walton and Gardner lead a group of Wildcats who remember the bitterness of last season's Sweet 16 loss to Oklahoma, and Luke Jackson and Ridnour played key roles in Oregon's run to the Midwest Regional final.

Knowing what it takes to get through difficult early-round games is a plus, especially in front of small, neutral-site crowds. This will be a strength for a team such as Stanford, which pulled off impressive road victories at Arizona, USC and UCLA, and has a big-time player in Josh Childress to complement Barnes.

Another advantage for the conference will be shooting. Only the Southeastern Conference can rival the Pac-10's accuracy. Four Pac-10 teams are shooting 47% or better, Arizona State leading the way at 48.5%.

The final edge for Pac-10 teams is coaching. With one title and four Final Four appearances since 1988, Olson qualifies as tournament force. Mike Montgomery earned his respect by taking Stanford to the semifinals in 1998. They lead a group of quality coaches who go against each other every week in a conference that devours the weak. See: Washington State's Paul Graham and UCLA's Steve Lavin.

Why Pac-10 teams will struggle in the tournament: They turn the ball over too much. When the score gets tight, teams that maintain their composure usually win. That's not a good sign for Pac-10 teams.

Oregon and Arizona are among six teams in the conference that have averaged more than 15 turnovers. That's a lot compared to the Big 12, which does not have any, or Big Ten, which has only three.

Sometimes, the frantic pace that propels Pac-10 teams to high-scoring games works against them in the tournament. Because the conference features so many "shoot-first" guards, their teams struggle when the shots are not falling. See: USC in 2002, California in 2001 and Arizona 2000.

Another potential problem for Pac-10 teams is their inability to consistently make free throws and three-point shots. Oregon is not too shabby in making 78% from the line and 39% from behind the arc, but Arizona, Stanford, California and Arizona State are average in both areas.

Arizona is making 69% of its free throws and 36% of its three-point shots; California is at 68% and 38%; Stanford 67% and 36%, and Arizona State 67% and 32%.

Those aren't impressive numbers when you look at Oklahoma's 73% and 39% and Maryland's 71% and 41.6%

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