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UCLA or USC May Bottom Out

Both can qualify for the Pacific 10 tournament, but one might not, depending on what happens today.

March 06, 2004|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

EUGENE, Ore. — Remember your roots. Help shape our destiny.

That was UCLA Coach Ben Howland's half-kidding message to USC Coach Henry Bibby when they bumped into one another at the hotel where their teams are staying.

"Henry, you've got to come through for your alma mater and get the W," Howland said, well aware of Bibby's history as a UCLA All-American guard.

Bibby laughed, loving the irony. His Trojans defeated the Bruins twice this season, putting UCLA at a disadvantage in the knotty Pacific 10 Conference tiebreaking criteria.

Now UCLA has to win today at Oregon to assure itself a spot in the conference tournament. Should the Bruins lose, they can get in with a USC victory at Oregon State or a California victory at Washington State.

Howland is understandably unconvinced that his team can win at hostile McArthur Court -- UCLA has won only two of its last 14 games played anywhere. So he wasn't above some good-natured begging.

Cross-town rival or not, Henry, give us some love.

"We're going to do our best, Coach," Bibby replied, chuckling.

Of course, Bibby's desire to win has nothing to do with UCLA and everything to do with his own team. If the Trojans lose, there is no guarantee they will get into the eight-team tournament that starts Thursday at Staples Center.

Say what you will about the difficulties a conference tournament presents -- and coaches Mike Montgomery of Stanford and Lute Olson of Arizona have said plenty -- its appeal will be illustrated today.

What are normally ho-hum regular-season finales will hold everyone's interest. Scoreboards will be watched. Sports tickers will be followed.

Every Pac-10 team except Arizona State is in the running. Four bubble teams -- Oregon State and Washington State in addition to USC and UCLA -- can get in by winning. And only top-seeded Stanford and second-seeded Washington are assured of their seeding.

Without the tournament, would anybody care about anything besides Stanford's quest for an unbeaten record?

"These games wouldn't exactly be must-see TV," said Jim Muldoon, Pac-10 assistant commissioner. "What we have is an unintended consequence of having eight, rather than 10, teams make it. This is generating a lot of interest in the bottom teams."

Make no mistake, USC and UCLA are closer to the bottom than the top. The best either can do is earn a No. 5 seeding.

Both local teams can backpedal into the tournament with a loss, although, in that case, their seeding will suffer. And one or the other could be watching on TV.

USC will be eliminated if its loss is combined with victories by UCLA and Washington State.

UCLA will be eliminated if its loss is combined with victories by Oregon State and Washington State.

"I honestly believe that if we don't win, we will be out," Howland said. "My expectation is that Oregon State and Washington State will win."

Bibby is less inclined to break out a calculator to figure out all the Packed-10 possibilities.

"It doesn't matter, the different situations and how we come up," he said. "You have to take care of your business."

The Trojans and Bruins both face stiff obstacles.

USC gets guard Errick Craven back from a one-game suspension but loses his brother, point guard Derrick Craven, who must serve his suspension for taking a swing at Cal's Richard Midgley last month.

Oregon State got a reprieve when Stanford beat Washington State in the last second Thursday, vaulting the Beavers into an eighth-place tie with the Cougars. Now, Oregon State has as much to play for as USC.

Oregon, meanwhile, is playing for seeding and to honor key seniors Luke Jackson, James Davis and Andre Joseph in their last home game. A victory over UCLA puts the Ducks at No. 5. A loss drops them to No. 6.

UCLA defeated Oregon at Pauley Pavilion on Jan. 4 but has been in a steady decline since. A victory over the Ducks today is a tall order, but stranger things have happened.

"We can win," Howland said, although he has sounded more convincing.

A Bruin loss could make for an odd sight at the team hotel. The UCLA game will end before the USC game begins, meaning that the Bruins probably will be crowded around a television, cheering mightily for the Trojans.

C'mon Henry, give us some love.

*

Times staff writer Paul Gutierrez contributed to this story.

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