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CHRIS DUFRESNE/ ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Pacific 10 race isn't half bad

At the midway point of the conference season, nine teams still have a realistic shot.

February 04, 2009|CHRIS DUFRESNE | ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

It's the halfway point in the Pacific 10 Conference race, but maybe you don't know the half of it.

With nine games down and nine to go -- or possibly blow -- Washington is tied for first place, Oregon State is 4-0 since Barack Obama was inaugurated, Oregon is 0-9 and Arizona is leading the league . . . in attendance.

California Coach Mike Montgomery, back in the league after a mini-tour in the NBA, hasn't lost any of his court acumen or wit.

Asked Tuesday for a medical report on center Jordan Wilkes' sprained ankle, Montgomery quipped, "We're thinking amputation."

USC and UCLA jump-start the second half tonight at Pauley Pavilion, but let's not go there yet.

The team of the half-Pac is . . . UCLA.

Yes, the Bruins actually share the lead at 7-2 with Washington and were looking shaky after losing at home to Arizona State in a game the Bruins were held scoreless in the final 8:14 of regulation. But, after clobbering Cal and Stanford last weekend, UCLA looks like the deepest team in a shallow Walnut Creek well.

UCLA won the league last year at 16-2, but Coach Ben Howland, as prescient as his teams are proficient, predicted before the season that 14-4 or 13-5 probably would win the league -- and it looks as if he's going to nail it.

The conference isn't as good as it was last year, when it promoted six teams to the NCAA tournament and had seven players taken in the first round of the NBA draft.

The good teams aren't as good and the bad teams aren't as bad. Only four games separate UCLA and Washington at the top from ninth-place Stanford (3-6).

Cal, at 5-4, is stuck in the middle.

"We're not very far out of first, but we're also not very far out of the ninth," Montgomery said, "I think that's the way most people are now."

The player of the half-Pac is . . .

"Gun to my head, best player, Darren Collison," Washington State Coach Tony Bennett said of UCLA's senior point guard.

Yeah, but what does he actually lead the league in?

"Pac-10 championships, Final Four appearances and pulling games out when his team needs a bucket," Bennett answered.

Others might argue Arizona State sophomore James Harden, the league's leading scorer and best NBA player in waiting, or Arizona junior Chase Budinger, who scored 44 points in a sweep of the Washington schools last weekend.

The freshman of the half-Pac is . . .

It was supposed to be DeMar DeRozan of USC or UCLA's Jrue Holiday, both having fine years.

But the best rookie to date has been Washington guard Isaiah Thomas, a pint-sized player with a fearless disposition and a league scoring average of 19.2 points a game.

The coach of half-Pac is . . . Craig Robinson, Oregon State.

It was looking like Montgomery in a landslide after the Bears opened 4-0, but now it is clearly Robinson, who has transformed a team that went 0-18 in league last year into a squad no one wants to play. Oregon State has already defeated USC, won two games in the Bay Area and defeated arch-rival Oregon.

Game of the half-Pac . . .

On Jan. 10, in Seattle, Cal beat Washington, 88-85, in triple overtime. Cal took a 1-0 lead early and didn't lead again until 15 seconds remained in the third overtime.

Not dead yet honors: Arizona.

The Wildcats, down one legendary coach in Lute Olson, are hanging in there with three front-line players and interim Coach Russ Pennell. Facing a tipping point last weekend, the Wildcats swept the Washington schools to improve to 14-8, stay in the league race at 4-5, and keep hopes alive of extending their streak of consecutive NCAA appearances to 25.

"It was a point in the season we needed to either get going or it could have been a tough go," Pennell said.

School of hard luck: Stanford.

The Cardinal is 3-6 in league under first-year Coach Johnny Dawkins but could easily be 6-3 if not for three consecutive, one-point road defeats. It doesn't get tougher than last Thursday against USC, when Lawrence Hill's last-second shot to beat the Trojans rattled in and out.

Doing it with mirrors: USC.

Tim Floyd's team has been hit with injuries all season, the latest a mysterious shoulder ailment suffered by Marcus Johnson that probably will keep him out of tonight's UCLA game. USC ranks ninth in the league in free-throw percentage and is last in assists and three-point shooting, yet the Trojans find ways to grind out wins. Somehow, USC is 15-6 overall and alone in third place in the league.

If they had to do it over: Oregon.

Coach Ernie Kent has one of his youngest teams, yet his Ducks faced a nonconference gantlet that included games against North Carolina, Texas, Utah and St. Mary's.

"This team kind of got mentally knocked out of whack, early on," Kent said. Oregon entered conference play on the wrong side of momentum and is winless in league play.

End game: The second-half race is on. The Pac-10 sent six teams to the NCAA tournament last year, but this year it might be lucky to get five.

Montgomery says seven, maybe eight, schools are in contention for NCAA bids.

"Obviously, seven or eight teams can't do that, because they're going to play against each other," he said.

Halfway from the start, and halfway from the finish, they continue on -- starting tonight.

--

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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