The Pacific 10 waters still run deep
March Madness 2001 saw the Pac-10 enjoy one of its most bountiful tournaments ever even if Arizona bowed to the Duke machine in the championship game and took the bride maid’s crown. Last year saw a conference that went 5 deep into the tournament, and sported as many NBA candidates as any league in the country. Altogether, 5 teams – Cal, UCLA, USC, Stanford and Arizona made the tournament with 4 out 5 in the sweet 16 and 3 teams in the elite eight. Arizona, a team that would send 3 players to the NBA in June’s draft, made a valiant effort against a Duke powerhouse.
This year, the PAC-10 is a shadow of what it was last year, but filled with competitive potential, competent coaching, and in a Pac-10 tradition, unpredictable outcomes. UCLA was the highest rated team in the top 25, yet with an invisible defense, the Bruins are plummeting faster than a dot com stock. A low-key Arizona with its recent NBA personnel additon has stunned the college hoops world with huge wins against solid ranked teams. Stanford and USC’s teams will challenge the Bruins and Wildcats and make it interesting as usual. At the end of the conference season, fans of the Pac-10 will be treated to a postseason tournament for the first time in 10 years.
1. ARIZONA: The emotional run through the 2001 tournament brackets will remain in the memories and the hearts of Wildcat fans for many years to come. The loss of Lute Olson’s wife seemed to ignite the Wildcats and their grieving coach to the heights of team play.
After the loss to Duke, the Wildcats were left to contemplate how they were going to endure the ’01/’02 year without NBA-bound power forward Michael Wright, center Loren Woods and the athletic guard Gilbert Arenas. To most everyone’s surprise, Arizona is showing that the winning tradition will not rest for anyone, and the team has gotten off to an impressive 4-0 start this year. Lead by the only returning starter, point guard Jason Gardner and upcoming star Channing Frye, the Cats are quickly moving up the ranks both nationally and in the conference. Lesson here: Never count out the exceptional coaching of Lute Olson.
2. USC: Quickly becoming one of the best coaches in the conference and in the country, Henry Bibby continues to instill discipline in his team and in his coaching. The team that upset Kentucky, then went to the elite eight and succumbed to inevitable champ Duke, loses stars Brian Scalabrine and Jeff Trepagnier for this year’s run (both are in the NBA).
The team is still quite capable with the retention of point guard Brandon Glanville, forward Sam Clancy, and pre-season all-american David Bluthenthal. Bibby’s recruiting is waxing optimistic for the program, as he just landed a couple Ventura College standouts for the 2002/2003 campaign. Watch out UCLA, Los Angeles may turn into a Trojan basketball town if Bibby (a former Bruin) has his way.
3. UCLA: The Bruins are the pre-season favorite to win the conference as they bring back all of their talented starters, save for standout point guard Earl Watson, now on the Seattle Supersonics roster. Even without Watson, 2001 Pac-10 Coach of the year Steve Lavin hasn’t had such a stacked team since he inherited the Baron Davis, Charles O’Bannon, Toby Bailey, Jelani McCoy team post-Jim Harrick.
Filling in for the scrappy point guard is Cedrick Bozeman, a 6-7 high school All-American. Bozeman’s learning curve was the only pre-season risk for the Bruins who bring back outside shooting star Jason Kapono, the tough inside play of forward Matt Barnes and center Dan Gadzuric, and the addition of athletic freshmen Dijon Thompson and Andre Patterson.
Early losses this year to Ball State and Pepperdine exposed the Bruins in several areas: Bozeman’s maturity and health, Barnes’ and Gadzuric’s leadership and the entire team’s defense which crumbled when utilizing the full court press that made a name for last year’s team. This team is once again making it’s fans nervous; Heck even John Wooden moved the Wooden Tradition to Indiana to be away from the tension. All right, I’m making that one up.
4. STANFORD: Coach Mike Montgomery’s string of failed expectation must bring some comfort to Kansas coach Roy Williams, also known to have ‘dance-a-phobia’. However, Montgomery’s knack for not taking very talented teams to the finals or championship circle must be grating on the average Stanford alumnus’ nerves.
Last year, the Stanford team was 31-3 overall and at 16-2, the Pac-10 Champions. Their run ended in the elite eight, losing to Maryland in Southern California. In 2001/2002, the look of the Cardinal changes as the Collins twins depart, leaving only the redwoods as tall wonders in Northern California. Montgomery’s team is lead by returning junior guard Casey Jacobsen who averaged 18.1 points per game. Jacobsen is joined by Josh Childress and Curtis Borchardt, the latter whom crashes the boards fiercely. Maybe with lower expectations, Stanford is better positioned to make a run at the title.
5. OREGON: The Ducks of ’01-’02 look a lot like the players of the previous year although a year older now. Lead by senior guard Freddie Jones, and the Pac-10 freshman of the year Luke Ridnour, also a guard, Oregon hopes to improve upon it’s ’01-’02 record of 5-13 conference, 14-14 overall. The Ducks will play 10 out of its first 12 games at the infamous ‘Pit’ this year which may get them out of the chute with a winning record. So far, they have upset Rick Pitino’s Louisville squad at the Pit, and I don’t think the upsets will stop there. I pick Oregon in the top 5 of the conference this year.
6. WASHINGTON: See OREGON STATE. Coach Bob Bender hopefully will not go on a bender after another disappointing season coaching the Huskie hoopsters. He has two returning starters, and some impressive wins so far against such killer squads such as Santa Clara and uh, and uh, and uh . . . . how about that Rick Neuheisel? Miami beat them by how much? I’d say pray for rain, but what’s the point?
7. ARIZONA STATE: The Sun Devils did not have a notable season last year finishing at 13-16 overall, and 5-13 in Pac-10 play. Coach Rob Evans is blessed with 4 returning starters, but none of the caliber at rival Arizona or the other 3 conference powerhouses. One bright spot for the Sun Devils is the return of Justin Allen, who sat out last year because of Hodgkin’s Disease. It may take a while for Allen to get his touch back, but if he’s able to come back even at 80 percent, ASU may surprise some people. If the starters falter, Arizona State will probably finish in the bottom half of the Pac-10.
8. CALIFORNIA: Last years’ squad with all-conference forward and leading scorer Sean Lampley was quite a nightmare for Pac-10 competitors. The Golden Bears finished 11-7 in conference and 20-11 overall. The team loses Lampley in ’01-’02 to the NBA, but brings back 4 starters, including standout point guard Shantay Legans. It will also be interesting to see how coach Ben Braun works freshman center Jamal Sampson (Mater Dei HS) into the line-up and offensive/defensive schemes. Even though the team could be the year’s surprise team, they are most likely to finish in the bottom 5.
9. OREGON STATE: Where have you gone Coach Ralph Miller? Charley Sitton? A. C. Green? Gary Payton? What – silence? The Beavers once upon a time ago the successors to the John Wooden Bruins are languishing in the bottom 5 of the PAC-10 and this year should be no different. Coach Ritchie McKay, in his second season coaching the Beavers, will have 3 returning starters but you guessed it: Their names are not Green or Payton or Sitton. Their record last year was 4-14 conference and 10-20 overall. Unfortunately for the black and orange, those records are a good estimate for this year’s tally.
10. WASHINGTON STATE: A little better than Washington and Oregon State in the last year (5-13 conference, 12-16 overall), the Cougars return 4 starters including senior football star and 2-guard Mike Bush and senior center J Locklier. Coach Paul Graham’s team will probably improve modestly but not challenge any conference team in the top 5 this year.