Arizona heads best six-Pac out West

February 19, 2002 5:19 AM
by

share

Without question, the Pac-10 has some of the finest teams in the country. At least six teams are worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid, and each is still alive in the chase for the conference title.

The presence of teams like Arizona, Stanford, Cal, UCLA, Oregon and USC makes this an outstanding league, but few major conferences have such a dramatic difference from top to bottom.

The four weakest teams have a combined record of 11-36 in league play heading into the weekend, so this conference doesn’t have the depth of the SEC or the Big 12. But it does have the heavyweights.

Arizona: After losing four starters from last year’s team, the  Wildcats could have taken a big fall. Instead, led by the outstanding play of Luke Walton and Jason Gardner, the Wildcats have been one of the best teams, not only in the Pac 10, but in the entire nation.

Walton has really improved his game, and is one of the nation’s best all-around players. This year  the junior has been outstanding, averaging over  15 points and seven rebounds per game.

Gardner is scoring more than 20 points per game, despite being well under six feet tall, and always seems to be open when the Wildcats need a big jump shot. Forward Ricky Anderson has also played well for Arizona, as have freshmen Channing Frye and Salim Stoudamire.

Stanford: Along with Arizona, the Cardinal have been the league’s top program over the last few seasons. They remain near the top of the league standings this season, but have taken a bit of a step back. They lost a combined seven games over the last two seasons, but had already lost six times this year.

Stanford is not as deep as in the past and relies heavily on swingman Casey Jacobsen and big man Curtis Borchardt. Both players have responded well, but the Cardinal will need someone to step up, especially in the frontcourt, if they are to fulfill expectations.

California: Stanford’s biggest rival, is having a great season. Very quietly, the Bears have moved into a position to challenge Arizona and Stanford for the top spot in the league. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Cal returned four starters from last year’s tournament team, including tough swingman Joe Shipp, and they have a very good coach in Ben Braun.

The Bears are one of the better defensive teams in the wide-open Pac 10.

UCLA: Few teams around the country have the talent and the depth. The Bruins are loaded, especially in the frontcourt, with sweet-shooting Jason Kapono, athletic center Dan Gadzuric and hard-nosed forward Matt Barnes. Swingman Billy Knight provides the Bruins with a slasher on the wing, and there are a host of fine athletes to come off the bench.

The problem for the Bruins this season has come at point guard, where neither Cedric Bozeman or Ryan Walcott have proven they can run the squad. Heading into the weekend, Bozeman had made just four of 17 free throw attempts this season, which certainly doesn’t inspire confidence at the end of games. If they can sort out the mess at the point, UCLA has the talent to make a long run in the NCAA Tournament.

Oregon: While UCLA has struggled because of guard play, Oregon has excelled in that department. The Ducks, along with Cal, have been the surprise of the league, thanks to the play of shooting guard Freddie Jones and point guard Luke Ridnour.

Jones is one of the most explosive athletes in the conference, and also one of the league’s best free throw shooters. He is the team’s leading scorer, and best perimeter defender. Ridnour was the top freshman in the Pac 10 last year, and has improved on his numbers this season. He is not only the team’s top passer, he is also their best three-point shooter. The Ducks have been great at home this season.

USC: The Trojans made a deep run in the NCAA Tournament last season and are a lock for the Big Dance. Forward Sam Clancy is the team’s top rebounder and scorer, along with being one of the top post players in the nation.

Forward David Bluthenthal and point guard Brandon Granville are also solid, but the Trojans don’t have the depth of talent of most teams. Clancy averages over 37 minutes per game, and the Trojans need to find him more. For the first time since 1990, the Pac 10  will  hold a post-season tourney  in Los Angeles at the Staples Center. All six teams have the talent to win three straight games and bring home the title.

Pac 10
Top 6

Team  

SU

USC  

18-6

Stanford  

17-6

Oregon  

17-7

Arizona  

17-8

California  

18-6

UCLA  

17-8

 Surprise  

SU

 Ariz St (home)  

11-3

Team  

ATS

USC  

16-6-1

Oregon  

13-9-0

Arizona  

13-11-1

California  

11-12-0

Stanford  

10-11

UCLA  

8-16-0

Surprise  

ATS

Washington  

13-10