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Pac 10 race boiling down to 3

Feb 24, 2003 11:59 PM

The "Big Three" of the Pac 10 (Arizona, California and Stanford) are currently locked in a duel for the regular season title and aspirations for the Final Four next month. Here’s a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the league’s elite teams.

ARIZONA: Before the season began Coach Lute Olson lauded about the amount of talent on his team. He was not overstating things, as the Wildcats look like one of the top teams in the country. Point guard Jason Gardner (14 ppg) runs the offense and provides senior leadership along with 6-foot-8 Luke Walton, who like his father is a remarkable passer for a big man. The duo leads Arizona in assists.

Channing Frye, a 6-10 sophomore, is strong at both ends of the floor. Frye leads the Wildcats in rebounding. Sophomore guard Salim Stoudamire was the hero with 32 points on 12-of-18 shooting when the Wildcats went on a memorable 52-22 second half run in a 91-74 comeback win at Kansas. Arizona leads the Pac 10 in scoring (85.7 ppg) and rebounding (40.3 rpg), and is second defensively, holding opponents to 41 percent shooting.

CALIFORNIA: The Golden Bears do not have a lot of height or muscle up front, but possess outstanding guard play. The Bears lead the Pac 10 in three-point shooting (39 percent and are one of the top teams defensively in steals, with over seven per game.

Coach Ben Braun’s strong perimeter play is led by 6-5 seniors Joe Shipp and Brian Wethers, while 6-10 sophomore Amit Tamir has been solid in the low post. The veteran backcourt is one reason Cal is second only to Arizona in field goal percentage (47.8 percent). Cal has no fear on the road, starting the season 6-2 SU and 8-0 ATS away from home.

STANFORD: The Cardinal knew they would have a strong backcourt coming into the season. The question was who would replace Curtis Borchardt and Casey Jacobsen up front? Stanford has gotten good play in the low post from 6-8 sophomore Josh Childress (14 ppg, 8 rpg) and 6-9, 245-lb junior Justin Davis (over 7 rpg). This team has great balance and gets it done with defense, rated tops in the Pac 10. Stanford holds teams to 66 ppg and 41 percent shooting, while ranking second in rebounding (35.5 rpg). The Cardinal began the season 9-3 UNDER the total.

The backcourt is solid with 6-4 junior Matt Lottich and senior guard Julius Barnes. In the biggest game of the season, Barnes had 14 points, 10 assists and five rebounds in Stanford’s 82-77 upset at Arizona as a +17 dog! Lottich had 23 points in that game, nailing 5-of-8 three pointers. The only weakness is free throw shooting, where Stanford ranks last in the conference (66 percent).

ARIZONA STATE: The Sun Devils have exceeded expectations this season on the wide shoulders of 6-8 freshman Ike Diogi (18 ppg, 7 rpg). Diogi is an outstanding inside force and has justified his hype as of the most sought-after recruits in the country. Arizona State is the best shooting team in the Pac 10 (close to 49 percent) and one of the top scoring teams (76 ppg). Forward Timmy Smith and veteran guards Kyle Dodd, Jason Braxton and Curtis Millage have blended nicely alongside Diogi.

The Sun Devils play great defense, giving up just over 66 points per game (second in the Pac 10 behind Arizona). Two areas of concern are free throw shooting (a poor 66 percent) and lack of success against stronger teams. ASU started 1-3 ATS in the league.

OREGON: Many coaches preach that guard play is essential when the competition gets heated in March. The Ducks won the regular season Pac 10 title last year and junior guard Luke Ridnour (19 ppg, 6.5 apg) leads another strong Oregon backcourt. The stable guard play is a key reason why Oregon leads the Pac 10 in turnover margin (+2.7 per game) and free throws (76 percent), along with ranking second in three-point shooting (38.9 percent) and scoring (84 ppg).

The frontcourt is the team’s weakness. Oregon is last in the Pac 10 in rebounding (31.7 rpg). Luke Jackson and Robert Johnson lead the Ducks in rebounding but are not intimidating, physical players. Oregon’s guard depth is strong defensively, tied for first in the league with USC at over eight steals per game.