The Pac is stacked with multiple contenders

By Curtis Acosta

Arizona Daily Wildcat

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Arizona State

Move over Arizona and UCLA. There is yet another team that is moving in on the Pacific 10 Conference elite, and that is Arizona State. The Sun Devils made quick believers out of everybody by having great pre-conference success against Michigan, Maryland and Oklahoma State. ASU has shown some incredible play, but has also been the victim of that dreaded word, inconsistency.

The Sun Devils, currently ranked 13th in both polls, were upset by Stanford 91-75 last Thursday but got by Cal 73-68 Saturday.

ASU (12-3 overall, 2-1 in the Pac-10) is loaded with talent this year, and for once Coach Bill Frieder has them healthy. When talking of the Sun Devils' talent, one name comes immediately to mind junior forward Mario Bennett. Super Mario has been great this year.

Bennett leads the Sun Devils in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage. He is among the leaders in the Pac-10 in each of these catagories as well. He leads the entire conference in blocked shots, with an amazing average of 3.0 blocked shots per game. Compared to all these statistics, his nickname does not do him justice.

Bennett has an impressive supporting cast, as well.

Senior guard Isaac Burton has had a fine year. Burton is second on the team in scoring, but his greatest value has been as the Sun Devils' best defender. Burton held All-American Damon Stoudamire to just five points, 14 points below his average, in the Sun Devils' win over Arizona Jan. 5 in Tempe.

There is no doubt that ASU is tougher than it was last season the Sun Devils proved that by beating Arizona. The next steps will be tougher, and those include attempting to knock off the likes of Arizona and UCLA on the road. It will be wins like that which could vault ASU into the Pac-10 elite. For those games, ASU will need to be tougher than they have ever been.

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California

The Golden Bears have shown consistency this year with an 8-4 record that includes wins over Minnesota and Cincinnati, and have been ranked in the top 25 for most of the year.

Cal (8-4, 1-3) has been a balanced basketball team. It ranks fourth in the Pac-10 in defense and fifth in offense. Unlike the past couple years, during which the Golden Bears had Jason Kidd and Lamond Murray, Cal has been running less, but has been very successful in the half-court set.

This year, Cal is relying on senior forward Monty Buckley for most of its scoring. Buckley has averaged over 20 points per game in conference play, including a 27-point effort against Arizona. Buckley's senior leadership has made him the "go-to-guy" for the Bears, and Buckley has responded.

The Bears have also been helped out by a great freshman class. Coach Todd Bozeman had another excellent recruiting class, as guard Jelani Gardner, forwards Tremaine Fowlkes and Tony Gonzalez have made a major impact.

Gardner leads the team in assists, while Fowlkes leads the team in rebounding. Gonzalez, after serving the Golden Bears' football team as its tight end, has returned to the hardwood and found a place in the starting lineup.

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Oregon

It just might be one of those magical years for the University of Oregon athletic program.

The Ducks' football team made its first Rose Bowl appearance in 37 years, and now the school's basketball team is the last remaining undefeated team in the conference and is hoping to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 38 years.

However, the Ducks' basketball team is not as much of a surprise as their football counterparts. Last year, Oregon had an impressive road sweep of the Washington schools and a huge win over UCLA at home to finish the season on a high note. This year, they have started where they had left off.

Oregon (11-1, 3-0) pulled off another shocker Jan. 5, by beating the mighty Bruins 82-72. The win over UCLA gave the Ducks a great deal of attention, but they had been playing well before that, going 8-1 in non-conference play.

"I think we have played a little better this year." Coach Jerry Green said. "We have played more confident than last year."

The confidence has shown not only in the sweep of the L.A. schools and a 96-83 win over Oregon State in Corvallis, Ore., last Saturday, but also in the many close games Oregon has won many this year.

But in the end, the Ducks will win with their offense. They are second in the conference in scoring, and are not shy about launching up the three pointers either. Earlier in the season, in a victory over Notre Dame, the Ducks attempted 31 three pointers.

No Oregon player is more explosive than all-conference senior guard Orlando Williams. Williams has scored 30-plus points twice this season, including seven three pointers against USC.

Sophomore point guard Kenya Wilkins joins Williams in the backcourt, and has been equally impressive this season. Wilkins has already been named Pac-10 player of the week this season, and has effectively directed the Ducks' high-powered offense while playing hurt on a sore ankle.

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Oregon State

The good news for Oregon State is that it can only get better than last year's disappointing last-place finish.

The Beavers won only two games in the 1994 Pac-10 campaign. This year, Oregon State (4-8, 1-2) is already halfway to that total, and looking much stronger than last year.

More good news is that the Beavers return all of their starters from last year's team.

Senior forwards Brent Barry and Mustapha Hoff are their two floor leaders. Hoff is among the top scorers in the conference this year after missing all of last season while rehabilitating from back surgery. Hoff also ranks in the top 10 in rebounding and three-point field goal percentage. He is is also the Beavers as the team's leader in minutes played.

Barry is another top performer in the league. Son of NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry, Brent was named Pac-10 player of the week Dec. 12. He rebounded off a scoring slump with a 30-point explosion versus USC in the Beavers' first conference win. Coach Jim Anderson, who will retire at the end of this year, knows how important Barry and Hoff have been to the Beavers.

"Brent and Mustapha have been our two most consistent players from start to finish," Anderson said. "He (Barry) is improved very much. He's been playing under control the last three or four games. On the whole, I've been pleased with his desire to be a complete player."

OSU has played well in its opening Pac-10 contests. The Beavers almost pulled a major upset, but eventually lost to UCLA 87-78. A lack of focus for Oregon State contributed to the loss.

Southern Cal

When you start thinking of the Southern California men's basketball team, the word transition comes to mind. The Trojans took a major blow by losing their longtime coach, George Raveling.

Raveling was in a near-fatal auto accident that forced his retirement just days before the beginning of the season. Former assistant coach Charles Parker took over the program, and admits that it has been a slow transition for the Trojans.

"Things are going pretty well," Parker said. "We are trying to incorporate a new style, and it's taking more time than we expected."

The Trojans, who swept the Washington schools last weekend in Los Angeles, rely on a fast-breaking, up-tempo style that has been able to generate many points this season. Southern Cal (7-7, 2-2) has been scoring more points this year than it has in a while, mainly because of the presence of senior forward Lorenzo Orr, who was a preseason All-Pac-10 first-team selection.

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Stanford

No one in the Pac-10 had a more impressive start to the season than Stanford. Coach Mike Mongomery has the Cardinal off to its best start in generations.

Stanford had a spotless pre-conference record, going 10-0, including wins over Wisconsin and Virginia. Stanford (11-2, 2-2) began Pac-10 play with an optimistic view of its chances in what is considered this year as the nation's toughest conference. Last week, the Cardianl upset Arizona State, but then they fell to the Wildcats 89-83 in overtime Saturday.

To find the reason for Stanford's success, one only has to look at its guards. Stanford has, arguably, the finest backcourt in a conference loaded with fantastic guards.

Sophomore point guard Brevin Knight has made Bay Area fans forget about the Kidd that played across the bay last year, while proving to be a one-man press breaker and an exceptional playmaker. He has been awesome in the early part of the season.P P P

UCLA

The obvious: UCLA has a great team.

The school has its most serious contender for a national championship since the days of John Wooden. Not even the pesky Larry Brown-coached team that lost to Louisville in the 1980 NCAA title game had this much talent.

Coach Jim Harrick's team is loaded.

The Bruins have all the makings of a Final Four team. They have a proven scorer and rebounder in senior Ed O'Bannon; a leader at the point guard position in senior Tyus Edney; a big man in the middle in senior George Zidek; and an explosive, athletic scorer and defender, sophomore Charles O'Bannon. Not to mention a steadily improving bench.

What UCLA is accomplishing this year is also impressive.

Ed O'Bannon is near the top of the conference in both scoring and rebounding, and is making a strong case to be an All-American. Edney is having another great year at the point.

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Washington

Reality has not escaped Washington coach Bob Bender.

Last year's team was 3-15 in the Pac-10 and is again expected to be in for a long season.

The news isn't all bad in Seattle, however. The Huskies (6-5, 0-4) expect to be an improved team from last year, and a key will be the play of junior guards Bryant Boston and transfer Jason Hamilton, former Western Athletic Conference freshman of the year at San Diego State.

"I think we have made some real improvements," Bender said. "The addition of Jason Hamilton at the point has stabilized a lot of things on the floor with his play, and Byrant Boston has continued to be a consistent player."

Both players have helped the Huskies' offense, which was a major concern in the offseason. The sputtering Washington offense is found near the bottom of most of the Pac-10's statistical catagories, but the team is constantly improving.

Washington is only one win away from equalling last year's mark of five. The season has been a definite step up from last year. The highlight of the year came in Seattle as the Huskies knocked off Michigan 65-61. The Huskies have been on the losing end of many close games this season, which illustrates the competitiveness of the team.

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Washington State

The secret is already out regarding the Washington State Cougars. The kids in Pullman can play. The Cougars opened up their Pac-10 play with two huge wins at home against Cal and Stanford. Both teams were ranked in the Top 25 in the nation at the time, and both left WSU wondering who those guys were. Allow me to make the introductions.

The Cougars are led by a talented group of underclassman. Sophomores Dominic Ellison and Isaac Fontaine make up the Cougars' backcourt, and have been vital to the Cougars' early success. Ellison has made an early impression upon the Pac-10 by becoming conference's player of the week after his performances over the Bay Area schools. Carlos Daniel, a 6-foot-7 freshman, has shown great potential down in the post for the Huskies, and looks as if he will be a force in the conference for years to come.

"We are easily the youngest team in the Pac-10, maybe in the country," said first-year head coach Kevin Eastman.

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