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Wild, Wild West
GRANT WAHL
January 22, 2007
With an infusion of homegrown talent and a new emphasis on smothering defense, the Pac-10 has become the nation's top conference
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January 22, 2007

Wild, Wild West

With an infusion of homegrown talent and a new emphasis on smothering defense, the Pac-10 has become the nation's top conference

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The West is the best.
Get here, and we'll do the rest.

--The Doors

What was this, anyway? Some sort of Jim Morrison--inspired, ride-the-snake acid trip? Were those really pigskin-addled USC students lining up three hours before a basketball game and literally running to snag the best seats possible? Were the Trojans really playing in a sparkling-new $130 million, 10,258-seat, on-campus hoops cathedral? (What happened to the old ramshackle L.A. Sports Arena?) And for the love of O.J.--not Simpson, you dummy, but but rather Trojans basketball recruit O.J. Mayo, the nation's top high school senior--was that really USC taking a 10-point second-half lead against mighty crosstown rival UCLA last Saturday?

Granted, the packaging of USC hoops is still a work in progress--the Galen Center's glitziest courtside celebrity last week was Simpson Bronco driver Al Cowlings--but here was the chance to grab a share of first place in the rough-and-tumble Pac-10. "This is bigger than basketball has been in years," explained USC nut job Henrik Nielsen, a bearded comp-sci major decked out in a cardinal-and-gold Afro wig, a gold jersey and mirrored aviator glasses. "We really think we can make some noise now." Alas, the Trojans fumbled the ball, as it were, blowing the lead and wasting Nick Young's late four-point play when UCLA guard Arron Afflalo drained a 17-foot jumper with 4.7 seconds left for a heart-stopping 65--64 Bruins victory.

All things considered, it was just another extraordinary day in the Pac-10's late-decade resurgence. "Buzzer shots. One-point wins. The energy and the atmosphere," Afflalo marveled afterward, savoring another wild league weekend that included two games decided in overtime and a pair of others by last-second finishes, including Oregon's 79--77 win at Arizona on Sunday. "The Pac-10 is hot this year."

Let there be no doubt: The Pac-10 is the preeminent conference in college basketball. In fact, it may be on the verge of a new golden era, riding an El Ni´┐Żo--fueled wave of blue-chip players, dynamic new coaches and an inchoate toughness that smashes all those namby-pamby West Coast stereotypes. "I think the league is better top to bottom than it has been in the whole time that I've been here," says Arizona's Lute Olson, the dean of Pac-10 coaches, who's in his 24th season in Tucson. "Some years you've had two or three good teams, and a couple years four or five, but I've never seen it so competitive from teams one through 10."

Need convincing? Just a year after the Pac-10 was derided as a fading power--only UCLA reached the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight--the league was ranked No. 1 in the RPI through Sunday, staying on track to equal or even break its record of six tournament bids set in 2002. Not since Olson's Wildcats won the 1997 national title after finishing fifth in the Pac-10 has the league enjoyed such quality across the board. No. 3 UCLA (15--1), No. 9 Oregon (16--1) and No. 11 Arizona (13--3) are serious threats to raise the trophy in Atlanta on April 2, while Washington State (15--3) and USC (13--5) could make deep tournament runs as well. So brutal is the league's infighting that Washington (11--6) began last week ranked No. 24 in the nation and ended it with a ninth-place conference record of 1--5.

"I anticipate that we'll get at least six bids this year, maybe seven," says UCLA coach Ben Howland, whose team is even better than it was a year ago, when the Bruins reached the national title game. Cal coach Ben Braun concurs. "The ACC has gotten seven bids and so has the Big Ten," he says, "so why can't the Pac-10?"

Like Tupac Shakur setting his sights on New York City, the emerging Pac-10 powerhouse has had the cojones to hit the road ( Oregon won 57--50 at then No. 18 Georgetown on Nov. 29, and Stanford prevailed 76--75 at Virginia on Jan. 7) while defending the home front against challenges by establishment teams from points East ( Washington ripped LSU 87--71 on Dec. 20, while UCLA blew out Michigan 92--55 on Dec. 23). If one Pac Shakur-- Arizona's electric point guard Mustafa--can lead the Wildcats to victory against No. 4 North Carolina on Jan. 27 in Tucson, this East Coast--West Coast battle will have been no contest at all.

Suddenly the Pac-10 is deeper than Death Valley. Even last-place Arizona State has reason for cheer despite its 0--6 conference record, since first-year coach Herb Sendek (who took N.C. State to the previous five NCAA tournaments) has assembled a top-notch recruiting class for next year. Meanwhile, Stanford (11--4) and Cal (11--6) figure only to burnish the Pac-10's greatest rivalry if they end up fighting for the league's final NCAA bid. If those tussles involve a drunk tree mascot and clueless band members, so much the better.

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