At this time last season Arizona was starting to race through the Pac-10—in which it would win 17 of 18 games as a prelude to making it all the way to the Final Four. The rest of the conference, though, wasn't sharing in the Wildcats' prosperity.
What a difference a year makes. If you scanned the readouts from hoops hacker Jeff Sagarin's mainframe last week, you found four Pac-10 schools—Arizona, Stanford, UCLA and Oregon State—in the top 25. That was as many as for any conference except the Big Ten. With five of the nation's 14 toughest schedules and a nonconference winning percentage so far of .681, up from .566 for all of last season, the Pac-10 should bag four NCAA bids.
It wasn't long ago that schools in that conference stood by as Big East, Big Ten and ACC carpetbaggers made off with California's finest high school talent and TV executives banished its games to a few off-hours cable time slots. Now four of California's top five schoolboy seniors are said to be headed for Arizona and Southern Cal, and four of the next 10 have indicated that they, too, will choose the Pac-10. Arizona, UCLA and Stanford are all booked for prime interconference network TV dates, and a crop of fine seniors, led by UCLA's Pooh Richardson, Arizona's Sean Elliott and Stanford's Todd Lichti, is leaving its mark on the league.
One measure of the Pac-10's return to health is the renewed challenge of the road, where crowds at such places as Oregon's McArthur Court, Oregon State's Gill Coliseum and California's Harmon Arena compensate for some of the gap in talent that still exists. "You look up and down the league, and there's no place where we won't have lunch served to us if we don't play well," says Stanford forward Howard Wright, whose team had its midday meal served, well-done, 75-64 at Berkeley on Thursday.
At home in the Maples Pavilion two days later, Stanford bounced back to defeat UCLA 84-75. For years the seats in Maples were empty; this season, with the Cardinal (14-4, 6-2 in the conference) a game behind Arizona (13-2, 7-1), many seats remain empty—but only because the students stand throughout the game. When Stanford fans discovered recently that a little well-choreographed stomping had a trampoline effect on Maples' springy floor, they took to doing just that during opponents' free throws, a practice that only an edict from the league office could get them to abandon. Said UCLA coach Jim Harrick on Saturday, "The road is nasty. It's ugly. It's horrid."
In the 1930s Stanford's Hank Luisetti propelled the game into its future with his jump shot. Most of the Cardinal's six seniors seem intent on dragging it back a few decades. Frontline bodies like forwards Eric Reveno (6'8", 250 pounds) and Wright (6'8", 235) score almost all of their points off a half-court offense, as if they had just stepped off the pages of an old basketball fundamentals text. But Lichti, the 6'4" ambidextrous wonder, seems to add a chapter each time he plays. "It's sort of a do-or-die attitude for us," says Lichti. Like his classmates, he realizes that being the only school unbeaten in NCAA tournament play—Stanford is 3-0, thanks to its 1942 title run, though it hasn't been back since—isn't necessarily something to be proud of. "The six of us have been through some not-so-great seasons." Lichti says.
The Stanford media guide says of one of those seniors, Scott Meinert: "Hobbies include music, mountain biking and reading existential literature." At Stanford, and indeed at more places than not around the Pac-10 these days, the prevailing philosophy, however, is no longer "We show up, therefore we are." As the Cardinal prepares to travel to Tucson this Sunday, Meinert says, " Arizona has some tough games left. They've got us."