Mediocrity makes for interesting Pac-10 race

Someone has to win the Pac-10, right?

Two weeks into the conference season, nine teams are within a game of the lead. Most look capable of finishing first or last or somewhere in between.

"I just think the conference is up for grabs at this point," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said Tuesday on the Pac-10 coaches teleconference.

Romar's Huskies won the regular-season title a year ago, but they're alone in last place at 1-3.

The Huskies were ranked until they went on a three-game skid, including back-to-back 17-point losses at Arizona State and Arizona.

Not only did the Huskies drop out of The Associated Press Top 25 this week, but no Pac-10 team received a single vote.

Even Harvard drew one vote, as did Missouri State and Siena.

It's the latest milepost in a historically bad winter for Pac-10 hoops. The league has had a representative in the final AP ranking every season since 1986, when the poll had only 20 teams.

The Pac-10 was among the nation's elite leagues in recent years, but it has been weakened by a combination of NBA draft defections, coaching turnover and a lack of stars.

The league's many flaws were apparent in a disastrous nonconference season; the Pac-10 went 2-12 against ranked opponents and had a number of ugly losses.

"Overall as a league, we didn't have a ton of what we call signature nonconference wins," said USC coach Kevin O'Neill, whose Trojans beat No. 9 Tennessee by 22 points in December.

But there may be a bright side to mediocrity: the conference race is wide open.

Heading into this week's play, Oregon, California and Stanford are tied for first at 2-1. Five teams — Arizona, Arizona State, Washington State, UCLA and USC — are each 2-2. Oregon State is ninth at 1-2 and Washington is last at 1-3.

This is the earliest that every Pac-10 team has won a league game since the conference expanded in 1978-79.

"I think it could stay this close for a while," Oregon State coach Craig Robinson said. "I'm hoping, for our sake, for no one to pull away from the Pac-10, and that will give us a chance to pull away."

Here's how goofy things have been on the West Coast:

—Oregon State lost to Seattle by 51 points at home last week, matching the worst loss in program history. Four days later, the Beavers went into Eugene and beat Oregon by 7 in the final Civil War game at McArthur Court. (The Ducks will move out of the 83-year-old building next season).

That's the same Oregon squad that had opened Pac-10 play a week earlier by sweeping the Washington schools on the road.

—Arizona State dropped its first two Pac-10 games, including a 47-37 loss at USC that matched the Sun Devils' lowest output in 60 years. The Sun Devils came home, regrouped and swept Washington and Washington State by a combined 42 points.

—Stanford lost by 26 points to Bay Area rival California, then swept UCLA and USC.

—UCLA won at Cal on a last-second shot by Michael Roll. Two nights later, the Bruins went across the Bay, committed 22 turnovers and lost to Stanford by 11.

"It looks like anybody can beat anybody anywhere," O'Neill said.

That makes the league interesting. But it also raises questions about how many NCAA tourney berths the Pac-10 will receive.

The league's automatic bid goes to its tournament champion. USC will not participate in the conference or NCAA tourneys as part of the self-imposed sanctions for violating NCAA rules involving former player O.J. Mayo.

That leaves nine teams with NCAA tourney aspirations. Some have better resumes than others, but no Pac-10 team is a lock — and that includes Arizona (8-8, 2-2 Pac-10), which has reached the NCAAs 25 straight years, the longest active streak and two shy of North Carolina's record run from 1975 to 2001.

"I think that having a year like this, where there's so much parity, it's good for all the teams from a competitive standpoint," Robinson said. "The games will be good within the league. But the national exposure's not as big, and it remains to be seen what happens at the end of the year when the NCAA selection committee decides who gets to play."

Some coaches expect Cal, named the preseason favorite by media assigned to the conference, to emerge as the season unfolds and the Golden Bears' injury-riddled roster comes together.

But others say they are keeping an eye on Arizona State, who seem to have perfected coach Herb Sendek's maddening matchup zone defense.

Because they often struggle to score, the Sun Devils aren't much fun to watch. They're even less fun to play against; Arizona State allows the fewest points per game (54.4) in the nation.

"They're unique," said Washington State coach Ken Bone, whose team scored a season-low 46 points at ASU last weekend. "It's difficult to drive it, difficult to score outside, difficult to get good looks from the 3-point line."

The Sun Devils' defense sets them apart. But their inconsistency makes them just like every other team in a league dominated by young players.

"With the departure of so many players last year, and so many of them going to the NBA, along with graduation, it's just a young conference," Oregon coach Ernie Kent said.

"And what happens with young players is, some nights they've got it figured out, some nights they don't. They're up and down. It's hard to get consistency out of them, and therefore, you're going to have a conference that's up and down like that."

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