No team out of running in Pac-10

  • By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
  • Tuesday, February 2, 2010 10:39pm
  • SportsSports

While Pac-10 enthusiasts may find it hard to turn away from the can’t-miss drama that has been the 2009-10 men’s basketball season, the so-called haters might look at the conference with a different reaction.

We told you so.

At the halfway point of the conference season, not a single Pac-10 team is out of the running. That might be because not a single Pac-10 team looks like a national contender.

Arizona, which many people picked to finish near the bottom of the standings because the Wildcats are in rebuilding mode after losing two underclassmen and two top-tier recruits, is tied with Pac-10 favorite California atop the standings at 6-3.

Oregon State, which was generally regarded as one of only three serious contenders for conference supremacy, sits alone in last place — just three games back at 3-6.

And the Beavers — congruent with the Pac-10’s parity — have already beaten Arizona once.

“With the way our conference is this year, there’s a lot of balance,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “We have some teams that are very hungry to finish strong. It would not surprise me at all if there is a 180-degree turn in our conference race (by the end of the season).”

The inconsistency of the balanced conference is best exhibited in four games involving Pac-10 teams: struggling Washington (4-5 in conference games) beat Seattle University by 47 points, Seattle University beat Oregon State by 51, Oregon State beat USC, and USC beat then-No. 9 Tennessee.

The Pac-10 has been about as easy to figure out as a jigsaw puzzle with blank pieces.

Asked during a Tuesday conference call what he expects out of the final nine games of Pac-10 play, UW coach Lorenzo Romar said: “I can tell you with certainty, with 100 percent certainty, that I have no idea. I couldn’t have predicted what’s happened to this point. Now going into the second half of conference (play), I couldn’t predict what’s going to happen.”

After struggling to make much of an impact in non-conference play — USC’s upset of Tennessee was the conference’s lone signature win — the Pac-10 hasn’t done itself many favors in recent weeks. Not a single Pac-10 team got so much as one vote in this week’s Top 25 poll, and the conference ranks eighth in terms of RPI, right there between the Mountain West and Missouri Valley.

“With the graduations and early departures, it’s become a young conference,” Oregon coach Ernie Kent said. “It’s a conference that’s gotten better as we’ve started to play.

“Everyone says it’s a down conference — well, it’s down because all the upper-level players left in the last couple years. … When you’ve got young players, you’re going to deal with inconsistency.”

If there is a pleasant surprise in the conference, it is first-place Arizona. The Wildcats (12-9 overall, 6-3 in the Pac-10) went 6-6 during non-conference play, due in large part to the retirement of longtime head coach Lute Olson, the NBA early entries of Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger, and the decisions by U of A recruits Mike Moser and Abdul Gaddy to opt out of verbal commitments and attend other schools within the conference.

And yet Arizona is off to a surprising start that included Saturday’s upset of fellow Pac-10 leader Cal.

“On one hand, I am surprised,” said Miller, whose Wildcats will be at Hec Edmundson Pavilion to face UW on Thursday night. “On the other hand, if you check the history of conference races, and you check at the halfway point, there are some teams at the top that finish near the bottom. There are those teams that, for whatever reason, haven’t put it together yet, and they end up near the top.”

The biggest disappointment on the other end of the spectrum is a toss-up between Oregon State and UW. The Beavers entered this season with as high of expectations as they’ve had in years after returning most of the same team from last year’s 7-11 squad, but they’ve struggled out of the gates and fallen to the bottom of the conference.

The Huskies haven’t lived up to expectations, either, despite several dominating wins at home. UW spent most of the non-conference season as the conference’s lone representative in the national rankings, only to lost three of their first four Pac-10 games.

The hard part about playing in the Pac-10 this season is that a conference title might be the only way to earn an NCAA bid.

The good part? Halfway through conference play, no one is out of the running.

“It’s a relief,” UW’s Romar said. “It’s a relief that there’s still life at the end of the tunnel, and we can take care of business.”

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