Hoops Race Heats Up

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For those who have a vested interest in Pac-10 sports and are still licking their wounds from a lackluster football season, there is a simple remedy:

Pac-10 basketball.

Midway through the men's college basketball season the Pac-10 has once again shown that it is among the strongest conferences in the nation, with No. 2 Arizona and No. 3 Stanford occupying the first tier of a league with many talented teams.

And need anyone be reminded that Arizona State's Eddie House's 61 points against Cal have been the most points scored by a Division I player this season?

The Pac-10 ranks second behind the Big Ten in the latest RPI Report, and is third in the Sagarin rating behind the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference. But in head-to-head matchups, the Pac-10 has proven superior, going 6-0 against the Big Ten and 3-1 versus the SEC.

Needless to say, if the Pac-10 does not have a representative at the NCAA Final Four this March in Indianapolis, it will be a disappointment.

Although Arizona (15-2, 4-0 in the Pac-10) gained the upper hand in the race for the league title with their Jan. 8 win at Stanford (14-1, 3-1), the team was dealt a serious blow when small forward Richard Jefferson broke his right foot in opening minutes of the game.

The Wildcats are considered to have one of the best starting lineups in the country, but the injury to Jefferson leaves the team thin on quality players.

Since Jefferson will be out for the next seven weeks, Arizona will be forced to play the bulk of its regular season with only seven scholarship players.

And although they are undefeated in conference play, none of the Wildcats' victories have been blowouts. After coming back to win on the road against Cal and Stanford two weeks ago, the team struggled to victories at home against conference bottom-dwellers Washington State (5-8, 0-4) and Washington (6-10, 1-3).

Arizona center Loren Woods was named the Pac-10 Player of the Week this week for his performance against the Washington schools. In the two games the 7-foot-1 Woods averaged 23.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.5 blocks, including a Pac-10-record 10 against the Huskies.

"I'm very pleased with his development," said Wildcats coach Lute Olson of the junior transfer from Wake Forest. "There are still things that he has to do better, but I'm really pleased with his coachability and his competitiveness."

Arizona will be put to the test in its upcoming four-game roadtrip, which includes games at UCLA (10-4, 1-2) and USC (10-5, 3-0) this weekend, and ASU the next.

"This is going to test us every way we can be tested in the next three games," Olson said.

The Southern California teams should also prove to be interesting to watch as the season progresses. The Trojans been the conference's biggest surprise, winning six of their last seven games, including a 91-79 thumping of cross-town rival UCLA Jan. 12 en route to its undefeated Pac-10 start.

Meanwhile, the Bruins have been the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the conference thus far. After being ranked No. 12 in the preseason AP poll, UCLA lost to the likes of Colorado State and Washington. But the team has rebounded, beating then-No. 13 North Carolina at Chapel Hill Sunday.

At times overshadowed by their interstate rivals, the Sun Devils (11-4, 3-1) have emerged as a contender in the Pac-10 race. The team has been thrown on the shoulders of House, whose Pac-10-leading 24.4 points per game leads the conference's next-highest scorer by 6.8 ppg. ASU has also benefited from the play of freshman forward Shawn Redhage, who has averaged 17.7 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists over his last three games.


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