The Pacific 10 basketball race will end this weekend, and there still is no clear-cut winner in sight.
The picture may not be any clearer after tonight, when USC will play Oregon (8-8) at the Sports Arena; UCLA will play Oregon State at Pauley Pavilion, and Washington will play California (4-12).
This logjam at the top doesn't surprise Oregon State's Coach Ralph Miller, whose Beavers have won or shared the title four of the last five years.
"I said at the start of the season that this would be the most competitive Pac-10 race in 20 years or more," Miller said. "I thought there would be four teams, at least, with a chance to be in title contention. Other coaches predicted that five losses would keep you in the act. I guess we were fairly right for a change."
Miller has the proper historical perspective. This is the tightest conference race since 1963, when it was a five-team league called the Athletic Assn. of Western Universities. Four teams finished a game apart that year.
"I thought that Washington and Oregon State would be in there and Oregon, too," Miller said. "Oregon has had a bad year, although they're playing better now. I definitely felt that Arizona would be a factor, while UCLA and USC were questionable."
USC, of course, is the surprise team. The Trojans weren't picked to finish any higher than seventh in a preseason poll of coaches and reporters.
"USC isn't that surprising because it had more experienced players coming back than any other team in the conference," Miller said. "I think everyone discounted them a little bit because of their poor showing last year (11-20). But they gained a lot of knowledge and experience from last year and they're playing very fine basketball now."
Miller said that Wayne Carlander's improvement is one of the main reasons that the Trojans are leading the conference. The senior USC forward was named the Pac-10 Player of the Year.
"Carlander used to carry the title of garbage man and, basically, it was apropos," Miller said. "He didn't do anything but grab some rebounds and put them back in and make some close-in shots. But now he's moving around and playing the game as a whole far, far better than I've ever seen him. He's pretty much of a complete player this year."
There has been speculation that the Pac-10 could get as many as four teams into the NCAA tournament this year, since it has been expanded to 64 teams.
"That certainly is in the realm of possibility," Miller said. "In some of the criteria the NCAA uses to select teams, the Pac-10 rates favorably with the rest of the country."
He was referring to the winning percentage of the Pac-10's nonconference opponents. The conference ranks No. 3 nationally, behind the Big Ten and Metro Conference.
That power rating, however, is not to be confused with the Pac-10's record in nonconference games. The conference ranks only eighth in that category.
The Big East has the best winning percentage against nonconference opponents, and the Atlantic Coast Conference has the second-best. But the winning percentage of the Big East's nonconference opponents ranks only 19th nationally. The ACC's nonconference opposition is rated 12th.
That isn't to imply that the Pac-10 is on par with the Big East or ACC. It's merely an index that helps the NCAA selection committee pick the tournament field.
In fact, the Pac-10, PCAA, WCAC and WAC conferences are dismissed by Eastern writers as the "weak, weak West."
There is a basis for such a slight. A Western school hasn't advanced to the Final Four since UCLA made it in 1980. Since then, Oregon State in 1982 is the only Pac-10 team that has avoided elimination in the first two rounds.
Miller says it's understandable that the Pac-10 doesn't have a stronger national image.
"It has been taken for granted that we (the conference) don't have any so-called outstanding teams to be compared with Georgetown or someone like that," he said. "None of us have had a real good, big center. Few teams are outstanding unless they have a good center.
"We haven't had one since Bill Walton was at UCLA (1972-74). I could say that our Steve Johnson was a good center for us, but he was only 6-10 and he wasn't a great defensive player. So he wasn't that dominating person I'm speaking of. Without that person, it's difficult to have a truly outstanding team."
Miller said that the Pac-10's image was hurt this season by UCLA's weak showings in nationally televised games in December. Other Pac-10 teams have had minimal national TV exposure.
"I think UCLA was in the worst position in many years from the standpoint of experience and even the seniors didn't have a lot of previous playing time," Miller said. "It was the most difficult December schedule UCLA has had, and they weren't prepared for it then.
"Our conference has been aligned in strength on UCLA's back for 20 years. So if they don't do well in December, we're in bad shape."
But from the crucible of the intense Pac-10 race perhaps one or more teams will make a decent showing in the NCAA tournament. There aren't any great expectations, though.
Trojan Notes Tonight's USC-Oregon game will begin at 8. . . . John Rudometkin, USC's two-time All-American center, will take part in pregame ceremony honoring Wayne Carlander, who broke Rudometkin's all-time USC scoring record by scoring 16 points against Texas Sunday. Carlander has 1,485 points, one more than Rudo finished with. . . . Coach Stan Morrison, the Pac-10 coach of the year, on Oregon: "They may be the single-most improved team in the second round of the conference." The Ducks, 15-14 overall, have won five of their last six games. Blair Rasmussen, Oregon's 7-foot center, has scored 21 or more points in six of the last seven games. Forward Anthony Taylor, a member of the Pac-10's all-rookie team with 297 points, is the second-highest freshman scorer in the school's history behind Ron Lee, who had 489.
USC beat Oregon Jan. 3 at Eugene in the opening conference game for both schools, 63-59. The Trojans went on to an 8-1 record in conference road games. But USC is only 4-3 at home. . . . Oregon is seeking a bid to the National Invitation Tournament. The Ducks played in the NIT in 1984. . . . USC will play Oregon State Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Sports Arena. The game will be televised by Channel 5.