Can anybody here beat top-ranked Arizona?
That seems to be the theme of the third Pacific 10 Conference basketball tournament, which opens tonight at the Forum with two games featuring the conference’s bottom four teams.
Washington State (9-18 overall) will play Oregon (8-20) at 7, and USC (9-21) will play Arizona State (12-15) at 9. The survivors will join the conference’s top six teams in Friday’s quarterfinals.
Arizona, which will play the Washington State-Oregon winner, lost at Stanford two months ago, but won its next 13 conference games by an average of 24 points before holding off UCLA last Saturday at Pauley Pavilion, 89-86.
The Wildcats have won 37 of 39 games against Pac-10 competition in the last two seasons, among them three lopsided victories in last year’s conference tournament at Tucson.
Only Stanford, among Pac-10 teams, has beaten Arizona in the last two seasons. And both Cardinal victories were accomplished in Stanford’s Maples Pavilion.
“It’s going to be hard to stop the train now,” USC Coach George Raveling said of the Wildcat express, which rolled through the Pac-10 and into the Final Four last season and has climbed this season to the top of the
Led by All-American Sean Elliott, who is expected to be named today as the Pac-10 player of the year for the second consecutive season, Arizona is 24-3. The Wildcats have won 16 of their last 17 games, having lost only to second-ranked Oklahoma last month at Norman, Okla., 82-80.
What would it take to derail the Wildcats this weekend?
“Almost a perfect game,” said Ralph Miller, Oregon State coach.
Some have suggested that Arizona is better than it was last season, when it came within a victory of reaching the national championship game, losing to Oklahoma in the semifinals, 86-78.
Coach Lute Olson lost three starters from that 35-3 team, including Tom Tolbert, his center and No. 2 scorer and rebounder; guard Craig McMillan, a three-year starter, and Steve Kerr, his point guard and spiritual leader.
The returnees, though, included Jud Buechler, Matt Muehlebach and Ken Lofton, who have filled in admirably as supporting players for Elliott and center Anthony Cook.
“I feel very good about our team right now,” Olson said. “The chemistry is excellent.”
According to Olson, the Wildcats are quicker and better defensively than they were a year ago, and may also be a stronger rebounding team.
“Talent-wise, we’re better,” Elliott said last month after scoring 35 points in a 102-64 rout of UCLA.
The only question mark, seemingly, is the inconsistent play of the guards, Lofton and Muehlebach.
“That could hurt them,” Oregon Coach Don Monson said.
So far it hasn’t.
“I’ve been very pleased with the play of the guards,” said Olson, who also uses freshman Matt Othick in a backcourt rotation. “Maybe they haven’t shot it like we would have liked, but their play has been consistent. And (Lofton and Muehlebach) are two of the best defensive guards in the league.”
And Buechler, a 6-foot-6 forward who averages 10.4 points and 6.7 rebounds a game, is among the most productive and least appreciated Pac-10 players.
“They’ve got so many ways to beat you, and they’ve got a deep bench,” Raveling said of the Wildcats. “I think at this time of the year you’re getting better or you’re getting worse. Not too many teams are standing still. And I think Arizona is getting better.”
Raveling, in fact, foresees a return to the Final Four.
Nobody, though, is saying that the Wildcats are invincible.
Stanford, of course, beat Arizona, and UCLA and Oregon State both played the Wildcats close, albeit on their home courts.
“I didn’t think anybody could beat St. Mary’s, but they did,” UCLA Coach Jim Harrick said of the Gaels’ upset loss to Santa Clara in the semifinals of the West Coast Athletic Conference tournament. “March Madness is here. Crazy things happen.”
And Miller said he wouldn’t be surprised if Arizona lost.
“I’ve been around this game long enough to know that nothing is automatic,” said Miller, who will celebrate his 70th birthday today.
Still, the Wildcats are overwhelming favorites.
“You’re going to have to play your heart out and probably play your best game of the season to get by them,” Miller said.
Friday’s schedule: Oregon State (21-6) vs. California (19-11) at 1 p.m.; Arizona vs. Washington State-Oregon winner at 3; Stanford (24-5) vs. Arizona State-USC winner at 7; UCLA (19-8) vs. Washington (12-15) at 9. . . . The semifinal games will be played Saturday at 1 p.m. and 3, with the championship game scheduled for Sunday at 1 p.m. . . . Arizona beat Oregon State in last year’s tournament final, 93-67. . . . Next year’s tournament will be played in Arizona State’s University Activity Center at Tempe.
Going into the tournament, Arizona’s Sean Elliott leads the Pac-10 in scoring and UCLA’s Trevor Wilson leads in rebounding. . . . Said Oregon State Coach Ralph Miller of junior guard Gary Payton, who is the Beavers’ leading scorer and the Pac-10’s leader in assists and steals: “He is the most valuable player to any one team in the conference. We don’t have any other outstanding players.”
Arizona’s Jud Buechler, a junior forward, may transfer to UCLA after next season and play volleyball for the Bruins as a graduate student or fifth-year senior. “That’s something I’m looking at,” said Buechler, who twice played volleyball in the U.S. Olympic Sports Festival. . . . How many Pac-10 teams will be invited to the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament? “It would be hard for me to imagine any one of the top four teams not making it,” Stanford Coach Mike Montgomery said, echoing the sentiments of his colleagues. And California, Pac-10 coaches believe, has an outside shot of joining Arizona, Stanford, UCLA and Oregon State in the NCAA tournament.