PACIFIC 10 BASKETBALL / DAN HAFNER : Conference’s Better Half, at 40-5, Is Among Nation’s Best
Although UCLA, ranked second in the nation, is favored to win its second Pacific 10 basketball title in eight years, it doesn’t figure to have an easy time of it.
It’s possible that no other conference has five better teams than the Pac-10.
In nonconference play, UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State, California and Stanford have a combined 40-5 record. That might indicate a wide-open league season when it gets under way Thursday night.
Arizona, which has won six of the last seven conference championships, lost two of those games. The Wildcats are having a problem replacing sharpshooter Khalid Reeves but, as they always do, figure to challenge for the title again. The three other teams have shown unexpected ability.
After last season when it was a national contender, California lost outstanding players Jason Kidd and Lamond Murray.
Many ranked the two among the top half dozen players in the nation. Murray was a junior, Kidd a tremendous sophomore, but both chose to turn pro and were drafted in the first round by NBA teams.
It was generally conceded that the loss of the illustrious duo meant the collapse of the Bears. But shed no tears for young Coach Todd Bozeman and his Golden Bears.
Cal, which won 22 games a year ago in an injury-plagued season but was shocked in the first round of the NCAA tournament by Wisconsin Green Bay, is deeper and possibly even better than a year ago. Until they lost their final tuneup in overtime to Alabama, the Bears (7-1) were on a roll.
Bozeman, 31 a couple of weeks ago, has established himself as one of the best recruiters in college basketball and seems to have an in with many of the prep stars in Southern California.
This season, he has blended returning veterans with some brilliant freshmen.
The veterans are headed by Monty Buckley, a 6-foot-6 forward who developed into a sharpshooter last season. He is the settling influence on a relatively inexperienced team. It includes 6-9 forward Alan Grigsby and 5-11 guard K.J. Roberts, juniors who missed almost all of last season.
But what makes the Bears really good is a trio of 6-6 players out of Southland high schools. From Crenshaw’s two-time state champions, Bozeman has Tremaine Fowlkes, the forward who was named California prep player of the year. Then came Jelani Gardner, a guard from Bellflower St. John Bosco. And finally, there was Tony Gonzalez, a two-sport star at Huntington Beach. A tight-end in football, Gonzalez was told he could play both sports at Cal, so that’s where he went.
Bozeman starts his veterans, including 6-11 senior center Ryan Jamison and sophomore guard Randy Duck. But the fun begins when Bozeman unveils his kids and 6-10 Sean Marks, a redshirt freshman from New Zealand.
Their presence is electrifying. Although Bozeman substitutes liberally, sometimes as often as 35 times a game, Gardner, Fowlkes and Gonzalez are always on the floor late in the tough ones. All are sure-fire stars.
“Jason Kidd and Lamond Murray are great basketball players,” Bozeman said. “But we got tired of hearing that we couldn’t win without them. This has been a motivating factor. We are out to prove we are a winner without them.”
The Bay Area is full of surprises this season. Although it had been acknowledged that Mike Montgomery had some talent at Stanford, the Cardinal’s fast start was ignored until a recent upset of nationally ranked Virginia.
After his team had won only seven games two seasons ago, Montgomery began the building process with his guards. Freshman Brevin Knight, who somehow escaped Seton Hall even though he grew up in the shadow of the school, was the nucleus. His playmaking helped make a shooting star of the other guard, Dion Cross. The Cardinal improved to 17-11 last season.
Montgomery added Tim Young, a 7-1, 245-pound freshman from Santa Cruz. He fit in from the start and gets better with each game.
When Montgomery uses a front line of Darren Allaway (6-8, 225), Young and veteran center Bart Lammerson (6-9, 235) it hits harder than Stanford’s football team.
Although he’s only 19, Knight is the leader. He can’t understand why his team is still unrecognized.
“I know we had an easy schedule early, but beating Virginia at Virginia should have let everyone know we are for real,” he said. “We’ll just have to keep winning.”
Knight has been out a week because of a leg injury. He could return this week, but might have to cut down on his playing time.
The Cardinal opens at Washington, the Bears at Washington State. Those are good places for young teams to start on the road.
The first shootout of contenders is at Tempe, Ariz., where the two Arizona teams clash Thursday night.
Bill Frieder’s Sun Devils have had their hopes destroyed by injuries the last couple of seasons. Built around 6-9 forward-center Mario Bennett, they have already shown they can play with top teams.
The Sun Devils opened by beating Michigan and Maryland en route to winning the Maui Invitational. This team features amazing speed and quickness.
The backcourt of Marcell Capers and Isaac Burton follows the Pac-10 pattern of solid guard combinations.
Capers, who missed last season because of a foot injury, and Bennett, who missed much of two seasons because of a knee injury, are playing together for the first time.
“It’s something special not to have any physical problems,” Frieder said. “We’re ready for conference action.”
Arizona, led by one of the best point guards in the country, Damon Stoudamire, lost to Minnesota in the season opener and later to a good Syracuse team on the road.
But now that 6-8 1/2 junior college transfer Ben Davis is eligible, the Wildcats are coming around.
Davis, who led Hutchinson Community College of Hutchinson, Kan., to the national junior college title, has moved 6-10 Joseph Blair out of the starting lineup. He fits in with returning stars Stoudamire, Reggie Geary and Ray Owes to give the Wildcats a shot at their third consecutive conference title.
The Wildcats will find out early what their chances are. After visiting Tempe, they go to California and Stanford next week.
All five contenders are rated among the top 25 for the first time.
Only Oregon State (3-6) had a losing record in nonconference play. Overall, the conference was 64-23.