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PACIFIC 10 BASKETBALL / DAN HAFNER : Keeping Stars Home Improves Level of Play

There is a simple explanation for the emergence of the Pacific 10 Conference as one of college basketball’s strongest. The West’s best high school players are staying home.

The top preps are no longer succumbing to the glamour of playing for Eastern basketball powers. The trend probably began when Jason Kidd, from the Bay Area, chose California and has continued over the last two years.

Fifteen freshmen and 10 sophomores, most from California, are prominent players. Oregon State, probably the weakest Pac-10 team, is the only school that doesn’t have a West Coast freshman or sophomore playing an important role.

At most other schools, either a freshman or sophomore, or both, is a key performer.

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A prime example is UCLA, where Jim Harrick has proved a tremendous recruiter. One thing he has done, among others, is build a powerful bench.

In previous seasons, the Bruins, 11-1 overall and 5-1 in the Pac-10, have started fast but faded before tournament time. That doesn’t figure to happen this season.

The Bruins’ startling sweep through Arizona last weekend was accomplished with considerable help from Harrick’s last two recruiting classes.

Sophomores Charles O’Bannon and Cameron Dollar and freshmen Toby Bailey and J.R. Henderson were equally as important in the victories as the seniors.

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To a lesser extent, it’s the same with the other contenders. At Cal, Southland products Tony Gonzalez, Jelani Gardner and Tremaine Fowlkes are certain stars, although they could use a steadying influence like Kidd.

It is no coincidence that five conference teams are in the Associated Press poll’s top 17.

Digger Phelps, a former Notre Dame coach and now an ESPN analyst, rates the Pac-10 No. 2 behind the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Pac-10 is 4-0 against the ACC.

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The spotlight remains on the point guards. Last week at Tucson, the attention was on the matchup between Tyus Edney of UCLA and Damon Stoudamire of Arizona. The underrated Edney clearly came out on top, but part of the reason might have been that he has a better supporting cast.

The senior backcourt stars have established themselves as two of the nation’s best. They are valid successors to Kidd, who was the premier point guard until he left Cal after his sophomore year.

Outstanding point guards are plentiful in the Pac-10. Edney and Stoudamire face tough challenges Thursday from two sophomores who are leading their teams.

Edney goes against Brevin Knight, who has led Stanford to a 12-2 start. Stoudamire faces Oregon’s Kenya Wilkins, who played at Dorsey High. Wilkins is a major reason the Ducks are 12-2 and close to the conference lead with a 4-1 record.

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Knight has played brilliantly despite a leg injury that has limited his playing time recently. Plucked out of Seton Hall’s backyard, he has had a strained leg that doctors feared might develop into a stress fracture.

When Knight is on the court, the Cardinal rolls. He keys the offense and the defense. His playmaking sets up Stanford’s other guard, sharpshooting Dion Cross, the most proficient shooter in the Pac-10 from three-point range.

There is a noticeable letdown when Knight has to go out for a mandatory rest. He is now playing 30 minutes a game, and Coach Mike Montgomery has to resist playing him more.

Wilkins also has a sharpshooter playing alongside him in Orlando Williams, a senior from Portland who is such a proficient shooter that young Wilkins can concentrate on directing the offense and stealing from the opposition.

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Although better known than the other top point guards in the conference, Stoudamire has a burden the other three don’t have. With the graduation of Khalid Reeves, he is missing an outstanding shooter at the other guard. So, in addition to setting up the offense, he must lead the Wildcats in scoring. When he doesn’t, the Wildcats lose. With the added pressure, he is committing far more turnovers than he did last season.

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The way UCLA stormed through Arizona might mean the real battle could be for second place.

Two leading contenders, Arizona and Oregon, meet Thursday night at Eugene. The loser probably can forget title aspirations.

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With the Ducks good enough at home to beat UCLA, the Wildcats’ hopes of winning their third consecutive title might be in jeopardy.

The Wildcats have swept in their visits to Oregon the last three years. Stoudamire, who is from Portland, guarantees a victory this week.

It seems there is still a tendency to underrate Oregon.

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Everything went so well for Todd Bozeman from the time he replaced Lou Campanella as Cal coach almost two years ago. The Bears finished fast, then fared surprisingly well in the NCAA tournament. Despite injuries to two starters, the Bears were 22-8 last year. They were off to a 7-0 start this season, which gave him a 40-10 record at Cal.

Suddenly, everything went wrong and the Bears went into a tailspin. They are 1-4 in league play. Maybe, at 31, Bozeman is finding it difficult to handle his first setback.

His outburst at Cal State Northridge, in which he took a swing at Howard Garcia, the Northridge events manager, was probably an indication. During a conference call Tuesday, Bozeman refused to discuss the incident.


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