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Time to Break Up the Packed-10

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

They are acutely aware of Los Angeles’ marquee team and USC’s Rodrick Rhodes admitted to smiling Thursday night when he heard the public-address announcement at the Sports Arena that UCLA had lost to California.

Forget that he was shooting free throws. Forget that these were the final 90 seconds of an upset of Stanford and the Trojans led by only one. When you are the other team in town, as USC has always been in basketball, you relish every chance to shine when the favorite son stumbles.

“I heard it,” Rhodes said. “And I was smiling.”

But if Rhodes is still smiling, the rest of Los Angeles stands wide-eyed at what has become of college basketball in the Pacific 10 Conference. With the homestretch just ahead, USC is tied for first at 7-3 with UCLA, Arizona and California, and the Trojans may be the Southland’s best bet to finish that way.

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Much will be determined today when California visits the Sports Arena, and at least as much in Westwood, where Stanford and UCLA play. The four-way tie could be whittled to two but some serious basketball remains. For instance, both UCLA and USC play Arizona next week.

“We’re in a good spot,” Trojan senior center David Crouse said. “But there are still eight games left.”

Few would have thought USC would be anywhere near that spot.

The Trojans and Bruins were a lot alike at the start the season. Each had a new coach and an erratic team. And there were striking coincidences once the season was under way--embarrassing losses, disciplinary problems. But USC’s developmental problems paled in comparison to the roller coaster in Westwood and most everyone thought the Trojans eventually would go away.

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Surprisingly, they haven’t. In fact, they are playing better than at any other point this year, having won their last three.

“For whatever reason, guys are finally now sticking to the system and believing in the system,” sophomore guard Elias Ayuso said.

Said Coach Henry Bibby, "[Being in first] means we’re playing hard and we deserve to be where we are. But we’re not looking at first place. If we take care of business, we’ll finish where we want to be at the end.”

USC, picked to finish eighth in preseason polls, has the same record, 12-7, and aspirations as the Bruins--making the NCAA tournament--and just as good a chance now, thanks to its ability to do two things that have escaped UCLA this season.

First, the Trojans defeated Oregon on the road, two days after the Bruins had stumbled against the Ducks, offsetting a home loss to UCLA.

“We knew we needed to get one back,” said Bibby, who has said all season the team that wins on the road will win the conference title.

Also, USC has beaten Stanford. The Bruins lost by 48 points, 109-61, on Jan. 9 at Maples Pavilion--the worst defeat ever for a UCLA team. The Bruins remember so well, they say, that no viewing of the game tape is necessary to prepare them for today’s game at Pauley Pavilion.

“That tape? No, no, no. I’d have to close my eyes if we watch it,” Bruin forward J.R. Henderson said. “I can’t look at that, man.”

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Stanford (13-5, 6-4) lurks a notch below the four first-place teams. The game is almost a must-win for the Bruins, since they play the Wildcats next Thursday and face the possibility of falling behind three teams in the conference race.

USC, meanwhile, gets Cal and its six-game winning streak, and then Arizona State on Thursday before going to Tucson.

“All we are thinking about is Cal,” Ayuso said. “That’s all we can think about.”

Of the four teams tied for first, Arizona (14-5), with impressive nonconference victories, seems to have locked up an NCAA bid. If there is a magic number for the Bruins and Trojans it is 12, as in conference victories. Since the NCAA field expanded to 64 for the 1984-85 season, seven of nine Pac-10 teams with 12-6 conference records have made the field. And, five of eight teams at 11-7 have made it.

Neither UCLA nor USC has been impressive in nonconference play, unless victories over St. Louis (UCLA) and North Carolina Charlotte (USC) count. And both have blown chances. UCLA couldn’t shut the door on Louisville or Tulsa. USC lost decisively to North Carolina, Cincinnati and flopped at Nevada Las Vegas.

Each team could end up with 10 losses, and unless they are ahead of Arizona and Stanford in the Pac-10 standings, it seems unlikely that the NCAA would take two 10-loss teams with low power rankings.

UCLA can help itself against No. 8 Duke on Feb. 23 but a loss today--and another Thursday--would leave an NCAA berth, which seemed well within reach only days ago, far less than a certainty.

“We’ve just got to dig down and get some wins,” said senior forward Charles O’Bannon, the only Bruin who played decently against Stanford the first time. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing next.”

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Eventually, all things seem to double back on the Bruins. At the end of Thursday’s loss, which ended the Bruins’ 18-game home conference winning streak and knocked them out of sole possession of first place, they looked very much like the team that gasped its way out of Maples last month.

“We have so many of those turning points,” sixth man Kris Johnson said. “Every game seems like a turning point. A big loss is a turning point; a big win is a turning point. So I don’t really want to get into turning points anymore.”

Perhaps the real turning point, for both UCLA and USC, will be Feb. 18, when they meet again, at Pauley Pavilion.

“I think we know [we can win it],” said USC’s Crouse. “But we have to keep proving that.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Pacific 10 Race

Conf.

*--*

Team W L California 7 3 Arizona 7 3 UCLA 7 3 USC 7 3 Stanford 6 4 Washington 5 5 Oregon 4 6 Washington State 3 7 Arizona State 2 8 Oregon State 2 8

*--*

Overall

*--*

Team W L California 16 5 Arizona 14 5 UCLA 12 7 USC 12 7 Stanford 13 5 Washington 12 6 Oregon 13 6 Washington State 11 10 Arizona State 10 12 Oregon State 6 13

*--*

TODAY’S GAMES

California at USC: Noon

Stanford at UCLA: 2 p.m.

Washington St. at Oregon: 7 p.m.

Washington at Oregon St.: 7 p.m.

SUNDAY’S GAME

Arizona at Tulane: 1:30 p.m.

MONDAY’S GAME

Cincinnati at Washington: 7:30 p.m.

TUESDAY’S GAME

Washington St. at Idaho: 7 p.m.


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