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This Race Will Get Hotter in the Desert

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Paul Westphal will walk into the past today when he watches USC play Arizona State at the University Activity Center in Tempe.

He will see former UCLA guard Henry Bibby, now the Trojan coach, and will talk with Jim Hefner, an assistant coach during Westphal’s three seasons at USC and now the analyst for Trojan radio broadcasts.

Also, Westphal, for the first time live, will see a Trojan team that has brought excitement for basketball back to the school, much as Westphal did as part of the 1970-71 team that finished 24-2 and is considered the best in school history. And, he may also be looking a team that could end up in the same place the 1970-71 team did--watching from home come NCAA tournament time.

"[In 1970-71] only one team from the [then-Pac 8] could go to the tournament, and we couldn’t beat UCLA,” said Westphal, now a volunteer assistant coach at Chaparral High in Scottsdale, Ariz., where his son, Michael, is a junior. “I thought we were clearly the best team in the country, and if we played [UCLA] 10 times, I think we would have been 5-5. But we just couldn’t beat them. Nobody could. It was disappointing.”

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There are ties between this year’s USC team and the 1970-71 team. Bob Boyd, coach of the team that year and now an assistant at Louisiana State, coached with current Trojan assistant David Miller at Utah State in 1994. And Bibby was part of John Wooden’s six-man rotation that defeated the Trojans twice and kept them out of the NCAA tournament, then a field of 25. UCLA won the 1971 national title, its fifth of seven in a row.

“There was an excitement about basketball at USC back then,” Westphal said. “It became the popular thing to do . . . to go to the Sports Arena and see that USC did have a basketball team. And from what I hear, the same is happening with this team.”

USC went 16-0 to start the season, and shook a student body sleeping between football seasons. Students met the team at the airport after a victory over Loyola (Ill.), blowing kazoos and wearing No. 1 buttons. The team had just earned the school’s first No. 1 ranking on Jan. 25 after Notre Dame upset the then top-ranked Bruins.

“We definitely had the attention of the city,” Westphal said. “It was difficult to compete [for attention] with UCLA because of [John] Wooden and also Pauley Pavilion. It has always held USC back having to play in the Sports Arena. I always said they needed their own gym.

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“I remember when they were recruiting me, they showed me the plans for a new gym. They’ve sure had those plans for a long time. But for that season, people were seeing that USC had a basketball team.”

The team had all the components of a No. 1 team. Mo Layton and Westphal made up an athletic backcourt, and both could score. Forward Ron Riley, a former City Section player of the year from Jordan, like Westphal and Layton was All-Pac-8. And USC had its share of key role players.

“Chris Schrobilgen was a 6-foot-8 forward and a great defensive player, and Joe Mackey was a great outside shooter,” Hefner said. “And all the players had confidence in their abilities but didn’t have big egos.”

But USC twice lost to Wooden and Bibby’s UCLA teams, costing the Trojans a chance at the national title.

“Sports Illustrated came out with a couple of articles that said if we hadn’t been in the same conference with UCLA, then we would have met them in the Final Four,” Hefner said. “I think we were the second-best team in the nation.”

While crowds aren’t exactly flocking to the Sports Arena this season, players say both the city and the school have begun to notice them for the first time in a long time.

“I was renting a U-Haul the other day, and this guy came up to me and he knew my name and told me, ‘Good game the other night,’ ” senior Jaha Wilson said. “And I don’t know anyone at U-Haul.”

Said David Crouse: “People stop you on campus. Say, ‘Hey, Dave, good game.’ You definitely feel like you are part of something special.”

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It is still unsaid whether this year’s team will have the same end as the 1970-71 team. USC, 13-7 overall and 8-3 in the Pac-10, is tied with UCLA for first place in the conference with seven conference games remaining. The Trojans’ last chance to earn a victory over UCLA is Feb. 19, and if neither wins the conference title, they could be fighting for the same at-large berth.

“This year’s team has an opportunity we didn’t,” Westphal said. “If they don’t beat UCLA and don’t win the [conference] title, they still might get in. But they might not.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Pacific 10 Race

Conf.

*--*

Team W L UCLA 8 3 USC 8 3 Arizona 7 3 California 7 4 Stanford 6 5 Washington 6 5 Oregon 5 6 Arizona State 2 8 Washington State 3 8 Oregon State 2 9

*--*

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Overall

*--*

Team W L UCLA 13 7 USC 13 7 Arizona 15 5 California 16 6 Stanford 13 6 Washington 13 7 Oregon 14 6 Arizona State 10 12 Washington State 11 12 Oregon State 6 14

*--*

TODAY’S GAMES

USC at Arizona State: 6

UCLA at Arizona: 7:30

Oregon at California: 7:30

Oregon State at Stanford: 7:30

*

USC at Arizona State

6 p.m.


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