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It’s Rough and Ready in Pac-10

This is how nuts the Pacific 10 Conference race has been:

Five weeks ago, the coach of the year was Oregon’s Jerry Green. Four weeks ago it was Stanford’s Mike Montgomery, three weeks ago it was Arizona’s Lute Olson, two weeks ago it was UCLA’s Steve Lavin and last week it was California’s Ben Braun.

This week it’s USC’s Henry Bibby.

Next week we’re guessing Washington’s Bob Bender.

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Trying to get a read on the Pac-10 is like trying to get a read on Dennis Rodman.

Oregon started 10-0, waddled into the national rankings and has gone 4-6 since. Good luck, Ducks, in the National Invitation Tournament.

Stanford defeated UCLA by 48 points at Maples Pavilion on Jan. 9 and looked like the class of the coast with its inside-out combination of center Tim Young and guard Brevin Knight.

Now?

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Stanford is in fifth place, 13-6 overall and 6-5 in the Pac-10, after being swept in Los Angeles last weekend. Young can’t buy a bucket and Knight is suddenly turnover prone. The Cardinal has 13 wins as selection Sunday approaches, and two of those came against a Division II school, Alaska Anchorage.

The good news is that six of Stanford’s last eight games are at home, where the Cardinal is unbeaten.

It would be wise to win all six.

Now, about the leaders. Of the top four teams--UCLA, USC, Arizona and California--three began the season as certifiable basket cases.

In ordinary time, Arizona’s Olson would be praised for the work he has done, having assembled a top-15 team (15-5, 7-3) after losing four starters from last year’s 26-7 squad.

But his efforts pale in comparison to our remaining coach-of-the-year finalists, all of whom have done pioneering work in the field of crisis management.

--Lavin, UCLA (13-7, 8-3): Ever wonder what it might be like coordinating for “Star Search”? After Jim Harrick was pushed off the ledge days before the season opener, Lavin was asked to lead a shellshocked group of all-stars back into battle. He survived an opening loss to Tulsa, a shellacking by Kansas, a walloping at Stanford and yet has his team in decent NCAA shape. Pivotal games ahead include tonight’s showdown at Arizona, next week’s cross-town showdown against USC, a nonconference home gut-check against Duke on Feb. 23 and a trip to Washington to end the season.

--Bibby, USC (13-7, 8-3): OK, he’s not father of the year, but Bibby took a team that lost its last 10 games last season, brought in nine players, including six junior college transfers, and has turned the Trojans into an NCAA tournament contender. That has to be good coaching. The Trojans ended Cal’s six-game winning streak Saturday with stifling defense on prolific scorer Ed Gray, holding the senior guard to 14 points in the first 35 minutes.

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--Braun, California (16-6, 7-4): Braun should get national coach-of-the-year recognition. He inherited a worse mess than Lavin after Cal axed Todd Bozeman in a Bay Area maelstrom. Freshman superstar center Shareef Abdur-Rahim turned pro. Sophomores Tremaine Fowlkes and Jelani Gardner transferred.

Braun, whose Eastern Michigan team upset Duke in the NCAA tournament last year, was hired at Cal on Sept. 15.

“I had 30 days to prepare the team for a game,” he said.

With a five-senior lineup, Cal has played the kind of schedule tournament selectors love. Three of the Bears’ six losses have come against Kansas, Maryland and Arizona, and Cal has impressive nonconference wins over Iowa, Massachusetts and Illinois.

Remarkably, despite a No. 16 RPI ranking, which rates strength of schedule, Cal has yet to crack the top 25.

“I don’t want to be ranked,” senior guard Randy Duck said. “I hope they don’t rank us until the last day of the season. It’s some guy watching you on TV saying, ‘Oh, they should be in the top 25.’

“What does that mean? That doesn’t score a point for you. Kansas didn’t score any points for being No. 1 against Missouri. You can call and ask them.”

Just to make things more interesting, Arizona closes at California on March 8. The hunch here is that it might mean something.

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LET’S TAKE A PEEK

Fearless NCAA tournament forecast:

No. 1 seedings: Kansas, Wake Forest, Kentucky, Minnesota.

Major conference bids:

Pac-10: Arizona, California, UCLA (likely), Stanford (maybe). Bubble: USC.

Atlantic Coast: Duke, Wake Forest, Clemson, Maryland, North Carolina. Bubble: Virginia.

Big East: Villanova (Kentucky debacle notwithstanding), Providence, Boston College (betting favorites). Bubble: Miami, Georgetown, West Virginia, Syracuse.

Atlantic 10: Xavier (X-pect it), St. Joseph’s (pining for cold-weather pairing vs. Arizona). Bubble: Rhode Island (fading), Temple (2-0 vs. Cincinnati and Louisville), Massachusetts

(Feb. 15 vs. Maryland a must).

Southeastern: Kentucky, South Carolina (paper Gamecocks?), Georgia. Bubble: Mississippi, Arkansas.

Big Ten: Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana (No. 11 in RPI), Purdue (Keady’s team charging).

Western Athletic: Utah, New Mexico, Tulsa. Bubble: Fresno State, Colorado State, Hawaii (book ‘em, Danno . . . for the NIT).

Conference USA: Cincinnati (Thugs Inc.), Louisville, Tulane, North Carolina Charlotte. Bubble: Marquette (ugly 87th in RPI).

Big 12: Kansas, Iowa State, Colorado (have a good Chauncey), Texas, Texas Tech.

THESE ‘CANES ARE ABLE

Taking advantage of a conference crippled by NBA defections, Miami remains atop the Big East 7 division in a bid to make its first NCAA tournament since 1960. In one late January stretch, Miami defeated Georgetown, Villanova, Providence and Connecticut in succession.

The Hurricanes (15-6, 9-4) have overcome the lack of an inside game and a fire in their basketball offices to go nine games over .500 for the first time since 1964-65.

Miami finished 15-13 in a more formidable Big East last season, but failed to make even the NIT. Seventh-year Coach Leonard Hamilton wants to leave no doubts for NCAA selectors this time.

“When you have to sit around and hope to ease your way in, or allow yourself to be put in a category as a team on the bubble, as far as I’m concerned then you get what you earn,” Hamilton says. “When you allow yourself to be put in that position, you can very easily be passed over. The only way to deal with that is to do something about it.”

WE’RE NO. 9!

Fans had come to know the ACC tournament “play-in” game as “the Les Robinson Invitational,” in honor of the former North Carolina State coach whose teams played in four of the five games since the league expanded to nine teams in 1992.

Last week, ACC athletic directors voted to change the tournament format, beginning next season, to eliminate the Thursday night game between the Nos. 8 and 9 seeded teams, a matchup most coaches felt was demeaning.

In the new format, No. 1 will play No. 9 on Thursday. The winner will get a bye into Saturday’s semifinals.

Most ACC coaches, including North Carolina’s Dean Smith and Wake Forest’s Dave Odom, favored the change.

Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, however, says the switch gives unfair advantage to the No. 9 team which, if it pulled off an upset, would need to win only three games to claim the ACC title.

“It’s based on the assumption that [No.] 1 will always win, and there isn’t anything in sports that says he’ll always win,” Krzyzewski says.

In fact, no team seeded lower than sixth has won the ACC tournament.

Krzyzewski also claims the new format will give weaker ACC teams an incentive to finish last.

“It’s better to finish ninth than seventh or eighth,” he says. “I think that’s unhealthy.”

North Carolina State currently is in last place and again is poised to appear in next month’s last “invitational.”

LOOSE ENDS

What’s new with the nation’s best teams? Fourteen of the schools in last week’s AP top-25 poll lost: Kansas, Wake Forest, Kentucky, Maryland, New Mexico, Louisville, Michigan, Colorado, Stanford, Tulane, Tulsa, Texas Tech, Indiana and Xavier. . . .

In case you’re wondering, Indiana has not missed an NCAA tournament since 1985. . . . Yes, South Carolina is legitimate, but the Gamecocks have also won four Southeastern Conference games on last-second shots. . . . Tubby Smith is no longer on UCLA’s short list, but Kentucky’s Rick Pitino says the Georgia coach is “flat-out” the coach of the year in the SEC after losing eight players from last year’s Sweet 16 team. Georgia began the week at 17-5. . . .

The Atlantic 10 is naming its most improved player award after Chris Daniels, the Dayton center who died of heart failure last year. . . .

More Earl trouble in Baton Rouge: Dale Brown, who has already kicked Lester Earl off the team, recently suspended brother Louis when the player refused to go into a game. And you wonder why Brown is getting out of coaching? . . .

Kentucky star guard Derek Anderson is telling people he might return this season from a torn anterior cruciate knee ligament, but Pitino isn’t buying it. “That would probably break medical history if he did,” Pitino says. Pitino says Anderson might be ready for NBA workouts in April. “That’s a more legitimate miracle to shoot for than playing for us,” Pitino says. . . .

Memphis received permission to speak to red-hot Colorado Coach Ricardo Patton about the job soon to be vacated by Larry Finch, recently forced to resign.


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