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All of Sudden, Everyone Has to Bear Down

The announcement might as well have been made about the time California’s 7-foot center, Francisco Elson, started doing his variation of the “Dirty Bird” victory dance after beating No. 9 North Carolina on Tuesday.

Get ready for one wild Pacific 10 Conference season, opening Saturday at an arena near you.

Cal’s victory over North Carolina served notice that the Pac-10 not only isn’t the sole province of Arizona and UCLA this season, it doesn’t belong to Stanford and Washington either.

Teams such as Cal, USC and Oregon also mean to be heard from.

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So North Carolina isn’t quite up to usual North Carolina standards. Those are still prep All-Americans running around out there, and Cal came from 10 points behind to win.

Geno Carlisle, a senior guard, can seem a little erratic and headstrong, but the Golden Bears beat North Carolina largely on his sheer will, 78-71, in the Pete Newell Challenge at Oakland.

“That guy Carlisle, I’ve never seen him before, but if he can hit those shots every night, he’ll be tough to guard,” said Brendan Haywood, the Tar Heels’ sophomore center.

Carlisle scored 29 points--the only time he scored more was his 31 against UCLA last season--and he and Thomas Kilgore made the plays down the stretch, combining to score Cal’s final 17 points.

Carlisle made a huge shot with a minute and a half left, and Kilgore took a charge and made a bold three-point basket.

Remarkably, Cal won while shooting 39% from the field.

The word is out after a 78-22 nonconference record.

Stanford is very good, but not untouchable--after all, that same North Carolina team beat the Cardinal. Arizona is highly ranked but unproven, Washington is up and down, UCLA is confounding, USC still has plenty to prove . . . and the Pac-10 winner is not going to go 18-0 this season, either.

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A look, in order of predicted finish:

1. STANFORD (10-2)

There’s a lot of talk about Stanford struggling a season after its Final Four run, but those losses were on the road to North Carolina and Maryland, and they were close games. Stanford is going to be just fine--especially if the Cardinal’s injury trouble gets better. Jason Collins is out for the season for a second year in a row. But the latest bad news has been the slow progress by three-point shooter Ryan Mendez, who has a knee injury, and backup point guard Michael McDonald. There are murmurs that if they don’t improve soon, redshirting is a possibility. That would be a blow to Stanford’s depth, but the Cardinal has the experience and poise to survive. Look for Mike Montgomery to celebrate his 400th coaching victory in Stanford’s Pac-10 opener against Oregon State.

2. ARIZONA (8-0)

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The Pac-10 season wastes no time revving up: Arizona is at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday for the first sorting-out of who’s where. The Wildcats are mostly young, but senior Jason Terry, former sixth-man extraordinaire, might end up contending for Pac-10 player of the year. He’s a point guard averaging almost 22 points a game and will soon break Reggie Geary’s school record for steals. All that, and he’s still second in the conference in assists, trailing only USC’s Brandon Granville. Lute Olson says his sixth-ranked team is overrated, and it’s probably true. Michael Wright leads the passel of freshmen, and Olson is struggling with a little freshman-like behavior from freshman Traves Wilson, who was late for practice returning from Christmas (sound familiar?), and freshmen Ruben Douglas and Richard Jefferson were punished for “childish behavior” in the team hotel.

3. CALIFORNIA (9-1)

The Golden Bears should be on their way back to the postseason after an NCAA ban last season. Carlisle and Kilgore are a dangerous pair. The Golden Bears also have Sean Lampley, an impressive freshman last season who is among the league’s leading rebounders with Arizona’s A.J. Bramlett and Washington’s Todd MacCullough. Elson, though unpolished, came through at the right times against Haywood and should at least pose interesting matchups for such players as MacCullough, Stanford’s Tim Young and UCLA’s Dan Gadzuric.

4. UCLA (7-2)

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This could be a bumpy ride, and the turbulence already started with JaRon Rush’s late return from Christmas break. The Bruins have immense promise, but with all the lineup shuffles--and soon to come, the questions of who’s coming back--it might never be realized. The glimpses, though, are impressive. The 66-62 loss to Kentucky in Puerto Rico was UCLA’s best game. This is a collection of Bruin players that could be long remembered or quickly forgotten. Jerome Moiso’s mix of finesse and sudden power make him the most watchable of the newcomers. But Baron Davis and Earl Watson--and most of all, Steve Lavin--have a test of their abilities ahead.

5. WASHINGTON (7-3)

The hoopla from last season’s Sweet 16 finish has subsided, but a victory over unbeaten New Mexico helped put aside that startling three-game swoon against No. 1 Connecticut, Boise State and Gonzaga. The Huskies beat the Lobos without guard Donald Watts, out since spraining an ankle in the Boise State game several weeks ago. He is probable for the Pac-10 opener against Washington State on Sunday. In Watts’ absence, former Long Beach State player Greg Clark has emerged as a future sixth man, making a defensive impression by shutting out a slightly hobbled Lamont Long against New Mexico when Long had been averaging 24 points.

6. USC (8-1)

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The rematch comes quickly. Arizona plays at USC on Monday afternoon at the Sports Arena, and the Trojans will try to reprise their upset of the Wildcats last March, when they were the defending national champions. Just how well Henry Bibby’s strategy of recruiting players from winning teams to turn the Trojans into winners is working should begin to emerge quickly. So far, pretty well, with big man Brian Scalabrine and point guard Granville playing very big roles. How well USC can finish in the Pac-10 is hard to say, especially after their big opportunity against Kansas was undermined when the Jayhawks were upset by Iowa the previous game. Popular upset pick making the rounds: USC over UCLA in the first meeting Jan. 20 at the Sports Arena.

7. OREGON (8-1)

Oregon at Cal on Saturday is the second-best Pac-10 opener, behind UCLA-Arizona. The Ducks’ only loss is to a very good Minnesota team that took No. 3 Cincinnati to overtime in its only loss. Coach Ernie Kent, who played on the “Kamikaze Kids” teams of the 1970s, is trying to get this generation to play that way too. Last season’s 97-81 upset of UCLA at MacArthur Court is the kind of stunning result the Ducks would like to repeat this season, shaking up the order of the Pac-10. Guard Terik Brown is still the key player, but forward A.D. Smith has stepped up a solid notch this season.

8. ARIZONA STATE (8-4)

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The Sun Devils are first up for USC in the Pac-10 on Saturday, and new Coach Rob Evans has them on a six-game winning streak despite unimpressive losses to Northern Arizona, Utah, Kansas State and New Orleans. One of the team’s better wins was against Nevada Las Vegas, a team USC also beat. If Arizona State could manage a seventh win in a row, it would mark the first time the Sun Devils have managed that since 1980-81. Forward Bobby Lazor and guard Eddie House have been carrying the team, but forward Mike Batiste is back after sitting out four games because of academic problems.

9. OREGON STATE (6-3)

The Beavers were only 13-17 with Corey Benjamin, who turned pro after his sophomore season, so it’s hard to know what to make of his departure’s impact. Sophomore guard Deaundra Tanner is averaging 16 points and four assists, and Oregon State is doing what it does best--play defense. The Beavers are second only to Stanford in scoring defense, holding teams to less than 58 points a game. Of course, they’re also last in scoring, at 64 points.

10. WASHINGTON STATE (6-5)

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Last season was full of upheaval for Kevin Eastman’s team--remember Rodrigo de la Fuente leaving to play professionally in Spain right before the conference season? Now the Cougars are trying to climb out of the bottom of the conference, and the strategy is a long-range attack. Washington State leads the conference in three-point shooting, making 44% from beyond the arc. The impact newcomer is junior guard Jan-Michael Thomas, a transfer from San Joaquin Delta junior college who made eight of 15 three-point baskets in a loss to Texas El Paso the other night and is making about 47% from long range. Forward Chris Crosby is also a threat from three-point range.


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