There’s a twist as the Pacific 10 Conference men’s basketball season opens.
It’s Luke Walton’s ankle.
Take Walton out of the Arizona lineup, and the Wildcats are no longer such an overwhelming favorite to win the Pac-10 -- especially not with one of the season’s most crucial games tonight, when Arizona plays at Oregon in the Pac-10 opener for both teams.
Walton’s latest injury would be less cause for alarm if it weren’t the third sprain of his right ankle this season -- this one suffered innocently enough when Walton stepped on Jason Gardner’s foot against Boston University on Monday.
Though the injury isn’t as severe as the last sprain, Coach Lute Olson said he didn’t expect Walton to play against Oregon. Still, Walton is making the trip and continuing to receive treatment in hopes of contributing.
The problem for Arizona is that even though Gardner runs the Wildcat offense from the point, Walton, with his brilliant passing, is its central cog.
He’s the team’s emotional leader as well, and he’s down again.
Conventional wisdom has been that Arizona and Oregon will run away from the rest of the conference, but Walton’s repeated injury and Oregon’s defensive lapses raise questions.
The issue is whether any team -- Stanford, California, Arizona State -- is strong enough to step in and challenge, or if it will only be a great race for third.
And in sharp contrast to last season, when six Pac-10 teams went to the NCAA tournament, it might be down to only four.
The not-so-secret fear of the Pac-10 office: If USC and/or the flailing UCLA Bruins collapse so completely they fail to make the top eight to reach the conference tournament, the event at Staples Center in March could be an attendance disaster.
Here’s an updated look at the league, in order of predicted finish:
* Arizona (7-1): If the Wildcats can manage to win on Oregon’s McArthur Court tonight with Walton out or hampered -- quite a stretch -- they’ll have put themselves out front in the conference battle. Otherwise, the race is on. Forward Rick Anderson will pick up a lot of Walton’s minutes when he is out, and freshman Hassan Adams needs to play well. But guard Salim Stoudamire, who has recovered from a sprained ankle, could be the source of the offensive punch the Wildcats need. What it all might come down to: Oregon at Arizona on March 8.
* Oregon (9-1): With Luke Ridnour and Luke Jackson, the Ducks lead the nation in scoring at more than 91 points a game. But despite big-margin victories, the defense looks porous, and that will be more of a problem in Pac-10 play. They’ve lost only once, but it was by an alarming margin to Cincinnati, 77-52.
* Stanford (9-3): The problems at the point are obvious, with Chris Hernandez out because of a broken foot, leaving Julius Barnes -- a more natural shooting guard -- to play the point. But for a team that lost two first-round picks to the NBA -- Casey Jacobsen and Curtis Borchardt -- victories over Xavier, Florida and Gonzaga were impressive. Losses at home to Montana and Richmond, however, were not.
* Cal (7-2): Tamit Amir is a marvelously versatile big man, capable of scoring outbursts as well as exceptional passing and big rebounding totals. The wing players are more than solid, and veteran Joe Shipp is among the conference’s leading scorers. Cal showed how good it can be in a game against Georgia in the Wooden Classic -- only to lose at the end when the old offensive problems cropped up again.
* Arizona State (8-3): Freshman center Ike Diogu is the reason Arizona State might emerge as an NCAA bubble team. At 6 feet 8 and 240 pounds, he’s leading the team in scoring and rebounding at close to 18 points and seven rebounds a game and has four 20-point games already. “It hasn’t surprised me,” Coach Rob Evans said. “We knew when we signed him he was one of the top players in the country by the schools we beat to get him.” Among them: Illinois and Connecticut.
* UCLA (2-5): The main topic will become choices for Steve Lavin’s successor long before the Pac-10 season is over unless the Bruins pull their Houdini act much earlier than usual. This time, with all the poor defense and weakness inside -- who ever thought they’d miss Dan Gadzuric and Matt Barnes so much -- it’s harder than ever to see the ingredients for a turnaround.
* USC (4-3): It was natural to expect a down year after losing Brandon Granville, Sam Clancy and David Bluthenthal, but this has been more of a struggle than expected. Jerry Dupree’s return after getting his academics in order could help, and if past patterns hold, Coach Henry Bibby’s team will take time before players’ roles are sorted out.
* Washington (5-4): The Huskies’ start in their first year under Coach Lorenzo Romar wasn’t promising, with losses to Montana State, Nevada Las Vegas, Gonzaga (albeit in overtime) and Eastern Washington. Doug Wrenn is an explosive scoring threat, as always. But after averaging almost 20 points last season, he is at 12.4 this season. The Huskies also are hurting inside with the loss of Jeffrey Day to academic problems, leaving Washington with only one starter over 6-6, the 6-8 Mike Jensen.
* Oregon State (7-2): The record is surprisingly good, and the Beavers lead the Pac-10 in scoring defense, holding teams in the low 60s. Philip Ricci is one of the top five scorers in the league.
* Washington State (5-4): A sweep against the Washington schools on the road isn’t automatic -- not with Marcus Moore capable of stunning outings such as his 42-point game in a six-point overtime loss to Gonzaga. For the moment, he’s the Pac-10’s leading scorer.