Arizona Is Top 'Cat in Pac-10

Times Staff Writer

Top-ranked Arizona probably couldn't miss being one of the four top-seeded teams in the NCAA tournament even if the Wildcats didn't show up for the Pacific 10 Conference tournament beginning today at Staples Center.

But they're here -- and if history is any judge, they'll probably win it again, despite Coach Lute Olson's long-standing philosophical opposition to the tournament because of extra games and missed class time. (Arizona has won four of the five tournaments in Pac-10 history, including its revival last season after an 11-year hiatus.)

One bit of intrigue: Olson implied he will rest oft-injured starters Luke Walton and Salim Stoudamire when possible, though he declined to put a cap on the minutes they will play.

"We will not come out of this tournament, however many days we play, as a tired team," said Olson, whose team's 25-2 record all but assures a No. 1 seeding even if UCLA were to upset Arizona today.

The tournament has considerably more importance for Oregon, which has lost five of its last 10 games to fall to 20-9 and is no longer assured of an NCAA bid.

With an RPI of No. 52 -- the classic danger zone for at-large berths is in the 50s -- the Ducks probably need to beat Arizona State today in order to breathe easy entering Sunday's announcement of the NCAA field. (The biggest factors in Oregon's favor are a December victory over Kansas and a 10-8 record in the Pac-10.)

"We certainly tried to create the urgency that is there, obviously, where we need to win the first game," Oregon Coach Ernie Kent said.

"Our focus is just on that and not trying to speculate one way or another. But we understand how important it is. The key is not to worry about all that stuff you hear and just focus on the contest and the battle. It's just important that we win this first game, and then we can hopefully turn our sights to winning this tournament."

In addition to Arizona, Stanford (23-7, No. 12 RPI), California (20-7, No. 31 RPI) and Arizona State (19-10, No. 32 RPI) are considered locks to make the NCAA field of 65.

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