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It is becoming more and more likely that the Pac-10 conference is going to have multiple teams tie for its regular season championship(s). Presently, Oregon, Stanford and USC are deadlocked with four losses apiece while Arizona, Cal and UCLA are right behind with five marks in the loss column.
In the recent history of the Pac-10, there have only been two shared championships since 1985 (Arizona and Oregon State in 1990 and then Arizona and Stanford in 2000). The 1990 co-championship was understandable, the teams split in their head to head match-ups, but in 2000, Arizona beat Stanford twice. The opinion here is that the Cardinal had about as much a claim to the crown that year as my friend Ronnie Karnowski in Hawaii.
The reason I bring this up is because what happens if somehow Arizona and Oregon are the only two teams to finish the conference season at 13-5? The Pac-10 bylaws state that both the Ducks and Wildcats will be named co-champions. That's ridiculous. Arizona would be a champion in name and nothing else because Oregon dismantled the Cats both times the teams met early in the year. In the great American film "Rocky III", Clubber Lang may have described it best when he called Rocky Balboa a "paper champion". If Arizona and Oregon finish 13-5, isn't Arizona a paper champion?
Let's look a little closer.
While Oregon was clearly the vastly superior team to Arizona earlier in the year, there is no team in the Pac-10 (or perhaps even in the nation) that has improved as much as the Wildcats have over the past two months.
Arizona went into two very hostile arenas in the Bay Area and came away with a two game sweep of Cal (by 10) and Stanford (by six in overtime) on their home floors. Conversely, Oregon got swept in the same situation, albeit in very close and exciting games that easily could have gone the other way.
But by that reasoning, Arizona getting swept in Los Angeles this past weekend is the exact same scenario. Arizona probably should have won at UCLA had Channing Frye's wide open 10-footer stayed down and then on Saturday, USC won because Jason Gardner was called for travelling a split second before he hit what would have been a game-tying three-pointer to send the game into overtime. What that says to me is that Arizona could easily be 12-3 right now instead of 10-5. Then again, Oregon could be 12-2 at this point also.
I've watched enough basketball in the Pac-10 to make an honest and realistic assessment of the conference. The two best teams in my opinion are Oregon and Arizona with USC right behind. Stanford is very, very good Cal is above average and then there is the schizophrenic UCLA club. The Bruins are not good. Singular big wins are nice but when your team turns around and loses to mediocre teams and consistency is lacking, chances are unlikely that a conference championship is going to work out in your favor. UCLA doesn't deserve to win the title, in other words.
The league's regular season breaks down like this.
*Arizona plays ASU in McKale this Wednesday night and then has big games at home against Stanford and Cal to end the year.
*Stanford and Cal have to host USC and UCLA and then travel south to battle Arizona and ASU in the desert. That's four games that could go either way for the two Bay Area schools.
*USC has to play at Stanford and Cal and then finish the year hosting Oregon. Can the Trojans play at a high level on the road in the Bay? Questionable at best.
*The Ducks have two easy games this weekend against the Washington schools but then must finish their schedule knowing it must win at least one game against UCLA or USC to win the conference title outright. The thought here is that Oregon is the MOST likely team to get to 13 conference wins. But if UCLA plays like we all know UCLA "should" be playing, the Ducks could find themselves on the outside looking in with six losses.
Of the five remaining contenders for the Pac-10 championship, Arizona has the easiest schedule with all three of its games at home. The problem for the Wildcats is that they go into the final two weeks a game behind in the loss column. The Cats simply cannot afford to lose, period.
The teams with the toughest road to end the regular season are Stanford and Cal. Although it is likely that both the Cardinal and the Bears will at least split at home this week against the L.A. schools, it is equally as unlikely that the teams will split next week in the Desert. ASU has improved too much lately and played both of those teams tough a few weeks ago in the Bay.
With that said, here is what will happen (and this is all based upon my opinions and those of my good friend Ronnie Karnowski in Hawaii, whom I haven't consulted at all by the way).
*Arizona wins out and finishes the year at 13-5 in Pac-10 play. An incredible success considering the personnel losses from a year ago by Lute Olson's team. Gardner and teammate Luke Walton get serious consideration for the conference Player of the Year award and deservedly so.
*Oregon sweeps the Washington schools easily this week at Mac Court but then loses at USC before winning at UCLA next weekend and matches Arizona at 13-5 in the conference (advantage: Oregon).
*USC will lose Thursday night at Stanford but salvage a split in the Bay with a close victory over Cal. The Trojans will earn a share of the conference crown the next weekend by sweeping Oregon and Oregon State in the Sports Arena to end the year. That makes USC the third team at 13-5.
*Stanford should sweep USC and UCLA at home this weekend but then I think that the Cardinal will lose a war at Arizona and then get upset by ASU on Saturday. No way Casey Jacobsen scores 49 against the Sun Devils again and that's what it took to beat ASU in Palo Alto in a close game. Stanford winds up at 12-6 in the Pac; although 13-5 is quite possible.
*Cal will beat UCLA on Thursday but lose to USC for a home split. At this stage, home splits won't cut it. To make matters worse, the Bears will only get a split the next weekend in Arizona as well, beating ASU in a close game and then losing to the Wildcats at McKale Center to end the season. Cal finishes at 11-7, which should be good enough for another NCAA Tournament bid.
*UCLA will get swept in the Bay Area and then turn around and beat Oregon State at home before getting hammered once again by Oregon to end the year. The overwhelming preseason favorite Bruins finish with an immensely disappointing 10-8 conference record.
So, with three teams finishing the year at 13-5 in league play, who is truly the Pac-10 champion? Arizona would have to be eliminated immediately because it went only 1-3 against the two other schools. USC will have gone 2-2 against Arizona and Oregon while the Ducks can point to their 3-1 mark against the Trojans and Wildcats.
To me, Oregon should be named Pac-10 champion and be given the conference tournament's number one seed. This is one season that there is no need for "co-" champions. It's Oregon's to lose.------------------------------------------------
Player of the Year race (through Feb. 18):
1. Sam Clancy, PF-USC
2. Luke Walton, SF-Arizona
3. Casey Jacobsen, SG-Stanford
4. Jason Gardner, G-Arizona
5. Freddie Jones, G-Oregon
6. Curtis Borchardt, C-Stanford
7. Luke Ridnour, PG-Oregon
8. Jason Kapono, SF-UCLA
9. Doug Wrenn, SF-Washington
10. Luke Jackson, SF-Oregon
Freshman of the Year race (through Feb. 18):
1. Salim Stoudamire, SG-Arizona
2. Channing Frye, C-Arizona
3. Jamal Sampson, C-Cal
4. Josh Childress, SF-Stanford
5. Errick Craven, SG-USC