Schu Strings: Undefeated in Pac?

Jason Gardner might be slight in stature, but he sets colossal goals.<BR> The night Gardner announced his return to the UA men's basketball team, putting on hold yet again his desire to make a splash in the NBA, his plans changed gears. Instead of proving he can succeed at the next level, he wanted to put his name in the Arizona record books.

With a national championship?

Well sure, that's the ultimate goal, but it's been accomplished.

No, something far more daunting than that.

In the quarter century history of the Pac-10, two teams have won national titles.

In the quarter century history of the Pac-10, no team has gone through conference play undefeated. Gardner wants to change that. And if one studies the makeup of this Arizona unit, the runaway favorite to win the league, one can certainly make a case for having a shot at history.

For starters, Arizona looks very good. A preseason national No. 1, the UA has senior leadership in starters Gardner and Luke Walton, and probable sixth-man contributor Rick Anderson. It expects improved sophomore play in Channing Frye and Salim Stoudamire, not to mention the anticipated gains of Isaiah Fox, Dennis Latimore and Wil Bynum.

There is the influx of superb young talent. Andre Iguodala and Hassan Adams figure to give the UA a greater presence defensively, and Chris Rodgers could provide even better depth in the backcourt. It is a great recipe for success.

Secondly, the Pac-10 does not appear as strong as in years past. There are those who believe UCLA could struggle to reach .500. Stanford could be destined for a finish in the conference's second tier. That leaves up-and-comers like Oregon, Oregon State, ASU and Washington, with perhaps always-curious Cal, as the league darkhorses. But there appears to be a significant difference between No. 1 and everybody else. On paper, the UA should dominate this conference.

But on paper has never gotten it done in the Pac-10 before, and Arizona, as well as anyone, knows this first-hand.

Since its onset of prominence, the Wildcats have knocked on the door of perfection on four occasions, only to be turned away with one heartbreaking loss each time. When Arizona rocketed onto the scene in 1988, it bowled through conference play en route to its first Final Four appearance, but stubbed its toe in an 82-74 loss at Stanford.

Stanford was the culprit again a year later when the Cardinal knocked off Arizona 83-78 in Palo Alto.

In 1993, Arizona was 14-0 in conference play and making a push for a No. 1 seed in the West when it got clipped at Cal in a 74-71 setback. And most recently, in 1998, the UA lost to USC in overtime by virtue of an awkward bounce on a Trojan shot at the buzzer. Arizona was 16-0 in conference play heading into that game.

Others with undefeated conference aspirations have been stung as well. Between 1980-1982, Oregon State compiled league marks of 16-2, 17-1 and 16-2. ASU knocked off OSU in the final game of the regular season in the 17-1 campaign. UCLA was 16-2 in 1992, 1995 (the NCAA title year) and 1996. Two seasons ago, after marching into Tucson and controlling the game from the opening tip, there were those who suggested Stanford was poised to run the table. A week later, the Cardinal got snuffed at home against nemesis UCLA, and ultimately finished 16-2 in league play.

Nearly every major conference has had one team march through the regular season unscathed. It's been done in the Big East. It's been done in the Big Ten. It's been done in the Big 12, the ACC, the SEC.

But it's never been done in the Pac-10.

Gardner wants to change that. His legacy demands it.

[This story originally appeared in the November issue of Cat Tracks Magazine. For more information on the print version of Cat Tracks call (520) 327-0705.]

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