Can the Cardinal derail the Wildcat Express?

One down and one to go.<BR>The Arizona Wildcats came to the Bay Area with a purpose: they intended to wrap up the Pac-10 title with TWO victories, one at Cal and the other at Stanford. An imposing task on the road, but with a resounding 88-75 victory over the Cal Bears the Cats certainly have the momentum to finish the job.

The win at Cal was impressive for many reasons. The Bears had lost only once at Haas Pavilion over the last two seasons – a 68-58 decision to these same Wildcats on Jan. 31, 2002. This time, as always, Cal packed the place to standing room only and had former Cal great Kevin Johnson in the crowd along with Huey Lewis sitting in the first row. Maybe they were hoping KJ could reincarnate himself in Richard Midgley or Huey could sing the Bears to victory while the Heart of Rock N' Roll was still beating. Well, it just was not enough, but not because Cal didn't try. No it was more that the Bears, as good as they are, and they are very good, just aren't at the same level as these Wildcats.

Cal gave the Wildcats everything they had, which at times was almost enough. Any team other than the nation's best might have folded, and most do when they go to Haas, but the Wildcats held their cool and answered every challenge the Bears could muster.

"They are No. 1 in the country for a reason," Cal guard Brian Wethers said. "We made a good run at them, but they stayed with it. You could see poise in their faces."

Cal was a sweet victory for the team from the desert that everyone has anointed No. 1, but it seemed like no more than another notch on the rifle of this sharp-shooting band of Desert Desperados.

"It feels good to win, but we're never satisfied until the end of the season," Wildcat center Channing Frye said. "Now we have another tough game with Stanford, so we have to go out and play."

But is it just another basketball game? I don't think so. As I said, the Cats came here to win two games, not one, and they fully expected they would be going to Stanford looking for a sweep of the Bay.

"I'm not going to say it's just another basketball game," Frye said. "We do remember what happened at our house and we have to go in (to Maples Pavilion) and be focused. If we play Arizona defense we'll be all right."

So the Wildcats must take their act to Maples Pavilion, a storied and rustic arena that seats only half what you can put into Haas. Why they call it a "Pavilion" is beyond me. But who knows, at the time it was erected it might have qualified for that distinction.

For the Wildcats and their fans, Maples will be much like Haas. The crowds at Cal and Stanford have similarities, the students and fans are clever and about as rowdy as any in the country. The floor at Maples in transportable and it shakes when the student section jumps up and down, purposely distracting the visiting team. Not a lot of fun for the opponent, but the Cats have had their share of success here.

A Wildcat victory would give Arizona its fourth consecutive sweep of the Bay Area and clinch the Pac-10 title. Stanford is the only Pac-10 team to beat the Wildcats this season, 82-77 on Jan. 30. There is nothing the Cats would like more than to avenge that defeat.

"Saturday's game is a very key game for us because it could clinch the Pac-10 title for us," UA head coach Lute Olson said. "We've only lost one time in the league and that's to Stanford, so we feel like we owe them one."

Arizona has won seven straight, but it is not the only team on a roll. Stanford is on a six-game winning streak of its own.

"They're playing really well," Olson said, "and their place is a tough place to play. So one thing we know for sure is that it will be sold out and everyone will be excited about the game."

Entering the season, the Cardinal wasn't expected to be this good. It's probably the biggest surprise in the Pac-10 Conference. Stanford lost two players, Casey Jacobsen and Curtis Borchardt, early to the NBA draft and wasn't expected to be much of a threat. Then when starting point guard Chris Hernandez went down with a knee injury, it seemed all but certain the Cardinal was a long away from being any kind of a factor in this conference for at least another year, maybe longer.

Everything seemed to be going downhill for the Cardinal after unexplainable loses to Richmond and Montana at home in its own tournament.  But Stanford coach Mike Montgomery magically found the key ingredient to right his once rocky ship. He put Julius Barnes, a two-guard with suspect skills, at the point. All Barnes has done is lead the team in scoring (16.8), assists (3.8), free throw percentage (.825) and made three-pointers (2.4). For this reason, Barnes is a strong candidate for Pac-10 Player of the Year honors.

Barnes has been the key to many Stanford victories and has certainly carried this team to where it is today. However, with all Barnes has done and all he might do when the ball goes up at the start of the game, it just might not be enough to derail the Wildcat Express.

Cal threw everything it could at the Wildcats and played as well as any team has all season in its attempt to shut down the nation's most potent offense. Stoudamire lit it up hitting 4-of-5 threes while Walton drained 7-of-9 field goals. Both scored 20 points. Channing Frye and Jason Gardner contributed a "quiet" 15 points each and Iguodala took the wind out of an early run by taking it coast-to-coast for a thunderous dunk that left even the Cal fans spellbound. End to end, the Bears could not find an answer for the Wildcats' firepower.

"You let up for a second," Wethers said, "and they make you pay."

Arizona is playing exactly like a No. 1 team should be playing, with the confidence and character of a winner. Unless Montgomery can pull a rabbit out of his back pocket, a rabbit that shoots and defends, I have a feeling you'll see a replay of the Cal game. Stanford might bring the confidence of winning in Tucson, but I don't think it'll be enough to slow down, much less derail, the Wildcat Express.

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