PAC-10 Favorite (?) to open conference play Friday

Not only is it out-with-the-old as far as 2004 goes, it's also in-with-the-new as far as PAC-10 conference expectations go for the Hoopsters of Montlake. That is, if you hear the coaches and the writers tell it.

Just two years removed from a ninth-place PAC-10 finish, the 13th-ranked Washington Huskies – now leading all Division 1 teams in scoring after a mostly exhilarating and sometimes exhausting 10-1 non-conference start – are being touted as the favorites (along with perennial throne-keepers Arizona) to wreak their controlled havoc over the rest of a league that doesn't figure to see a run-away like Stanford's 17-1 rampage a year ago.

"The PAC-10 is a whole other ball of wax," Husky coach Lorenzo Romar commented on his team's blazing non-conference start during the league's teleconference call on Tuesday. "We're two years from finishing at the bottom of the pack. We're not ready to say we've arrived."

In fact, Romar would like to see his team continue to play with the same underDawg mentality they exhibited a year ago beginning last February. "I think it's a strength for us that our guys keep playing with a chip on their shoulder," says Romar, "as long as it's under control."

Time will tell over the next two months whether or not these high-flying Huskies will continue to soar above the radar. But most PAC-10 scribes – and it shows in their elevated AP poll status – are of the opinion that Washington's time has arrived.

Beginning this Friday, the time for proving the prognosticators right will also arrive.


FRIDAY, DECEMBER 31 – California (7-3) at #13 Washington (10-1), 1:30 PM (Fox Sports Net)

It's pretty clear that California – allowing just 61 points per game during their 7-3 non-conference schedule – will try to slow things down in the PAC-10 opener for both teams. With only eight scholarship players available (F Leon Powe, C Sam Rayburn and G Ayinde Ubaka are all sidelined) and no seniors on the roster, the Bears will be hard-pressed to match up athletically with the running Huskies.

"(Washington's) a good enough team without giving them anything extra," says ninth-year coach Ben Braum. "They are so hard to defend once they get out and running. You have to make it hard for them to do that - we hope to pick up some easy baskets inside and on transition."

In acknowledging that Cal might try to slow things down, Braun says "What we've done this year has put us in a position to win some games, and we don't want to change that. We won't change the essence of what we do."

Junior point guard Richard Midgley leads California with a 16-point per game average. Midgley has been over the 25-point mark three times, and his three-point buzzer-beater knocked off Pepperdine in the championship game of last week's Golden Bear Classic in Berkeley. Junior Rod Benson has done a good job filling in for Powe (out for the season with a knee injury), averaging 12 points and shooting shooting 59 percent from the floor. Cal is 6-0 this season when out-rebounding its opponents. Using the NC State game as a blueprint, look for 6-foot-5 Marquise Kately to match up with the 5-8 Nate Robinson and try to harass him ala Julius Hodge.

PROBABLE CAL STARTERS:

POS NO NAME             HT    WT  CL  PPG   RPG 
F    0 Rod Benson       6-10 210  JR  11.9  4.1 
F    3 Dominic McGuire  6-8  210  SO   6.8  4.9 
C   35 DeVon Hardin     6-10 225  FR   5.5  5.4 
G   25 Marquise Kately  6-5  220  SO  11.1  5.4
G   15 Richard Midgley  6-2  205  JR  16.0  3.9 



SUNDAY, JANUARY 2 - Stanford (6-4) at Washington, 12:30 PM (Fox Sports NW)

The Cardinal open defense of their PAC-10 championship with a return to the region that gave them the most fits last year – first there was the Lottich Miracle in Pullman (this year's rematch is in Spokane on Friday) that finished an erasure of a five-point Cougar lead in the final 25 seconds, and then their dramatic fall from Number One at Hec Ed, losing to the Huskies 75-62 to snap their 26-game winning streak.

This year's Stanford bunch sports a new look, starting at the top with former Washington assistant (1989-92) and Franklin High School graduate Trent Johnson wearing the head whistle. Following his Husky stint, Johnson assisted former head coach Mike Montgomery for three years before taking over at Nevada and leading the Wolf Pack to a sweet-16 appearance in 2004.

The Cardinal have only played three games at home so far – all victories - as Maples Pavilion just finished undergoing a $30-million facelift. Stanford has finished in the PAC-10 top-two for eight straight seasons, but that streak could be in jeopardy unless their bench can step it up. Four of the five Cardinal starters average 30 or more minutes per game, and only RS-freshman Tim Morris averages more than 10 minutes off the bench.

Junior guard Dan Grunfeld leads Stanford in scoring at 16-points per game, but has struggled from behind the arc (8-for-23). Junior point guard Chris Hernandez, a Bob Cousy Award finalist a year ago, hit 92-percent of his freebies last year, but is "down" to 81-percent so far this year. Small forward Nick Robinson (6.2 ppg) has only hit 34-percent of his field goal attempts, and the Cardinal have been somewhat turnover-prone in the front court. Clearly, this team misses Josh Childress. 6-11 forward Matt Haryasz is the PAC-10's fourth-leading rebounder at 8.1 per game. Mark Bradford will not play basketball anymore for Stanford, choosing to concentrate solely on football.

PROBABLE STANFORD STARTERS:

POS NO NAME             HT    WT  CL  PPG   RPG 
F   52 Matt Haryasz     6-11 230  JR   9.8  8.1 
F   21 Nick Robinson    6-6  205  SR   6.2  4.1 
C   42 Rob Little       6-10 260  SR  10.0  4.1 
G   20 Dan Grunfeld     6-6  215  JR  16.7  5.8
G   11 Chris Hernandez  6-2  190  JR  13.1  3.8 (APG) 


Rick Samek can be reached at rsamek1@comcast.net

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