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Original Issue

Wild, Wild West

Spurred by strong showings by Cal and Stanford, the Pac-10 is enjoying a resurgence

Excise the John Wooden era from a Pac-10 basketball highlight film and what's left? A few grainy frames of Hank Luisetti inventing the jump shot at Stanford. A glimpse at Pete Newell, who briefly made Cal a power in the late 1950s. A shot of Lute Olson in his Man from Glad haircut roaming the sidelines at Arizona—the only conference team besides UCLA to make a Final Four appearance since 1960. A quick montage of those two electrifying point guards, Kevin Johnson and Jason Kidd, passing through Berkeley on their way to NBA stardom. And that's about it.

"I never even thought of UCLA as being in the Pac-10," says Cal freshman standout Jelani Gardner, a Southern California kid who grew up bleeding Bruin blue and gold. "They were just the team that won all those national championships. I didn't think much about the Pac-10 at all."

You're not alone there, Jelani. But, to quote the warbling folksinger from Big Ten country who was making it big around the time Wooden won the first of his 10 NCAA titles, the times they are achangin'. If early reviews hold, the Pac is back. No fewer than five Pac-10 teams (No. 2 UCLA, No. 9 Arizona, No. 15 Arizona State, No. 17 Cal and No. 23 Stanford) were ranked in the Top 25 last week, and another, 10-1 Oregon, is knocking on the door. Ten times during the preconference season Pac-10 teams met up with ranked rivals, and nine times they came away with victories (chart), the lone setback being Arizona's 94-84 loss at Syracuse on Dec. 22. That doesn't even include the 65-61 victory that Washington, which will in all probability linger near the conference's cellar this season, scored over unranked but still glamorous Michigan on Dec. 30.

"The league is so strong I'm not sure I even want to be in it," says Oregon coach Jerry Green. No doubt UCLA coach Jim Harrick was thinking the same thing, Jerry, after your team beat his 82-72 in the conference opener in Eugene last Thursday, preventing the Bruins from taking over the No. 1 spot in the nation. Yes, after years of complaining that they didn't get any respect, Pac-10 coaches are now getting it the old-fashioned way. They're earning it.

"We can talk all night about the criticism we've received being somewhat unfair," says Stanford coach Mike Montgomery, "but the fact remains that a team like Duke did not go out and lose in the first round of the tournament. We did." By "we" he means UCLA, a 112-102 loser to Tulsa, and Cal, a 61-57 loser to Wisconsin-Green Bay, both in last year's NCAA tournament; Arizona, which fell to Santa Clara 64-61 in 1993; and the Cardinal itself, which bowed to Siena 80-78 in 1989. After many such first-round el foldos over the years, the Pac-10 logo could be a guy with his hands around his throat.

But the springtime swan dive isn't as likely to happen this year, not with the seasoning that will come from much tougher intraconference play. Final Four contenders? Well, Arizona and UCLA are probably the only real ones. But don't count out Cal, which owns impressive back-to-back wins over then No. 11 Minnesota (82-75) and then No. 13 Cincinnati (89-76) in December. Ditto for Arizona State, which swept through Texas A&M. Michigan and Maryland to win the Maui Invitational in November and then rang up a 53-52 victory over Arizona last Thursday to prove that those results were not a fluke.

But the biggest Pac-10 news these days is coming from the Bay Area, which has been something of a hoops wasteland for about the last three decades. Stanford (10-1) lost its first game on Saturday, 77-63 at Washington State, but, as Cal discovered two nights earlier in an 83-71 loss on the same court, that is neither disgrace nor surprise. The Cougars are tough in Pullman, a place that, as George Raveling put it when he coached there, "is not the end of the earth, but I can see it from here."

And Cal, now 8-2 after an 84-76 win at Washington on Saturday, has become something even larger, a kind of Michigan West, the Pac-10's certified hot zone. Last year 31-year-old coach Todd Bozeman spirited Gardner and Tremaine Fowlkes out of Los Angeles, and this year he's already gone into Georgia and signed one of the nation's top five high school seniors, 6'9" Shareef Abdur-Rahim, and another gem, 6'10" Kenyon Jones. As much as any team, Cal is responsible for the Pac-10 renaissance, having given the conference an alluring new-kid-on-the-block alternative to what had become a rather bland double dose of steady but unsexy Arizona and dusty UCLA.

New Kidd on the block might be more accurate. When Bozeman, then an assistant under Lou Campanelli, lured Kidd to Berkeley in the fall of 1992, the Cal program got a boost that is simply incalculable. As Gardner puts it: "Jason helped enlighten everyone to Cal." In fact, Kidd gave the whole conference, as Bozeman says, "a toughness, a kind of flavor." And that flavor is definitely not vanilla, as it had been in recent years.

Predictably, Bozeman's quick success—he is 41-12 since taking over for Campanelli late in the '92-93 season—has caused some resentment, both from within the conference and without, partly because he's perceived in some quarters as having been disloyal to Campanelli. Did he orchestrate the firing of Campanelli? (Probably not—the administration wanted him gone.) Is he much more of a players' coach than was Campanelli, the traditional motivator-screamer? (Definitely.) Is he a guy who depends on getting star players and merely rolls the balls out at practice? (Probably not.)

Bozeman won't apologize for being a great recruiter. "We used to have a philosophy here of, We'll take whoever Arizona and UCLA don't want," he says. "I don't think that way. My philosophy is, We'll get in on everybody."

At any rate, this year's Cal team is a deep group that plays cohesively. "We have low egos," says Fowlkes. Tremaine, that's always better than high egos.

Low egos, too, seem to be prominent across San Francisco Bay in Palo Alto, where Stanford is off to its best start since the '36-37 season, Luisetti's second. The Cardinal seems to dwell perennially in a basketball purgatory, never bad enough to be called bad, never good enough to be called good. Its top performers are invariably fine scholastic performers who were not quite good enough to be recruited by the top schools. Shooting guard Dion Cross grew up playing high school ball against Corliss Williamson in Arkansas—after Williamson won the MVP medal at the state tournament in his senior year, he hung it around the neck of Cross, whose team. Parkview High, had won the title. But the home-state Razorbacks were not interested in bearing Cross. Similarly, senior forward Andy Poppink, who hails from Tecumseh, Mich., 20 miles from Ann Arbor, describes himself as "a Fab Five by-product." He thinks a moment and corrects himself: "Make that a Fab Five by-pass-product."

But this year's Cardinal team, unlike most previous incarnations, has talent, size and some of that "flavor" Bozeman talked about. The size comes from 7'1" freshman Tim Young, a lefthander from nearby Santa Cruz, who attended Stanford's summer camps beginning when he was a 6'4" 12-year-old. Young has it all—smooth turnaround jumper, determined work ethic, shot-blocking instincts, considerable athletic ability. In other words, he's no Greg Butler, the player who usually comes to mind when the subject is Stanford centers. Young has a chance to become one of the country's outstanding big men, and his teammates should be able to ride him a long way. Off the court they'll have to find alternative transportation, though. Young has never gotten his driver's license and pedals around campus on his bicycle. "I just don't feel comfortable driving," says Young, a shy kid whose basketball and musical tastes are a bit retro (he has a Larry Bird fixation and listens to the Beatles and Paul Simon).

An opposite personality type is sophomore point guard Brevin Knight, whose emotional playground style gives the Cardinal something rare—a player for opposing fans to hate. Knight is unquestionably Stanford's flavor. Like his good buddies Cross and Poppink, Knight is a player who was passed over by the home folks, except that his story hits, well, much closer to home. Knight grew up, almost literally, on the campus of Seton Hall in South Orange, N.J. His father, Mel, was a Pirate assistant under Bill Raftery and for a time the university's associate athletic director, and his mother, Brenda, is still the secretary to the dean of arts and sciences.

But though he attended P.J. Carlesimo's summer camp and worked on his Knight moves on campus for years, the Hall never called. Nor did any other Big East team. The snub had much to do with his size (he was 5'8" and, as he puts it, "a whopping 150 pounds" as a high school senior), but that didn't ease the hurt. While Poppink and Cross still loyally look for the Michigan and Arkansas results on TV, Knight says, "I could care less about Seton Hall's games." Knight's worst moment as a collegian came last season when Stanford lost to the Pirates 75-69 in the Seton Hall Tournament.

And how did you play, Brevin? "I was horrible," he said last week.

That prompted Cross to look up from his plate of eggs and bacon. "Yes," he agreed helpfully, "he was horrible." Knight glared at him, then smiled.

Knight, despite being limited by a stress reaction to his right tibia (an injury that could become a fracture if he pushes it too hard), hasn't been horrible at all this season. He had 20 points, three assists and two steals against the more ballyhooed Cory Alexander in a 64-60 win at Virginia on Dec. 22, and 26 points and nine assists in a 95-78 win over Wisconsin on Dec. 27. In a conference replete with terrific quarterbacks. Knight (who has grown to 5'10" and a whopping 165 pounds) is the third-best point guard, a full step behind Arizona's Damon Stoudamire and a half step behind UCLA's Tyus Edney. Montgomery remembers a recruit saying to him, "Coach, I like it here, but I don't know any of your players." It's a common problem at Stanford, but Young and Knight might change that.

They also want to change the atmosphere at Stanford. To these guys, Hank Luisetti has no more relevance than Hank Williams. "I'm not interested in a guy who played in the '50s," says Knight. Uh, Brevin, Luisetti played in the '30s. "Well, then I'm really not interested." The players long for their team to be the No. 1 athletic attraction on campus; right now Knight thinks it's football, while Cross votes for women's basketball. The smallish 7,500-seat Maples Pavilion can be a tough place for opposing teams, but it doesn't always reach its pit potential. "The atmosphere killed me when I first got here," says Knight. "I guess that was one of the things they forgot to mention during recruiting." Poppink, a fourth-year junior, is philosophical about it. "You get used to everyone hitting the books while you're playing," he says. "The worst thing is, all that studying kills the curve."

The "evolution" (can we call it that?) to basketball campus is further along at Cal, where students have been known to camp out for season tickets and routinely fill 6,578-seat Harmon Arena for home games. But the Bear players, too, want more. And Cal's Gardner and Stanford's Knight, two delightful young men with microcosmic world visions, express that thought almost identically.

"When you hear 'Cal' all you think about is an academic school," says Gardner. "We want to make it a basketball school."

Says Knight, "The '94-95 team might be the one to really bring basketball alive. Then, when somebody mentions Stanford, maybe it won't be, 'Oh, another Nobel Prize winner?' "

We're not sure if what they are saying is good. But they may be speaking the truth.