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Original Issue

Wild, Wild West

With an infusion of homegrown talent and a new emphasis on smothering defense, the Pac-10 has become the nation's top conference

The West is thebest.
Get here, and we'll do the rest.

--The Doors

What was this,anyway? Some sort of Jim Morrison--inspired, ride-the-snake acid trip? Werethose really pigskin-addled USC students lining up three hours before abasketball game and literally running to snag the best seats possible? Were theTrojans really playing in a sparkling-new $130 million, 10,258-seat, on-campushoops cathedral? (What happened to the old ramshackle L.A. Sports Arena?) Andfor the love of O.J.--not Simpson, you dummy, but but rather Trojans basketballrecruit O.J. Mayo, the nation's top high school senior--was that really USCtaking a 10-point second-half lead against mighty crosstown rival UCLA lastSaturday?

Granted, thepackaging of USC hoops is still a work in progress--the Galen Center'sglitziest courtside celebrity last week was Simpson Bronco driver AlCowlings--but here was the chance to grab a share of first place in therough-and-tumble Pac-10. "This is bigger than basketball has been inyears," explained USC nut job Henrik Nielsen, a bearded comp-sci majordecked out in a cardinal-and-gold Afro wig, a gold jersey and mirrored aviatorglasses. "We really think we can make some noise now." Alas, theTrojans fumbled the ball, as it were, blowing the lead and wasting Nick Young'slate four-point play when UCLA guard Arron Afflalo drained a 17-foot jumperwith 4.7 seconds left for a heart-stopping 65--64 Bruins victory.

All thingsconsidered, it was just another extraordinary day in the Pac-10's late-decaderesurgence. "Buzzer shots. One-point wins. The energy and theatmosphere," Afflalo marveled afterward, savoring another wild leagueweekend that included two games decided in overtime and a pair of others bylast-second finishes, including Oregon's 79--77 win at Arizona on Sunday."The Pac-10 is hot this year."

Let there be nodoubt: The Pac-10 is the preeminent conference in college basketball. In fact,it may be on the verge of a new golden era, riding an El Niño--fueled wave ofblue-chip players, dynamic new coaches and an inchoate toughness that smashesall those namby-pamby West Coast stereotypes. "I think the league is bettertop to bottom than it has been in the whole time that I've been here," saysArizona's Lute Olson, the dean of Pac-10 coaches, who's in his 24th season inTucson. "Some years you've had two or three good teams, and a couple yearsfour or five, but I've never seen it so competitive from teams one through10."

Need convincing?Just a year after the Pac-10 was derided as a fading power--only UCLA reachedthe NCAA tournament's Elite Eight--the league was ranked No. 1 in the RPIthrough Sunday, staying on track to equal or even break its record of sixtournament bids set in 2002. Not since Olson's Wildcats won the 1997 nationaltitle after finishing fifth in the Pac-10 has the league enjoyed such qualityacross the board. No. 3 UCLA (15--1), No. 9 Oregon (16--1) and No. 11 Arizona(13--3) are serious threats to raise the trophy in Atlanta on April 2, whileWashington State (15--3) and USC (13--5) could make deep tournament runs aswell. So brutal is the league's infighting that Washington (11--6) began lastweek ranked No. 24 in the nation and ended it with a ninth-place conferencerecord of 1--5.

"I anticipatethat we'll get at least six bids this year, maybe seven," says UCLA coachBen Howland, whose team is even better than it was a year ago, when the Bruinsreached the national title game. Cal coach Ben Braun concurs. "The ACC hasgotten seven bids and so has the Big Ten," he says, "so why can't thePac-10?"

Like Tupac Shakursetting his sights on New York City, the emerging Pac-10 powerhouse has had thecojones to hit the road (Oregon won 57--50 at then No. 18 Georgetown on Nov.29, and Stanford prevailed 76--75 at Virginia on Jan. 7) while defending thehome front against challenges by establishment teams from points East(Washington ripped LSU 87--71 on Dec. 20, while UCLA blew out Michigan 92--55on Dec. 23). If one Pac Shakur--Arizona's electric point guard Mustafa--canlead the Wildcats to victory against No. 4 North Carolina on Jan. 27 in Tucson,this East Coast--West Coast battle will have been no contest at all.

Suddenly thePac-10 is deeper than Death Valley. Even last-place Arizona State has reasonfor cheer despite its 0--6 conference record, since first-year coach HerbSendek (who took N.C. State to the previous five NCAA tournaments) hasassembled a top-notch recruiting class for next year. Meanwhile, Stanford(11--4) and Cal (11--6) figure only to burnish the Pac-10's greatest rivalry ifthey end up fighting for the league's final NCAA bid. If those tussles involvea drunk tree mascot and clueless band members, so much the better.

Look around: ThePac-10 has dangerous teams coming out the wazoo, none more surprising thanWazzu (sidebar), which last week came within a 71--68 overtime loss to Stanfordon Saturday from sweeping Cal and the Cardinal on the road. Washington State,which earned its first national ranking since 1983 after takedowns of Arizonaand Gonzaga, hasn't been to the NCAA tournament in 13 years--but that droughtlooks likely to end.

What's going on?For starters, the Pac--10 has become a magnet for respected, proven coacheswho've changed the metabolism of the conference--on the court and on therecruiting trail. "When I first came into the league, they filled coachingpositions with assistants from successful programs," Olson says. "Thedifference now is that we're getting the head coaches from those programs."Seven new Pac-10 coaches have signed on in the past five years, including fivewho had already been Division I head coaches: Howland (at Pittsburgh), Sendek(at N.C. State), Washington's Lorenzo Romar (at Saint Louis), USC's Tim Floyd(at Iowa State) and Stanford's Trent Johnson (at Nevada).

Their impact hasbeen immediate and profound, not the least because they've instilled a newcommitment to defense and grit that belies the Pac-10's historically softreputation. "Years ago you probably saw more high-scoring games, but nowteams are improving defensively," says Braun, who's in his 11th season inBerkeley. No coach has been more responsible for that change than Howland, wholaughs at the misbegotten notion that he brought "East Coast toughness"from Pittsburgh to Westwood. "I'm from Santa Barbara," says the UCLAcoach, who once dreamed of following in John Wooden's footsteps with the Bruinsand who has rebuilt the program on the twin bedrocks of rebounding anddefense.

At the same time,the Pac-10 has hardly lost the league's hallmark fun-and-gun offensivefireworks. Long one of the game's top innovators, Olson has unleashed an attackthat has more wings than a Chernobyl butterfly: Arizona's top three swingmen(sophomore Marcus Williams, freshman Chase Budinger and junior JawannMcClellan) could all become first-round NBA draft picks. "When I first camefrom the Big Ten four years ago, I was surprised because the individual talentin the Pac-10--especially the athletic wings--was on another level," saysWashington State's Tony Bennett, who was an assistant to his father, Dick, atWisconsin. "But it's also become more of a defensive league, not theloosey-goosey Pac-10 I'd always heard about. Now you've got seven half-courtdefensive teams."

What's more,nearly every outpost in the conference is blessed with a blend of new andexperienced talent. The league lost only two early entries to the NBA afterlast season (UCLA guard Jordan Farmar and Cal forward Leon Powe), while a hostof fence-sitters (UCLA's Afflalo, Oregon guard Malik Hairston and Arizona'sWilliams and Shakur) decided to stay in school. They've welcomed a breathtakingarray of freshmen, who comprise four of the league's top 20 scorers, five ofits top 20 rebounders and the top three shot blockers. "There's no way anyother conference has as good a group of freshmen as there is in thisleague," says Howland, and it's hard to argue with him when the listincludes Budinger, USC forward Taj Gibson, Washington center Spencer Hawes andforward Quincy Pondexter, Cal forward Ryan Anderson, Stanford center RobinLópez and Oregon guard Tajuan Porter.

The primary sourceof those gems is no mystery. The West Coast is home to some of the nation's tophoops hotbeds--L.A., Seattle, the Bay Area, Portland, even Fresno--and thesedays a lot of that talent is staying in the Pacific time zone. The key toRomar's fifth-year rebuilding project at Washington has been holding on toSeattle-area stars. "When we came in, we knew the ninth-, 10th- and11th-grade classes here were loaded," Romar says. "So if we could do adecent job keeping some of them at home, we'd have a good foundation." Theresults have been better than decent: After losing local standout MarvinWilliams to North Carolina three years ago, Romar has since landed SeattleitesBrandon Roy, Jon Brockman and Hawes, a 7-footer who spurned the Tar Heels forthe Huskies.

Next season thePac-10 might welcome its best freshman class yet, headlined by Arizona-boundguard Jerryd Bayless; forward Kevin Love, who's headed for UCLA; and USC'sMayo, a guard. Yet even without the latter pair, the Bruins-Trojans thriller onSaturday ratified the Pac-10's distinction as the top league in the land--atleast until March.

"The bottomline is, our conference will be judged by how we do in the NCAAtournament," says Howland. "How many teams do we get in and how far dothey go?"

Maybe so, but thatmeans something else, too, something a little bit scary: Perhaps the Pac-10hoops revival has only just begun.

EXTRA

Full Bag

Read more about the Pac-10 in Grant Wahl's Mailbag, andget the story behind WSU guard Derrick Low's tattoo in Luke Winn's Insider.

ONLY AT SI.COM

Turning Point

Guard Derrick Low--an unheralded floor leader cut fromthe same mold as his mentor, coach Tony Bennett--has brought about a surprisingturnaround at Washington State

DICK BENNETT bestowed one hell of a gift upon his son,Tony, last March: a team that would be picked for the Pac-10 cellar yet hadbeen groomed to take the league by surprise. In 2003 the elder Bennett tookover at Washington State and brought with him the suffocating system ofpressure defense, which he used to lead Wisconsin to the 2000 Final Four. Healso brought Tony along as an assistant coach. The Bennetts' first fullrecruiting class at Wazzu, in '04, consisted of six unheralded high schoolers(point guard Derrick Low from Honolulu was the only one with a rating fromRivals.com, a popular recruiting website), but Dick believed that they would"eventually, by their junior year, come into their own."

Two thirds of that sextet (Low, forwards Robbie Cowgilland Daven Harmeling and guard Kyle Weaver) are now starters who have weatheredthe hoops equivalent of a nasty nor'wester. They finished tied for sixth in thePac-10 as freshmen, 10th as sophomores, and then Dick retired, handing Tony thereins. This season the son and the players have come into their own, jumpingout to a 15--3 start through Sunday and within a half game of the Pac-10lead.

"My stepping away," says Dick, "was thebest thing for this program because Tony has brought more to it than Icould." A 6-foot guard who starred for Dick at Wisconsin--Green Bay from1988 through '92 and played three seasons in the NBA, Tony has kept hisfather's dogged defense, but he's also thoroughly energized Washington State'smotion offense. The Cougars have jumped 191 spots in offensive efficiency, to65th in the nation, since Tony took over.

The 6'2" Low (left), a three-time Hawaii player ofthe year, was a fitting choice to help lead Wazzu's revival. He carried a TonyBennett basketball card in his wallet after committing, sight unseen, toWashington State, and is a similar player. Not in appearance--Low's long, blackhair and hip-to-ankle left leg tattoo are distinctly Polynesian touches--but inplaying style. "I've had a few coaches tell me, 'Man, he moves without theball just like you did,'" Tony says. Dick Bennett sees a similarity intheir temperaments as well. "Tony was not a big talker but had an innerfire, and Derrick reminds me of that," Dick says. Low, who splits pointguard duties with the multitalented Weaver, leads the Cougars in scoring at14.3 points per game.

A 77--73 overtime win over then No. 7 Arizona on Jan. 6and a three-point loss at top-ranked UCLA nine days earlier proved thatWashington State has what it takes to compete in the Pac-10. "It tookpatience," says Low, "but the reason we came here was to be the oneswho turned the program around."

"Our conference will BE JUDGED by how we do in thetournament--how many teams we get in and how far they go," saysHowland.

PHOTO

BY GRANT WAHLPhotograph by John W. McDonough

BUOYANT DUCKS After taking down Luc Richard Mah a Moute (23) and then No. 1 UCLA on Jan. 6, Oregon beat then No. 10 Arizona on Sunday.

PHOTO

DAVID GONZALES/GONZALESPHOTO.COM

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LARRY GOREN/ICON SMI

TROJAN FORCE Gibson (22), one of the Pac-10's fab freshmen, had 22 points and 10 rebounds in USC's OT defeat of Washington.