- Ed Graney
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Mike Montgomery says he will wait to pass judgment, that it makes no sense to begin separating teams this early and that his Stanford
club isn't as talented as some from the past and just might be a tad overrated.
Don't you love it?
If there is anything we have learned from the non-conference schedule and one week of Pac-10 play, it's that nothing has changed at all. The conference is about Arizona, Stanford and everyone else.
Think about it: Since 1997-98, those two have finished first or second in all but one regular season.
"They deserve to be considered there because they have played the best basketball so far," Oregon coach Ernie Kent said. "But I don't care who you are; it's not easy playing anyone in this conference on the road. Night-in-and-night-out you're going to see some scores that might surprise people outside the league, but not those of us in it."
It might be a struggle this season for the conference to earn the five NCAA Tournament bids it annually proposes to deserve. Take away the Wildcats and Cardinal -- Arizona is 10-1 and ranked third in both polls while Stanford is 12-0 and ranked fourth by the media and sixth by the coaches entering the week -- and there have been more noticeable defeats than impressive victories.
In other words, there are visible warts on each of the eight teams trying to at least give Arizona and Stanford something more to worry about than each other.
"We'll have to see if there is that big a gap with the top two teams," Arizona coach Lute Olson said. "I don't know if that's the case. Some teams have struggled, but I don't think you can make any kind of determination until we get through at least the first half of conference."
What we know: Five of the 10 teams have spent much of the season with RPIs of 75 or worse, including four with ratings of 118 or lower.
Cal, picked third in most preseason polls, has lacked consistent shooting from leaders Amit Tamir and Richard Midgley. It has stumbled consistently out of the gate and into 2004 with so many young faces (other than the automatic double-double from freshman Leon Powe). The Bears lost their opener at home to Cal Poly, and have since lost to Air Force and Washington State in front of the home folks.
Oregon has offered the look of an NCAA team some nights, but just lost freshman point guard Aaron Brooks (broken hand) for six to eight weeks. Arizona State might have the league's best player in sophomore Ike Diogu, but has yet to gel into a consistent threat with eight new faces. USC is proving raw talent doesn't always equal good chemistry.
Oregon State is still a year -- or two or three or, well, you know -- away from competing for a top-five finish. Washington is more athletic than recent seasons but is susceptible inside. Washington State will be a major headache for anyone to play under new coach Dick Bennett (ask Cal), other than those nights the Cougars brick their way to 29 points (see: loss at Fresno State).
An early surprise for some: UCLA.
The Bruins of first-year coach Ben Howland have begun 6-3 and opened conference action last weekend by sweeping the Oregon schools at home. More importantly, UCLA is offering the kind of defensive focus and shot selection absent in recent seasons. In a conference where no team has staked its claim as the third-best option, UCLA figures to have as good a chance as any.
"We are by no means there yet," Howland said. "We still have a long ways to go. We're still turning the ball over too much and have had only one good game from the foul line. We have a lot of work to do and are nowhere near playing to the level we hope to as the season progresses."
So, while no coach will admit as much, the gap is clearly wider than ever between the two at the top and those below. Yes, the co-favorites may lose to someone other than the other over the next nine weeks, but one of the two will most likely finish on top.
The consensus among coaches is that Stanford's experience and depth affords the Cardinal an advantage over the fact Olson might be starting five NBA players. Arizona has the athleticism to be a great rebounding team but isn't one yet. That could be, at this stage, the one factor that affords Stanford a slight edge.
Montgomery entered last offseason claming his team (despite its 24 wins in 2002-03) needed to gain strength and become a larger force on the boards. Stanford won its first nine games this season without its top player in junior forward Josh Childress, primarily because of the improved play from a slimmer Rob Little at center, the return of point guard Chris Hernandez from injury and the inspired efforts of players like senior guard Matt Lottich and sophomore forward Matt Haryasz.
"Stanford is a team that makes very few mistakes," said ASU coach Rob Evans, whose team lost by a point to the Cardinal on Thursday night and last week lost to Arizona by 19. "Arizona is also very good, but Stanford is deeper. They are bigger and stronger than last season. (Montgomery) does a great job getting guys who fit his system."
"They are not going to beat themselves," Evans said. "They're going to take care of the basketball, play solid defense, be hard-nosed when rebounding and be patient on offense with pretty good shooters.
"They just play winning basketball."
Montgomery won't argue with the assumption, but he's not about to accept his team is infallible. He has certainly had sides with better skill, and there is no guarantee Stanford can win as many close games as it did last season. But 11-0 is just that. And that's pretty darn impressive right now.
"I really don't think people underrated us at the beginning of the season," Montgomery said. "We've had two or three good wins, but most of the others are ones you would expect us to get. Our record is a little deceiving, but we'll try and continue to win as many games as we can. We're probably a little higher in the polls than we should be, but it will all work itself out."
And if recent history stands, that means this for the Pac-10:
Arizona and Stanford or Stanford and Arizona.
And then everyone else.
Around the West
Want a sleeper pick to challenge Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference? Try the boys from Saint Mary's.
Few out West have done a better job building a program than third-year coach Randy Bennett, whose team ended non-conference play with an impressive 80-66 home win against San Diego State on Tuesday. The Gaels are 9-6 and led at Arizona until the final minute.
Bennett, the former assistant at University of San Diego, Pepperdine and St. Louis, inherited a program that went 2-27 the season before he arrived. Bennett's first order of business was to hire a capable staff, which includes another young talent in assistant head coach Kyle Smith. After that, skilled players began arriving.
The leading scorer is 6-foot-10 sophomore forward Daniel Kickert from Melbourne, Australia. The Gaels are physical enough to beat people inside (as they did against SDSU) and have good enough guards (junior E.J. Rowland and senior Tyler Herr) to keep others honest outside and off the
"I wanted to instill a belief, an attitude that we could have a good team here," Bennett said. "We have good talent now. Once I had the right staff and was able to surround the program with quality people, it was easier bringing in quality kids. ... I haven't seen (Gonzaga) up close yet this season. But I think we can play with most teams."
Said San Diego State coach Steve Fisher: "(Saint Mary's) will present problems for everyone they play, especially at home."
Things are going quite well for the Mountain West Conference, despite some stumbles this week. The league had gone 14-2 since Christmas and 30-7 since Dec. 15 before Monday, but has since watched SDSU lose at Saint Mary's, Wyoming fall at Denver and BYU get whacked at North Carolina State. Still, the MWC is close to posting the best non-league winning percentage in the league's five-year history.
All eight teams have records of .500 or better, making the MWC just one of three conferences nationally (along with the ACC and SEC) to boast such a distinction. Those three leagues are also the only ones to have each member institution ranked in the top 150 of the RPI.
"The Mountain West is like a lot of leagues around the country," said Cal coach Ben Braun, whose team beat BYU by one and lost to Air Force. "It's the parity in college basketball. People laughed at me years ago when I said it wouldn't be long before a conference like the Ivy League had a team in the Final Four. I still believe that.
"These leagues have kids who are juniors and seniors, veterans who understand what it takes to be successful. Teams like this are getting better and better all the time. The Mountain West is a perfect example of a league with very good coaching and experienced, disciplined players."
Conference play begins Monday and already defending MWC Tournament champion Colorado State has suffered a key injury. Leading scorer Matt Nelson, the team's 7-foot junior center, is out indefinitely with a sprained right knee.
League play has begun in the WAC and two of the more improved programs under second-year head coaches played a classic on Saturday. Boise State (9-2, 1-0), thriving under the direction of Greg Graham, outlasted host Texas-El Paso 98-94. UTEP (9-2, 0-1) had a six-game win streak snapped and lost for the first time under coach Billy Gillispie when scoring at least 80 points.
Quote to Note
"We were 17-1 in conference last season. We have the Pac-10 trophy in our case. We're not worried about things like that. I'm sure the fact we have beaten them the last three times in their place doesn't rankle their fans, either."
-- Arizona coach Lute Olson when asked if his team's fans are "rankled" over the fact Stanford has won its last three games in Tucson.
Ed Graney of the San Diego Union-Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.