- Ed Graney
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In search of an answer to that suddenly fascinating query within Pac-10 basketball circles -- simply, what in the world is wrong with Arizona and Washington? -- we turn an ear toward Pullman, Wash.
"You have to look at Washington and Arizona and realize they both lost great players," Washington State coach Dick Bennett said. "Washington isn't the same team. They're a good team but not the same. They played at such a high level early in [the season], but they're not as deep and don't have the quality they had last year. They're still very dangerous, but I think people just assumed they would continue on after running up such a big [nonconference] record. Arizona plays the toughest schedule of anybody in our league every year. They also lost arguably two of the three best players in our league from last year, so they have to dip. It's understandable they would lose more games.
"Now, if you can understand all of that, you're a better man than I am. Because I don't know what I just said."
It's called common sense. And Bennett nailed it.
He is correct in his evaluation of why we are more than halfway through the Pac-10 schedule and the Wildcats and Huskies offer average league records while staring up at others. Arizona (13-9 overall, 6-5 Pac-10) is tied with USC for fourth; Washington (16-5, 5-5) is alone in sixth and has lost three straight conference games in a league that should consider four NCAA Tournament bids a blessing.
There is no question some form of slippage might have been expected -- Arizona having lost Channing Frye and Salim Stoudamire from its Elite Eight team and Washington having waved goodbye to Nate Robinson, Tre Simmons and Will Conroy after its Sweet 16 appearance. But who could have predicted February would arrive with Washington playing for its NCAA life and Arizona buoyed solely by a top-20 RPI?
"We are not an [NCAA] lock by any stretch," said Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, whose team hosts the Los Angeles schools this week, including first-place UCLA on Saturday. "But we can still put ourselves in a position where we can get there. We just need to come out and focus for 40 minutes each game. That has been our cry around here the last few weeks. That's going to be the difference in us getting to the [NCAA Tournament] or us not getting there.
"We have players with pretty good character that aren't quitters who drop their heads. That has never been a pattern with this team. We don't change a whole lot. We talk about team and sticking together. It's just what we have to do now."
Shortly into conference play, Arizona coach Lute Olson said he felt several NCAA bids would be earned more easily by Pac-10 teams if four or five teams separated themselves -- if a definitive group of "haves" stand miles away from a group of "have nots." It hasn't happened.
UCLA and its collection of sprains, strains and muscle pulls leads the conference by a game over Cal and Stanford, which has overcome a forgettable nonconference showing to win eight of its last nine entering a week that sees the Cardinal play Cal in Berkeley on Thursday and at Gonzaga on Saturday.
But overall, 5½ games separate the top eight Pac-10 teams. It's bunch city right now. Only four teams (UCLA, Arizona, Cal and Washington) have RPIs among the top 75. And little has happened to make many forget the league's less-than-fantastic nonconference showing.
"There has not been that separation of teams, but that doesn't mean it isn't going to take place," said Olson, whose team plays five of its final seven conference games at home and hosts the Oregon schools this week. ""But something like [Stanford beating Gonzaga] this week would certainly go a long way in helping our league. We need a bump like that. Right now, the [conference] needs some help. We need to make up for some of those early-season losses that the NCAA would call bad losses.
"We went 1-1 against the ACC. We beat Virginia by 30 at home and got beat at North Carolina [by 17]. I'm just not so sure the [selection committee] will look at the win over Virginia as strongly as they will the loss to North Carolina. I'm hoping that's not the case. I'm not going to approach our team any differently than we have all along. We just need to get better each day."
Toward that end, Arizona needs to throw the ball inside to post players who combined to shoot 13-of-14 against UCLA on Saturday. They need to again become the team that forces 22 turnovers instead of the one committing as many in losing at USC -- when, Olson said, "it looked like we were opening a bakery with all the turnovers."
They need to get the right people shooting 3-pointers when they shoot them at all right now. They have to be more patient in their approach.
"I think we will see a sense of urgency from [the players] this week," said Olson. "We just need to play to our capabilities. The key is we can't worry about what the other team is doing. We haven't proven yet we can play a full 40 minutes."
If so, maybe that separation will really begin to unfold.
Ed Graney of The San Diego Union-Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
A few weeks ago, Arizona and Washington looked like the Pac-10's best. Now they are fighting for their Tournament lives.
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