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Arizona should lead usual suspects atop Pac-10
It looks like another season of Arizona, one other team (probably Stanford), and then the rest in the Pacific-10 Conference, when league play kicks off Jan. 2-4.
With the Pac-10 teams halfway through preseason games, here's what we know (records entering the week in parentheses):
ARIZONA (4-1): A terrific transition team with the league's best athletes. Salim Stoudamire seems to be coming out of his shooting slump, scoring 27 points and hitting 7 of 9 3-pointers against Marquette. The Wildcats don't have much depth Ñ Isaiah Fox's season-ending injury hurts up front Ñ but their top six can play with anybody. Arizona has five patsies left before Pac-10 play.
STANFORD (5-0): The Cardinal have beaten Kansas and sprinted to No. 13 nationally, even without guard Josh Childress, who should be back by Pac-10 play after nursing a stress reaction in his left foot. Stanford has nice balance with Justin Davis and Rob Little up front, and Matt Lottich and Chris Hernandez (battling back spasms) in the backcourt. Saturday's game against Gonzaga in Oakland, Calif., will be another big test.
OREGON (3-1): No question the Ducks miss Luke Ridnour; hotshot freshman Aaron Brooks has been erratic. Luke Jackson, averaging 23 points, has the inside track on Pac-10 player of the year honors, and Ian Crosswhite has improved. Injuries to Mitch Platt and Matt Short have made the frontcourt vulnerable, and the Ducks still must rely on perimeter shooting. Against Kansas, it didn't work, as UO went 8 of 31 in the first half. The Ducks have tough back-to-back road games against Alabama (at Las Vegas) on Saturday and Portland on Monday.
ARIZONA STATE (4-1): Super soph Ike Diogu continues to face double- and triple-teaming, but JC transfer Steve Moore seems to have the outside shot to take pressure off him. A true freshman, Wilfried Fameni from Cameroon, starts at forward. The Sun Devils have a soft nonleague schedule Ñ it's hard to tell how good they'll be, but Diogu makes them formidable.
UCLA (3-1): Kentucky beat the Bruins only 52-50, and we'll see how UCLA does against Michigan State before making another judgment. Junior Cedric Bozeman seems to be living up to hype, two years after leaving high school. The sinewy Bruins will not overpower teams but probably can play an uptempo game under first-year coach Ben Howland. Dijon Thompson will be counted on. Don't expect a Sweet 16 run.
WASHINGTON STATE (5-2): Coach Dick Bennett has already made progress, as the Cougars have improved rebounding, assist-to-turnover and defensive numbers. Thanks to Bennett, who is great at establishing tempo, WSU has held opponents to 52 points per game. Bennett got lucky when Marcus Moore decided not to turn pro. The 6-6 guard averages 13.9 points.
CALIFORNIA (3-3): Three freshmen and sophomore point guard Richard Midgley start, along with 6-10 senior Amit Tamir, one of the Pac-10's best and a good inside-outside threat. The Bears, who play St. Joseph's on Saturday, needed the preseason to establish an identity after losing some solid players to graduation. Coach Ben Braun always gets them to play defense, however.
USC (3-3): It's brothers united in L.A., with Errick and Derrick Craven and Lodrick and Rodrick Stewart, the latter standout freshmen from Seattle. Rodrick Stewart has been starting alongside Errick Craven in the backcourt. Desmon Farmer leads in scoring (15.3 ppg), and Fordham transfer Jeff McMillan averages 14.8 points and 8.3 rebounds. The Trojans, who play Fresno State on Friday, also start 7-footer Rory O'Neil. A pretty athletic team.
OREGON STATE (4-2): The Beavers, who played at Hawaii on Monday before traveling to Boise State on Saturday, shot .516 against Willamette and raised their season percentage to .414, so they're making progress. They create turnovers and play an uptempo game, with guards Chris Stephens, J.S. Nash and Lamar Hurd running the show. Forward David Lucas leads in scoring, and freshman forward Kyle Jeffers has made an impact.
WASHINGTON (3-2): The Huskies have some decent, athletic guards and wings Ñ Will Conroy, Curtis Allen, Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson, Bobby Jones Ñ but the question marks will be up front. In its last two games, Washington lost by 24 points to Gonzaga and trailed Wyoming by 38 points. The Ivy League's Columbia visits Seattle on Dec. 30.