Pac-10 Schools Turning Heads In A Remarkable March

March 19, 2001

Even with all the tools available to college hoops junkies these days -satellite TV, 500-channel cable systems, 24-hour sports highlights networks -the Pac-10 Conference still catches most fans sleeping.

After all, most of its games are played well past the nation's bedtimes.

But now that the West Coast's powers are winning big in yet another NCAAtournament, the country is waking up to the best league it's never seen.

'We're forcing people to finally pay attention to us,' Stanford's CaseyJacobsen said. 'We always talk about how we don't get the respect we deserveout here, and that's a real motivation.'

Arizona's energetic flair, Stanford's sophisticated precision, UCLA'smatchless tradition and Southern California's upstart charisma were on displaylast weekend as all four schools advanced into the round of 16 with a slew ofmostly easy victories.

For the third time in five years, the Pac-10 has four teams in the final 16,and as many as three could end up in the Final Four. Combined with West CoastConference power Gonzaga's third straight trip to the regional semifinals, it'sa good year to hoop it up out West - even if respect must be earned annually.

'This goes on every year,' Stanford coach Mike Montgomery said. 'It'snever going to change, so we don't worry about it. After seeing what we've doneover the last couple of years, I sure feel a lot better about our conferenceand our school, though.'

The Pac-10 is 8-1 in tournament play this year, with California's loss toFresno State the only defeat. Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen, whose lobbyinggot five schools into the tournament, noted that the only other times fivePac-10 schools made the field, the conference produced the national champion(UCLA in 1995 and Arizona in 1997).

This season, no conference has more teams playing this weekend - not thehigh-and-mighty ACC (2), the much-hyped Big Ten (3) or even the much bigger SEC(2).

'I'd like to see the country wake up to the fact that our league does verywell,' Arizona coach Lute Olson said.

Leading the way is Stanford (30-2), the West Regional's top seed. After twostraight seasons of second-round losses, the Cardinal cracked theround of 16 with a tough win over St. Joseph's in San Diego. They'll move upthe coast to Anaheim this weekend to face Cincinnati.

Arizona (25-7), which beat Stanford in the regular season's final week,easily advanced to the Midwest Regional semifinal in San Antonio by routingButler on Sunday. The Wildcats entered the postseason as one of the nation'shottest teams, and they're focused on giving Olson a special memory of theseason in which he lost his wife, Bobbi, to cancer.

UCLA (23-8) faces Duke in the East Regional semifinal. As coach SteveLavin's teams usually do, the Bruins survived an up-and-down regular season andentered the postseason in top form, as their easy victories proved.

Southern California (23-9) is a program in ascendancy under the direction ofcoach Henry Bibby. The Trojans haven't advanced this far in the tournamentsince 1954, but Saturday's upset of third-seeded Boston College set them up fora showdown with Kentucky in Philadelphia.

Stanford struck a big blow for West Coast hoops during the regular seasonwith a last-minute win over Duke. Most of the country saw that game, but veryfew Pac-10 games are televised coast-to-coast because the conference's contractis with Fox Sports Net, which often pre-empts college basketball for the NHL orthe NBA in large markets.

And of course, there's the time difference. A 7:30 p.m. weeknight start atMaples Pavilion or Pauley Pavilion translates to a 12:30 a.m. finish on theEast Coast.

'We're three hours earlier here. People pretty much go to bed,' Montgomerysaid. 'It doesn't get in the papers, it doesn't make the media, and by thetime it does, everybody's forgotten about it.'

The Pac-10 has picked the best time of the year to excel, however. Marchsuccess translates into invaluable national exposure - and additionaltournament revenue that will be earned by the conference with each victory.

'We play real good basketball in the Pac-10, and we know that,' Montgomerysaid. 'When you look at what we've done, we've got some real good teams in thetournament. It's a good league, it always is, but really the only provingground is the tournament.'

AP Sports Writer

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