Originally created 03/20/01

Pac-10 schools turning heads in a remarkable March

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 NCAA tournament, 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 Casey Jacobsen said. "We always talk about how we don't get the respect we deserve out here, and that's a real motivation."

Arizona's energetic flair, Stanford's sophisticated precision, UCLA's matchless tradition and Southern California's upstart charisma were on display last weekend as all four schools advanced into the round of 16 with a slew of mostly 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 Coast Conference power Gonzaga's third straight trip to the regional semifinals, it's a 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's never going to change, so we don't worry about it. After seeing what we've done over the last couple of years, I sure feel a lot better about our conference and our school, though."

The Pac-10 is 8-1 in tournament play this year, with California's loss to Fresno State the only defeat. Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen, whose lobbying got five schools into the tournament, noted that the only other times five Pac-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 the high-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 very well," Arizona coach Lute Olson said.

Leading the way is Stanford (30-2), the West Regional's top seed. After two straight seasons of embarrassing second-round losses, the Cardinal cracked the round of 16 with a tough win over St. Joseph's in San Diego. They'll move up the 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 routing Butler on Sunday. The Wildcats entered the postseason as one of the nation's hottest teams, and they're focused on giving Olson a special memory of the season in which he lost his wife, Bobbi, to cancer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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