Jan. 29, 2009

By Anthony Oliva III

There’s an old adage that goes in order to be the best, you need to beat the best. As far as the Pac-10 is concerned, the best team in recent years has far and away been UCLA.

But with teams like Washington and Arizona State already beating the three-time defending conference champs, the Pac-10 race may be more wide open than ever.

UCLA, with a 5-2 conference record, is currently tied for second place in the Pac-10 with Arizona State and Cal. Everyone is looking up at Washington, which is 6-1 in conference and beat UCLA 86-75 on Jan. 24.

“We’ve been getting better all year” said Washington assistant coach and former UCLA guard Cameron Dollar. “You want to be at the top in the beginning, the middle and the end. For us this is about the middle, so we’re happy where we are.”

Where they are now is a position that UCLA has grown very accustomed to in the past.

The Bruins have been one of the most dominant teams not only in the Pac 10, but in the entire nation the past three years. They have reached the Final Four each of the last three seasons in addition to winning two of the last three Pac-10 tournaments. This year, UCLA had high expectations and was ranked No. 4 in the AP preseason poll. The only other Pac-10 teams in the AP preseason top 25 were Arizona State at 15 and USC at 19.

So, at the onset, it look as if the Bruins could run away with the conference again, but with losses to two conference rivals, the road to a fourth straight conference crown has experienced some speed bumps. UCLA, which has gone 45-9 in the Pac-10 the last three years, still remains confident.

“We’ve had a few mishaps but in the end of the day we’re where we need to be,” said Bruin senior Josh Shipp. “We’re 5-2 and we’re one game out of first place so we’re definitely not worried. We have a few big games coming up this week, so as long as we can get these next two I think were in a good position.”

UCLA plays Cal (16-4) on Thursday and Stanford (13-4) on Saturday.

The first team to beat the Bruins in conference play was Arizona State (16-3) when the Sun Devils won 61-58 on the road in overtime on Jan. 17. 

“It was a big win,” said Arizona State senior forward Jeff Pendergraph. “Not many people get to beat UCLA. They’re a big team. They’ve been to the Final Four three years in a row. That right there shows you how good they are. To get a win like that helps us out and definitely gives us confidence that we actually have a chance at winning the Pac-10 championship.”

Pendergraph says the team’s defensive intensity has been the key to this team’s success and that is exactly what led the Sun Devils to victory over the Bruins.

Arizona State, much like UCLA, has struggled at times with being able to score for prolonged stretches. Defensively, both are among the tops in the conference, but they will need their stars to step up and revive their offenses.

Arizona State is led by sensational sophomore James Harden who scores 22 points a night and Pendergraph who adds 13.6 a contest. UCLA is more balanced and is led by its senior duo of Darren Collison (14.4 points per game) and Shipp (12.4).

The most prolific scoring team in the Pac-10 is Washington, and the Huskies, who have won 12 of their last 13 games, were the next to best the Bruins.

“Our team has a lot of confidence and the win against UCLA just solidified what they thought about themselves,” Dollar said.

Despite the current conference lead, Washington knows they have a long way to go to supplant UCLA.

“There are no gimmes in our league”, Dollar said. “When you get to conference play it doesn’t matter your opponents, it’s going to be a war regardless.”

Dollar knows all about Pac-10 success since he lettered on three Bruin teams that won the Pac-10 crown from 1994-1997.

Among the teams that cannot be counted out are Cal, which has a win over Washington and Arizona State, and USC (13-6), which boats a victory over Arizona State. Despite what the current standings may indicate, they will all still be trying to dethrone the Bruins
“We don’t feel pressure at all,” Shipp said about other teams focusing on them. “We’re all competitors. We take it as a challenge knowing that we’re going to get every team’s very best because we know everyone is out for us.”

That’s because they’ve been on top of the conference in past years. And that’s where everyone else wants to be.