BY Bob Sherwin 04:35PM 02/22/2011

Middle men battle it out in Pac-10

Arizona sits comfortably in first leaving five teams trying to avoid the bottom tier and the dreaded extra day of play during the Pac-10 Conference tournament.

Arizona's Derrick Williams earned his third Pac-10 Player of the Week against the Washington schools but did Cal's Jorge Gutierrez play better? / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

It’s still a hotly contested battle for the top of the Pac-10 Conference since irrepressible UCLA, which hosts first-place Arizona Saturday, can’t be ignored.

But there’s also another heated race among cold teams – from the bottom up.

As for the conference title, Arizona (23-4, 12-2 in the Pac-10) is looking comfortable, with a two-game lead over the Bruins (19-8, 10-4). But the Bruins, upset by Cal Sunday, have won 10 of their last 12 games and will host the Wildcats Saturday at Pauley Pavilion, where they are 14-2 this season.

Also, USC (15-12, 7-7) has beaten the Wildcats three of the past four years at its arena. It’s not over but Arizona is driving.

The loony scramble is from third through eighth place. Just two games separate five teams. None of those teams want to finish seventh or lower. That’s the black hole.

For all, winning the Pac-10 tournament will be the only way to advance into the NCAA tournament. The seventh through 10th teams must travel to Los Angeles a day early to play elimination games, on March 9, at Staples Center. That forces them to win four games in four nights if they have visions of winning the tournament.

“You have to play the first night just to get into quarterfinals,” Washington State coach Ken Bone said. “So it’s important to try to stay out of that.”

At this point, the Cougars (17-10, 7-8) are just barely out of that. They are in sixth place but close out the regular season with the toughest schedule of all, at Washington (18-8, 10-5) Sunday, then home with the L.A. schools. That’s three of the top four teams.

“In our case, we only have seven (scholarship) guys. So it’s really, really important,” said USC Coach Kevin O’Neill, whose team sits in fourth place. “Hopefully, we won’t have to play the first day. It’s tough enough to win any tournament (let alone) to play four games in four days.”

Besides WSU and USC, the battle to avoid the bottom tier also involves fifth-place Oregon (14-12, 7-7), seventh-place California (14-13, 7-8) and eighth-place Stanford (13-13, 6-9). Ninth-place Oregon State (9-16, 4-10) and last-place Arizona State (10-16, 2-12) seem too buried in the cellar to avoid the early game.

“Those three (top) teams to me are a lock for the Tournament if I had to guess,” O’Neill said. “All the rest of us would definitely have to play our way in. But with 68 teams, you never know what happens in the other leagues either. It will be interesting to see but whoever is going to do that will have to string some wins together big time.”

Dana Altman, in his first season at Oregon, came over from Creighton of the Missouri Valley Conference. That 10-team conference also uses the same system, the four bottom teams play one day ahead of the other six.

“Four teams to have to play four games is a big disadvantage. It’s tough enough to get ready to play three, let alone four in four nights,” Altman said. “No Missouri Valley team in the tournament, which has been going on a lot longer than the Pac-10 tournament, ever won the tournament from the seventh through 10th spots. It’s really difficult to win the tournament in first place.”

Arizona’s Derrick Williams caught Washington’s Darnell Gant’s last-second shot at its apex and blocked it into the stands to preserve the Wildcats’ 87-86 victory Saturday. That was the ruling on the court by the referees, blocked shot, not goal tending. A goal tend would have given the victory to the Huskies.

At least they made a decision. Both of the coaches involved still can’t decide.

“It could have gone either way. I’m the coach of Arizona so you probably know what my answer is,” said Wildcat coach Sean Miller during Tuesday’s coaches’ conference call. “Whether it counts or not, it was just a great individual play.”

Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said immediately after the game that it was close and wouldn’t know for sure until he saw the video. Later when he saw the video, he still didn’t know for sure.

“I don’t think it was blatant enough to argue,” Romar said. “I think it could have gone either way. When you watch it, you can make a case for both sides.”

Williams had a outstanding game, 26 points and 11 rebounds, and the 6-foot-8 sophomore wound up winning the Pac-10 Player of the Week for the third time this season, matching Washington guard Isaiah Thomas.

However, a stronger case can be made for California guard Jorge Gutierrez. He scored a career-high 34 points, had six assists, three steals and was 11 of 12 at the free-throw line, many at crunch time, in the Bears’ 76-72 overtime win over second-place UCLA. He played 41 minutes.

“It was just a great individual performance. He took over the game, definitely the overtime,” said Oregon’s Altman, whose team plays the Bears Thursday. “He played so well throughout the game, not only the 34 points but the way he controlled the game, the steals, the way he set up his teammates.

“Derrick and Jorge had two of the best individual performances of the year.”

They were at least as good as Thomas’ Jan. 16 effort against Cal in which he had 27 points, 13 assists and two blocks in a 92-71 victory on the road.

But Gutierrez has been as good as any player in the second half of conference play. He’s averaging 20.8 points over his last eight games.

“Jorge has made the kind of move this season that Jared Cunningham has made on our team,” Oregon State’s Craig Robinson said. “He was playing in the shadows of Jerome Randle last year. He has been able to blossom now that he’s not behind a high-profile player. He’s one of those up-and-coming guys who’s showing the league what he can do.”

Arizona: How uneven was the battle of the boards with the Huskies? The Wildcats had a 40-25 edge. The plus-15 was the widest margin against a Pac-10 opponent this season. They also had 19 offensive rebounds, that matches Kentucky for the most against the Huskies this season…the Wildcats have won eight consecutive games, the longest winning streak since the 2006-07 team won 12 in a row…over those eight games, the Cats are shooting 47.3 percent from three-point range, 71-of-150…against the Washington schools, Arizona missed just four of 44 free throws.

Arizona State: The Sun Devils won their first conference home game Saturday over Washington State, doing it without two key players, G Ty Abbott (shoulder) and G Rihards Kuksiks (ankle)…G Chase Creekmur earned his first career start against the Cougars and poured in a career-high 18 points. He made 5-of-8 from behind the arc.

California: Senior F Mark Sanders-Frison had his first career 20-point game Thursday against USC (23 points, 11 rebounds). He shot 72.7 percent (16-of-22) against the L.A. schools.

Oregon: The Ducks are 6-2 over their last eight…Junior G Malcolm Armstead had a career-high 13 assists against rival Oregon State Saturday. He’s averaging 6.5 assists over last six games…It was Jay-R Strowbridge’s 23rd birthday Saturday and he scored a career-high 26 points. He made 6-of-9 from three-point range, becoming the second Duck to score at least 20 points this season (joining Joevan Catron).

Oregon State: Forward Devon Collier is averaging 10 points and 6.8 rebounds over his last five games. He has stepped up his rebounding in conference play, 5.1 compared to 2.2 in non-conference play…G Jared Cunningham is just a sophomore but already is fifth among active leaders in steals with 114. The leader is Washington senior Venoy Overton at 173. All the others in the top 10 are juniors or seniors.

Stanford: G Jarrett Mann is averaging 6.0 assists over his last seven conference games. In his first eight Pac-10 contests, he averaged 2.6 assists…five freshmen were on the floor together at one point against USC, an indication that the Cardinal are to be watched next season…among the freshmen is G Aaron Bright from Bellevue High. “He’s still eager to learn, he wants to grow, he wants to get better at the position,” coach Johnny Dawkins said. “I like where he is.”

UCLA: The Bruins shot 45.7 percent (16-of-35) from three-point range in their two games last week…The Bruins dropped 11th place in the Sagarin ratings to 47th after their overtime loss to Cal. They play the Arizona schools this week at home then the Washington schools on the road next week. One loss or two likely could drop the Bruins to a undesirable Sagarin level. Next season’s renovation of Pauley Pavilion forces the Bruins to play at the Anaheim Honda Center, Staples Center and assorted other possibilities. “It looks like the Bruin road show will be playing at some different venues,” coach Ben Howland said.

USC: The Trojans swept the Bay Area schools last week for the first time since 1992…F Nikola Vucevic averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds in the two games. He leads the conference with 16 double-doubles, 26 in his career…the Trojans are down to seven scholarship players so coach Kevin O’Neill departed from routine Friday by giving his players the day off, no practice, no film, no walk-through, no meetings. “Fresh minds maybe make fresh bodies,” O’Neill said. “I’m don’t know if it worked for us, but we won (against Stanford).”

Washington State: G Klay Thompson averaged 29 points last week but his Cougars lost both games. He has 1,596 points now, third on the school’s career list. Isaac Fontaine (1994-97) is the career leader with 2,003 points and Steve Puidokas (1974-77) is second at 1,894. If Thompson decides to play his senior season, he will shatter the scoring record…the Cougars’ Sagarin ratings is 61. There will be 68 teams that make the NCAA tournament.


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