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Tuesday, March 11, 2003
Updated: March 12, 11:55 AM ET
What a difference a week makes

By Ed Graney
Special to ESPN.com

It's amazing what one weekend can do for a basketball team's confidence.

And how desperate it can make another feel.

The Pac-10 tournament opens Thursday and there is no more important game than Arizona State against Oregon in the 4-5 matchup at Staples Center. A conference that expects to receive five NCAA Tournament berths might now be looking at just four if the Ducks can't find immediate success at the arena Shaq and Kobe call home.

Luke Ridnour
A few less-than-impressive workouts have NBA teams questioning Luke Ridnour's value at the next level.
"I think we've got to win another one to make sure we get in (the NCAAs)," said Oregon junior guard Luke Ridnour. "We're so close, it can go either way. Let's make a stand for ourselves and make sure we get in."

Oregon is feeling a bit nervous after dropping both road games at the Arizona schools last week. The losses pushed Ernie Kent's team to fifth place in the final regular-season standings, and an RPI in the low 50s won't guarantee at-large status.

The Ducks have 20 wins and good non-conference victories against Kansas and Minnesota, but should they lose to ASU for the second time in a week &

"Pure and simple, we aren't in the NCAA Tournament yet," said Oregon guard James Davis. "We're a bubble team now."

The same doesn't appear true for ASU, whose sweep of the Oregon schools to finish the regular season allowed Rob Evans' team to occupy fourth place by itself. The Sun Devils arrive in Los Angeles a positive bunch.

Just look inside their travel bags.

"(Evans) told us he was packing three suits for the Pac-10 tournament," said ASU guard Kyle Dodd. "I'm packing enough clothes to stay through the weekend."

Said Evans: "There has been a tremendous amount of pressure on this team for every basketball game, especially since it hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament in a long time. I think we're capable of doing some damage at the (Pac-10 tournament)."

If the seeds play out, No. 1 Arizona will get a third game with No. 2 Stanford, which handed the Wildcats their lone conference loss. Having likely already secured a No. 1 NCAA seed, it doesn't appear as though Arizona could hurt itself too much this week.

"Mentally, we're all good,'' said Arizona senior point guard Jason Gardner. "The guys know it's the Pac-10 and the NCAAs left. They know it's one-and-done in both. We got our first goal (regular-season title) and now try for the second one."

Arizona opens the event against UCLA, which figures to be the last game for Steve Lavin as Bruins coach. The Bruins are 9-18 overall and finished conference 6-12.

"We have an opportunity,'' said Lavin. "Whether you're 30-0 or 0-30, everybody is given 40 minutes in a single-elimination format. At this stage of the season, that's all we can ask for.

"I have a unique perspective in terms of understanding the landscape of UCLA basketball. Because of my 12 years here, going from the volunteer assistant, which is kind of the equivalent of the mail room, to the No. 3 assistant to the No. 2 assistant to the No. 1 assistant to the interim coach to the head coach to a fired coach & No one, probably in the history of the school, has run that table."

An amazing creature, Lavin. Few, if any, in the game's history handled criticism better.

Games of the Week
UCLA vs. Arizona
Thursday

This is the day's second game of the Pac-10 tourney and by far its most important when talking NCAA Tournament. The Ducks might need a victory to remove themselves from the NCAA bubble. Luke Ridnour, the junior point guard who was named conference Player of the Year, had 26 points, seven rebounds and six assists in a loss to ASU last week.
Oregon vs. Arizona State
Thursday
This is the day's second game of the Pac-10 tourney and by far its most important when talking NCAA Tournament. The Ducks might need a victory to remove themselves from the NCAA bubble. Luke Ridnour, the junior point guard who was named conference Player of the Year, had 26 points, seven rebounds and six assists in a loss to ASU last week.
San Diego State vs. UNLV
Thursday

The 4-5 game of the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas matches the teams that played in last year's final. UNLV swept the season series from the Aztecs and beat Steve Fisher's team by 11 in the regular-season final on Saturday. If the Rebels have any hope of earning an at-large NCAA berth, they can't stumble here.
Hawaii vs. Rice
Thursday

The WAC Tournament is wide open now that regular-season champ Fresno State won't participate. Here, in the 4-5 game, the Rainbow Warriors try and begin making up for a disappointing season. Rice, which finished 11-7 in conference, is one team many think can surprise the field in Tulsa.

More genies in Mountain West bottle?
There is a blueprint, of course. There is proof.

A team no one thinks has a chance to win the Mountain West Conference tournament can arrive in Las Vegas, win a game, gain momentum, spring an upset and be snipping away net three days later.

Just ask San Diego State.

"I think every college player watches ESPN during this time and it doesn't take much to see a team do what (SDSU) did last year,'' said Colorado State coach Dale Layer. "It's wide open. Sure, there are a few teams that have established themselves as the favorites going in, but anything can happen.''

Those in the Mountain West better hope it does again.

The league that says its résumé demands more than two NCAA bids might be looking at just that should either co-champion Utah or BYU win the conference tournament this week at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Last season, SDSU as a No. 5 seed upset its way to the league's automatic bid, raising NCAA berths to three when Utah and Wyoming received at-large invitations.

This year, UNLV and Wyoming have the strongest at-large arguments after Utah and BYU, which are NCAA-bound based on RPI and their co-league title.

The Rebels and Cowboys tied for third, with Wyoming sweeping the season series.

"The more time I spend out in the West, the more it seems all the so-called experts on who is (NCAA worthy) don't seem to know a great deal about any of our teams,'' said UNLV coach Charlie Spoonhour, whose team enters the MWC draw 19-9 and with an RPI in the 44 range. "Basketball is much better out here than what other perceive it to be. You would hope people would be more enlightened and do a better job.''

No team is playing better than BYU entering the tournament and none offer that dangerous feeling more than a UNLV side on its own court.

Is there an SDSU of 2003?

It is SDSU?

"Hopefully,'' said Aztecs coach Steve Fisher, whose team will again hold the No. 5 seed, "we have a little more Genie left in the bottle.''

For the Mountain West's sake, that Genie better not wear Utah or BYU colors.

Livin' on Tulsa time
Tulsa coach John Phillips says no player or coach wishes for an up-and-down season, but it can ultimately benefit your group.

"Sometimes,'' says Phillips, "a little adversity along the way makes you that much stronger.''

Tulsa is the top seed at this week's WAC Tournament, but only after regular-season champion Fresno State was denied a spot in the draw.

And yet, should Tulsa find success on its home court, the sting of finishing second to the Bulldogs and at one point losing five-of-seven in league will disappear.

Fresno State self-imposed a postseason ban this season due to major violations of academic fraud under former coach Jerry Tarkanian, and the WAC Board of Directors then banned the team from playing in this week's event at the Reynolds Center in Tulsa.

It makes sense: The WAC is in line for just its automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. Why take the chance Fresno State would win the conference tournament?

"I feel sorry for the Fresno kids that worked so hard and deserved the regular-season championship they got," said Hawaii coach Riley Wallace. "They'll get their rings and they are champions. But as far as a tournament goes, this is better because you'll have a champion rather than a second- place (team)."

Said WAC Commissioner Karl Benson: "There is sympathy and empathy toward Fresno State, but the fear is (had Fresno State won the tournament) we would have to go back to the second-place finisher. The board concluded that a nine-team tournament created a fairer playing field."

It is a field where five teams (Tulsa, SMU, Nevada Rice and Hawaii) figure to have a chance at winning. Tulsa (19-9) might have the No. 1 seed, but it hasn't meant a thing the past two years on its own court.

"I'm willing to stick my neck out and say I'm very happy the conference tournament is again in Tulsa,'' said Phillips. "I know everyone nationally says our league is down. But our teams at the bottom have gotten better and the ones near the top have stayed the same. That's called balance.''

Around the West
  • Brad Holland took a chance on Jason Keep, a chance on a player with just one year of eligibility, a player with some serious baggage.

    It paid off, huh?

    Keep led University of San Diego to its first NCAA Tournament since 1987 on Monday night when the Toreros dismissed top-seed Gonzaga 72-63 in the West Coast Conference Tournament.

    Keep is the 6-10, 280-pound center who arrived from Oklahoma State, sat out a transfer season and then averaged 18 points and nine rebounds for USD this year.

    This is the first NCAA trip for Holland as a head coach. It is his ninth season at USD.

    "It should be pretty obvious to everyone what (Keep) meant to our team,'' said Holland. "But you have to be careful. You have to do an awfully good job of researching the player who is transferring and make sure he's doing it with the right intentions and not just running away from a casket full of skeletons. You'll wind up with the same unhappy, discontented player that left the other school."

    Turns out, USD ended up dancing.

  • Once struggling, UC Santa Barbara is now a clear favorite to win the Big West Conference Tournament. The Gauchos won their first regular-season title and open the conference tourney against Pacific on Thursday. UCSB put a first-round NCAA scare into Arizona last year.

    The Gauchos began the season 4-7, but won their final four games and are 17-12 entering the Big West event.

    "Winning the (Big West) outright was a goal,'' said Gauchos coach Bob Williams. "But it's also just one step towards getting back to the NCAA Tournament. That is very important to us."

    Others who will push the Gauchos in Anaheim this week are No. 2 seed UC Irvine and No. 3 Utah State.

  • It's tough to be more impressive than Weber State the past few months. The Wildcats had won 15 straight entering a Big Sky Conference Tournament semifinal against Sacramento State on Tuesday, a streak dating to Jan. 3.

    Thinking is, Weber State has done enough to earn an at-large bid should it fall in the tournament final to either Eastern Washington or Idaho State.

    "It has been a terrific year and I'm proud of what we've accomplished so far," said Weber State coach Joe Cravens. "But we've still got a long way to go. We need two more wins to reach our goal of making the NCAA Tournament. If we can't get there, I don't think what we did in the regular season will mean nearly as much."

    Who's Hot
    Ray Lopes: The first-year Fresno State leader is the very deserving WAC Coach of the Year after guiding the Bulldogs to a regular-season WAC championship. The Bulldogs didn't drop consecutive games all season until last week. The key now is for Fresno officials to hang onto Lopes.

    Branduinn Fullove: The UCSB junior is the Big West Player of the Year after averaging 15.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.8 assists for the Gauchos. Fullove is a 6-4 guard who joins Brian Shaw (1988) and Lucius Davis (1992) as UCSB recipients of the award.

    Who's Not
    Wyoming: The Cowboys believe they are NCAA Tournament-worthy, but they limp into the Mountain West Conference Tournament having lost three of the their last four. It didn't seem to bother some who voted for all-conference honors. Wyoming, despite finishing third, placed seniors Donta Richardson and Uche Nsonwu-Amadi on the league's first team.

    Gonzaga: The Zags hardly resembled an NCAA team in losing the WCC Tournament final to USD. Blake Stepp appeared confused throughout and hardly resembled the conference Player of the Year, and it was the Zags who rattled in the second half, not the upstart Toreros.

    Quotes to Note
    "As far as I'm concerned, we need to win our tournament to make (the NCAAs). That is the approach we'll take. That's our automatic ticket. That's our motivation. It's much better taking that kind of mindset into your conference tournament. That kind of mentality will help you play with great energy."
    -- BYU coach Steve Cleveland.

    Ed Graney of the San Diego Union-Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ed.graney@uniontrib.com.