Nov. 9, 1999
The younger, the better. That seems to be the deal in the Pacific-10 Conference this season.
Arizona, UCLA and Stanford, all dominated by underclassmen, are considered the ones to beat in the league, and their coaches all seem pretty confident in the teams ranked ninth, 10th and 13th, respectively, in the AP's preseason Top 25.
Arizona returns three sophomores who started on last season's 22-7 club, and at least two incoming freshmen - point guard Jason Gardner and shooting guard Gilbert Arenas - figure to make significant contributions.
Another newcomer is 7-foot-1 center Loren Woods, a junior transfer from Wake Forest who will man the middle.
"There's no question the talent is there," said Lute Olson, whose 16 previous Arizona teams have a 395-120 record. "The good news is, it's a talented group of young people. The bad news is, they're young people.
"Leadership is a big concern. I hate to say this, but it's going to have to come from Jason Gardner. He's got the respect of his teammates, he's very mature."
Gardner, the 1999 Indiana Mr. Basketball, will start along with Woods and sophomores Michael Wright, Richard Jefferson and Ruben Douglas, if Douglas can hold off Arenas, whom Olson called "the real deal."
Among the backups is three-year letterman Eugene Edgerson, the only senior on the roster.
"We'll be a national championship contender, we've got all the tools," said Wright, the Pac-10 freshman of the year last season who averaged 13.9 points and 8.8 rebounds.
About Gardner, Wright said, "I think he can be as good as Damon Stoudamire, or better."
Stoudamire, who played at Arizona from 1991-95, now starts at the point for the Portland Trail Blazers.
UCLA, 22-9 last year, also has one senior on its roster - reserve Sean Farnham.
The Bruins will be led by junior Earl Watson, who is moving from shooting guard to the point, sophomore big men JaRon Rush, Jerome Moiso and Dan Gadzuric, and 6-8 Jason Kapono, who coach Steve Lavin called as skilled and poised as any freshman he's ever coached.
"We have 10 returning starters," Lavin said, referring to the number of returnees who started three or more games last season. "Our goals are always the same, which are to win the Pac-10 championship, go to the Final Four and compete for the national championship. I think this is a team that can compete nationally."
Stanford, 26-7 and the defending Pac-10 champion, returns only one starter, forward Mark Madsen, one of three seniors on the roster. It's likely one of the other two, swingman David Moseley, will join him in the starting lineup along with three underclassmen.
"I think our strength right now has to be our inside game," Cardinal coach Mike Montgomery said. "If we can keep Madsen and (brothers) Jarron and Jason Collins healthy, that's three guys who can be pretty impressive."
The Cardinal also have an impressive freshman, 6-6 swingman Casey Jacobsen, who is known for his outside shooting.
"Casey's going to be very prominent in our plans," Montgomery said. "We're pretty solid through eight (players), we're encouraged nine through 11. We'll have to see how those kids fit together."
Oregon returns four of its top five scorers from last year's 19-13 team including seniors Alex Scales, A.D. Smith and Darius Wright.
"As a coach, you only want to have a chance," said Ernie Kent, starting his third year as coach of the Ducks. "We feel like we have a chance. I didn't think that when I first came to Oregon. Now, let's play."
Another experienced team is Southern California, 15-13 a year ago. The Trojans, who return four starters, were picked to finish seventh in a preseason Pac-10 media poll, prompting coach Henry Bibby to say, "What do they know? We've got four guys back, and they're all better. The conference can't be that much better than it was last season."
Also unimpressed with the forecast was Arizona State's Eddie House, the league's top returning scorer with an average of 18.9 points last season. ASU was picked to finish eighth.
"I believe it's wide-open this year," he said of the conference race. "There's a lot of new faces (at ASU), there's a lot of talent, guys who are hungry to win. We can be silent assassins."
Oregon State returns five starters from a 13-14 team as does first-year coach Paul Graham at Washington State, which was 10-19.
Both California and Washington have to replace prominent players, the Bears the backcourt of Geno Carlisle and Thomas Kilgore and the Huskies big man Todd MacCulloch and guard Donald Watts.
By JOHN NADEL
AP Sports Writer