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Pac-10 packed deep for tournament

LOS ANGELES — The Pac-10 usually finds itself down the list when conferences are being evaluated at this time of year.

Not this season.

Lute Olson, completing his 24th year at Arizona, called the Pac-10 the toughest its ever been during a conference call Tuesday.

Ernie Kent, finishing his 10th season at Oregon, added: "I think it's the No. 1 conference in the country. If it's not No. 1, it's No. 2."

The Pac-10 tournament starts today at the Staples Center.

Southern California's Tim Floyd said he couldn't imagine a better seventh-place team in the nation than Washington, prompting Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar to say: "I wouldn't say I disagree. If they had a tournament for all seventh-place teams, hopefully we would hold our own."

And Ben Howland, coach of top-seeded UCLA, expressed the opinion that six Pac-10 teams are a lock to play in the NCAA tournament, no matter what happens in the conference tournament.

That's usually the mantra of the Big East, Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference about now.

"I was in the Big East for four years — that's a point of reference for me," Howland said.

Six Pac-10 teams have played in the NCAA tournament only once before — in 2002. Five were chosen on four occasions, most recently in 2003. Three played in 2004, and four were picked in each of the past two years.

Seven of the league's 10 teams have at least 18 wins, and those seven went a combined 71-12 against non-conference opponents.

"Hopefully we'll be rewarded for being a very, very tough conference," Kent said. "We've kind of beaten up on each other."

Perhaps that explains why only three teams are ranked among the nation's top 25 this week — No. 4 UCLA, No. 11 Washington State and No. 16 Oregon. Each of the top seven teams were ranked at one time or another this season.

Eighth-seeded California (14-16, 6-12 Pac-10) faces ninth-seeded Oregon State (11-20, 3-15) and seventh-seeded Washington (18-12, 8-10) meets 10th-seeded Arizona State (8-21, 2-16) tonight to begin the tournament.

Four games will be played Thursday. The semifinals are Friday night and the finals Saturday.

"I feel like we should be in the (NCAA) tournament — win or lose," said Stanford's Trent Johnson, whose team appears to be the only one of the top six that could be bypassed.

UCLA won the Pac-10 regular-season and tournament championships last year, and reached the finals of the NCAA tournament before losing to Florida, 73-57.

The prevailing sentiment is that UCLA is even better this season, but Floyd said he can see as many as seven teams winning the conference tournament.

"They're more experienced, to begin with," Olson said about the Bruins. "The second thing is they've had another year to play in the system. The key to UCLA a year ago and this year is how they defend."

Romar also pointed to the Bruins' ability on defense, and added: "I think Darren Collison has done a marvelous job replacing Jordan Farmar (at point guard). I thought that would be where the biggest dropoff would be. There hasn't been a dropoff at all."

Romar said he believes his team has to win the conference tournament championship to earn an NCAA tournament berth. That would mean winning four games in four days on a neutral floor, something no team has done in the five years all 10 schools have been included in the Pac-10 tournament.

"Who knows what the committee will do? At this point, we can't rely on anyone else," he said. "We feel like we have to go out and win four, and that's how we're approaching it. You go in, you know the next time you lose, you're probably out of the NCAA tournament."

A team of Romar's has accomplished such a feat. In 2000, his first season at Saint Louis, the Billikens entered the Conference USA tournament following an 84-41 loss at Cincinnati, and then had to face the Bearcats in the second-round.

But Saint Louis took advantage of an injury to Kenyon Martin and upset the Bearcats, then won two more games to take the tournament title and earn an NCAA tournament bid.

Romar said that Saint Louis team was a veteran squad, while the current Huskies are very young.

"I think this team is coming in with some momentum — we won our last two games against quality teams," he said.

The Huskies beat USC and UCLA to complete the regular season, but both games were at home, where they won 17 games. Washington's only road victory was a 66-61 triumph at ASU.

Oregon State’s Jack McGillis (14) and the Beavers will take on Cal tonight in the first game of the Pac-10 tournament.