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Originally published Wednesday, January 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Pac-10 hoops rising from the depths

When the original Pac-10 conference schedule for this season was released last spring, UCLA was slated to finish the season at Washington...

Seattle Times staff reporter

When the original Pac-10 conference schedule for this season was released last spring, UCLA was slated to finish the season at Washington State, two days after playing at Washington.

A few months later, a revised version had the games flopped, UCLA instead playing at UW on the final Saturday, with the television folks apparently having decided the Bruins-Huskies matchup would be the better game to spotlight — one that might even decide the conference title.

It still might. But two weeks into the conference season, much of the conventional wisdom about the Pac-10 has been turned on its head.

Washington State, picked to finish 10th in the preseason media poll in November, is among four teams tied for first. One of the others is USC, which was picked sixth.

The Huskies, meanwhile, are in eighth place after being picked third in the media poll.

Yet the Huskies still are No. 24 in the USA Today/ESPN coaches' poll, which in the eyes of some might indicate that a few poll voters haven't been paying close attention.

But to those around the Pac-10, it speaks more to what is really starting to become evident — that the conference might be the strongest it has been in years, if not ever.

Five Pac-10 teams are ranked this week in that coaches poll, the first time since the 2001-02 season that five Pac-10 teams have been ranked, and the conference is No. 1 in the RPI rankings this week, as well. The RPI is a mathematical formula used by the NCAA Selection Committee to help determine at-large bids.

"When you look at the balance of the league and how good the teams are, I don't think there's a better league," said UCLA coach Ben Howland.

The question now is whether that will be rewarded come March in the form of additional bids to the NCAA tournament.

"I've been saying all along that our league is going to get six, and maybe even seven, teams in," Howland said.

Only once, however, has the Pac-10 had more than five teams invited — in that same 2001-02 season when six went. The Pac-10 has had five invitees only four times, and not since 2002-03.

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But right now, eight Pac-10 teams still harbor legitimate NCAA tournament hopes. Consider that this week, the Pac-10 has five teams ranked among the top 30 in the RPI (UCLA 1, Arizona 2, WSU 24, Oregon 27, California 29) and three more in the top 60 (USC 53, Stanford 54, Washington 60).

A team like the Huskies, regarded as a lock a few weeks ago, could be in a position of having to hope the NCAA opens its arms to the conference as it has never done.

Also worth watching is whether the Pac-10 will get the kind of respect often granted to other conferences in getting berths for teams that finish at .500 or lower in conference play. The Pac-10 has never had a team invited to the NCAA tournament with worse than a 10-8 conference record.

Everyone's cause was helped Sunday when Stanford, which had lost at home to Cal four days earlier, made the trip to Virginia and beat the Cavaliers.

"That win was huge for our conference," said Arizona coach Lute Olson. "That's late enough in the season that everyone is paying attention to that."

Giles redux

It's been an interesting few days in Corvallis. First, the Beavers suffered one of the worst defeats in school history Saturday, 91-46 at home to USC. It was the kind of defeat that only heightened speculation about the future of coach Jay John, now 63-72 in his fifth year at OSU and 25-50 in Pac-10 play.

Monday, John welcomed the most highly touted recruit of his tenure — Rainier Beach's C.J. Giles, who had been kicked off the team at Kansas earlier this season and announced he's transferring to OSU.

Giles is known to have contacted Washington, which had offered him a scholarship out of high school, to see if the Huskies were interested. They weren't. Giles said he also considered Syracuse, Tennessee and Old Dominion before picking the Beavers, in large part because it was the closest Division I school to his home welcoming him.

John said Rainier Beach coach Mike Bethea contacted him on Giles' behalf. "We had had a good relationship with C.J. as a youngster and as a high-school guy," John said.

Giles will be a walk-on as OSU has no scholarships available right now. John wouldn't answer a question Tuesday about how many scholarships the team might have available next season, but said Giles will have a chance to earn one. He doesn't become eligible until next December.

Notes

• Washington and WSU, each ranked in the coaches poll this week, have never been ranked at the same time. The last season in which both teams were ranked was 1949-50, but not in the same week.

• Franklin High grad Aaron Brooks of Oregon is leading the conference in scoring at 18.1 a game. Oregon coach Ernie Kent said Brooks has been helped greatly by the presence of freshman Tajuan Porter, which alleviates some of Brooks' ballhandling responsibilities. "He's not having to handle the ball as much and be at the point of attack offensively and defensively," Kent said. It's worth remembering that Brooks won't play against UW when the teams meet Jan. 25 at Edmundson Pavilion as punishment for his hit on Ryan Appleby during the Pac-10 tournament last March.

• Kent also said junior guard Malik Hairston should be ready to play this week after suffering a heel injury in practice last month. Hairston, the team's leading scorer last season, has played in just five games this season. His return comes as Oregon plays six of its next eight on the road.

• Howland said forward Josh Shipp, UCLA's second-leading scorer at 14.7 per game, won't play Saturday against USC after injuring a hamstring against Oregon.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com. Read his blogs on Washington football and basketball at www.seattletimes.com/huskies.

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