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Crucial Matchups Make Current Stretch Best Of Pac-10 Season

This is one of those wonderfully crucial stretches of the Pacific-10 Conference men’s basketball race that many coaches try to downplay, their reasoning being that no one game is more important than the next in such a competitive league.

But seldom does the Pac-10 schedule afford an opportunity for the title chase to define itself like it does over the next five days.

It starts tonight, with 17th-ranked Stanford (6-5 Pac-10, 14-5 overall) at California (4-7, 12-8) for the 225th renewal of the Bay Area schools’ “Big Game” basketball rivalry. It ends Sunday with leagueleading and sixth-ranked UCLA (9-2, 16-2) entertaining No. 12 Arizona (8-3, 18-5) at Pauley Pavilion.

In between, surprising Washington State (6-5, 11-8) will try to keep its dreams of a first-division finish alive by sweeping Oregon State and fourth-place Oregon (6-4, 14-5) on the road and 13th-ranked Arizona State (8-3, 18-5), which is tied with Arizona for second, will get its shot at the Bruins.

One coach who refuses to make light of the situation, however, is WSU’s Kevin Eastman.

Eastman is convinced that his team’s postseason hopes hang in the balance, and he wants his young players to realize as much.

“This really is a big weekend for us in that we have to find some way to get a minimum of three - and, hopefully, four - victories in our remaining seven Pac-10 games in order to be legitimately considered for either of the (postseason) tournaments,” he said. “In that respect, we’ve told our players, `Hey, at some point you’re going to have pressure games and pressure weekends, and this is probably our first one.’

“We’ve taken a lot of steps this year, but for the growth of these players, let’s put ourselves into a pressure weekend and let’s try to produce. I just think it’s time, and I told our players that.”

A sweep would give WSU eight Pac-10 wins, just one fewer than the nine Eastman thinks are necessary to play on in either the NCAA or National Inviation tournaments. But there are no “gimmes” left on a schedule that includes home games against Arizona and ASU and road games against Washington, Stanford and Cal.

“This is just one of those weekends where we have to get it done,” Eastman said. “At worst we’ve got to come out of there 1-1 … it doesn’t matter which one. Hopefully, we can get two, but not many have gotten two down there.”

Adding to Eastman’s concern is the fact that his team has won only one of the seven road games it has played and is 0-4 against Pac-10 opponents on the road.

“But we’re still in a position, I think, to get a postseason opportunity,” he added. “And I’m not sure many people gave us much chance to reach that this year - especially after the Pac-10 got through its nonconference schedule earlier this year.

“The key for us it to get to 9-9 or 10-8, because if you get to 10-8, you’re historically one of the best teams we’ve had around here. And if we can ever find a way to get to 11…”

Words to lose by

Arizona’s Damon Stoudamire has been at a loss most of his life when it comes to dealing with losses. “I hate to lose so much that I let it affect the rest of my life,” he admitted.

But it looks like the Wildcats’ senior point guard has finally learned how to put defeat in perspective.

And he credits the advice given to him by former teammate Khalid Reeves following Sunday’s 74-72 upset loss to Cal for his new outlook.

“He told me something that made me laugh and I think it was something that helped me forget about the (Cal) game,” Stoudamire said of Reeves, who now plays with the NBA’s Miami Heat. “He said, `You can’t get mad at all your losses because next year, you’ll play in the NBA. There’s 82 games, and you can’t get mad after every loss if you want to survive.”’

Block watch

Arizona State’s Mario Bennett has 82 blocks this season and has moved within two of the singleseason Pac-10 record held for former Arizona star Anthony Cook.

Bennett’s average of 3.6 per game is also ahead of the record of 3.0 set by former WSU center James Donaldson.

Grigsby gives it up

Cal’s Alfred Grigsby, who has battled to come back from the back and hamstring problems that have plagued him the past two seasons, will undergo back surgery in the next two weeks, putting a premature end to his junior year.

On deck, Lorenzo Orr?

It’s not hard to figure out which Pac-10 opponents Arizona plays next after hearing Wildcats coach Lute Olson saying things like this about Southern Cal’s Lorenzo Orr:

“He’s like Jordan - he starts so far out that you think there’s no way he can dunk, but he does … he’s really a special athlete.”