TUCSON, JAN. 24 -- If ever a town has gone crazy over a basketball team, this is the place. Arizona is ranked No. 1 in the country, it is burying every Pacific-10 team it faces (today's victim was UCLA, 86-74) and it seems the entire desert is afflicted with Wildcatmania.

What makes the story interesting is the lack of tradition associated with this program. This is not the Atlantic Coast Conference with its traditional rivalries; it is not the frigid midwest where basketball keeps people warm during the winter, and it isn't UCLA where they used to think the NCAA was their own private invitational.

The temperature today was in the 60s before tipoff. On Saturday, Arizona guard Steve Kerr went out and played golf after practice. And yet, every ticket in 13,124-seat McKale Arena is sold. In five short years, Coach Lute Olson has taken Arizona from 4-24 to a legitimate national championship contender.

"I wouldn't have come here {from Iowa} if I didn't think this program had top 20 potential," Olson said. "But to be No. 1, we have to be lucky. For us, being No. 1 is important. It isn't like the traditional programs like North Carolina or Kentucky where it's no big deal. For us, it is a big deal. We're enjoying it."

The luck that has made Arizona 18-1 and 8-0 in Pac-10 play (with an average victory margin before today of 29.2 points per game in league play) came in strange form. Two summers ago, Kerr, while playing for the U.S. team in the World Championships in Spain, tore up his knee. That meant he had to sit out last season, and that meant he had another year of eligibility to come back this season.

"Without Kerr, we don't beat Michigan, Syracuse, Iowa or Duke," Olson said. "It's that simple." In 18 games before today, Kerr, handling the ball on almost every possession, had 16 turnovers.

Kerr, Craig McMillan and Tom Tolbert are all seniors while Anthony Cook and Sean Elliott, who may be the best one-on-one player in the country, are juniors. The reserves are young, exactly the kind of combination a coach wants. Unless an injury or lightning strikes, the Wildcats should enter the NCAA tournament 32-1.

Troubled Times in Tempe

The story two hours down I-10 from here in Tempe is not nearly so happy. Arizona State, after a 10-2 start, looked liked the second-best team in this weak league. But before Saturday's struggling 78-74 victory over doormat Southern California (a 92-48 loser to Arizona Thursday), the Sun Devils had lost three straight and had serious problems.

Two weeks ago in Oregon, after Coach Steve Patterson had benched high-jumping Joey Johnson, the two got into an argument in the locker room at halftime. Witnesses outside the door heard Johnson yell the same profanity at Patterson several times. Since then, players and coaches have been sniping at each other publicly and Patterson's control of the team seems shaky . . .

When Brigham Young beat New Mexico, 89-82, Saturday in Albuquerque's Pit, it was the first loss in 14 games there for the Lobos. What did the end of the winning streak mean to Coach Gary Colson?

"It means I have to go back to shopping at 6 in the morning," he said. "I show up at the mall in the middle of the day, they'll maul me.". . .

In case you're interested, the best team in the Ivy League this season is probably Dartmouth. The Big Green, 2-0 in league play, went to Iowa Saturday. Iowa won, 102-87, but Dartmouth trailed by two with seven minutes left. Since Columbia won the title in 1968, only one team other than Penn or Princeton (Brown, 1986) has won the Ivy League. Dartmouth could win it this season.

Notable Quotables

Quote of the week: Auburn's Sonny Smith, describing the new offense he put in after losing his two leading scorers at midseason: "You could draw our offense on a matchbook cover. It works like this. When {Chris} Morris gets the ball, he's supposed to shoot. When any of the other guys get the ball, they're supposed to pass it to Morris."

Quote of the week II: Also from Smith, talking about sophomore John Caylor: "He's the leader on this team. He's shown a lot more leadership than our seniors. Of course, most dead men would show more leadership than our seniors." . . .

Florida's victory at Kentucky Wednesday clears the way for a two-team race in the Southeastern Conference. It is tough to question a coach with Eddie Sutton's record, but a lot of people are wondering why he hasn't worked talented freshmen Leron Ellis and Eric Manuel into the lineup. Starting seniors Rob Lock and Cedric Jenkins makes sense, but Sutton might have considered giving the two freshmen more minutes early in the season.

The ACC makes absolutely no sense this season: North Carolina wins at Maryland; Maryland wins at Duke; Duke wins at North Carolina; Virginia gets hammered by Duke and North Carolina then whips Maryland and beats Georgia Tech; Wake Forest upsets N.C. State then gets hammered by Duke. Ain't this fun? . . .

The Big East is no different, of course, but there the story of the year so far is Villanova. Picked seventh in preseason, the Wildcats are 6-1 in the league and 14-4 overall. Center Tom Greis, 25 pounds lighter than last year, might be the most improved player in the country . . .

When Clem Haskins took the Minnesota job a year ago, he began his Big Ten career with victories over Northwestern and Wisconsin. He was acclaimed as a savior. The Gophers then lost their last 16 conference games of the season and Saturday, when they lost to Ohio State, it was their 21st straight Big Ten defeat.

The Upset Pick

After a split last week, when Iowa beat Illinois after Kansas State had hammered Wichita State, the Upset Pick's record is 5-8. This week, even though no one in Washington will be paying attention, Kansas State will end Kansas' 55-game home winning streak Saturday and Rhode Island will get Temple Sunday just before that silly football game in San Diego.