When in Pac 10 Doubt, Go With Arizona

This may be as competitive a Pacific 10 Conference basketball race as has been played in several seasons. But history has shown that, if you're the least bit unsure about who you might want to tab as a favorite in the conference, you could do a lot worse than choosing Lute Olson's team.

In projecting a winner in the Pacific 10 Conference basketball race, keep this in mind: You're usually safe in pegging the University of Arizona Wildcats.

The program has won or shared 11 conference titles in the past 20 seasons, finishing lower than third only once in that stretch. That occurred in 1997, when the Wildcats, with a freshman manning the point guard's role, were fifth.

By the way, that team – anchored by that freshman, Mike Bibby – won the national championship that season, eliminating No. 1 seeds Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky (in the final) in the process.

It's that kind of history that can sway many a projection in the favor of a Lute Olson-coached team.

And, despite the departure of a couple players to the NBA (Salim Stoudamire and Channing Frye) and the presence of three teams in the conference who each return key personnel from NCAA tournament participants, it's still too difficult to pick someone other than Arizona to win the 2006 Pac 10 title.

But, assuming they stay healthy (or, in some cases, get healthy), it wouldn't startle me if any of the first four teams I projected to finish behind the Wildcats capture the conference's regular-season title.

A closer look at the Pacific 10

Projected finish:


Frank's spin: The Wildcats have a Hall of Fame coach who, at age 71, is coaching and recruiting with as much energy and determination as anyone in the business. I wouldn't be shocked if Lute Olson is still challenging for Pac 10 titles when he's pushing 80. He's got one of the five best players in the conference in Hassan Adams and at least three other candidates for all-conference honors. Assuming sophomore Jawann McClellan regains his academic eligibility in December, the Wildcats will have a multitude of options on the wings. And Mustafa Shakur could be the best point guard in the Pac 10 who isn't named Chris Hernandez.

Postseason possibilities: Even with the program's two best players from last season now yanking down big NBA dollars, a trek to the Sweet 16 is a reasonable expectation.


Frank's spin: If the NCAA tournament were a 3-on-3 affair, one would like the Cardinal's chances of playing in Indianapolis on the final weekend of the season. Point guard Chris Hernandez is going to be a three-time all-conference selection, and Dan Grunfeld was chosen all-conference despite missing the final six Pac 10 games after his knee injury. And every coach in the conference would be stunned if senior post Matt Haryasz isn't Coach Trent Johnson's third all-Pac selection in March. Despite the loss of starters Nick Robinson and Rob Little, the depth of talent surrounding the aforementioned threesome is superior to last season.

Postseason possibilities: If Johnson's Big Three stay reasonable sturdy throughout, Stanford should be playing into the second week of the NCAA tourney.


Frank's spin: So much was lost from this program, most notably perimeter standouts Nate Robinson, Will Conroy and Tre Simmons, and gained this season (an exceptional freshman class, led by Jon Brockman), that there's a tendency to overlook what returns for Coach Lorenzo Romar. But seniors Brandon Roy and Bobby Jones are, maybe, the most versatile and most improved players, respectively, in the conference. That's not a bad pair to try to rebuild, of sorts, around. The loss (to shoulder surgery) of senior Mike Jensen, at least until early in Pac 10 play, would be a bigger blow if Brockman and senior Jamaal Williams weren't around to improve the team's low-post scoring over last season.

Postseason possibilities: Romar will take the Huskies to the NCAA tourney for a third consecutive season, assuming his backcourt play is something approaching "solid".


Frank's spin: The inclination would have been to put the Bruins into the three spot had sophomore Josh Shipp been fit and rip-roarin' to go to start the season. But, following surgery on his right hip (injured, apparently, while playing in July), the earliest it seems he'll return to active duty is in late December. He's one of the program's three best players, along with classmates Jordan Farmar (voted the conference's top freshman last March) and Arron Afflalo, the program's best defender. Coach Ben Howland has a lot of options (with six bodies to put on the floor) but his post play – along with Shipp's recovery – is the biggest question pertaining to how good his third UCLA team can be.

Postseason possibilities: Continuing the season-to-season improvement that is a Howland trademark, the Bruins will finish with 20-plus victories, including at least one in the NCAA tourney.

5. CAL

Frank's spin: The Golden Bears have missed post-season play for the past two Marches and won just six conference games last season. But, assuming the surgically repaired left knee of Leon Powe is as sturdy as it appeared while he was dominating a pro-am league in San Francisco during July, things will be much healthier in Ben Braun's program in 2005-06. Powe could average Ike Diogu-caliber numbers (22.6 points and 9.8 rebounds per game) from last season. Rod Benson is an underrated 6-10 senior in an era when quality post players standing that tall are a rarity indeed.

Postseason possibilities: This will be the most improved team in the conference, and it will be in the NCAA tourney field of 65, assuming Braun gets solid play from his backcourt, including transfer Omar Wilkes.


Frank's spin:The Ducks' low-post play, a question mark for all of us who wrote conference previews for preseason magazines back in July, suddenly seemed a little less hazy with the enrollment of Los Angeles Southwest Community College transfer Ivan Johnson in late September, following his release from the letter of intent he signed in the spring with the University of Cincinnati. He'll add some scoring down low to a team already laced with firepower on the perimeter with point guard Aaron Brooks and sophomore wings Bryce Taylor and Malik Hairston. Postseason possibilities: The NIT* (*or whatever it's being called in March), at the very least, is do-able.


Frank's spin: The Beavers could finish at least a couple of notches higher than No. 7 if they find a way to win a few games away from Gill Coliseum. They were blanked – zilch for nine – in Pac 10 road games last season while winning eight of nine at home. Coach Jay John lost one of the West's best post guys (David Lucas) but returns more than enough perimeter and post talent to make a legit run for the upper division. Six-eight senior Nick DeWitz should average18 (points)/8 (rebounds) kind of numbers for the Beavers and 6-10 sophomore Sasa Cuic is also skilled enough from the perimeter to create a myriad of matchup headaches for opposing coaches.

Postseason possibilities: A second consecutive NIT* invitation is likely if the Beavers are right at the 17 wins they collected last season.


Frank's spin: Coach Dick Bennett lost his two primary perimeter and low-post offensive threats (Thomas Kelati and Jeff Varem) from last season. But such is the respect that Bennett-coached teams are afforded that the Cougars could show up with five walk-ons and the opposing coach would be chewing his nails to the quick. Bennett's guys always defend and rarely take foolhardy shoots. Those are two pretty nifty qualities for a team to possess, regardless of the innate "talent" it might have on hand. Derrick Low, Robbie Cowgill and Kyle Weaver should all blossom as sophomores.

Postseason possibilities: Slim.

9. USC

Frank's spin: In Tim Floyd, the Trojans have, technically, their fourth head coach in less than a year. As the case with Dick Bennett-coached clubs, Floyd's college (Idaho, New Orleans and Iowa State) teams were known for their defensive focus and ability to differentiate between "good" and "scatterbrained" shot attempts. The program returned only four lettermen but a couple of them, sophomores Gabriel Pruitt and Nick Young, are among the most offensively gifted players in the conference. Floyd will make them much better defenders and make sure the team's offensive structure allows for them to get a lot of high percentage shot attempts.

Postseason possibilities: Not this season.


Frank's spin: If the Sun Devils are to stay out of the Pac 10 cellar – and, some believe, save Rob Evans' job – the team will need immediate contributions from nearly all of its newcomers, including 6-9 freshmen Jeff Pendergraph and Sylvester Seay and JC transfer guard Antwi Atuahene. Evans does return some quality jump shooters in Kevin Kruger and Bryce Krueger.

Postseason possibilities: Nearly non-existent, unless the newcomers approach event the most optimistic expectations.

Projected All-Conference First Team

Chris Hernandez (6-2, Sr., Stanford)
Hassan Adams (6-4, Sr., Arizona)
Dan Grunfeld (6-6, Sr., Stanford)
Leon Powe (6-8, So., Cal)
Brandon Roy (6-5, Sr., Washington)

Projected All-Conference Second Team

Matt Haryasz (6-10, Sr., Stanford)
Jordan Farmar (6-3, So., UCLA)
Mustafa Shakur (6-3, Jr., Arizona)
Malik Hairston (6-6, So., Oregon)
Bobby Jones (6-6, Sr., Washington)

Most Influential Newcomers

Jon Brockman (6-7, Fr., Washington)
Omar Wilkes (6-4, So., Cal)
Ivan Johnson (6-8, Jr., Oregon)
Lawrence Hill (6-8, Fr., Stanford)
Ryan Francis (5-11, Fr., USC)

Most underrated player
Nick DeWitz (6-8, Sr., Oregon State)

Top pro prospect
Leon Powe (6-8, So., Cal)

An April inductee into the USBWA Hall of Fame, Frank Burlison is Scout.com's National Basketball Expert and is also a columnist for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at frank.burlison@presstelegram.com. Read more of Burlison's pieces at www.FrankHoops.com

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