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Originally published November 8, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 8, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Pac-10 Preview | Nothing easy in this league

A stranglehold at the top. A knockdown, draw-out brawl everywhere else. That could describe the Pac-10 this season, where everyone expects...

Seattle Times staff reporter

A stranglehold at the top. A knockdown, draw-out brawl everywhere else.

That could describe the Pac-10 this season, where everyone expects UCLA to win the conference for a third straight year — which would be the longest streak since Stanford ruled from 1999-2001 — but where nothing else figures to come without a fight.

"There is no easy game anywhere in sight," said Arizona State coach Herb Sendek, echoing the views of his coaching peers that the league could be the best it has ever been.

Consider that six Pac-10 teams begin the year ranked in the Top 25, and that eight have been projected by at least one preseason publication to make it to the NCAA tournament.

"We're really at a high point," said California coach Ben Braun of the Pac-10, which advanced three teams to the Sweet 16 last season (USC, Oregon, UCLA) and could easily match or increase that number this year.

Locally, Washington State seems a given, while Washington begins the season as a bubble team, thought by many capable of making a run but having to prove it can win on the road and replace Spencer Hawes.

Here, then, is a look at the rest of the conference.

Arizona

Overview: Just two starters return — forward Chase Budinger and guard Jawann McClellan. But some think there might be some addition by subtraction for a team that had shaky chemistry a year ago. The Wildcats also return fast-rising sophomore forward Jordan Hill; get back 6-foot-11 center Kirk Walters, out last year with mononucleosis; and welcome a talented freshmen class.

New face: Freshman guard Jerryd Bayless is a Phoenix native who has been called the best high-school player in Arizona history. They're hoping for a Mike Bibby-style impact in Tucson.

Reasons for doubt: The Wildcats enter the season with some uncertainty after coach Lute Olson announced Sunday he was taking a leave for personal reasons. It's unclear when he will be back and equally unclear how this may impact the team. Assistant Kevin O'Neill, a former head coach at Northwestern, Marquette and Tennessee, takes over. He was hired over the summer and given control of the team's defense, a trouble spot in past years.

Last word: Assuming the coaching situation doesn't prove a distraction and the kids mature quickly, Arizona should be dangerous come March.

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Arizona State

Overview: The Sun Devils return four starters from a team that was a deceptive 8-22 in Herb Sendek's first season as coach, 2-16 in Pac-10 play. ASU lost eight Pac-10 games by six points or fewer, indicative of Sendek's ability to get the most out of his team. Junior forward Jeff Pendergraph might be the most underrated player in the Pac-10; he averaged 12.1 points and 9.1 rebounds last year.

New face: Hope for improvement lies largely in seven newcomers. None is more anticipated than guard James Harden of Los Angeles, called by some the most highly touted guard recruit in school history. Harden, a McDonald's All-American, heavily considered Washington before picking ASU. It probably didn't hurt that ASU hired his high-school coach, Scott Pera, as an assistant.

Reasons for doubt: Arizona State has to find some more offense — not all of those low scores were due to Sendek's slowdown style — after ranking last in the league in shooting last year. Harden should help.

Last word: This team is one reason everyone is raving about the strength of the conference. Harden and Pendergraph are legitimate pro prospects. But while ASU figures to pull off some upsets, true movement up the standings seems a year away.

California

Overview: Ben Braun enters his 12th year in Berkeley with a hard team to read. Cal has some of the best big men in the league in sophomore forward Ryan Anderson and senior center DeVon Hardin, each potential NBA first-round picks. But the backcourt is a mystery, especially with some early health problems.

New face: Cal's loaded frontcourt will only get deeper in December when former Duke forward Jamal Boykin, an L.A. city standout a few years ago, becomes eligible. At 6-8 and 235, he'll add rebounding.

Reasons for doubt: The Bears have a frontcourt to rival any team in the Pac-10. But somebody's going to have to get the big guys the ball. Cal needs a return to health from point guard Jerome Randle, out probably until December after having a kidney biopsy.

Last word: Braun could use a good season. There is some grumbling around a program that has had just one winning season in the past four. If the frontcourt stays healthy and some guards can be found, however, this could be an NCAA tournament team.

Oregon

Overview: Lots of high expectations in Eugene as four starters — guards Tajaun Porter, Bryce Taylor and Malik Hairston and forward Maarty Leunen — return from a team that went 29-8 and advanced to the Elite Eight. The Ducks also welcome a transfer and three freshmen.

New face: Oregon coach Ernie Kent is particularly high on the possible impact of forward Frantz Dorsainvil, a transfer who sat out last season. At 6-8 and 260, he should give the Ducks some needed bulk inside.

Reasons for doubt: Oregon has a lot of talent back, but the one missing face is a big one — guard Aaron Brooks led the Pac-10 in scoring last season and won, by Kent's estimation, six games with shots in the final seconds. Someone — Hairston? Porter? — will have to become the floor leader.

Last word: The Ducks are undeniably talented. If Brooks isn't missed too much, there's no reason there can't be another long March run.

Oregon State

Overview: Jay John has the hottest seat of any coach in the Pac-10, with a 66-85 record in four seasons that includes an 11-21 mark a year ago (3-15 in Pac-10 play). Returning just two starters might seem ominous — one is Marcel Jones, a senior forward who has all-conference potential and came back after considering the NBA — but John says this is a much more talented team thanks to an infusion of new players.

New face: The best known of the newcomers is 6-11 center C.J. Giles, a Rainier Beach grad who transferred from Kansas. He won't be eligible until Dec. 8, but John says "instantly, he changes everything on the defensive end," and that he also should be a big scorer.

Reasons for doubt: OSU was last in the league in assists last year, indicative of its backcourt troubles. John is hoping for some quick maturation from sophomore point guard Josh Tarver.

Last word: The perception among some in Corvallis is that John is banking on Giles to save his job. The Beavers certainly look more talented. But it'll be a tough task for John to form this team into a cohesive unit.

Stanford

Overview: This could be the year Trent Johnson finally slays the ghost of Mike Montgomery. The Cardinal returns 99.5 percent of its scoring from last year's team, which went 18-13 overall and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. That includes twin big men Brook and Robin Lopez, though Brook is sidelined until mid-December due to academic problems. Also back are all-conference forward Lawrence Hill and guard Anthony Goods.

New face: With everybody returning, there isn't much room for anyone new. But Johnson figures some might not recognize sophomore guard Landry Fields, whom the coach says has grown roughly two inches, to 6-6, since entering the program. "I look for him to have a very good year for us," Johnson said.

Reasons for doubt: Stanford was run out of the NCAA tournament by Louisville, which exposed the ballhandling problems. Stanford had the worst turnover margin in the Pac-10 last season. Johnson says that area should be better, citing improvement by players like O'Dea grad Mitch Johnson, a junior point guard.

Last word: Assuming Brook Lopez returns as planned, there's enough talent here to make a deep NCAA run and get Johnson his first 20-win season in his fourth year as Stanford's coach, something Montgomery did 12 times.

UCLA

Overview: Not since the John Wooden days has UCLA been rolling like this. The Bruins have been to the Final Four two years running and are widely expected to make it three in a row with the return of four starters — including point guard Darren Collison — as well as the addition of all-everything freshman center Kevin Love.

New face: Love, a 6-10, 260-pound native of Lake Oswego, Ore., might be the best center at UCLA since Bill Walton. He's a highly skilled wide body who also is, by Howland's estimation, unselfish in the Walton mode.

Reasons for doubt: If there's a worry, it's replacing guard Arron Afflalo, who was the team's most dangerous perimeter scorer and whose 87 three-pointers were second-most in the conference. But with Love and Collison, as well as junior guard Josh Shipp and junior forward Michael Roll, the Bruins should have enough scoring.

Last word: There's no reason to think Love won't be as good as advertised. If so, UCLA will be expected to win the Pac-10 and return to the Final Four — and maybe win it all this time.

USC

Overview: Tim Floyd has quickly returned USC to prominence, leading the Trojans to the Sweet 16 last season. But no team in the conference loses more than USC as its top three scorers — Nick Young, Rainier Beach grad Lodrick Stewart and Gabe Pruitt — are all gone. Not that the cupboard is bare. Starting forward Taj Gibson returns, and the Trojans welcome one of their best freshmen classes.

New face: Guard O.J. Mayo might be the most highly touted basketball signee in USC history. Mayo, a Huntington, W.Va., native who has seemingly been in the spotlight forever, surprisingly chose USC.

Reasons for doubt: Mayo and Gibson alone give the Trojans some top-flight talent. But the point-guard position remains in flux due to some injury problems, and there's not a senior on the roster. It could take Floyd a little while to put it all together.

Last word: If Mayo is really as good as his hype and Floyd can find the right combinations for the rest of the roster, USC should be a dangerous outfit come March.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com.

2006-07 Pac-10 standings
Conf. Overall
W L W L
UCLA 15 3 30 6
Washington St. 13 5 26 8
Oregon 11 7 29 8
USC 11 7 25 12
Arizona 11 7 20 11
Stanford 10 8 18 13
Washington 8 10 19 13
California 6 12 16 17
Oregon St. 3 15 11 21
Arizona St. 2 16 8 22

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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