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Originally published Friday, November 3, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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UW Men's Basketball | Huskies picked to finish in 3rd

Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said he was a little surprised the Huskies were picked to finish third in the Pac-10 men's basketball poll...

Seattle Times staff reporter

LOS ANGELES — Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said he was a little surprised the Huskies were picked to finish third in the Pac-10 men's basketball poll, released Thursday as part of the conference's annual media day.

To which a few of his counterparts wondered, surprised to be that high, or that low?

UCLA coach Ben Howland, whose team was picked to win the conference, followed Romar to the podium and expressed his surprise at Romar's surprise.

"They do have Spencer Hawes, let me remind you," Howland said. "He would be going to the [NBA] if there wasn't that rule [requiring players to be at least a year out of high school before entering the NBA draft]."

But Hawes and four other Huskies who figure in the team's regular rotation have yet to play a college game, and two other starters are sophomores, leading Romar to say, "It's hard to pick us so high because we haven't done anything yet."

So Romar had no quibble that UCLA and Arizona were picked 1-2, and received all but one of the 35 first-place votes (Oregon got the other).

"That's probably what I would have said, too," he said.

The Bruins, who return three starters from a team that won the Pac-10 regular-season and conference-tournament titles a year ago and advanced to the NCAA championship game, received 21 first-place votes.

Arizona, which finished a disappointing 20-13 last year but returns four starters, welcomes several promising recruits and is said to have better chemistry, received 13 first-place votes.

"The team with the obvious edge is UCLA," said Arizona coach Lute Olson, who generally isn't shy about disputing such poll results if he sees fit. "They not only return some great guys from their starting lineup but Ben did a great job of utilizing his bench and getting those guys experience in key game situations."

Howland was glad to accept the favorite's mantle, but said he expects nothing to come easy this season, claiming that "our league is loaded."

That's a theme common to every media day, but once again, the coaches insisted they meant it.

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In particular, they cited the depth they see building in the Pac-10. Many of the top teams suffered significant losses — point guard Jordan Farmar at UCLA, forward Leon Powe at California, do-everything Brandon Roy at Washington, etc. But most of the squads that finished in the bottom half a year ago return the bulk of their rosters and figure to be improved.

"The bottom teams are what differentiate this conference from the other, so-called power conferences," said USC coach Tim Floyd. "I think our bottom teams can beat our top two, three teams, and that's what makes every night difficult."

Floyd said many NBA scouts have come by his practices after stopping at those of teams such as Washington, Arizona, UCLA and Cal, marveling about the top-flight talent the league possesses.

In fact, the Pac-10 might be more steeped in quality big players than it has been in years.

Hawes was a potential lottery pick a year ago, Cal's 6-11 DeVon Hardin is generating intense NBA interest and Stanford is eagerly awaiting the debut of 7-foot freshman twins Brook and Robin Lopez. UCLA returns forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, the freshman of the year in the conference last season, and Arizona features a senior front line of 6-10 Ivan Radenovic and 6-11 Kirk Walters.

Along with the usual influx of new players, the conference will also welcome two new coaches, former North Carolina State coach Herb Sendek taking over for fired Rob Evans at Arizona State, and Tony Bennett succeeding his father, Dick Bennett, who retired after three years at Washington State. There's also a new arena, the Galen Center on the USC campus.

The Cougars were picked to finish last despite the return of three-fourths of their scoring from a year ago, third most in the conference behind USC and Oregon.

"It makes me understand how far we have to come with our program," Bennett said. "But I think my father left us with a fighting chance, and I think we can be competitive."

The Galen Center seats 10,258 and allows the Trojans to move out of the ratty Los Angeles Sports Arena. Many figure it could also allow USC to move into the upper tier of college basketball with an increased ability to attract recruits.

"We're not going to take a back seat to anyone's basketball facility in the country," Floyd said.

The Huskies will be the first Pac-10 team to play in the Galen Center when they open conference play there Dec. 28, allowing Romar his first chance to see if his surprise is truly warranted.

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

Read his blogs on Washington

football and basketball at www.seattletimes.com/huskies.

Pac-10 media poll
(first-place votes in parentheses)
# Team Points
1. UCLA (21) 335
2. Arizona (13) 280
3. Washington 236
4. Oregon (1) 193
5. California 177
6. USC 160
7. Stanford 127
8. Oregon State 75
9. Arizona State 69
10. Washington State 54

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