SAN FRANCISCO — Is the Pac-12 back?
Among the best conferences in the late 2000s, the league fell flat once Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and other stars left early for the NBA by 2009. Cal was the only Pac-12 team to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament last year; a regular season championship was not enough to earn Washington a ticket to the Big Dance.
But that is likely to change this year. Players and coaches were optimistic at Thursday’s Pac-12 Media Day at the Pac-12 Studios.
“This league is really up again,” said UCLA coach Ben Howland. “I’m really confident that the league is going to be real strong and excited about that.”
Said Arizona coach Sean Miller, “I think it’ll be the most talented and deepest conference I’ve been a coach in.”
Miller’s Wildcats, ranked No. 12 in the country, are picked to finish first in the conference, according to the Pac-12 media poll. Arizona received one vote more than Howland’s No. 13 Bruins.
Colorado, last season’s surprise Pac-12 Tournament champion, is a dark horse with its sixth-place prediction. The Buffaloes are led by junior forward Andre Roberson, whom coach Tad Boyle called the most underrated player in the country.
The conference, despite its quality in recent years, has still sent its share of players to the NBA and has a number of players well-known on the national scene.
Both Arizona and UCLA are fresh off elite recruiting classes. The Wildcats have three five-star recruits, while the Bruins have four top-flight recruits: 6-foot-9 point forward Kyle Anderson, the No. 3 prospect nationally, and top overall prospect Shabazz Muhammad, who is ineligible pending an NCAA investigation. Howland said he is optimistic Muhammad will play this season.
It’s not just freshmen. Stanford, coming off an NIT championship, has a core group of juniors, while Washington State returns the Pac-12 reigning scoring champion Brock Motum.
Cal, picked to finish third in the league with three first-place votes, returns five players who have started at some point, including the potent junior tandem of point guard Justin Cobbs and swingman Allen Crabbe.
“I think Cal may have the best pair of guards in the conference,” Howland said, “And college basketball is so much about having good guard play.”
While the Bears’ RPI will surely be higher playing in a much-improved conference, so too will the squad’s degree of difficulty in returning to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season.
But Mike Montgomery and company won’t be the only team rooting for its Pac-12 brethren in nonconference play.
“What our conference has to do is win games that mean something in November and December to get the mojo back to the Pac-12 Conference to where it belongs and where it should be,” Boyle said. “We just have to go prove it. Talk is cheap.”
So too, Boyle said, is the media poll. His Buffs were picked to finish 10th last year. All they did was win the Pac-12 Tournament and advance to the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
“I don’t get into preseason predictions,” he said. “Nothing is more irrelevant in my mind.”
Jonathan Kuperberg covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]