Pac-12 Primer: UCLA, Arizona raise stakes in competitive league
Pending a still-unresolved NCAA investigation into improper benefits he might have received while in high school, Muhammad is expected to lead the Bruins' charge back to respectability, if not dominance. The 6-foot-6 freshman wing is not necessarily the most skilled player in the conference, or even in his class, but there is no one who works harder or is more relentless on every play, every loose ball, every dunk. He will wear out opponents with his want-to. If the Bruins are lucky, Muhammad's work ethic will rub off on his teammates.
At 5-11 and 178 pounds, the Cardinal's ambidextrous and upbeat junior point guard is often the smallest guy on the court, but he's also one of the most effective, especially when the stakes are high. After averaging 10.9 points and 3.7 assists during the season as a part-time starter, Bright closed out the year by averaging 16.8 points -- on 64 percent shooting from the field and 67 percent shooting from the arc -- and 4.2 assists during Stanford's run to the NIT title, a feat that earned him the tournament MVP award.
Don't let the nickname, "Slow-Mo", fool you. Anderson may not play with the nasty ferocity of his teammate Muhammad, but his silky-smooth, old-school game, which includes uncanny passes and clever moves to the basket and can be deployed from any position on the perimeter, is so mesmerizing and effective that it has already drawn comparisons, premature though they may be, to Magic Johnson.
That's the number of games Pac-12 teams won against AP top 25 foes last year. That includes non-conference and conference season, since no Pac-12 team made it into the rankings after November. That number should rise significantly this year, and so should the number of teams getting NCAA bids.
The intrigue lies not so much in the game against unranked Georgetown, though a Pac-12 victory over the Big East would be a good start to rebuilding the league's national rep. It's who the Bruins could face in the tournament finals the next day -- top-ranked Indiana. If UCLA is as good as hyped, that could the game of the year.
A number of conference coaches will be feeling some heat this season, including Washington State's Ken Bone, Oregon State's Craig Robinson, Stanford's Johnny Dawkins, USC's Kevin O'Neill and UCLA's Ben Howland. But no one is under as much pressure as Herb Sendek, whose Sun Devils have endured two straight 10th-place finishes even as in-state rival Arizona has built a potential national power. Widely respected though he is, Sendek has a very mediocre 44-64 record, including just one NCAA win, to show for his six years in the desert. Last December he signed a two-year contract extension that runs through the 2015-16 season, but that was granted by an athletic director, Lisa Love, who's no longer on the job. The new AD, Steve Patterson, surely expects better results, but it's hard to imagine Sendek will get them this year.
After mucking it up so badly in the non-conference season and getting just two teams into the NCAAs last year, the Pac-12's rediscovered dazzle -- it says here five teams will get in -- will be the talk of Selection Sunday, led by two refrains we'll have heard all season, "It's Miller time!" and "The Bruins are Back!"