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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!"

1. Arizona: Everything seems to be bending Sean Miller's way. After surviving the whipsaw of the last two seasons -- an Elite Eight finish in 2011 followed by an NIT first-round flameout, at home, in 2012 -- the 4th-year coach has assembled what could be a national title contender. Joining a strong core of experienced vets that includes senior all-Pac 12 selection Solomon Hill and his probable backup at small forward, senior Kevin Parrom, who has fully recovered from the gunshot wound in his leg and the broken foot he suffered last season, is an intriguing mix of newcomers. A cluster of five-star freshman bigs -- Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski -- will shore up the frontline while Mark Lyons, a fifth-year transfer who averaged 15.1 points and 2.8 assists for Xavier's Sweet 16 team last year, will step into the point guard spot alongside sophomore shooting guard Nick Johnson. The talent and experience in Tucson is obvious. What remains to be seen is whether this team can avoid the problems that plagued last year's team -- arrests, suspensions, freak injuries -- and blend into a cohesive, world-beating unit.

2. UCLA: Is this the year the Bruins shake their recent legacy of massive disappointment? With the team's return to renovated Pauley Pavilion, and the arrival of the top recruiting class in the nation, expectations are high in Westwood. But as of early November, the team's prospects still hinged on a few very big Ifs. If the NCAA clears top recruit Shabazz Muhammad to play, the Bruins could be very good, and they will be much improved over last year even without him. But there are other questions: Will junior center Joshua Smith, a supremely talented big man who has been hampered by excess weight and foul trouble the last two seasons, be able to play more than 18 minutes a game? Is senior transfer Larry Drew II, who abruptly left North Carolina midway through his junior season, the right guy to run the team, and if he isn't, how will he react? If Drew is cherishing this second chance as a "blessing" (as he has said) and if Smith has put in some work in the offseason -- coach Ben Howland has said he still has work to do -- and if the eventual NCAA decision on Muhammad is favorable and if all the other pieces comes together harmoniously, this could be a Bruin team we'll see late into March. If not, more disappointment awaits.

3. Stanford: After orchestrating a surprising run to the NIT title at the end of last season, coach Johnny Dawkins might finally have a team with the depth, experience, firepower and guard play to get the Cardinal back to the NCAAs for the first time since 2008. Junior Aaron Bright, the NIT MVP, and sophomore sharpshooter Chasson Randle will run a team that has four of its five starters back from last season and welcomes a solid group of newcomers, including two freshmen, Grant Verhoeven and Roscoe Allen, who will push juniors Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis for minutes in the frontcourt. For postseason inspiration, players have only to look to the bench, where former LA Laker forward Mark "Mad Dog" Madsen will serve as both assistant coach and a reminder of what is possible on the Farm: Madsen was a key player on the Cardinal squad that made it to the 1998 Final Four.

4. Cal: Like their rivals across the Bay, the Bears' best asset is their backcourt. Last season juniors Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs combined for 27.8 of Cal's 71.1 points a game. While they'll continue to carry the scoring load, they should get help in the frontcourt if sophomore forward David Kravish, who averaged 6.9 points and 5.6 rebounds last year, continues to blossom, and if 6-10 junior Richard Solomon, who contributed 6 points and 6.2 rebounds a game before being suspended for academic reasons midway through the season, can become a scoring threat as well as a reliable rebounder. (Word has it Solomon has gained 20 pounds and a few post moves in the offseason.) The Bears' biggest challenge will be filling the leadership and toughness void left by the Jorge Gutierrez, last year's Pac-12 Player of the Year.

5. Colorado: The Buffaloes' Pac-12 debut was one of the league's few pleasant surprises last year: In addition to tying a school record with 24 wins and setting a home attendance record with 7804 fans a game, the Buffs snatched the Pac-12 tournament title, got to the NCAAs for the first time since 2003, and upset UNLV as an 11-seed in the first round. But Tad Boyle's squad is no one-year wonder. Joining returning starters Spencer Dinwiddie and Andre Roberson is a top 25 recruiting class that might be the best in school history. It includes 6-9 forward Josh Scott, an in-state high school star who averaged 28.5 ppg as a senior at Lewis Palmer High in Monument, Colo. If the pieces mesh, and the air remains thin at Coors Events Center, where the Buffs won all but two of their 16 games last year, Colorado should make it to a third straight postseason for the first time in school history.

6. Washington: Of all the odd seasons endured by conference teams last year, the Huskies' might have been the strangest: They were loaded with talent -- the two leading scorers, sophomore Terrence Ross and freshman Tony Wroten, were both plucked in the NBA's first round -- and they won the conference regular season title. But their 24-11 record wasn't dazzling enough to merit an NCAA berth, and they bowed out in the NIT semifinals. This year, with expectations and team talent lowered, the Huskies might cohere better. But for them to be anything more than middle-of-the-Pac, they'll need breakout seasons from senior point guard Abdul Gaddy, junior sharpshooter CJ Wilcox, and 7-foot senior Aziz N'Diaye, who can rebound and block shots but has yet to become a scoring threat.

7. USC: The Trojans' 2011-12 season, in a nutshell: the injuries were relentless -- by midseason three starters were out for the year -- the offense anemic (52.6 points per game on 38.7 percent shooting from the field and 27.1 percent shooting from the arc) and the losses historic: 26 out of 32 games is a school record. The good news is that, even given the recent bad news that guard Maurice Jones, last year's leading scorer (13 ppg), had transferred after being declared academically ineligible, this season should be significantly better.The three injured starters -- 7-foot junior center Dewayne Dedmon (knee), 6-6 senior forward Aaron Fuller (shoulder) and 6-foot senior guard Jio Fontan (knee) and -- are all recovered, and the team should get some added scoring pop from well-traveled transfer JT Terrell, a 6-5 guard who averaged 11 points a game as a freshman at Wake Forest and 24.4 a game as a sophomore at Peninsula College in Washington.

8. Oregon State: The Beavers' ongoing rebuilding project under coach Craig Robinson should stay on track, if not gain a little momentum, this season, especially if the team can balance a torrid offense (its 78.9 ppg was best in the conference) with a less porous defense (its 72.7 ppg allowed was last in the league and 297th in the nation.) Junior guard Jared Cunningham's early departure for the NBA was a surprise blow, but four other starters are back to build on last season's 21 wins, the most for the Beavers since 1990. Junior guard Ahmad Starks, who is both a defensive menace (1.66 steals a game) and significant outside threat -- his 73 threes were second-most in school history -- will be balanced by a strong frontcourt that includes 6-10 sophomore forward Eric Moreland, the leagues' top shotblocker (his 69 last year is a school record); 6-10 junior forward Devon Collier, a rising star who averaged 13.2 points (on a league-best 61 percent shooting), 5.2 rebounds and 1.28 blocked shots, and Aussie Angus Brant, a 6-10 senior who led the team in scoring (15.8 ppg) and rebounding (8.8 rpg) during the Beavers' undefeated four-game tour of Europe this summer.

9. Oregon: Like their in-state rivals, the Ducks were far more effective on offense (73.4 ppg) than defense (68.9 ppg) last year. But that could be different this season, as the Ducks have gone through another massive roster turnover under third-year coach Dana Altman. One of the few constants for the Ducks has been 6-6 senior forward EJ Singler, who has proved to be reliable as a starter (79 games in the last two years), scorer (13.6 ppg last year), rebounder (5.6 rpg) and a free-throw shooter -- last year he shot a league-best .909 from the stripe. Waverly Austin, a 6-11 junior college transfer, will add low-post scoring and fellow jaycee transfer Devon Branch, a 6-5 junior sharpshooter will add perimeter firepower. Freshman Dominic Artis, who decommited from UCLA once the Bruins signed Kyle Anderson, is an explosive athlete -- a 5-9 he won the Matt Knight Madness dunk contest -- who will challenge Johnathan Loyd for the point guard spot.

10. Washington State: The Cougars have an outstanding forward in 6-10 senior Brock Motum, a lefty from Australia who emerged as one of the best big men in the west last season. But they may not have much else now that senior guard Reggie Moore, the team's second-leading scorer, has been dismissed for violating team rules, and prized recruit Demarquise "Que" Johnson has failed to qualify academically. Motum's best hope for help lies in freshman Richard Longrus, Jr, a 6-7, 232-pound forward from Oakland who turned down Stanford and Colorado to play in the Palouse; 6-3 sophomore guard DaVonte' Lacy, who averaged 8.5 points and 1.9 assists last year, and 6-3 sophomore combo guard Royce Woolridge, a son of former NBA star Orlando Woolridge, who averaged over 30 points a game as a senior in high school.

11. Arizona State: Coming off their worst season in the Herb Sendek era (10-21), the Sun Devils have a lot to prove, and despite a two-year contract extension that runs through 2015-16, the pressure is mounting on Sendek, now in his sixth year, to make the Sun Devils relevant. While this group won't likely achieve that goal, they should be more exciting to watch now that Sendek has reportedly scrapped his plodding offense and matchup zone defense to allow Jahii Carson, an explosive athlete and terrific passer who sat out last season as a non-qualifier, to show off his flash and dash. But Carson won't be enough to keep the Sun Devils out of the conference cellar. He'll need scoring help from senior forward Carrick Felix, who averaged 10 points and four rebounds last year; junior guard Evan Gordon, who averaged 14.4 ppg as a sophomore at Liberty, and 7-2 junior Jordan Bachynski, who had flashes of high production midseason and has the potential to average a double-double.

12. Utah: Last year's 6-25 Utes were, if nothing else, balanced: They were bad at pretty much everything, finding the bottom third of the Pac-12 in every single statistical category the league tracks. Now that eight players, including three starters, have transferred out and 11 new players have come in, the Utes' prospects have marginally improved. The backcourt will feature a mix of newcomers, including point guard Glen Dean, the Big Sky Freshman of the Year in 2010 with Eastern Washington, and Seattle native Aaron Dotson, who averaged 6.8 ppg as a sophomore at LSU. The frontcourt, one of many weaknesses last year, will have to do again without senior David Foster, the 2010 Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year who has reinjured the right foot that kept him out last year. But it will have Jason Washburn, whose 11.4 ppg made him the team's only double-figure scorer last year. Most eyes will be on local freshman Jordan Loveridge, the state's Mr. Basketball last year who averaged 22.9 points and 13.1 rebounds for West Jordan High School.

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