Arizona picked to win Pac-12, narrowly edging UCLA
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Predictions are not something most coaches care about this time of year. They're focused on players and practices, not what pundits and pollsters presume.
Except for Oregon State's Craig Robinson.
During the Pac-12 men's basketball media day at the conference's new network studios in downtown San Francisco on Thursday, Robinson admitted he has been paying attention to polls for months - just not the league's annual media poll, which picked Arizona over UCLA by a mere point.
Robinson, the brother of First Lady Michelle Obama, has been following a much bigger campaign. He has spent his days practicing and his nights stumping for President Barack Obama ahead of Tuesday's election against Republican nominee Mitt Romney in a race Robinson predicts is "probably going to be pretty close."
Not that the First Brother-in-Law will take a break before flying to Chicago - "classified information," he joked - on election night. No chance his players will get a day of rest, either.
"Are you kidding?" Robinson said. "We have got a game on Nov. 9. There will be practice."
No matter what else is on anybody's agenda, coaches and players around the league are getting in all the last-minute work now. After all, the Pac-12 is expected to be an even tighter and tougher conference this season.
No. 12 Arizona received 403 points and 15 first-place votes to top the preseason poll by media who cover the league. That narrowly edged 13th-ranked UCLA, which received 402 points and 16 first-place votes.
California (325) was third, Stanford (296) fourth and defending regular-season champion Washington (278) fifth. Of course, fall forecasting might not always mean much.
"They picked us 11th last year. They picked us sixth this year," said Colorado coach Tad Boyle, whose Buffaloes surprised everybody by winning the league tournament title last season. "Nothing is more irrelevant in my mind."
Oregon (217) was picked seventh followed by Oregon State (166), Southern California (163), Washington State (111), Arizona State (107) and Utah (78) last.
"To put any kind of pressure on ourselves automatically places it maybe at a position where we're not," Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "I'm concerned that I'm not at practice today."
The media has correctly picked the conference winner 12 of 20 times. Arizona has correctly been selected in seven of the 11 times the Wildcats have been picked to capture the league title.
"I can remember a long time ago when I played, I would always cheer against the teams in our conference because I didn't want them to do as well as us," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "And those days have ended a long time ago. This year in particular every time that a Pac-12 team plays a non-conference opponent, we want them to win. The most success that we can have as a conference only helps each other."
Change is all around the conference.
Master-recruiter Miller pulled together one of the best classes in the country in the desert. Ben Howland did the same at UCLA, which is moving back into historic Pauley Pavilion after a $132 million renovation. Lorenzo Romar is just fine with his Huskies playing the underdog role, too, especially after flaming out as the top seed in the quarterfinals of last season's league tournament.
Kevin O'Neill is trying to turn around USC from a school-record 26 losses last season. Stanford is looking to make the NCAA tournament for the first time under fifth-year coach Johnny Dawkins, who led the Cardinal to the NIT title last season. Across San Francisco Bay, crafty Cal coach Mike Montgomery's teams are never pushovers, either, and he's more focused than ever after bladder cancer and surgery that left him cancer-free before last season. Well, sort of more focused.
"Unfortunately, it hasn't changed me that much. I'm still the nut case I always was," Montgomery joked. "But it was certainly a wake-up call for me. But I'm fine."
The only real guarantee this season is exposure will be at an all-time high.
The league's landmark 12-year television contract with Fox and ESPN worth about $3 billion, which created the Pac-12 Networks and Pac-12 Digital Network, started this fall. The swanky studios will help increase viewership after more than 90 games - including 23 conference matchups - weren't televised last season, said Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott.
After 10 years at Staples Center in Los Angeles, the conference tournament also is moving to a new home at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Even bigger moves could also be on the horizon, with UCLA becoming the first program to travel to China over the summer as part of the league's new initiative to gain exposure in the lucrative Asia market each preseason.
Not everything is different.
This is the first time since the 2001-02 season that there have not been any coaching changes, Scott said. And a year after Colorado and Utah joined the league, no more expansion is expected for the foreseeable future.
Teams across the league already noted some of the tangible benefits from the growth.
Colorado is 200 seats away from selling out its home opener against Wofford on Nov. 9. Utah finished in the top three in attendance. Even Washington State, which returns Pac-12 leading scorer Brock Motum, is getting more revenue to Pullman than ever before - but still has bigger goals on the court.
"Looking to accomplish a lot more wins than last season," said Motum, whose Cougars went 19-18 last season and finished tied with Oregon State for eighth.
All Robinson wants from his Beavers in Corvallis - besides perfecting the Princeton offense, of course - is for them to register to vote. The Oregon State coach isn't predicting how the Pac-12 will shake out and isn't telling players who to take on the ballot - though he has a suspicion his famous family member might've already.
"If I took you to the White House," Robinson said, "you'd like him, too."