A preseason top five ranking puts UCLA in a position to win the conference and reach the Final Four for the fourth consecutive year. Four straight Final Fours are fine, but Coach Ben Howland and the Bruins have yet to bring home the championship since 1995.
With a mix of veteran and young talent, it may take a year or two for the rest of the conference to catch up with the Bruins.
It all starts with returning preseason All-American, six-foot senior guard Darren Collison and Josh Shipp. Collison returns after flirting with turning pro last year. Shipp, a six-foot, five-inch guard/forward also returns after pulling out of the NBA Draft.
The Bruins signed two McDonald’s All-American players. Jrue Holiday, a six-foot, three-inch guard and six-foot, five-inch guard Malcolm Lee. Holiday, from Campbell Hall High in North Hollywood was the No. 1 ranked guard in the nation last year. Lee, from J.W. North High in Riverside, averaged 24 points a game in his senior season.
Across town at USC, the Trojans saw one super freshman leave for the NBA and replaced him with another.
O.J. Mayo’s stay with the Trojans was short and sweet. After just one season he bolted for the NBA where he was the third pick in the NBA Draft.
USC immediately went out and nabbed McDonald’s All-American DeMar DeRozan from Compton High School. DeRozan, a six-foot, six-inch forward, was one of the most complete players in the nation last year and should allow everyone to forget about Mayo.
Romeo Miller, a.k.a rapper and TV star Lil’ Romeo, is a five-foot, 11-inch freshman guard out of Beverly Hills High. He may not see much playing time, but he will definitely be an attraction and bring in plenty of celebrities to home games, including his father, rapper Master P.
Coach Tim Floyd and the Trojans will rely heavily on returning players Taj Gibson (six-foot, nine-inch, junior, forward), Daniel Hackett (six-foot, five-inch, junior, guard) and Dwight Lewis (six-foot, five-inch, junior, guard) to challenge UCLA for the conference title.
The Trojans are ranked in the top 25 poll this season and there’s no doubt they will be very good. The questions is, can they be better than the 11-7, and 21-12 overall third place finish, and the first round exit in the NCAA tournament last year?
The Pac-10 was hit with a huge surprise when Arizona coach Lute Olson abruptly announced his retirement in October for health reasons. In 24 seasons at Arizona, Olson’s Wildcats were a national power where he posted a 589-187 record, and won a national championship in 1997.
It won’t be pretty for the Wildcats and interim head coach Russ Pennell this season. Three players decided to transfer and two more underclassmen may turn pro after this season.
The Pac-10 is still among the nation’s elite, and early predictions have as many as four teams going to the NCAA tournament.
Arizona State could be the only team to challenge UCLA. The Sun Devils are led by returning six-foot, four-inch sophomore guard, James Harden from Artesia High School, and six-foot, nine-inch senior forward/center Jeff Pendergraph from Etiwanda High.
At California, former Stanford coach Mike Montgomery takes over after a failed stint in the NBA.
Stanford reached the Sweet 16 last season and lost twins Brook and Robin Lopez to the NBA, as well as head coach Trent Johnson to Louisiana State. Former Duke assistant Johnny Dawkins takes over as head coach.
Oregon, Washington and Washington State all look to finish in the middle or the back of the pack in the conference.
Oregon State, which finished last in the conference last year, is expected to finish last this year. But the Beavers will receive plenty of attention, or at least their coach Greg Robinson will. Robinson is the brother of First Lady-Elect Michelle Obama and of course, the brother-in-law of President-Elect Barack Obama.