Pac-12 Primer: UCLA, Arizona raise stakes in competitive league
He may not be the most skilled, but Shabazz Muhammad could be dominant
Don't expect the Pac-12 to go winless against the AP top 25 again this season
Look for Sean Miller-led Arizona to edge out UCLA as the class of the Pac-12
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.