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There are several teams in the Pac-10 that are headed in the right direction. Arizona and UCLA have Final Four aspirations, and if either of them stumbles, Arizona State might be ready to move up. Last season coach Bill Frieder took the Sun Devils to their first NCAA tournament since 1981, and he has added freshman Mario Bennett, a 6'9" forward who should help immediately. Frieder took his lumps from critics when he left Michigan during its championship season in 1988-89, but he is building a solid program at Arizona State.
California is another team on the rise, having signed guard Jason Kidd, generally considered the top high school player in the country, for next season. Cal has a highly regarded group of recruits this year as well, including guard K.J. Roberts and forward Alfred Grigsby, who should admirably complement junior forward Brian Hendrick, the Bears' top scorer. If all goes well, Cal could be dangerous by tournament time.
Most of the scoring at Washington State comes from its backcourt threesome of Terrence Lewis, Neil Derrick and Bennie Seltzer. That will be fine against such early-season cream puffs as Oklahoma Baptist, San Francisco State, Eastern Washington and Sacramento State. Come January, though, the Cougars may wish they had more size.
Stanford coach Mike Montgomery usually gets the most out of limited talent. He'll have to again this year, because center Adam Keefe is the Cardinal's only real threat. Similarly, guard Harold Miner will have to carry USC . At Oregon State, Washington and Oregon , the cupboard is bare.
It might be hard to imagine that last year's sixth-place Metro team, South Carolina , may be the closest competitor Kentucky has in the new East Division of the Southeastern Conference, but that could be the case. New Gamecock coach Steve Newton takes over a team that was 18-5 at one point last year yet blew an all-but-certain NCAA tournament bid by losing six of its last seven regular-season games. That collapse helped get coach George Felton fired, and South Carolina brought Newton in from Murray State. With four starters back, Newton hopes his team will resemble the one that beat North Carolina early last season—and not the one that fell apart at the finish.
Tennessee also had a split personality last year. The Vols won only three regular-season SEC games but reached the championship game of the conference tournament. They should be able to build on that this season, relying heavily on guard Allan Houston, who scored 23.7 points a game in 1990-91. Vanderbilt , as usual, will play smart and give more talented teams fits, but it won't make it to the NCAA tournament.
Georgia has senior guard Litterial Green, who needs 242 points to move past Alec Kessler as the school's alltime leading scorer, but the Bulldogs also have a lot of uncertainty. "This time last year I knew who four starters were, and I was looking for one," says coach Hugh Durham. "This year I know one starter for sure, and I'm looking for four others." Florida features junior Stacey Poole, a talented 6'6" swingman, but the Gators are young and out of their depth.
In the SEC's West Division, the dropoff after Arkansas and LSU is dramatic. Alabama , with guard James Robinson and athletic but moody forward Robert Horry, won't be a pushover, but the Tide will be hard-pressed to match last season's 23-10 record. Then again, Alabama often surprises people at tournament time; it has reached the Sweet 16 in five of the last seven years.
Auburn , with guards Ronnie Battle and Wesley Person, has an excellent perimeter game and should battle Alabama for third place in the West. Mississippi State had a dream season last year, finishing 20-9 and grabbing a share of the SEC title. But four starters and three reserves were seniors, and the Bulldogs now face the reality of rebuilding. They will have their neighbor Mississippi as company at the bottom of the division.