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College hoops preview: Deep Pac-12 ready for rise in prominence

College hoops preview: Deep Pac-12 ready for rise in prominence
UCLA guard Kyle Anderson, second from right, answers questions during the NCAA college basketball team's media day, Monday, Oct. 14, 2013, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
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Once one of college basketball's best conferences, the Pac-12 hasn't gotten a whole lot of respect the past few years.

That could change this season.

With some of the best teams in the country near the top and more talent across the conference, the Pac-12 appears to be on the rise again.

"We have never had more depth than we have this year as a conference," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "I think that some of the teams that have been at the bottom are much, much improved. As a matter of fact, they might even be near the top."

The Pac-12 has not had much luck with the NCAA tournament selection committee in recent years, getting just two teams into the bracket twice the past four seasons. Washington was left out in 2012 despite winning the regular-season conference title and Oregon felt slighted last season when it was a No. 12 seed despite winning the conference tournament.

This season should be different.

No. 6 Arizona is the favorite to win the title and make a deep NCAA run, adding freshman phenom Aaron Gordon and veteran point guard T.J. McConnell to a group of returning players who went to the Sweet 16 last season.

Colorado lost Andre Roberson, but returns four starters, including Spencer Dinwiddie, one of the conference's best players. No. 22 UCLA had one of the nation's best recruiting classes a year ago and is loaded with talent.

Oregon is the returning conference tournament champion and went to the Sweet 16, Arizona State has one of the nation's best point guards in Jahii Carson, California has been to the NCAA tournament four times in five years and Stanford is experienced and a program on the rise.

Even Southern California, which labored through the 2012-13 season, will be a tough out after new coach Andy Enfield brought "Dunk City" from Florida Gulf Coast.

"This league is from top to bottom as strong as it's been since I've been in it, and I think there's some coaches maybe who have been around longer than I have that can probably attest to that," Colorado coach Tad Boyle said.

It should be interesting to watch how it unfolds. To get ready for the Pac-12 season, here are five things to watch for:

AT THE TOP: Miller has done a superb job of rebuilding Arizona's program after the chaos left by Lute Olson's retirement. He led the Wildcats to the regional round of the NCAA tournament for the second time in the past three years in 2012-13 and may have his best team yet this season. Arizona will be a matchup nightmare for teams with its length and interchangeable parts, and could end up being one of the nation's best defensive teams with so many long, athletic players. McConnell could be the key. The transfer from Duquesne gives the Wildcats the pass-first point guard they didn't have last season and is one of the nation's best perimeter defenders.

FABULOUS FRESHMEN: Gordon is considered one of the top freshmen in the country, but he's not the only one in the Pac-12 to have an immediate impact. His teammate, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was highly touted out of high school and should get solid minutes in Tucson. Cal shooting guard Jabari Bird was the marquee name in a stellar recruiting class by coach Mike Montgomery and is an athletic player who can get to the rim and shoot from the perimeter. Washington coach Lorenzo Romar may have missed out on landing Gordon, but he does have Nigel Williams-Goss, a smart point guard who will replace Abdul Gaddy and should be well-suited to run his fast-paced offense.

BETTER AT THE BOTTOM: One of the reasons the Pac-12 is expected to rebound this season are the teams at the bottom of the league. Washington State plays hard and has high-scoring guard Royce Woolridge. One-time power Washington has missed the NCAAs the past two seasons, but has good young talent, including Williams-Goss. Utah made a late-season run into the conference semifinals and returns athletic forward Jordan Loveridge. Oregon State took a step back last season, but has Roberto Nelson and Devon Collier coming back.

DYNAMIC BACKCOURTS: The backcourts could rule the Pac-12, which has some of the best in the country. Arizona will have McConnell playing alongside junior Nick Johnson. Jermaine Marshall, Penn State's second-leading scorer before transferring, will join Carson at Arizona State. Oregon's Dominic Artis, Johnathan Loyd and Daymean Dotson may be the best trio in the league. UCLA has one of the conference's most dynamic players in Jordan Adams and multidimensional forward/guard Kyle Anderson is back.

ALFORD IN WESTWOOD: Ben Howland led UCLA to three Final Fours, but was fired in March after the program became fractured and inconsistent. Now it's Steve Alford's turn to get the Bruins back on track. The former Indiana star and coach at New Mexico wasn't the most popular choice among UCLA fans and boosters who had hoped for a bigger name to take over a program that's won 11 national titles. Alford will have some good talent to work with, a nice mix of young players and returnees, so now it's just a matter of showing everyone he was the right choice.
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