LOS ANGELES – Washington and Washington State are clustered close together in the annual Pacific-10 men’s basketball media poll released Thursday, even though the programs are at distinctly different stages of evolution.
The Huskies, picked fifth in the poll, believe the dues their young players paid over the past two seasons are about pay off with a mature and versatile roster.
The Cougars, whom the media slotted sixth, may have reached a summit last season and now are hoping to limit their slide before climbing again with a core of newcomers.
Thirty-seven of the 38 media voters cast their No. 1 vote for UCLA, which is reloading after three straight Final Four appearances.
“We did lose a lot,” Bruins coach Ben Howland said. “But I think it speaks to the fact that we have a lot of respect for our returning players and the fact that we do have a good freshman class coming in. I think the Pac-10 will be very, very competitive this year.”
The only other first-place vote went to Arizona State. The Sun Devils were rated second on the strength of returning all five starters, including All-Pac-10 sophomore guard James Harden and senior forward Jeff Pendergraph.
Southern California and Arizona rounded out the top four, while Oregon, California, Stanford and Oregon State filled in the bottom four.
In between – prime NCAA tournament bubble territory – were the Washington schools.
“We have Jon Brockman, Justin Dentmon and Artem Wallace – who have all played together three years – and Quincy Pondexter, who has played with those guys for two years,” UW coach Lorenzo Romar said. “So this will be three and four years of them playing together, and I think that’s really important when you put a team out there on the floor that there is some continuity with guys who have played together. ... We also have more playmakers. ... I think we’ve lacked that the last couple of years in terms of the numbers. I think that in turn is going to make us a better basketball team.”
WSU coach Tony Bennett hopes to build around what he calls “our bookends” – guard Taylor Rochestie and center Aron Baynes – his top experienced players.
Rochestie had been scheduled to accompany Bennett to media day, but he stayed in Pullman after suffering a shin injury in practice. Bennett announced with obvious relief that X-rays were negative and the injury doesn’t appear serious.
However, beyond Rochestie and Baynes the rest of the rotation will be filled by three returning role players and 10 first-year players – the most in NCAA Division I.
And while all those new guys add an unknown element to this season, they also personify a plan that has worked for the Bennett family before.
“What our formula at Washington State has been – the way my father (Dick Bennett) did at other places he’s been, the way he did it at Wisconsin and at Washington State – is we get a large group of freshmen, get them a lot of experience, grow with them and hopefully when they become upperclassmen they can be competitive and perhaps successful. That’s what we’re trying to follow.”
Washington State isn’t alone in its rebuilding stage. Seven Pac-10 stars were taken in the first round of the NBA draft, and a league-record 12 players were drafted overall.
That has led to a widespread assumption that this will be a relatively down season for the Pac-10, after sending a league-record nine schools into postseason tournaments last season.
However, six teams return three or more starters. And the league returns four of its top 10 scorers (led by Harden and Brockman – each averaged 17.8 ppg) and four of its top 10 rebounders (led by Brockman, 11.6 ppg).
Those returning players, combined with another highly rated freshman crop, led several league coaches to suggest that conventional wisdom about a down year may be wrong.
“I’m looking forward to a league that I think will be sneaky good,” Bennett said. “I think we’ll surprise some people.”
Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808
PAC-10 PRESEASON POLL
Predicted order of finish from the annual conference media day
1. UCLA. Received 37 of the 38 first-place votes. The NBA has taken three starters from last season's Final Four and Pac-10 championship squad. However, returning seniors Darren Collison, right, Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya will be complemented by another dazzling freshman class. If there's a problem, it could be depth.
2. ARIZONA STATE. Received the only first-place vote that didn't go to the Bruins. Expectations are high because all starters return from last season's 21-win NIT squad. Top returnees are guard James Harden and forward Jeff Pendergraph, who chose another college season over the NBA draft. Still, there's only one senior.
3. SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. USC lost its top two scorers: O.J. Mayo and Davon Jefferson. But the Trojans are aiming for a school-record third straight trip to the NCAA tournament behind guards Daniel Hackett and Dwight Lewis, forward Taj Gibson and an infusion of freshmen and previously injured players expected to return.
4. ARIZONA. The Wildcats have become the league's wild-card team as a returning threesome of stars Jordan Hill, Chase Budinger and Nic Wise is offset by the disruption of coach Lute Olson's shocking resignation. Olson's interim replacement is Russ Pennell, who was an Arizona State radio analyst last season.
5. WASHINGTON. Lorenzo Romar believes these Huskies are tournament contenders again because they have more experienced leaders than at any point since the team's Sweet 16 days. That should make things easier on this highly ranked freshman class. Between the vets and the newcomers, Romar sees more playmakers.
6. WASHINGTON STATE. The core of WSU's glory run Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver and Robbie Cowgill is gone. Now the challenge falls to guard Taylor Rochestie and center Aron Baynes to keep the program from dipping too far while a handful of first-year players are thrown immediately into coach Tony Bennett's rotation.
7. OREGON. Much like the Cougars, the Ducks will turn to a new generation of players now that the long run led by Malik Hairston, Maarty Leunen and Bryce Taylor is over. Returning starters Tajuan Porter and Joevan Catron will try to keep things afloat while another lauded freshman class eases in.
8. CALIFORNIA. The Golden Bears lost forward Ryan Anderson and center DeVon Hardin to the NBA. However, they might have gained a lot with the hiring of Pac-10 coaching legend Mike Montgomery. His initial challenge will be getting enough out of his strong guard corps to compensate for the lack of big men.
9. STANFORD. First-year coach Johnny Dawkins steps in for Trent Johnson, who bolted to LSU. His top priority will be finding anyone to step in for 7-footers Brook and Robin Lopez, who left for the NBA. Their departure moves Cardinal hopes to returnees Lawrence Hill, Anthony Goods and O'Dea's Mitch Johnson.
10. OREGON STATE. The Beavers were 0-18 in the Pac-10 last season, costing Jay John his job. With nowhere to go but up, OSU reached across the country to hire Craig Robinson – 30-28 in two seasons at Brown and Barack Obama's brother-in-law. It remains to be seen if Robinson or Obama has the tougher task ahead.