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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON PAC-10 BASKETBALL

Pac-10 basketball in a season of transition

With a bevy of talent gone to the NBA, the league will have to build itself up again with California and Washington topping the list and UCLA playing catchup.

October 30, 2009|CHRIS DUFRESNE | ON PAC-10 BASKETBALL

"Others receiving votes" in Thursday's release of the preseason Associated Press basketball poll . . . UCLA.

Program currently under NCAA investigation . . . USC.

Program currently under reconstruction . . . Arizona.

Number of the top 15 players in the Pacific 10 Conference last season who are returning . . . four.

Team picked to win the conference this season . . . California.

Last time Cal won it . . . 1960.

Reasons to believe this will be a banner season for the Pac-10 . . . can you think of many?

This is going to be different because different is what happens when you fast-forward 27 players to the NBA draft in three seasons.

Hard as you recruit, try as you might, there comes a point when the ledger doesn't balance in shipping and receiving.

"It's going to be a good league," former UCLA All-American Marques Johnson said Thursday at Pac-10 basketball media day.

"It's not going to be a great league."

Just when we were getting used to great.

Two years ago we had O.J. Mayo versus Kevin Love in the battle for Los Angeles and the Pac-10 standing among the nation's elite leagues. UCLA went to three straight Final Fours and, for the last three seasons, the conference qualified six teams for the NCAA tournament.

The coaches can still coach, the players can still play, but there are issues:

* Someone call the poll police, something's gone awry. UCLA starts the season not ranked in either of the leading basketball polling indexes.

"If Duke and North Carolina were not in the top 25, you'd think the [Atlantic Coast Conference] was down," Washington Coach Lorenzo Romar said.

* USC, a team that came a breakaway layup from halting Michigan State's run to last year's NCAA title game, has since broken apart. Former coach Tim Floyd fled town to God knows where, the NCAA has questions, and the star names have been ripped from the Galen Center marquee.

USC was picked to finish ninth by the media, next to last ahead of only Stanford.

* Arizona finally has a permanent replacement for legend Lute Olson. His name is Sean Miller, he came from Xavier, and he's a superstar. He caught a timing break when USC imploded because a couple of star recruits who were headed for L.A. -- Derrick Williams and Lamont "Momo" Jones -- are now in Tucson.

Miller, though, starts basically from scratch, with five freshmen and four sophomores on scholarship.

The school's streak of 25 straight NCAA appearances appears in jeopardy.

"We've never been more vulnerable," Miller conceded. "Can that streak end this year under my watch? Absolutely."

The hard question: Is Arizona a basketball school with bounce-back tradition or was it Lute Olson's singular creation?

It's difficult to deny the league's power drain:

UCLA: Jrue Holiday, Darren Collison, Alfred Aboya, Josh Shipp.

USC: Taj Gibson, Daniel Hackett, DeMar DeRozan.

Arizona: Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill.

Arizona State: James Harden, Jeff Pendergraph

Washington: Jon Brockman, Justin Dentmon.

Washington State: Taylor Rochestie.

Coaches talk about the transition game all the time, and now the entire league is in one.

It's not going to be a YMCA pickup league, far from it, but it's up to the next wave to build a bridge to the 2012 NBA draft.

Mark this down: There will be stars.

"We just don't know who they are yet," Johnson said.

You can start with Washington guard Isaiah Thomas, who averaged 16 points a game last season as a freshman. Cal has a senior-led squad of familiar names -- Jerome Randle, Patrick Christopher, Jamal Boykin.

Arizona still has Nic Wise, Oregon still has Tajuan Porter, Arizona State still has Derek Glasser, USC still has Dwight Lewis.

UCLA needs its seniors to be seniors and the young stars to slide-step forward -- Jerime Anderson, Malcolm Lee, Drew Gordon.

"It's been unbelievable," UCLA Coach Ben Howland said of the conference's recent run. "Three years in a row this conference has had 60% of the league in the NCAA tournament. . . . The league's going to be every bit as tough as it's been.

"Obviously, when you lose that many guys to the NBA you have a little talent overhaul, but there's good young talent coming up from our conference."

The media, for now, are going with the good old talent, picking Cal and its band of graybeards.

Second-year Coach Mike Montgomery, in his second Pac-10 stint after a great run at Stanford, isn't sure his team deserves the mantle even though the Golden Bears finished 22-11 last year.

"There's a little bit of optimism around," Montgomery said as if he were wondering where it came from.

He said his program's goal is to "occasionally take a little peek up into the NCAAs."

Could you imagine a Kentucky coach saying that?

Cal and Washington are this year's Pac leaders, checking in at Nos. 13 and 14 in the first AP poll.

It's the best the Pac-10 can offer in late October, but stick around.

"Having Cal and Washington up there probably hurts the league," Montgomery said in terms of earning national attention.

"You don't have the obvious teams."

The Pac-10 has done obvious before. It's time to see what crapshoot looks like.

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chris.dufresne@latimes.com

twitter.com/DufresneLATimes

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