Despite Washington's regular-season and postseason success in recent years, the Huskies were never a preseason pick to win the Pacific 10 Conference — until now.
With four starters back from a team that won the conference tournament and advanced to a regional semifinal last season, the Huskies were the runaway choice by media members, earning 33 of 35 first-place votes.
"It's flattering," Huskies Coach Lorenzo Romar said Thursday at LA Live during Pac-10 media day. "I wish they would give us the conference championship because of the voting… I like our team, but we were just at practice this week, and I don't know if we're ready to win a Pac-10 [title] right now. We've got a lot of work to do."
Even though Arizona was picked as runner-up to the Huskies, Wildcats Coach Sean Miller said, "You can see four or five teams that will compete for second."
UCLA and Arizona each picked up one first-place vote, and the Bruins were picked third, followed by Arizona State, Washington State, USC, California, Oregon State, Stanford and Oregon.
For the first time, the final two rounds of both the Pac-10 men's and women's tournaments will be played at Staples Center.
The women's semifinal games will precede the men's semifinals March 11 and the women's championship will precede the men's title game March 12. The first two rounds of the women's tournament will be held at the Galen Center.
"So much of March Madness doesn't begin with the NCAA tournament; it begins with the conference tournament," Miller said. "To see both the men and women together should bring more people to our event and continue to make the Pac-10 tournament something we're all proud of."
Pac-10 Commissioner Larry Scott announced that the conference would dedicate this season to legendary UCLA Coach John Wooden, who died in June at 99.
The conference will produce a sportsmanship public-service announcement to air during football and basketball broadcasts based on Wooden's famed Pyramid of Success. The announcement will also be shown in every Pac-10 arena during the season.
The conference's coach-of-the-year award in both men's and women's basketball will be renamed the John Wooden Coach of the Year Award. Wooden's family will also be honored during the Pac-10 tournament.
UCLA Coach Ben Howland said he expected the Pac-10 to bounce back on the national landscape after sending only two teams to the NCAA tournament last season.
"When you look around the league, there are some good teams returning and some veterans who have been there before," said Howland, noting that the core of Washington's and Arizona's teams are back.
Howland also pointed to Washington State's returning backcourt duo of Klay Thompson and Reggie Moore and USC's returning frontcourt of Alex Stepheson and Nikola Vucevic as reasons to expect better things from the conference.
As far as his Bruins are concerned, Howland said the nucleus of guard Malcolm Lee and forwards Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson was "significantly better than it was a year ago at this time" because of improvements the players made during the off-season.
Lee was supposed to accompany Howland downtown, but the junior guard had a midterm exam. Honeycutt and Nelson also had commitments.
So Howland brought freshman Joshua Smith, the hulking center who talked about shedding weight to adapt to the college game after sitting out most of his final high school season because of a knee injury.
"It's a lot faster than high school," Smith said. "I realized that the first time I was able to play with them."
USC Coach Kevin O'Neill joked when asked what he would do if Stepheson and/or Vucevic got in foul trouble, considering the only players of size to replace them are freshman forwards Curtis Washington and Garrett Jackson.
"We'll probably have to play smaller a lot of the time if we have foul trouble," O'Neill said, "but we have a no-foul rule this year: Nik and Alex can't foul, and the officials have agreed that they're not going to call more than three or four fouls on either one of those guys."
End of the Pit
Oregon's famed McArthur Court, built in 1926 and considered one of basketball's most intimidating arenas because of the fans' proximity to the court, will close this season as the Ducks move into the $227-million Matthew Knight Arena.
Oregon's first game in the new building will be Jan. 13 against USC, and first-year Coach Dana Altman said the new arena won't be too different from Mac Court, as it was known.
"There are no suites, the facility is 12,600 seats, and everybody is really close to the court," Altman said. "The one sideline will be all students, under one basket will be all students. All the seats are very close."