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October 14, 2013 at 11:41 AM

Pac-12 preseason prediction: Can anyone challenge Arizona?

Nick Johnson will be expected to shoulder a bigger load for the Wildcats. (USA TODAY Sports)

Nick Johnson will be expected to shoulder a bigger load for the Wildcats. (USA TODAY Sports)

Submitted my ballot for the Pac-12 men’s basketball preseason media poll this morning. Here’s my predicted order of finish for the 2013-14 season:

1. Arizona
2. Colorado
3. Oregon
4. UCLA
5. Arizona State
6. California
7. Stanford
8. Washington
9. Washington State
10. USC
11. Utah
12. Oregon State

And here’s a few notes, including all-conference picks.

PAC-12 ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM

G - Jahii Carson, Arizona State
G – Spender Dinwiddie, COLORADO
G – Kyle Anderson, UCLA
F – Aaron Gordon, Arizona (MVP)
F – Dwight Powell, Stanford

— It’s a little early, but I’m guessing five teams will make the NCAA tournament for a second straight year. But it may not be the first five teams in the regular-season race. Non-conference results will play a major role in determining who makes the Big Dance as well as the Pac-12 Tournament so fear not Washington fans.

— I’d be surprised if Arizona isn’t the consensus preseason favorite. On paper, the Wildcats are loaded.¬† Still, you have to wonder if coach Sean Miller knows how to coach five-star recruits. He’s done his best with underachievers at Xavier. He’s entering his fifth year at Arizona and the Wildcats have two fourth-place conference finishes on his watch despite arguably having the most talent in the league. This season there’s not much debate about Arizona’s talent. The Wildcats lost Solomon Hill and Grant Jerrett – both taken in the NBA draft – and point guard Mark Lyons from a team that finished second in the Pac-12 last season. Despite the losses, Arizona is probably better. Junior guard Nick Johnson, sophomore center Kaleb Tarzewski and Gordon all-conference potential.

— Colorado is seemingly the best of the rest of teams chasing Arizona. The Buffaloes finished fifth in the conference last season largely because they were 4-5 in road league games. Colorado has loads of talent in Spencer Dinwiddie, Askia Booker and Josh Scott, but it remains to be seen if it has a leader. Dinwiddie has NBA potential, but he tends to fade in big moments.

— A third-place predicted finish just might be a little high for Oregon, but then coach Dana Altman has proved he knows how to pull the most from teams saddled with low expectations. The Ducks won the Pac-12 Tournament title last season and they return perhaps the league’s best backcourt in sophomore guards Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson. However, the front court needs work. All three big men left and Oregon is counting on a big season from transfer Mike Moser.

— New coach Steve Alford takes over a team that won the Pac-12 regular-season title last season and returns three starters. So why are so many people overlooking the Bruins? History has a lot to do with it. UCLA has underachieved in recent years. It also remains to be seen if Alford can improve the team’s chemistry. The fiery coach inherits a squad fractured by discipline problems under former coach Ben Howland.

— Sophomore Jahii Carson will likely be taken in the first round of the NBA draft next summer. But can the 5-10 point guard carry the Sun Devils to the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2009? He’s the highest returning scorer in the conference who averaged 18.5 points last season.

— Told myself I wouldn’t pick against Hall of Fame coach Mike Montgomery, but California would be fortunate to finish in the upper half of the conference considering the Golden Bears lost leading scorer Allen Crabbe. Still there’s plenty of talent in Berkley. Newcomer Jabari Bird is a nice replacement for Crabbe and senior guard Justin Cobbs is a stud. But is Richard Solomon tough enough inside? Can Ricky Kreklow stay healthy? And is David Kravish ready to make consistent contributions?

— No team returns as much proven talent as Stanford. But let’s be honest, the Cardinal has underachieved in recent years. We’ve been waiting for coach Johnny Dawkins to have a breakout season and it just hasn’t happened. Got to wonder if he’ll survive if Stanford fails to make the NCAA tournament.

— Too many questions with Washington to predict they’ll finish any higher than eighth in the conference. The Huskies will need to overachieve to make it into the top of the league and perhaps pull out a NCAA tournament berth. C.J. Wilcox is the unquestioned leader, but is anyone else going to step up?

— There seems to be a consensus¬† on the bottom four teams. Washington State, USC, Utah and Oregon State will battle to stay our of the cellar.

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