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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Pac-10 preview: Huskies favored in league, to go far in March

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The Pac-10 is not necessarily the nation's sixth-best league. The Atlantic 10 and Mountain West might actually both be better, and I think they probably are. But with the best of the non-BCS -- otherwise known as a collective preview of the top-level teams that do not play in so-called power leagues -- already out of the way, the CBSSports.com countdown of conferences only includes the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-10 and SEC, and the Pac-10 is the worst of that group by a notable margin.

So let's start there.

Here's a look at the Pac-10:

(Schools listed in predicted order of finish.)

1. Washington

Washington is the clear favorite in the Pac-10 despite losing Quincy Pondexter and his 19.3 points per game, mostly because that's pretty much all that was lost. Isaiah Thomas, Abdul Gaddy, Venoy Overton, Justin Holiday and Matthew Bryan-Amaning are back, and the presence of freshman standout Terrence Ross adds a dynamic scoring threat on the wing. The Huskies had to sneak into the Sweet 16 last season. This season, they should walk right through the front door.
NCAA tournament? Yes

2. UCLA

UCLA, much like North Carolina, let last season slip away early and never really recovered. But this version of the Bruins will be different, and the word from early practices is that Ben Howland likes his team that's headlined by Malcolm Lee, Tyler Honeycutt, Reeves Nelson and a freshman center named Josh Smith, who reported heavy but has reshaped his body and is, I'm told, performing better than UCLA coaches expected. There are still point guard issues, sure. But the Bruins aren't going to miss the NCAA tournament for the second straight season, not with this core of experienced players.
NCAA tournament? Yes

2011 Tournament:
March 9-12 -- Los Angeles
Quick facts
Defending regular-season champion:
California
Defending tournament champion:
Washington
Top returning scorer:
Klay Thompson (Washington St.), 19.6 ppg
Top returning rebounder:
Nikola Vucevic (USC), 9.5 rpg
Accolades
First team
G - Isaiah Thomas, Washington
G - Ty Abbott, Arizona State
F - Klay Thompson, Washington State
F - Derrick Williams, Arizona
F - Nikola Vucevic, USC
Second team
G - Malcolm Lee, UCLA
G - Jeremy Green, Stanford
F - Tyler Honeycutt, UCLA
F - Reeves Nelson, UCLA
F - Matthew Bryan-Amaning, Washington
Player of the year
Isaiah Thomas, Washington
Newcomer of the year
Josh Smith, UCLA
Breakthrough player
Tyler Honeycutt, UCLA
Coach on the hot seat
None
Click here for more
conference previews

3. Arizona

Nic Wise is the only relevant piece missing from a team that finished fourth in the Pac-10 last season, which means the Wildcats are ready to start another streak of NCAA tournament appearances. Some of that will revolve around whether MoMo Jones can handle the team's point guard duties. But sophomore Derrick Williams is a legitimate All-American candidate after averaging 15.7 points and 7.1 rebounds as a freshman, and Kyle Fogg gives the Wildcats a second returning double-digit scorer. So as long as Jones is adequate, I expect Arizona to take advantage of a league that generally lacks talent, finish no worse than third and make the NCAA tournament for the first time under Sean Miller.
NCAA tournament? Yes

4. Arizona State

The Pac-10's lack of depth should give Herb Sendek a chance to win at least 21 games for the fourth consecutive season, but that's far from a lock because the Sun Devils lost a good big man in Eric Boateng but didn't really add an impact replacement. Even worse is that ASU's leading returning rebounder is Ty Abbott, a 6-foot-3 guard. So Sendek will have to get creative to mask his team's frontcourt deficiencies. That he's kind of brilliant at doing things like this is the best reason for Arizona State fans to be cautiously optimistic.
NCAA tournament? No

5. Southern California

The Trojans will likely start a pair of freshman guards -- Maurice Jones and Bryce Jones -- until Fordham transfer Jio Fontan becomes eligible after the first semester, and that's usually scary unless the freshmen guards are named John Wall and Eric Bledsoe. Still, Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson should be solid enough up front to get the Trojans through their non-league schedule without too many issues, and then they could be good enough in the Pac-10 to earn a postseason bid now that their postseason ban has been lifted.
NCAA tournament? No

6. Washington State

Ken Bone returns three double-digit scorers in Klay Thompson, Reggie Moore and DeAngelo Castro. But the Cougars finished last in the Pac-10 with that core last season, so it's unclear what the experience really means. The prediction here is that Washington State makes a significant jump, but not one significant enough to get second-year coach Ken Bone into the NCAA tournament. That kind of season is still a year away, at least.
NCAA tournament? No

7. California

Mike Montgomery is great, but not great enough that losing his top four scorers -- Jerome Randle, Patrick Christopher, Theo Robertson and Jamal Boykin -- in the same year won't lead to the kind of subpar season he has mostly avoided (except for when he was in the NBA, of course). Montgomery has led his past 12 college teams to the NCAA tournament. I doubt that streak moves to 13.
NCAA tournament? No

8. Oregon State

The Beavers were winless in the Pac-10 the season before Craig Robinson was hired, which is important to note every so often just so people remember exactly what he inherited. (Robinson's brother-in-law backs this strategy too, by the way). Class of 2009 standout Roberto Nelson is finally expected to be eligible (at some point this season). That'll make the Beavers better than they'd otherwise be, but probably not good enough to jump into the top half of the league.
NCAA tournament? No

9. Stanford

Johnny Dawkins got good news this week when Chasson Randle, a top 75 point guard from Illinois, committed to the Cardinal, but that won't help this season because Randle won't enroll until next season. Either way, here's the key stat: Stanford's official roster features nine freshmen and zero seniors. If the nine freshmen were future lottery picks, this would be fine. But they're not. So it isn't.
NCAA tournament? No

10. Oregon

Oregon has, since the end of last season, been forced to endure an embarrassing coaching search, multiple player defections and an NCAA investigation into possible improper benefits received by former players. So while everything is splendid with the Ducks football program, the basketball program is kind of a mess. Dana Altman might be able to fix it in time. But it won't happen by the time this season begins.
NCAA tournament? No

2010-11 Season Preview/Conference Countdown Schedule
DateFeatureDateFeature
Fri., Oct. 15Preseason Top 25 (and one) Fri., Oct. 29Conference No. 6: Pac-10
Mon., Oct. 18Preseason All-Americans Mon., Nov. 1Conference No. 5: SEC
Wed., Oct. 20Player rankings: Points/Combos Tues., Nov. 2Conference No. 4: ACC
Thurs., Oct. 21Player rankings: Wings Wed., Nov. 3Conference No. 3: Big East
Fri., Oct. 22Player rankings: Big men Thurs., Nov. 4Conference No. 2: Big 12
Mon., Oct. 25Coaches on the Hot Seat Fri., Nov. 5Conference No. 1: Big Ten
Wed., Oct. 27Best of the non-BCS Mon., Nov. 8Projections: Parrish | Palm

Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for CBSSports.com and frequent contributor to the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts the highest-rated sports talk radio show -- The Gary Parrish Show -- in the history of Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two children and a dog.
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