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Arizona easy choice as Pac-12 basketball favorite

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Picking the preseason No. 1 in Pac-12 basketball is easy.

Predicting which teams come next is mostly a roll of the dice.

Arizona was the runaway winner of the media poll at Pac-12 Media Day in San Francisco on Thursday, picking up 31 of the 32 first-place votes. The other first-place nod went to UCLA, prompting Pac-12 Networks analyst Kevin O’Neill to quip on air that the voter “was drunk that day.”

Utah edged Colorado for second place in the balloting. UCLA was fourth, followed by Stanford and Washington.

Arizona is loaded.

The Wildcats return senior point guard T.J. McConnell, junior shooting guard Gabe York, junior center Kaleb Tarczewski, junior forward Brandon Ashley and sophomore wing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Add in five eligible newcomers, notably freshman wing Stanley Johnson — arguably the best player to come out of famed Southern California powerhouse Mater Dei — and coach Sean Miller’s primary concern appears to be keeping everybody happy in what he says will be a balanced approach.

“We’re at that point now where, as we start to define roles, it’s important that guys stay within the framework of that role, embrace it and do the very best they can,” Miller said.

Arizona, which reached the NCAA Tournament West regional final last season, is No. 2 in the national preseason coaches poll and is No. 1 in multiple publications, including the Sporting News. No other Pac-12 team will start the season in the coaches’ Top 25.

Arizona State coach Herb Sendek called Arizona the “clear-cut” leader but noted the competitive depth in the league. Last season, one game separated third place from ninth place.

“As for the rest of the league, you could probably put everybody in a hat, shake it up, and have just as good a chance at predicting the order of finish as we are able to do sitting here today,” Sendek said.

“We all know at the end not only will the league standings be close … but beyond that, the games are going to come down to the final possession. So how anybody short of Nostradamus could sit here today and predict like there really is a difference between ninth and 10th or eighth and ninth just is unreasonable.”

Utah appears poised for a breakthrough after finishing 9-9 in the league a season ago. The Utes return every key player, including senior guard Delon Wright, arguably the best player in the Pac-12. He averaged 15.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists while shooting 56.1 percent from the field in his first season out of junior college.

“He’s a classic definition of a stat-sheet stuffer,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak.

“People talked about needing to be stronger. He’s gotten stronger and put on weight. Shooting ability, I have no question in my mind that he’s going to be consistent from the perimeter. Finally, the most important thing is his ability to now be a leader.”

Colorado returns everybody of importance, minus departed point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who missed the last half of last season anyway because of a knee injury. The Buffs will be led by senior guard Askia Booker, junior forward Xavier Johnson and junior forward Josh Scott. Coach Tad Boyle added freshman guard Dominique Collier, who turned down offers from Arizona and Kansas.

“What I love about our team is we have good versatility,” Boyle said. “We have a lot of guys that can guard a lot of positions, play multiple positions. We have good basketball players that have good basketball instincts.”

UCLA lost NBA first-rounders Zach LaVine, Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson from a team that went 28-9 and reached the Sweet 16 in Steve Alford’s first season as the Bruins coach. He’ll turn to son Bryce, a sophomore point guard, to emerge from his role as a valuable reserve.

“Bryce has the ability to lead; he has the ability to make people around him better,” Alford said. “He understands ball control, understands what we want to do offensively and defensively. I think he’s a guy that the team will look to for leadership, and that’s going to be a key for us.”

UCLA and everybody else will be trying to prevent Arizona from winning back-to-back regular-season titles while boosting the Pac-12’s mediocre reputation. Cal, Oregon, Arizona State, USC, Washington

Up to the minute news and reports from the news wire of The Sports Xchange.

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