Fischer: Pac-12 hoops is looking ahead

SAN FRANCISCO -- There was no elephant in the room at the Pac-12 men’s basketball media day on Thursday. One may have expected there would be one, everybody looking back at last season and the results produced by the conference on the hard court.

There was no getting around it, as every coach fully acknowledged, that last year was a down year for the league. The regular season champion, Washington, failed to make the NCAA tournament. The Pac-12 didn’t have a win over a top 25 team until Colorado knocked off UNLV during March Madness.

[See photos from men's basketball media day on Facebook]

Yet all the coaches, players and media would discuss Thursday afternoon was the future. It wasn’t just typical media day talk either; to a man the 2012-13 season is about much more than the upcoming games.

“The Pac-12 Network, this whole building, what's happening with the conference is huge in terms of becoming more of a national player,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said. “The easy access into everybody's home back East I think is going to really help this conference recruit better on a national level, which I think is very important for our continued rise.

Arizona and UCLA are a big part of the positive buzz around the league this year. Just a point separates them at the top of the conference preseason media poll. Both have talented freshman classes  -- ranked in the top three in the country by most recruiting services -- combined with a handful of veterans. Both are in the top 15 of the AP and USA Today men's basketball coaches polls.

“This is my fourth year in the Pac‑12,” Wildcats coach Sean Miller said. “I think it will be the most talented and deepest conference that I've been a coach in.”

[Related: Pac-12 men's basketball media day photos, highlights, tweets and more]

Optimism isn’t limited to those with a view from the top either, as Pac-12 depth was a near constant refrain among coaches on Thursday. In a welcome change to many schools, there was no coaching turnover for the first time in more than a decade. Four teams drew first place votes in the conference media poll, and a slew of seniors at key spots among the other conference teams could result in yet another close race for the regular season title.

Forget last year. Everywhere you looked optimism ran high.

USC suffered a number of injuries but is back to full strength, Washington State and Oregon State return the bulk of their squads while Stanford is coming off a NIT championship with expectations higher than ever heading into Johnny Dawkins’ fifth year as head coach.

“This league is really up again and I'm really confident that the league is going to be real strong,” Howland said. “I think it's good for everyone in the conference and we're rooting for everybody in those non-conference games for us to get some quality wins here in November and December.”

Much of the weight to get those wins falls on UCLA this season, which will host several notable games in the renovated Pauley Pavilion and also travel to a tournament at the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Though top freshman Shabazz Muhammad has yet to receive clearance from the NCAA to play, guard Kyle Anderson was declared eligible on Wednesday and Howland hasn’t been shy about North Carolina transfer Larry Drew II running the point in what should be a more uptempo offense this season. A formidable frontcourt should pose a problem for any team in the country as one of the marquee programs in college basketball looks to make a return to the top.

The rest of the league will be looking to do their share as well. Stanford has 15 opponents on the docket who made it to the postseason a season ago. All across the Pac-12 there are a number of opportunities to restore the luster lost last year before conference play starts in January.

“A lot of it is being projected on what might be or what should be based on potential,” said Montgomery. “Of course you expect it to happen, but until it does, we'll wait and see. I think the league has gotten a lot better, I really do.”

This season also marks the first under the Pac-12’s new media deal. A year ago, 90 basketball games were not on television. Between ESPN, Fox Sports and the brand new Pac-12 Networks, all 142 regular season games will be broadcast nationally.

With experienced coaching staffs, greater exposure, an incoming wave of talent and the strong finish from a number of teams a year ago, media day was about much more than tired cliches and talk of senior leadership.

“There seems to be a buzz around here about the Pac‑12 and where it's headed,” summed up Washington coach Lorenzo Romar.

“I think what the conference has done is upgraded everything, basketball-wise, from A to Z,” USC’s Kevin O’Neill said. “And that's going to show in our play this year.”

[Related: 2012-13 Pac-12 men's basketball TV schedule]


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