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Chasing Arizona: Pac-12 Hoops Close in on Favored Wildcats

The Arizona Wildcats will wear a target, although a slightly smaller one than they’ve had the past two seasons.

The Pac-12 media tabbed Sean Miller’s team to win a third consecutive league title in voting released Thursday morning in advance of the conference’s Media Day in San Francisco, but the results showed a split of opinion.

Arizona received half of the 36 first-place votes and earned 406 points. The Cats edged out second-place Cal, which was atop nine ballots and had 378 points. Utah had seven first-place votes.

The chase is on.

“We all have to look at them coming after us as a good thing,” Miller said recently.

“It’s probably more about what’s happened before, not what is happening maybe from this point forward.”

Let’s just say that we don’t see Arizona winning the league by three games, which has been the case in each of the past two years.

Expectations are a tad lower for UA in the wake of losing four starters, while Cal reloaded with a fabulous recruiting class that includes McDonald’s All-Americans Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown. In fact, in a poll of TodaysU.com contributors, the Bears come in 12th nationally in its preseason Top 25, one spot better than Arizona.

“This is what we live for,” said Arizona senior guard Gabe York.

“We want to prove them wrong. I hope very soon we get that target on our back again, because that is going to make us a better team. But, for now, being pushed under the rug is probably great for this team.

“We’re not the same team as we were last year. We don’t have the big-name players anymore, but we do have a team that is very consistent right now, a team that jells really well together.”

The case for Arizona includes the deepest roster in the league, one of the most experienced frontcourts that you’ll ever find among an elite college basketball program, and a promising new starting point guard.

The case for Cal includes Rabb, Brown and senior guard Tyrone Wallace, a leading candidate for conference player of the year. He averaged 17.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists last season. Those three, plus junior guards Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird could very well be the best starting five in the league.

The case for Utah is the trust everyone has in coach Larry Krystkowiak and the presence of 7-foot sophomore Jakob Poeltl, a potential lottery pick. The Utes say they’re deeper than last season, which is their hope in being able to collectively replace the skills of do-it-all guard Delon Wright.

The case for Oregon starts with the Ducks being another well-coached team, and Dana Altman will mix in freshman guard Tyler Dorsey and Villanova transfer guard Dylan Ennis to a lineup that includes returning frontcourt starters in Elgin Cook (13.0 ppg), Jordan Bell (school-record 94 blocks last season) and Dillon Brooks (11.5 ppg). That’s another fabulous starting five.

UCLA is a year away from potential greatness, but is never far from the discussion of the league’s best teams. Oregon State has marvelous senior guard Gary Payton II, a pest on both ends of the floor, and four other returning starters — plus a Top 25 recruiting class that includes four-star guard Stephen Thompson Jr. (whose dad in an OSU assistant) and four-star forward Trey Tinkle (whose dad, Wayne Tinkle, is the head coach).

So, Arizona, which has lost a total of four conference games in the past two seasons, will have more resistance.

“We all embrace where we’re at,” Miller said of his team.

“We know the tradition. We have done a very good job recently of not relying on the past to give us respect, not riding the coattails of the former great players and the teams that have been here. This year is no different. …

“Unless you’re John Calipari, nobody has won more games than we have in the past two years. I’ll say that again. Nobody. When you win 67 in two years, that is not something you just go up and stick on the wall, that is something you have great pride in. But that has nothing to do with how we’re going to be this year.”

The bottom half of the league is a bit sketchy, but we’ve made the case the Miller’s success at Arizona has created the rising tide that is lifting all Pac-12 boats. This is a deeper and improving league that is on the Wildcats’ heels.

York was asked which team he would pick to win the league, if not Arizona.

“Nobody,” he said.

“I’m very confident in what we can do. … I’m not trying to start any trouble — I don’t want you guys to say I’m overconfident and stuff — but we’ve honored the process to a T this year. We’ve dominated our preseason, and we’ve all grown and gotten a lot better.

“I don’t plan on (the league) being any other way than it has the past two years.”

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