Everybody, but everybody, is picking the University of Arizona to unseat UCLA as the Pacific 10 Conference basketball champion this season. And with the Pac-10 tournament scheduled for the McKale Center on the Arizona campus, go ahead and pick Arizona to win the conference tournament, too.
Raves have been running so rampant that USC Coach George Raveling couldn't resist a little overstatement to go along with the over-enthusiasm, saying: "I'm just happy as hell to be in a league that has a team of the magnitude of Arizona."
Arizona Coach Lute Olson will be watching UCLA closely all season, keeping tabs on UCLA's tall, deep but very young front line. He already knows that UCLA guards Pooh Richardson and Dave Immel are a couple of the best anywhere.
"I think who wins this conference will depend on how UCLA's youngsters develop," Olson said.
There aren't too many open-ended questions regarding his team. From the team that finished a close second to UCLA last season, he has six starters back, the five from 1986-87 and Steve Kerr, a starter before he tore up a knee during the World Championships in the summer of '86 and had to redshirt last season.
Among the returnees, all-conference forward Sean Elliott averaged 19.3 points and 6 rebounds a game. Kerr gives Arizona firepower from behind the three-point line and strong leadership on the court.
If those young, brawny Bruins come along, this Pac-10 season could go down to the final week, maybe even the final game, Olson figures.
Arizona State Coach Steve Patterson, a former Bruin who may have reason to inflate the Wildcats' worth since they are in-state rivals, said: "Arizona is the clear favorite in the league, and UCLA is the only team that has a possibility to contend with them."
That, too, seems to be consensus among the league's coaches. The sleepers are way, way back in this race.
And the sleepers could be just about any of the rest--except maybe Washington State.
USC, the team that finished in last place under new Coach Raveling a year ago, "will not be the same" in the opinion of UCLA Coach Walt Hazzard, who is predicting better things for the Trojans.
Besides three returning starters--forward Bob Erbst and guards Rich Grande and Brad Winslow--the Trojans are looking forward to having Anthony Pendleton, a guard who originally signed with Iowa, and Alan Pollard, who transferred from Brigham Young.
Raveling expressed optimism, and then put it in nice, neat perspective: "Can we win the conference? I doubt it. Can we finish somewhere between second and fifth? Very likely."
Stanford, under second-year coach Mike Montgomery, figures to be a factor. The Cardinal is getting back Todd Lichti and Terry Taylor at guard, along with forward-center Howard Wright. Center Eric Reveno was expected back, too, but he is having trouble with a herniated disk and is out for the season.
California was looking like a contender early but the Bears, too, suffered a major setback when their only returning starter, Leonard Taylor, their big guy, broke his foot jogging. Taylor, 6 foot 8 inches and potentially the best big man in the league, missed 11 games last season with a back problem.
Cal Coach Lou Campanelli said: "He was going to be a cornerstone of a very young team."
Campanelli is not sure whether Taylor will return this season, and said he will not rush him.
Cal, though, is looking forward to having Matt Beeuwsaert, a transfer from Notre Dame. "With both of them, we'd have a nice, solid front line," Campanelli said.
Oregon State Coach Ralph Miller will be without center Jose Ortiz. Ortiz and Washington's Chris Welp were the best big men in the league, and Miller says that what's left for him is "absolutely the smallest college basketball team I've seen in 20 years."
Miller almost always finds the way to a winning season. But, for now, he's saying: "The only possibility of coming out alive is to have speed . . . good pressure-type defense and a good fast break. . . . I wouldn't feel quite so bad if these kids had the experience to do that, but they just don't have it."
Despite all that, Oregon State is starting 7-1 center Johan Reinalda from the Netherlands, and Miller reports that Reinalda's progress has been encouraging.
Oregon Coach Don Monson isn't making any promises, either. He does have a star in Anthony Taylor, but at this point he's not sure about whether he has much else.
Monson said: "Anthony Taylor is as good a player as any in the league. He's our captain, our catalyst. He's our excitement. One of the proud things I have is that he's from the state of Oregon. He's at the heart of what we're trying to do."
The Oregon team suffered a tragedy on Mother's Day when Jesse Nash, one of three returning starters, drowned.
Monson is trying to establish a lineup that's a blend of his seven old and seven new players.
Arizona State has a lot to replace after losing all-conference guard Steve Beck, but Patterson has brought in some interesting transfer students to make for competition.
The grandstand act at Arizona State will be Joey Johnson, brother of Celtic star Dennis Johnson, who is coming in from Southern Idaho Junior College.
He's a leaper who, according to Hazzard, "is going to go into orbit one of these days."
When Patterson asked him about his vertical leap, he told his coach: "I go as high as I need to." Patterson calls him, "A prime time player."
Washington Coach Andy Russo was 20-15 last season but has to list this year as iffy because four of his starters left. "Characterize us as a good, young team," he said.
Washington State is in for a long, hard season if the new coach is correct in his early assessment--and he should be. The new coach, named in April to replace Len Stevens, is Kelvin Sampson, who was on the staff and knows the squad. He's going along with the idea that his team will likely finish last.
But he's trying to build a Washington State tradition.
He said: "Our team needs a signature, a personality. What do you think of when you think of Indiana? Or when you think of UCLA? Those teams have an identity, a personality. I think our goal will be to establish a philosophy in our program to work hard and to over-achieve."
Somehow that doesn't sound like a sure-fire recipe for instant success.