Wildcats Playing Favorites Again

Times Staff Writer

Ben Howland was in the front of the room as UCLA's new coach.

Steve Lavin chatted in the back, a member of the media in his new job as an ESPN college basketball analyst.

But one thing was very familiar at the Pacific 10 Conference basketball media day Thursday at a hotel near LAX.

Arizona was picked to win.

The Wildcats lost Jason Gardner, Luke Walton and Rick Anderson from the team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation much of last season.

Nevertheless, Arizona was picked to finish first for the fifth time in seven seasons, receiving 26 of 35 first-place votes in a poll of media members. (Arizona has won or shared three of the last six Pac-10 titles.)

"I would pick Arizona just like you," Stanford Coach Mike Montgomery said. "I think Lute [Olson] will thrive with the players he has."

Stanford, with four starters back from a 24-9 team and point guard Chris Hernandez back from foot surgery, was picked second, receiving seven first-place votes.

California was third with one first-place vote, followed by Oregon, USC, UCLA -- picked sixth on the heels of a 10-19 record in Lavin's final season -- Arizona State, Washington, Washington State and Oregon State.

USC Coach Henry Bibby was as surprised as anyone to see the Trojans -- with five starters back from a 13-17 team -- receive a first-place vote.

"One of my buddies, I guess," Bibby said with a laugh. "Maybe it was Steve Lavin. He stuck in a vote maybe."

USC plays its first exhibition at 7 tonight at the Lyon Center against the L.A. City All-Stars. Junior forward Nick Curtis, who has a sore knee, probably will not play, Bibby said. Senior guard Roy Smiley, still recuperating from the broken left leg he suffered in the Pac-10 tournament title-game loss to Oregon, also was unsure if he would play.

Howland's debut on the UCLA bench is Wednesday at Pauley Pavilion against the EA Sports West All-Stars, whose roster includes former Bruins Ray Young, Matt Barnes and Ed O'Bannon, creating more pressure for UCLA, which last season lost its two exhibitions.

In a hint of how Howland wants the Bruins to play and his concerns about the Bruins' interior defense, he said 7-foot, 257-pound sophomore Michael Fey is starting at center ahead of 225-pound, 7-0 sophomore Ryan Hollins, who started the final 14 games last season.

"[Fey] has been a more physical post player and a more productive scorer. He's much bigger and wider in the low post and hard to get around," Howland said, emphasizing both players will play and Hollins could be the starter at some point. "That's the closest race by far on the team."

Junior Cedric Bozeman will be the point guard -- Howland is emphatic Bozeman will play point and start ahead of junior Ryan Walcott -- with junior transfer Brian Morrison at shooting guard, at least until the possible return of senior T.J. Cummings from academic ineligibility sometime after the first three games.

With Cummings out, freshman Trevor Ariza from Westchester High will start at Cummings' forward position, with junior Dijon Thompson at the other forward. If Cummings returns, Thompson could move to shooting guard, replacing Morrison.

The choice of Arizona as the conference's top team was an endorsement of the continuing influx of talented recruiting classes in Tucson. Though only two starters return -- center Channing Frye and guard Salim Stoudamire -- last season's standout freshmen, Hassan Adams and Andre Iguodala, are now sophomores, and freshman Mustafa Shakur looks like the next in a tradition of Wildcat point guards.

"I think there are five or six teams that could win it," Arizona's Olson said. "I would be very shocked if it doesn't come down to the last weekend."


Staff writer Paul Gutierrez contributed to this report.

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