LOS ANGELES -- California was picked on Thursday to win the Pac-10 men's basketball title, marking the first time in more than 10 years that UCLA or Arizona wasn’t the top choice.
The Golden Bears received 350 points and 25 first-place votes in polling by media who cover the conference. They have never won a Pac-10 regular season title, but the Bears return four senior starters and 94 percent of their scoring from last season.
“There’s a little bit of optimism around,” a droll Cal coach Mike Montgomery said at the conference’s media day.
Defending regular-season champion Washington earned 330 points and seven first-place votes for second.
UCLA was picked third, receiving 302 points and five first-place votes two years after the Bruins won their third consecutive title.
California is ranked 13th and Washington 14th in the AP Top 25 preseason poll. UCLA was the only Pac-10 team among others receiving votes.
In the media poll, Arizona was fourth, followed by Oregon State, Oregon, Arizona State, Washington State, Southern California and Stanford, where Montgomery built a perennial powerhouse before leaving for a brief NBA stint.
Noting his Bears are picked first and Stanford last, Montgomery said, “Probably both predictions are a little bit erroneous.”
Montgomery heads into his second season in Berkeley with returning starters Jerome Randle, Jamal Boykin, Patrick Christopher and Theo Robertson. The Bears tied for third in the conference last season after winning 17 of its first 23 games and then dropping four of its final five league games.
Washington returns starters Isaiah Thomas, Quincy Pondexter and Darnell Gant, who led the Huskies to their first league title in 56 years. Gone are All-Pac-10 center Jon Brockman and guard Justin Dentmon.
Coach Lorenzo Romar compared losing Brockman and Dentmon to a family losing its parents who put food on the table and kept the lights on.
“The food and lights aren’t on as much,” he said. “Our group has to understand the hard work it took and leadership that Brockman and Dentmon provided us. We can’t just stumble into our season and think that because we had some success last year it’s going to continue. We have to really get after it.”
After having six teams in the NCAA tournament each of the last two years, with UCLA making three consecutive Final Four appearances, the Pac-10 is experiencing a huge turnover this season.
The conference has provided a major talent pool for the NBA, with 21 players taken in the draft over the last two years. Fourteen were underclassmen, including 10 who were freshmen or sophomores.
Among the hardest hit schools was UCLA, which lost Darren Collison (a rare four-year player), Josh Shipp, Alfred Aboya and Jrue Holiday to the June draft. A year earlier, Kevin Love departed after his freshman season.
UCLA coach Ben Howland is presiding over his youngest (five freshmen and four sophomores) and least experienced team since arriving in Westwood seven years ago.
The Bruins have been wracked by preseason injuries, and have yet to put the entire roster on the floor in practice.
“We’re just trying to get healthy,” Howland said, pointing out that projected starting point guard Jerime Anderson has yet to practice with 2½ weeks to go before the season opener.
USC is feeling its losses, too.
The draft beckoned Daniel Hackett, Taj Gibson and freshman DeMar DeRozan. An ongoing NCAA investigation involving former star player O.J. Mayo and alleged misdeed by former coach Tim Floyd chased away most of the Trojans’ incoming recruits, leaving new coach Kevin O’Neill to patch together a team.
“I’m still learning a lot about our players,” O’Neill said. “We have a bunch of guys who haven’t played very much.”
Besides O’Neill, also new to the Pac-10 are Arizona’s Sean Miller, who follows in the footsteps of Lute Olson and O’Neill, and Washington State’s Ken Bone, who took over from Tony Bennett.