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November 2, 2006

UCLA picked to repeat as Pac-10 champs

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LOS ANGELES - As expected, UCLA has been picked to successfully defend its Pac-10 championship in a poll of media members. Bruins coach Ben Howland isn't sure that's a good thing.

"I don't put much stock into it," Howland said Thursday at the conference's annual media day. "I wish it meant we were going to finish first, that would be great. Three people picked us for first last year."

Twenty-one of 35 voters tabbed the Bruins to win the championship this season, and the Bruins collected 335 points to 280 for runner-up Arizona, which got 13 first-place votes. The Wildcats were picked to win the title in each of the past four media polls, and were successful twice during that time.

Howland frowned as he checked out previous selections, noting that the last time the Bruins were favored by the media, in the 2001-02 season, they finished sixth.

Considering their outstanding depth and talent, such a finish would be a major surprise this year.

"I think you're going to see a really competitive league from top to bottom," said 72-year-old Lute Olson, beginning his 24th season as the coach at Arizona. "The team with the obvious edge is UCLA."

Washington collected 236 points to finish third in the poll, followed by Oregon (one first-place vote, 193 points); California (177 points); Southern California (160 points); Stanford (127 points); Oregon State (75 points); Arizona State (69 points), and Washington State (54 points).

After winning the Pac-10's regular-season championship and tournament title, the Bruins (32-7) reached the NCAA championship game last spring before losing to Florida. Jordan Farmar, Ryan Hollins and Cedric Bozeman are gone and now playing in the NBA, but leading scorer Arron Afflalo, Josh Shipp, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Darren Collison, Lorenzo Mata and Alfred Aboya are among the returnees.

Shipp was limited to four games last season because of an injured right hip, but Howland said the 6-foot-5 forward is close to 100 percent physically.

"He's a fantastic basketball player," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said of Shipp. "You put him on their team, they're going to do well."

The Huskies return only two starters from a team that went 26-7 and reached the third round of the NCAA tournament before losing to Connecticut 98-92 in overtime. But in Spencer Hawes, a 7-footer from Seattle, they landed a McDonald's All-American considered one of the nation's top recruits last year.

Howland called the Huskies' inside combination of Hawes and Jon Brockman the 1-2 power forward-center duo in the conference.

Arizona is coming off its 19th straight 20-win season and a fourth-place finish in the Pac-10, but the Wildcats have four starters back including sophomore standout Marcus Williams and senior Mustafa Shakur, the Pac-10's leading active scorer (950 points) and playmaker (455 assists).

"I think we have three freshmen who will have an impact on the season," Olson said, referring to McDonald's All-American Chase Budinger, Nic Wise and Jordan Hill.

Oregon also returns four starters including Malik Hairston and Aaron Brooks. The Ducks upset Washington in the second round of the Pac-10 tournament last March before losing to California in the semifinals 91-87.

Cal, one of four Pac-10 teams to win at least 20 games last season, returns point guard Ayinde Ubaka and center DeVon Hardin. Howland said if he could choose on big man in the Pac-10, it would be Hardin.

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