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October 30, 2007

Pac-10 loaded in part due to big men

MORE: Rivals.com Preseason Power Rankings

Rivals.com has selected the top 25 storylines for the 2007-08 college basketball season and will be releasing articles daily, counting down from No. 25 to No. 1. The No. 7 storyline centers on the rapidly improving Pac-10, which returns a host of its top players and an impressive crop of big men.

The Pac-10 has a realistic shot of sending eight teams to the 2008 NCAA Tournament.

That may not sound particularly impressive considering the Big East set a record by sending eight teams to the NCAA Tournament just a year ago. However, the Big East number is a bit misleading since the conference expanded to 16 teams. Many leagues have sent more than half of their teams to the Big Dance.

No conference has ever sent 80 percent of its teams. That's why it could be a historic year on the West Coast, where the Pac-10 has never looked stronger.

Eight of its teams are ranked among the top 33 in Rivals.com's preseason top 64. UCLA leads the way at No. 3, followed by USC (No. 9), Arizona (No. 12), Stanford (No. 13) and Washington State (No. 14) - the biggest surprise of last season with its second-place finish in the league.

Oregon comes next at No. 22, followed by Washington (No. 31) and California (No. 33). Those first six teams were all ranked in the USA Today/ESPN preseason top 25 and Washington and Cal both received votes.

"It could really be a ridiculous year in the league," Arizona senior guard Jawann McClellan said. "There are a lot of good teams picked in the middle of the conference who are also in a lot of preseason top 15s. UCLA looks great. USC is improving fast. Oregon and Washington bring back most of their key players. It's going to be really, really tough."

The Bruins may have the best chance of bringing a national title back to the Pac-10 since Arizona last won it all in 1997. The veteran-laden team, which is coming off back-to-back Final Four runs, doesn't appear to have any glaring weaknesses. The return of guards Darren Collison and Josh Shipp will give them one of the nation's top backcourts again. But, unlike the previous two years, it appears the Bruins will have a major inside presence. Freshman Kevin Love (6 feet 10, 250 pounds) was the top-ranked center in the 2007 recruiting class. A great rebounder who likes to bang around the basket, Love will add a new dimension for the Bruins.

The Cougars return every starter from a team that won 24 games and went 13-5 in league play. Guard Derrick Low and forward Kyle Weaver showed they belong among the nation's elite players by earning spots on the U.S. team at the Pan-American Games this past summer.

Every starter is back from a young Stanford team that reached the 2007 NCAA Tournament. If 7-footer Brook Lopez returns to action he is currently suspended indefinitely and will miss at least the first nine games because of academic issues the Cardinal will have one of the nation's top front lines with forward Lawrence Hill (15.7 ppg) and Brook's twin, 7-foot center Robin Lopez (2.3 bpg).

The Oregon Ducks are also an experienced squad, thanks to the return of four starters from last season's Elite Eight team. The one loss, point guard Aaron Brooks was the leading scorer at 17.7 ppg, is a major blow. However, guards Tajuan Porter (14.6 ppg) and Bryce Taylor (14.1 ppg) both carried the offense at times last season.

The Trojans lost three double-digit scorers Nick Young, Gabe Pruitt and Lodrick Stewart who combined to average 43.8 ppg. But they welcome in a stellar recruiting class. The group is led by mega-hyped guard O.J. Mayo, the No. 4 prospect in the 2007 class, and five-star forward Davon Jefferson. Sophomore power forward Taj Gibson, who averaged 12.2 ppg and a team-high 8.7 rpg last season, will provide a steady scoring threat in the post.

Nobody lost more than Arizona, which said goodbye to its leading scorer (Marcus Williams), leading assist man (Mustafa Shakur) and leading rebounder (Ivan Radenovic), but the program remains one of the most talented in the league. Forward Chase Budinger was the Pac-10's 2006-07 Freshman of the Year. Five-star recruits Jerryd Bayless and Jamelle Horne have the skills to make immediate impacts.

Washington and Cal appear poised for sharp improvement after falling down the league standings. The Huskies, who had been to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments before last season, return four starters. That includes Jon Brockman, who led the league with 9.6 rpg. Transfer Tim Morris, a starting guard at Stanford, could start and will give the team a deeper backcourt. The Bears welcome back 6-11 center DeVon Hardin, who has been projected as a first-round draft pick. Hardin missed most of last season with a leg injury. Hardin will team with forward Ryan Anderson, who ranked fifth in the league in scoring (16.3 ppg) and rebounding (8.2 rpg).

The key for nearly every team lies in the frontcourt. If you can't get steady production on the inside, it will be tough just to survive.

Rivals.com's preseason power rankings (which rank the top players at each position) has four Pac-10 players among the top 15 power forwards: Gibson (No. 4), Anderson (No. 5), Brockman (No. 7) and Oregon's Maarty Leunen (No. 15). There are also four Pac-10 players in the top 15 in the center rankings: Love (No. 4), Hardin (No. 7), Arizona State's Jeff Pendergraph (No. 12) and Robin Lopez (No. 13).

No other league can come close to matching that amount of quality big men. They create the foundation for what may be one of the deepest conferences college basketball has ever seen.

MORE: Rivals.com Preseason Power Rankings

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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