It's a rite of fall that Pac-10 basketball coaches declare their conference, from top to bottom, is better than it has been in years. This year, they might...

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It’s a rite of fall that Pac-10 basketball coaches declare their conference, from top to bottom, is better than it has been in years.


This year, they might actually be right.


Unlike the past three seasons, when there was an obvious favorite or two, the Pac-10 is a harder call at the top, with Arizona, Stanford and UCLA all getting first-place votes in the preseason media poll, and Washington, California and Oregon also able to make a legitimate case for contenderhood.


And while there are some obvious bottom-feeders, all but Arizona State appear to be on the upswing, making for a conference that should feature few easy nights and lots of intrigue.


Here’s a quick look at each team entering the season.


Arizona


THE MISSION: As always, the Wildcats are a contender for the Pac-10 title and a deep NCAA tournament run, despite the loss of all-conference players Channing Frye and Salim Stoudamire. Every other significant player returns, led by senior swingman Hassan Adams.


THE STAR: Adams is one of the flashiest players in the country and after resisting the lure of the NBA, seems set to have his best season. How versatile is Adams? Last year he led Arizona in steals and was second in rebounding and assists.


THE NEWCOMER: The Huskies couldn’t keep all of last year’s marvelous Seattle high school class at home and one who got away, Marcus Williams of Roosevelt, should make an impact immediate as a swingman for the Wildcats.


THE QUESTION MARK: Can mercurial junior point guard Mustafa Shakur finally play to his potential? Word is he’s ready for a breakout year now that the domineering presence of Stoudamire beside him is gone.


Stanford


THE MISSION: With three potential all-conference players back — point guard Chris Hernandez, swingman Dan Grunfeld and forward Matt Haryasz — the Cardinal looks to improve on last season’s 18-13 record in the first year for coach Trent Johnson.


THE STAR: Of Stanford’s Big Three, Hernandez might be the most important. He provides a stabilizing hand at point guard and was among the Pac-10 leaders in three-point shooting and scoring last year as well as assists.


THE NEWCOMER: O’Dea High grad Mitch Johnson should play a prominent role spelling Hernandez at point guard this season, or playing alongside Hernandez.


THE QUESTION MARK: Grunfeld was the breakout player of the year in the Pac-10 last season, averaging 17.9 points before suffering a season-ending knee injury. How quickly he returns to his old self could tell a lot.


UCLA


THE MISSION: UCLA appears on track in the third season of Ben Howland’s rebuilding program. With four starters back and another solid incoming recruiting class, the Bruins should win 20 games for the first time since 2002.


THE STAR: Point guard Jordan Farmar was the Pac-10 freshman of the year last season, ranking second with 5.2 assists per game, and should only get better.


THE NEWCOMER: He’s not that new, but senior guard Cedric Bozeman didn’t play last season because of a knee injury. Now healthy, he could be a real X factor.


THE QUESTION MARK: UCLA has had a lot of injuries early leaving reason to wonder how long it will take a young roster to jell.


Oregon


THE MISSION: After big talk heading into last season, the Ducks didn’t even qualify for the eight-team Pac-10 tournament. Now, with everyone back, the expectations could become reality if the Ducks can cut down turnovers and make more free throws.


THE STAR: Sophomore swingman Malik Hairston came to Eugene last year hyped as the next Carmelo Anthony. He didn’t quite live up to the billing, but after a hard summer of work spent improving his outside shot, he might be ready to now.


THE NEWCOMER: Oregon added a key piece down low when 6-8, 255-pound junior college forward Ivan Johnson arrived in late September after being released from his letter of intent by Cincinnati. He should play immediately and replace injured Mitch Platt in the middle.


THE QUESTION MARK: Can Franklin High grad Aaron Brooks become a true point guard and stabilize a team that is unquestionably talented but erratic?


California


THE MISSION: The Bears missed the NCAA tournament the past two years after qualifying the previous three but are angling for a return thanks to the return to health of several key players and the addition of one talented newcomer.


THE STAR: Sophomore forward Leon Powe was the Pac-10’s freshman of the year two seasons ago but missed last season with a knee injury. Now apparently healthy, word is he’s playing better than ever.


THE NEWCOMER: Omar Wilkes, a 6-4 swingman and the son of Jamaal Wilkes, sat out last year after transferring from Kansas. He’s expected to provide big-time scoring in the backcourt, averaging 17.8 points during Cal’s summer trip to Italy.


THE QUESTION MARK: Ben Braun has long been regarded as one of the better coaches in the conference. But two straight losing years have dimmed his star a bit. Considering that talent doesn’t look like an issue, this could be a make-or-break year for Braun.


Oregon State


THE MISSION: The Beavers finally achieved their first winning record since Gary Payton’s senior season in 1990. This season, with all but one player returning, they hope to show they are back to stay.


THE STAR: Transfer forward Nick DeWitz was one of the Pac-10’s surprise players as a junior a year ago after becoming eligible early in the season. He averaged 14 points and 5.8 rebounds and also ranked among the conference leaders in three-point shooting and blocked shots.


THE NEWCOMER: Angelo Tsagarakis isn’t new, but the sophomore guard didn’t play a year ago after hurting his shoulder. Now healthy, he could become one of the most dangerous three-point shooters in the conference.


THE QUESTION MARK: OSU lost just one player from last year’s team — David Lucas — but he left a big hole, averaging 18.5 points and 7 rebounds. DeWitz is the obvious player to step into his shoes.


USC


THE MISSION: Former Chicago Bulls coach Tim Floyd takes over and attempts to provide some stability after last year’s chaos, when Henry Bibby was fired early in the season, Rick Majerus momentarily hired, and interim coach Jim Saia left to ride out the storm.


THE STAR: Floyd does have some talent, mainly guards Gabe Pruitt, Nick Young and Rainier Beach High grad Lodrick Stewart. They were USC’s three leading scorers last season, combining for 35.5 points.


THE NEWCOMER: There are seven new scholarship players, mostly big men who will have to play significant minutes. The most ready to contribute might be 6-10 RouSean Cromwell of Memphis and 6-11 Abdoulaye N’Diaye, a transfer from the College of Southern Idaho.


THE QUESTION MARK: Floyd had quick success at Idaho, New Orleans and Iowa State. Can he do it again? USC figures to be a tougher task. Still, with a new on-campus arena opening next year, the future appears bright.


Arizona State


THE MISSION: ASU made its third postseason appearance in four years last season — albeit, two coming in the NIT, including last season’s — and now tries to do it again without its best player, Ike Diogu, who was the Pac-10 player of the year in 2005.


THE STAR: Without Diogu, ASU will be a pretty faceless team. The leading returning scorer is Kevin Kruger, who is one of the best three-point shooters in the conference. ASU also hopes for a breakout season from 6-8 forward Serge Angounou.


THE NEWCOMER: JC transfer Antwi Atuahene could step right in at point guard. Coach Rob Evans called 6-4 Atuahene “potentially the best point guard I have coached in 13 years [as a head coach].”


THE QUESTION MARK: The biggest question mark is Evans himself. He is 108-103 in seven seasons but just 50-76 in Pac-10 games and now has to rebuild without Diogu.