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Lindy’s: Arizona basketball 18th-best team in the nation; UCLA battles loom

Solomon Hill

Solomon Hill and Arizona solved UCLA in two of three meetings last season. Photo by Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

Arizona or UCLA? The classic Pac-12 basketball debate is back.

The Wildcats and Bruins combined to win 12 of 13 conference championships — and a national title for each — between 1986 and 1998. They won five of six league crowns from 2003 to 2008.

But they each missed the NCAA Tournament in two of the past three seasons, and the league has suffered right along with the two storied programs.

The early projections are for 2012-13 to be a return to form.

Lindy’s College Basketball Annual, which hits the newsstands next month, ranks UCLA 10th in the country and first in the Pac-12. Arizona, ranked 18th in the country, is projected to finish second.

That sounds about right to UA coach Sean Miller.

“I think UCLA is ultra-talented,” Miller said in an interview earlier this summer.

“One of the strengths that I think you have to give them a lot of credit for is they have very talented players who are upperclassmen. And then they have newcomers who I think are the real thing in Shabazz (Muhammad) and Kyle Anderson, guys who can really hit the ground running.

“They have size, they have a very good coach, and they’re going to be difficult to deal with.”

I have no real beef with the Lindy’s projections for UCLA and Arizona, which were made by long-time hoops writer Frank Burlison, who, as far as I’m concerned, has unsurpassed knowledge of West Coast basketball.

I’d consider the Cats and Bruins as mostly interchangeable in terms of how they look on preseason paper. Lindy’s projects a close race. Fair enough. Your mileage may vary.

What makes little sense is the early bracketology from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. He pegs UCLA as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and Arizona as a No. 6. And then Lunardi has another huge gap to his next tier of Pac-12 teams — Cal as a No. 12 seed and Oregon as a No. 13.

If he thinks so little of the league, how is UCLA going to build enough strength of schedule to garner a No. 1 seed? In his scenario, the Bruins are going to have to nearly sweep their non-conference competition and absolutely dominate the Pac-12. Hmmm. Not sure UCLA will be that good.

But the Bruins, in addition to arguably the nation’s top recruiting class (Arizona is in that discussion, too), return 6-10 forwards David and Travis Wear, and hefty center Joshua Smith, although coach Ben Howland told Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News that he has been “disappointed” with the big man’s lack of progress in his conditioning.

(DeCourcy has further info on UCLA before the team’s exhibition trip to China. Muhammad won’t be going because the NCAA is investigating his eligibility.)

The Arizona-UCLA battle could be decided by a pair of senior transfer point guards — Larry Drew II for UCLA, and Mark Lyons for Arizona.

The expected resurgence at Arizona and UCLA should be the headline story of the Pac-12, but the bottom of the league should rise, too, reaching more respectable levels. Arizona State (6-12 in the league last season) is putting a lot of faith in now-eligible guard Jahii Carson, and USC is looking to influx of transfers and improved health to turn around a 1-17 mark in the conference.

Those two teams, plus Utah, were ranked No. 240 or worse in the NCAA RPI.

“I’d like to think our conference has grown out of that, and that balance and improvement will be felt across the board,” Miller said.

“I feel like our conference has improved as a whole. I don’t know if there is one team you can look at and say it is not going to be better. In some cases, I think teams can be much better than they were a year ago.”

Miller said being picked No. 18 nationally is an expectation he can deal with after a 23-12 season that ended with Bucknell walking over the Wildcats in a first-round NIT game in McKale Center.

“To me, this year we have a much bigger upside, regardless of where we start,” Miller said.

“We have a bigger team, we have a deep team, we have some key players that have great experience. You put that all together, and I hope that we’re a quality team that I hope hits our stride as we get into February and March.”

Related: Lindy’s projects Solomon Hill as the Pac-12 Player of the Year

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