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It's Miller's time to raise Arizona

It's hard to argue with Arizona being the favorite to win the Pac-12 Conference men's basketball title, so UA coach Sean Miller didn't even try to contest it.

He looked back over his previous three seasons with the Wildcats and found the prognosticators had been almost spot-on in predicting the conference fate of his team.

"This year we were picked first," Miller said on a conference call. "Hopefully the predictions are right. So far, our team is in a good place. We just want to compete for that championship."

That seems a certainty, with an infusion of talent in transfer Mark Lyons and a highly regarded group of freshmen to an already solid group of players that included all-league candidates Nick Johnson and Solomon Hill.

Who can contend with the Wildcats when conference play starts next Wednesday?

It seems likely to be the team, or teams, that makes the most improvement early in the season to be in a strong position for that stretch run.

That could be Colorado, though the Buffs have had issues with turnovers. It should be UCLA, or coach Ben Howland is likely to be standing more than usual to avoid his seat turning hot. A case could be made for the Civil War rivals Oregon and Oregon State, making that opener on Jan. 6 at Gill Coliseum all the more intriguing.

Certainly not to be left out of consideration are California and Washington, though the early results for both teams weren't strong indicators of contender status.

And what about those teams that had such major makeovers in the offseason, such as Utah and Arizona State? They both enter the conference season with winning records, as do a total of 11 of the teams.

Yes, it looks like a stronger Pac-12 overall than the conference of last year that sent only two teams on to the NCAA Tournament.

"We have made strides from top to bottom," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. "Our bottom teams, and right now we're at the bottom, are better than last year and there are some teams stepping up, which is great for our league."

The Huskies have scuffled through their schedule so far, perhaps because of some significant injuries, but it has made them along with Stanford perhaps the two biggest early disappointments. Will that continue?

Washington does have that great home-court advantage, but it won't be available early in the season as the Huskies open their Pac-12 schedule with three consecutive road games, among five of their first seven away from Seattle. And two of their first three home games include visits by Colorado and Arizona.

So who challenges Arizona?

Again, it seems likely to be the team that makes early strides toward reaching its potential because seemingly every team in the conference is counting heavily on either transfers or freshmen. Or both.

"There are a lot of teams similar to us, with not a lot of vets, mixing and matching, trying to figure out what's the best combination and how does this combination all fit together," Oregon coach Dana Altman said. "A lot of us are searching, trying to put our teams together."

Even Arizona is using a transfer as its point guard and has two freshmen in the starting lineup. The Ducks also start two freshmen, one at point guard. And so on it goes.

UCLA not only counts heavily on freshmen, but the point guard is a transfer, though Larry Drew III is leading the Pac-12 in assists. But the Bruins are also down to eight scholarships, four of them freshmen, after a couple of early season defections by returning players who saw their minutes declining with the influx of new talent.

"We're really young," Howland said. "We're a team that has very little margin for injuries."

What the Bruins do have again is a home court, with the renovation of Pauley Pavilion completed while UCLA played at other venues last season.

"There's a better feeling of the fans being in the game," Howland said. "It's louder ... it's a better situation."

Which might also describe the Pac-12 heading into the opening of conference play.

"My gut feeling is that we're all doing a better job than we did last year," OSU coach Craig Robinson said. "But we won't be able to tell until we get to the end of the season and see how many teams we're getting into the (NCAA) Tournament."