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Seattle • C.J. Wilcox has heard the haters.
Men's basketball in the Pac-12 Conference is nothing special. Doesn't measure up. The one player who made it look good last season is gone, and what's left is an unspectacular muddle. But he's not buying it. The redshirt sophomore from Pleasant Grove has spent two years with the Washington Huskies he was a member of the league's all-freshman team last season, after leading the team in 3-point shooting and he sees the league doing just fine.
"I know the hype is that the Pac-12 is on the downfall or whatever," he said. "It's not doing as good. But I think we did good this year in the tournament … the teams that are in the Pac-12 that played other conferences like the power conferences or whatever I thought we held our own against those schools."
That's what the Utah Utes will try to do once they officially join the league on July 1 hold their own.
And whether the Pac-12 is truly an elite league doesn't matter much to them at this point, since new coach Larry Krystkowiak has a rebuilding project on his hands either way. The Utes have endured four losing seasons in the past six years and sunk to one of their lowest points in program history.
"We're probably not going to be picked in the top two-thirds of the league, to start with," Krystkowiak said last week. "But all that preseason stuff really doesn't make any sense to me, anyway. … We're just going to try to get better every day and, I guess you could say, survive and advance."
Historically, the league the Utes are entering has shined brilliantly on the court.
Superstars such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Gary Payton, Sean Elliott and Bill Walton have graced its floors, and teams from the league have won 15 national championships most of them by the UCLA Bruins.
Certainly, the Utes have a little something to add to that legacy, with stars from the past such as Andrew Bogut, Andre Miller and Keith Van Horn to accompany a trip to the NCAA Tournament championship game in 1998 among many postseason appearances.
But lately, life hasn't been quiet as stellar.
Only three teams from the Pac-10 reached the main field of the NCAA Tournament last season (USC lost a play-in game), which is the same number that made it from the Mountain West Conference statistically a better league from top to bottom last season, when Brigham Young, San Diego State and UNLV all enjoyed tremendous seasons.
The Pac-10 had only two teams reach the tournament the previous season, too, and it has ranked just seventh in the CollegeRPI.com conference rankings each of the past two years. Its annual talent drain has continued, with most of the top underclassmen leaving school early to pursue pro careers.
The league "isn't measuring up these days," writer Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com said last month.
The Arizona Wildcats rescued some of the league's reputation last season by making an unexpected run to the Final Four. But leading scorer and league player of the year Derrick Williams left school early to turn pro, and he could be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft next month.
Coach Sean Miller turned down a job offer from Maryland to stay with the Wildcats, though, ensuring they won't have to endure another coaching transition. They're still deep, too, with their next four top scorers behind Williams returning, and will welcome a top-10 recruiting class next season.
The Wildcats are "the team to beat," according to ESPN's Andy Katz.
Who else will contend?
Most players and coaches seem to agree that UCLA and Washington are the top candidates, as the teams that finished closest to Arizona in the league standings last season and joined the Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament.
But the Huskies lost star guard Isaiah Thomas to the NBA after he helped them beat the Wildcats for the league tournament title, and early departures left the Bruins without a proven guard to complement forward Reeves Nelson and center Joshua Smith, who probably comprise the league's best frontcourt.
All told, nine underclassmen have left Pac-12 schools early to pursue pro careers, including seven of the 10 players on the All-Pac-10 first team last season.
That leaves Cal's Jorge Gutierrez as the top returning scorer from last year, and the Golden Bears also have highly regarded guard Allen Crabbe returning after becoming the league's Freshman of the Year last season. Between them and forward Harper Kamp, the Bears have the scoring punch to have a legitimate title shot, too.
"Legitimately, if the Pac-12 can get things rolling, like we all like to believe, it's not out of the question for us to have half of our league participate in the NCAA Tournament," Krystkowiak said. "I don't think it's a long shot to say six teams could make it."
The Utes are likely to be a lot closer to the bottom than the top, though, at least until Krystkowiak finishes rebuilding the program.
Five players left after Krystkowiak replaced fired coach Jim Boylen, including leading scorer Will Clyburn, and only one of the top six scorers from last season guard Josh Watkins is expected to return. The Utes have signed eight new players for next season, and Krystkowiak was just starting last week to review a stack of videos that would help him get up to speed on his new league rivals.
"It's a new day for us, basically," he said. But "starting over doesn't mean we're at the bottom. It just means we haven't established a baseline yet to get started."
"It will be different the first year or so," he said. "But over time, the team is just going to get used to it and the competition and everything, so they'll be just another one of the teams in the league."
The league has not announced the new format for its annual men's and women's basketball tournaments, but it's likely to include byes for the top four teams, which would then play quarterfinal games against the winners of "play-in" games involving the other eight teams.
"That seems to be the most logical scenario," said Commissioner Larry Scott.
The tournaments are scheduled for March 7-10 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where they have been held to less-than-glowing reviews since 2002. Scott has said he is open to moving them around once the league takes control of them from Fox Sports as part of its new television deal that begins in 2012-2013.
Players to watch
Reeves Nelson, UCLA • The 6-8 junior forward led the Bruins by scoring 13.9 points and grabbing 9.1 rebounds per game last season, and figures to be their main scoring weapon next season, with uncertainty in the backcourt.
C.J. Wilcox, Washington • One of the best three-point shooters in the Pac-12, the 6-5 sophomore from Pleasant Grove figures to become a full-time starter for the Huskies. He averaged 8.1 points mostly off the bench last season.
Jared Cunningham, Oregon State • The 6-4 junior guard led the Pac-10 in steals last season and gained a following on YouTube for his spectacular dunks. He averaged 14.2 points and 3.1 rebounds, to lead the Beavers.
Jorge Gutierrez, Cal • One of the top three scorers returning for the Golden Bears next season, the 6-3 senior guard averaged 14.6 points and 4.4 assists last season. He was a finalist for the new Sutton Award for toughness.
Carlon Brown, Colorado • The 6-5 senior guard sat out last season after transferring from Utah, where he averaged 12.4 points and 4.1 rebounds as a junior. He hopes to help the Buffs replace their top two scorers.