- Ed Graney
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A handy tourist brochure will tell you Arizona is our sixth largest state with a population of nearly five million. You can also learn that the state
bird is the cactus wren and the state tree is the palo verde. It will remind
you the Grand Canyon is over 277 miles long and over a mile deep.
It won't tell you this: The finest in Pac-10 basketball this season -- both from a team and individual standpoint -- also call Arizona home.
Luke Walton and Jason Gardner are gone from the monster that is Lute Olson's program in Tucson, but the Wildcats are again the team all others
will chase out West. Arizona couldn't solve Kansas in the Elite Eight last season, but return enough skill to make another deep NCAA Tournament run
more probable than possible.
It's November again and Arizona is a Top 5 team.
Oh, what a shock.
"We don't have a lot of size," Olson said. "It's going to be a case of where we'd better be quick. We have some good athletes and we're going to have to rely on that probably more than we ever have in terms of quickness ... This year we're still wondering where the leadership's going to come from. That's a big question, but generally speaking, that develops as you go.
"We're not as experienced as we'd like to be. We've been doing a lot of running for conditioning because there are some guys that will have to give us 35 minutes or more."
Arizona just wins, whether it has too many players for one ball (see at times last year) or a core of solid talents like this season. Eight bodies
tend to be enough when you're offering names like Channing Frye, Hassan Adams, Salim Stoudamire and Andre Iguodala. A freshman (Mustafa Shakur) will run the point, much as past first-year Wildcats Gardner and Mike Bibby did.
"Mustafa is a natural leader," Olson said. "He is fun to coach because he does everything at full speed. He just competes. Guys love to play with him because he goes hard all the time."
As a rule, most two-game road swings in the Pac-10 refuse a visiting team many trouble-free moments. If you go to Los Angeles and worry only about UCLA, USC will beat you. It's the same in the Bay Area with Stanford and Cal. And now, Arizona State is no longer an afterthought to conference teams entering the desert trip intent on taking their best shot at Olson's team.
"I definitely think there is room for two good programs in this state," said sixth-year ASU coach Rob Evans, whose team also lost to Kansas in a second-round NCAA Tournament game last March. "Lute has done a great job keeping his program consistently at the top. We just need to continue recruiting, because I believe we can also be one of the league's top programs year in and year out."
This season, ASU begins with the best player.
Ike Diogu is a sophomore forward who averaged 19 points and 7.8 rebounds last year, who is a consensus All-American on most preseason lists, who is
as skilled an undersized post player as the country knows. Who is so humble off the court, it took a television crew nearly two hours
to get Diogu to show off while dunking for a commercial promoting season-ticket sales.
"Obviously, people know about Arizona, but I also think everyone realizes we're on the rise," said Diogu, who has said he will wait until after the season to address the question of possibly leaving early for the NBA. "It's a difficult process, but we're getting there step by step. I think we have turned an important corner. I can't sit here and say we're going to win the Pac-10, but I can say we're going to have a pretty good season."
It is an opinion many within the conference echo about themselves.
Most give Stanford the best shot at spoiling Arizona's party, and for good reason. Few players nationally know and play their roles better than those
under coach Mike Montgomery, who returns four starters from a 24-win team that finished second in the conference. If point guard Chris Hernandez and forward Justin Davis remain healthy, Stanford has Sweet 16 ability ... or more.
Cal isn't far behind, not with one of the league's toughest matchups in senior forward Amit Tamir returning and a sensational freshman forward in
Leon Powe; Oregon lost point guard Luke Ridnour to the NBA early, but will offer a more athletic team; and the Ben Howland era begins at UCLA, where
the Bruins likely have better players from early high school commitments than ones who will play this season.
"I expect a great intensity level this season, for guys to compete in practice every day just as they would in a game," Howland said. "And sometimes it's tough for a kid to learn that. I really tried hard not to watch much film from last year, so I wouldn't be prejudiced in terms of how they play. Last year is over. The past is done with. From this point forward is what matters for UCLA basketball. We'll start from step one by teaching the very basics and go from there."
Across town, USC could finish as high as fourth with any kind of consistent low-post presence, while the league is likely again too top-heavy for either of the Washington schools or Oregon State to have much impact.
"I think one of the best things about our program is that our coaching staff keeps us grounded," said Arizona's Frye, who averaged 12.6 points and 8.0 rebounds as a sophomore. "We realize no game is a walk-in-the-park. We get everyone's best shot every night. But we also come here to win a national championship. That's always the goal."
That's also not in the tourist brochure.
But it should be.
Ed Graney of the San Diego Union-Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.