SAN FRANCISCO -- Even after losing four key players from last season, Arizona was still picked to win the Pac-12 in the preseason media poll released Thursday at the conference’s media day.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the Wildcats' best defender, and Stanley Johnson, who averaged 13.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game as a freshman, were both first-round picks in June's NBA draft. Brandon Ashley, a stretch forward who turned pro but wasn’t drafted, provided a proper complement to Kaleb Tarczewski's power game in the post. And T.J. McConnell, coach Sean Miller's leader on the floor and in the locker room, graduated and could secure a roster spot with the Philadelphia 76ers.
And still, the Wildcats are the favorites to win the conference. That’s not an outlandish idea with Tarczewski returning, Ryan Anderson entering the mix after averaging 14.3 PPG for Boston College in 2013-14 and a nationally ranked recruiting class arriving in Tucson.
But Miller has not yet found a leader for this talented crew. McConnell played that role as well as any player in America in recent years. Miller listed his expectations and McConnell made sure his teammates lined up with Miller’s vision.
“You know, that’s one of the many things that we’re working through,” Miller said Thursday. “Parker Jackson-Cartwright is someone that benefited a lot from T.J. a year ago. When you practice against a guy like that every day, Kaleb will be the first one to tell you, you’ve got to strap it on. And Parker learned a lot from T.J., benefited a tremendous amount, watched him closely.”
Miller told ESPN.com that the Wildcats have implemented a policy in which they don’t allow Jackson-Cartwright to go through practice unless he’s a vocal leader on the court. They’re demanding that from the youngster, who has added more than 10 pounds to his frame this offseason. He should be a more durable player for the Wildcats, who will be the targets in the Pac-12 again even though Cal boasts the most talented starting rotation and Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State and Utah are all legit candidates in a league that’s showcasing more parity compared to recent years.
Miller said Jackson-Cartwright is so important to the 2015-16 squad that he planted the seeds for this season in the offseason. He said he tried to prepare Jackson-Cartwright, who averaged 9.6 minutes last season, for his new responsibilities.
He said he’s proud of the youngster’s improvement thus far.
“With Parker, it started last spring, just he and I talking,” Miller said.
Cal ready for the challenge
Cuonzo Martin's squad was picked to finish second behind Arizona in the Pac-12 race. But the Golden Bears field a starting lineup no team in the league can match. Tyrone Wallace (17.1 PPG), Jordan Mathews (13.6 PPG) and Jabari Bird (10.5 PPG) comprise the West Coast’s -- and arguably the nation’s -- top returning trio. That group will be joined by potential lottery picks Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb.
But Wallace said the Bears aren’t focused on the early hype -- something that has not surrounded Cal in recent years -- because they’re dialed into their day-to-day responsibilities and growth.
“I think we have a lot of good pieces on our team,” Wallace said. “I think it’s about how well we come together, so we just try to take every day and work hard, and then we’ll be ready for battle when it comes.”
That attitude is encouraged by Martin, who refuses to subscribe to any expectations placed upon his program.
“I’ve been in a league when we were picked 11th out of 12 teams and we finished second,” he said. “So I don’t think you get consumed with those type of numbers. I think the most important thing is to get better every day and try to develop your guys to position them to be the best men they can possibly become on and off the court, to try to be successful in the classroom and to win games.”
Alford asking Tony Parker for more
Steve Alford said this season's UCLA squad will boast more depth than in past years. His recruiting class will be anchored by young star guards Prince Ali and Aaron Holiday. Bryce Alford, the coach's son, returns. But senior forward Tony Parker, the former McDonald’s All American who has been inconsistent throughout his career but collected a pair of double-doubles in the NCAA tournament, has to make significant strides if the Bruins are to reach their ceiling, Alford said.
“He’s 22 years of age. He’s a grown man. He’s going into his fourth year,” Alford said. “Now the maturation process has to happen. And if it does happen, that makes us a totally different team, a better team.”
Wayne Tinkle reminds squad it's easy to fall
Oregon State adds a nationally ranked recruiting class that features three four-star prospects and coaches’ sons Stephen Thompson Jr. and Tres Tinkle. Wayne Tinkle’s squad also kept its catalyst, Gary Payton II, the Pac-12 defensive player of the year in 2014-15.
The Beavers were picked to finish sixth this season in the preseason media poll, and some prognosticators believe they’ll return to the postseason for the first time since 1990, when Gary Payton Sr. played in Corvallis.
Tinkle, however, has reminded his players that they’re not allowed to look past any opponent. And he has proof of how dangerous that can be. Oregon State lost to Division II Western Oregon by 10 in last year's exhibition opener.
That loss, however, also helped Tinkle establish a culture in his first season.
“I think what it did is it made our guys open their ears and their eyes,” he said.