LOS ANGELES - The preseason praise kept rolling in for the Arizona Wildcats on Friday, and the timing couldn't have been more awkward.
Just a day after the Wildcats lost their first exhibition game in 27 years, 69-68 to Division II Seattle Pacific, Arizona was given the highest rating, No. 16, of any Pac-12 team in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll.
And the Wildcats were chosen to finish in third place in the Pac-12's official media poll, behind UCLA and California, which still stuck a needle in the side of UA coach Sean Miller, who found the position too high.
"There's no way in the world we're the third-best team in the Pac-12," Miller said, at the league's annual preseason media day. "You can say every coach says something like that. I didn't say that last year. Hopefully I won't say it next year, but I'm saying it now. There is no chance at all that's where we are."
Indeed, a year ago, the Wildcats were picked to finish second, and Miller said then that he expected Arizona would be able to compete with four or five other teams for that spot. Of course, the Wildcats went on to do better, winning the regular-season title, finishing second in the conference tournament and then making a surprising NCAA tournament Elite Eight appearance.
But all that was with a guy named Derrick Williams, who not only led the Wildcats in scoring but also managed to fill up the otherwise shaky area they had in the middle. As Arizona learned in its loss to Seattle Pacific - when centers Kyryl Natyazhko and Sidiki Johnson combined for just two rebounds - Williams' loss may be an even bigger void than anybody thought.
As a result, Miller says he's already thinking of moving freshman forward Angelo Chol inside to help at center when needed.
"We're learning how to play offense without someone who led the nation from the foul line … his greatest gift often times is he makes offense so easy for his teammates," Miller said of Williams. "Though our defense probably was more the problem than our offense, you could tell we're a work in progress with that."
Washington coach Lorenzo Romar could sympathize, noting that the Wildcats are also without fearless guard MoMo Jones, who transferred to Iona.
"We're fortunate that we didn't have an exhibition game last night, trust me," Romar said. "The way I see it from a coach's perspective is I'm sure they got a lot out of it. … Some of their returners, maybe they're the guys that as Derrick Williams has left, MoMo Jones is gone. ... (they) think it's going to be easy. I'll just step in and do what Derrick did. It's not that easy."
Washington, which beat Arizona in the Pac-10 Tournament final last season, also suffered heavy losses. Three key players finished their eligibility, and heart-and-soul point guard Isaiah Thomas declared early for the NBA.
As a result, the Huskies were picked behind the Wildcats at No. 4, while the teams that did return significant talent, UCLA and California, were picked in the first two spots.
UCLA returns a fearsome frontcourt duo of Josh Smith and Reeves Nelson and will feature David and Travis Wear, twin forwards who transferred from North Carolina. Cal has arguably the Pac-12's top trio in guard Jorge Gutierrez, wing Allen Crabbe and forward Harper Kamp - plus well-regarded coach Mike Montgomery, who said Friday he has recovered from bladder cancer.
So No. 3, at least for UA senior Kyle Fogg, wasn't a bad place to be picked.
"I think that's definitely a fair thing to say," Fogg said. "Cal's a good, experienced team and UCLA's big guys in the middle make them a tough team to beat.
"I wouldn't want to be ranked No. 1 really, just because we can have that kind of chip on our shoulder."
Between UCLA and Cal, the difference could be in health and scheduling. The Bears only have to play Arizona and Washington once each under the Pac-12's new unbalanced schedule, but Montgomery fretted again about Kamp's shaky knees, and about overusing the ever-intense Gutierrez.
"We've got to keep those guys fresh and healthy," Montgomery said. "The problem is you can't afford to lose games by not having them on the floor, but at the same time you can't run them into the ground."
UCLA must play Arizona, Washington and Cal twice each, and won't get to play a single true home game because Pauley Pavilion is being renovated.
The Bruins will face ASU and UA at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., then spend the rest of the conference season at the dreary Los Angeles Sports Arena, adjacent to the USC campus.
UCLA had its first experience at the arena Thursday, facing Cal State Fullerton in a private scrimmage.
"It was different," guard Lazeric Jones said. "The fact that we're right next to USC is kind of weird. It'll be different."
The way coach Ben Howland described it, the Bruins didn't play well, either.
The scrimmage "shows that we have a lot of work to do for us to be a team that's going to finish first in the Pac-12," Howland said. "We've got a long way to go."
So at least in that respect, Miller and the Wildcats aren't alone.
On StarNet: Stay current with the Cats on Bruce Pascoe's blog azstarnet.com/pascoe
Coming Nov. 6
Preview the Arizona Wildcats' 2011-2012 season in the Star's annual special section.
PAC-12 POLL AT A GLANCE: UA picked 3rd
LOS ANGELES - The Arizona Wildcats were picked to finish third in the Pac-12 basketball race this season, according to the conference's official media poll released Thursday.
In voting by 38 media members who regularly cover the league, UCLA was picked to win, with California second and Washington fourth.
The votes revealed an expected tight race at the top, however.
Only 17 votes separated the top three teams, all of which received more than 10 first-place votes. UCLA received 14 first-place votes, Cal received 13 and Arizona had 11.
The Bruins are loaded in the frontcourt - with returnees Josh Smith and Reeves Nelson, and North Carolina transfers David and Travis Wear - while Cal has a talented and experienced core of three players: guard Jorge Gutierrez, wing Allen Crabbe and forward Harper Kamp.
Arizona, meanwhile, lost its two top scorers, Derrick Williams and MoMo Jones and added four highly touted freshmen.
The Wildcats were picked to finish second behind Washington in last season's Pac-10 media poll. The Cats ended up winning the Pac-10 regular season title while the Huskies beat Arizona in the final of the Pac-10 Tournament.
Full results of the 2011-12 poll, with total points and first-place votes in parentheses:
1. UCLA (14) 421
2. California (13) 405
3. Arizona (11) 404
4. Washington 355
5. Oregon 282
6. Stanford 255
7. USC 194
8. Oregon State 188
9. Arizona State 148
10. (tie) Colorado 119
Washington State 119
12. Utah 74