SAN FRANCISCO — Partly because Arizona tends to hover high in the Pac-12, only twice in the Sean Miller era have the Wildcats finished more than one spot from where they were picked in the Pac-12’s official preseason poll.
UA finished fourth when predicted to win the conference in 2015-16 and, last season, the Wildcats were picked fourth in the conference’s official preseason poll … and skidded into in a tie for eighth place.
This season, the Wildcats were picked fourth again. But if that also proves wrong, it could be in the other direction.
If nothing else, UA is likely to be better than a year ago. Maybe much better.
“No doubt,” Miller said during a break at the conference’s preseason media day Tuesday. “I feel like we’re deeper, more talented, more experienced and our experience comes in different forms.”
The poll suggests a potentially close race among the top four teams that include Arizona. The Wildcats received two first-place votes among the 27 media voters who regularly cover the league, and were separated by just 28 points from Oregon, which was voted to win the conference.
Colorado matched Oregon’s nine first-place votes, but was second overall, while defending champ Washington was voted third.
However, the Ducks could suffer a blow if five-star Oregon center N’Faly Dante does not get admitted to school after he announced in August that he was reclassifying to skip his senior season and joining the Ducks instead.
Oregon’s fall quarter didn’t start until Oct. 1, giving Dante a little bit of time, though Oregon coach Dana Altman said admission was still an issue and that he wasn’t sure if Dante could potentially enroll after the quarter ends.
“You know, I’m not really sure what his situation is,” Altman said. “We’ll get it worked out here this week.”
The Pac-12 poll vote reflected a big drop-off after Arizona, where there was another close lump of teams. USC was voted fifth, followed by ASU, OSU and UCLA, a team Miller wouldn’t be surprised to see climb much higher.
The Bruins have a strong core of returners, while also getting former UA commit Shareef O’Neal (heart) and guard Tyger Campbell (ACL) off redshirt seasons, but underachieved under new coach Mick Cronin’s predecessor, Steve Alford.
“I think Oregon will be really, really good but I also think UCLA will be good,” Miller said. “I think they could win the conference. Mick’s a real good coach, especially defensively, and I think their players and talent are somewhat underappreciated.
“Colorado obviously returns a lot, so I could see where everybody thinks highly of that group. Washington won the league a year ago and, like us, they have a couple of really good incoming freshmen.”
The Huskies lost four starters from their title team but pulled in five-star big men Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, and will have a former five-star prospect, Kentucky transfer Quade Green, eligible to take over point guard in December or even earlier if he wins his still-pending appeal to play this fall.
The Huskies were picked third last season before running away with the conference, and coach Mike Hopkins said he wasn’t sure what would happen in the race this time, especially with Cronin moving to UCLA, while Mark Fox takes over Cal and Kyle Smith takes his analytics-based approach to Washington State.
“I think you look at Colorado, they’re just so talented and they’ve got the guys back and Coach (Tad) Boyle, and there’s a lot of sleepers, too,” Hopkins said. “Third, fifth, ninth — we’ve just got to go out and play and try to reach our potential.”
Typically, most of the coaches didn’t make a big deal about the preseason predictions, and neither did the two representatives UA brought along to media day.
Nico Mannion and Josh Green were the first freshmen brought to the Pac-12 media day since 2007-08, but both spoke with a veteran’s approach.
That includes addressing that fourth-place pick.
“At the end of the day, that’s a preseason thing,” Green said. “Right now, we’re just determined to compete as hard as we can in practice, and just being the best team we can be, developing not only our team game, but our individual game.
“Those types of accolades will come later. Like I said, it’s just a preseason type of thing.”
They were the sort of words that won’t inflame conference rivals but, at the same time, express confidence and passion.
Mannion had that down, too.
“I think we’re a really well-rounded team,” Mannion said. “We’ve got guys who are experienced, we’ve got some new guys, and everyone on the team is so versatile. I think we will mesh really well.”