Nov. 9, 2001
By BETH HARRIS
AP Sports Writer
The buzz is back in Westwood.
UCLA returns all but one starter from last season's team, making the Bruins overwhelming favorites to win the Pac-10 Conference title.
After the recent early departures of Baron Davis, Jerome Moiso and JaRon Rush to the NBA draft, the fifth-ranked Bruins possess a stability and depth they haven't had in years.
Only four-year starter Earl Watson is gone from a team that went 23-9 last season and lost to eventual national champion Duke in the NCAA tournament's round of 16.
"In the past, we always had the camaraderie, but we all weren't sure where we wanted to go," junior Jason Kapono said. "This year, we know with the talent we have and the senior leadership, there's no reason why we shouldn't win something."
Kapono (17.2 points) and senior Dan Gadzuric (11.7 points and 8.6 rebounds) toyed with declaring for the draft, but decided to stay since neither has won so much as a tournament title during their time in Westwood.
UCLA won its last conference title five years ago, which was Steve Lavin's first season as coach after he replaced the fired Jim Harrick.
"I didn't want to be known as the guy who came here and played two years and never won a Pac-10 title," Kapono said. "I feel so good about this team."
The biggest questions for the Bruins are how well freshman point guard Cedric Bozeman can fill Watson's shoes and whether Gadzuric's arthritic knees will hold up.
"I feel fit and I'm ready to play every day," Gadzuric said. "This is my last year and I want to prove something."
The door is open wider this season because three-time defending Pac-10 champion Stanford isn't as big or talented, and Arizona is rebuilding after losing four starters and nine lettermen.
Southern California has high hopes, too. Coming off their regional final appearance, the 20th-ranked Trojans return leading scorer and rebounder Sam Clancy, point guard Brandon Granville and forward David Bluthenthal.
Junior Casey Jacobsen, voted to The Associated Press preseason All-America team, is the only returning starter for No. 13 Stanford.
Jacobsen, who averaged 18.1 points, will be surrounded by youngsters, who'll depend on his scoring more than the first two seasons he led the team.
"We're finally going to get to play the role of underdog," Jacobsen said. "We're not going to have so much expectation. That might actually motivate us. We've beaten a lot of teams by 30 and that's not going to happen this year. We are looked at as defeatable now."
A key for the Cardinal will be 7-foot junior Curtis Borchardt, who has missed parts of his first two seasons because of foot injuries. Borchardt has added 40 pounds to last season's 240, and the Cardinal will need him to provide an inside presence.
"I'm finding myself frustrated. Losing four starters is significant," Stanford coach Mike Montgomery said. "Our confidence could be shaken early. I see a lot of teams chomping at the bit to get a piece of us and Arizona."
Since losing to Duke in the NCAA title game, the Wildcats will look drastically different. Coach Lute Olson has five freshmen, including 5-10 guard Will Bynum from Chicago.
It'll be up to point guard Jason Gardner to run the team. He nearly decided to leave early but stayed, and Olson has to be grateful.
Arizona's schedule, made before the defections, is brutal, with Maryland, Kansas, Illinois, Purdue and Michigan State among the early opponents.
"We have no clue at this time as to how we'll be," Olson said. "It all depends on the day."
After a 12-year absence, the Pac-10 postseason tournament returns. The top eight teams will qualify for the three-day event at Staples Center in Los Angeles, with the winner earning the conference's automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
The Western Athletic Conference seemingly belongs to Fresno State, the defending regular-season champion trying to get coach Jerry Tarkanian back to the NCAA tournament.
The Bulldogs need to find a new point guard since WAC freshman of the year Tito Maddox was kicked off the team in August for accepting gifts from an agent. But Melvin Ely, last season's WAC player of the year, and Chris Jefferies will anchor a formidable frontcourt.
The WAC adds Boise State and Louisiana Tech, while Texas Christian drops out.
In the West Coast Conference, Gonzaga will try to make its fourth consecutive appearance in the NCAA final 16. The Bulldogs, who've won at least 24 games each of the past four seasons, feature the conference's two best guards in Dan Dickau and Blake Stepp.
Wyoming returns its entire starting lineup in a bid for the Mountain West Conference title. The Cowboys tied for the regular-season championship with Brigham Young and Utah last season.
Utah coach Rick Majerus is back after health problems forced him out last season. Without him, the Utes missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in seven years.
Changes are afoot in the Big West Conference, with Cal State Northridge coming over from the Big Sky and UC Riverside joining from Division II. Boise State left for the WAC.
For the first time in three seasons, a team other than Utah State will likely be the Big West champion. The Aggies lost four of five starters from a team that won consecutive titles.
UC Irvine is coming off its best season (25-5) and has guard Jerry Green, last season's player of the year, running the offense.