San Francisco • Last year, Colorado claimed the Pac-12 Tournament and won a game in the NCAA Tournament, despite being picked to finish 11th in the conference during the preseason.
In 2011, Connecticut won the national title. That year, the Huskies were picked ninth in the Big East.
Nobody knows yet what awaits Utah this season because the Utes don’t open the regular season for another week. But seeing his team picked to finish dead last in Thursday’s Pac-12 media day poll doesn’t seem to bother Jason Washburn. To Utah’s senior center, it’s an opportunity to come out and surprise a lot of people.
“The one thing that we can do is prove ourselves,” Washburn said. “We know what we have behind closed doors. Even with the team we had last season, we were competitive in a lot of situations. We have a lot more this year, and we’re ready to get started. We just want to go out and play.”
Arizona was picked to win the Pac-12, with UCLA — which actually got the most first-place votes — Cal and Stanford right behind.
The overall improvement of the conference was Wednesday’s general theme. After two pretty down years for the Pac-12, coaches spoke of the influx of talent and the need for the league to win games in November and December to regain some of its lost national luster.
The conference was embarrassed last year. Washington became the first team from a so-called power conference in NCAA history to win a regular-season championship and not advance to the NCAA tournament. Overall, the Pac-12 sent just two teams to the NCAAs.
In many ways, once-proud Utah was a symbol of Pac-12 futility, winning just six games in Larry Krystkowiak’s first season. The Utes are optimistic this year, having significantly upgraded the talent on their roster.
Opponents are watching. Some are impressed.
“We think Utah has a chance to be much better than last season,” Stanford point guard Aaron Bright said. “I’m from the Seattle area, and I know Glen Dean and Aaron Dotson pretty well.
“Those are two big-time players. So I know they are a lot more talented than they have been.”
Krystkowiak doesn’t see the media poll as a sign of disrespect. With just two players returning who have played consistent minutes, Krystkowiak says he understands. He’s more concerned about his team simply going out and playing well.
“What we want to do is create a winning culture, that’s what it’s about right now,” Krystkowiak said. “[If] we go out and do that and play well, the wins and losses will take care of itself. We have to play with a chip on our shoulders. I’ve always had the underdog mentality, and I want my players to have that same mentality.”
If early assessments mean anything, the Utes do appear to be better. They are deeper, more athletic and more talented overall.
Then again, so is the rest of the Pac-12. At least that’s what conference coaches were saying. Arizona and UCLA bring in top-10 recruiting classes. California has an elite player in Allen Crabbe and another year under Mike Montgomery. Stanford is deep and talented under Johnny Dawkins, and even teams like USC, which struggled last season, believe they’re ready to take the next step.
Utah’s exhibition season starts Friday at the Huntsman Center against Simon Fraser. The regular season begins Nov. 9 against Willamette.
“The one thing I like about Utah is that Larry got them to play hard no matter what last season,” USC head coach Kevin O’Neill said. “They have made improvements, so I think the league knows that it will be tough to play against them.”
Pac-12 media poll
First-place votes in parentheses:
1. Arizona (15)
2. UCLA (16)
3. California (3)
5. Washington (2)
8. Oregon State
10. Washington State
11. Arizona State
Simon Fraser at Utah
Friday, 7 p.m.