SAN FRANCISCO - When the elder statesman of Pac-12 coaches, Cal's Mike Montgomery, looks at this year's Pac-12 basketball predictions, he might as well be surfing the mock 2013 and 2014 NBA draft boards.
And maybe that's why the Arizona Wildcats were chosen to edge UCLA for the Pac-12 championship this season, in the league's official media poll released Thursday.
The Bruins pulled in the player Draft Express predicts will go No. 1 overall in the 2013 NBA draft, guard Shabazz Muhammad (if he can clear still-unresolved NCAA hurdles) as well as a projected 2014 first-rounder in forward Kyle Anderson.
But the Wildcats have three players that Draft Express projects in the first round of the 2014 draft: freshmen big men Kaleb Tarczewski, Grant Jerrett and Brandon Ashley.
"A lot of what's being projected is based on what I would almost call 'NBA upside,' the young freshmen coming into Arizona and UCLA that people are so excited about - and I think rightly so," Montgomery said Thursday, during the conference's media day at the Pac-12 Networks studios. "They both just had terrific recruiting years. I've seen most of those kids, and they're legitimately (going to be) very, very good players in this league.
"Certainly Arizona's loaded. I don't think there's any question about that.
"If UCLA gets their kids eligible, they're awfully good as well."
Arizona finished with just one more point than UCLA in voting totals by media members who regularly cover the Pac-12, and the Bruins actually received one more first-place vote.
That suggests UCLA received a bigger variance in voting, which may be a result of the uncertainty surrounding Muhammad's eligibility. Anderson's status was also up in the air at the time of voting, but he was cleared Wednesday.
Not that the voting totals matter much anyway, of course. It's only speculation and, in this case, involves a bunch of teenagers who have yet to play a regular-season college game.
"I think there's a lot of good young players coming into our league and … Arizona and UCLA obviously come to mind," said Colorado coach Tad Boyle, whose Buffaloes were picked sixth after winning the Pac-12 tournament last season. "They did a great job on the recruiting trail. I think we did a great job, too. But it's so hard with young players to predict how quickly they're going to acclimate to this league and college basketball."
Arizona coach Sean Miller said there's always teams who are picked high but disappoint - "and we don't want to be one of them."
But he also didn't brush off that No. 1 prediction, either.
"On the flip side of it, I think it's an honor for our program," Miller said. "It says something about how people see us. And that's always a positive. But for us there's no question there are a few things we haven't (accomplished), and it's up to us to continue to develop."
While Miller has an intriguing mix of experience, size and depth to mix in his talented freshmen, so does UCLA coach Ben Howland. The Bruins are loaded with big men, including twins Travis and David Wear, along with Josh Smith and highly regarded recruit Tony Parker. They also have a "point forward" in the versatile Anderson, as well as experienced and young talent on the perimeter.
"I think they're going to be really good," Miller said of UCLA. "They have experience, they have size, they have a little bit of everything, and they're well-coached. "
While the Wildcats and Bruins were nearly tied at the top of the poll, Miller and Howland both said there are several more teams that could contend for the title.
After last season, Miller should know. Colorado was picked 11th last season but split with UA in the regular season and then beat the Wildcats in the final of the Pac-12 tournament.
"Colorado was under the radar, but in March they were one of the best teams in our conference," Miller said. "This year, I think we have a number of teams that can follow that."
Among those possibilities: California, which was picked third and earned three first-place votes, along with Stanford (picked fourth) and Washington (fifth).
"When I look at the breadth and depth of this conference I think it's outstanding," Howland said. "I think Washington again is going to be very good. I know they lost two players that were NBA draft picks, and yet they had other kids sitting out. They have a great team returning.
"Cal and Stanford are both going to be very good. I think Cal may have the best pair of guards in the conference (with Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs), and college basketball is so much about having good guard play."
Howland also mentioned Colorado (sixth) and Oregon State (eighth) as challengers while even USC, picked ninth, has gained respect because of the transfers former UA interim coach Kevin O'Neill has brought in, and because the Trojans have recovered from an injury-plagued year last season.
"USC, they're a big secret in this conference," said UA forward Solomon Hill, once a Trojan commit. "I think it's good that we have multiple teams that can end up winning. It just boosts the Pac-12."
On StarNet: See more photos from UA's exhibition win Wednesday night at: azstarnet.com/gallery
• Who: Chico State at Arizona, exhibition
• When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday
Cats picked No. 1
Results of the Pac-12's official media poll released Thursday, with total points and first-place votes in parentheses:
1. Arizona (15) 403
2. UCLA (16) 402
3. California (3) 325
4. Stanford 296
5. Washington (2) 278
6. Colorado 262
7. Oregon 217
8. Oregon State 166
9. USC 163
10. Washington State 111
11. Arizona State 107
12. Utah 78