College basketball season will not tip off for nearly three months, but ESPN.com resident NCAA tournament prognasticator Joe Lunardi is already looking to March. His first Bracketology projection since a spitballed version immediately following April's Final Four was released today, and the outlook is far less grim for the Pacific 12 Conference than the 2011-'12 season proved to be.
Lunardi tabs four Pac-12 programs to dance, including Arizona. The Wildcats are slated as a No. 6 seed in the East Regional, paired with always dangerous New Mexico in the Round of 64. Oregon and Cal squeak into his Field of 68.
Last year's tournament proved that experience can be overrated when Kentucky's Kiddie Corps marched to the national championship. Likely with that in mind, Lunardi has the No. 1 ranked recruiting class for 2012 ,UCLA, projected as a No. 1 seed.
Ben Howland inked a stellar group that includes Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson. His recruiting haul has injected some much needed enthusiasm into a program that has been stagnant since reaching three consecutive Final Fours from 2006 through 2008.
Of course, Sean Miller's 2012 youth movement isn't too bad, either. UA welcomes Kaleb Tarczewski, Grant Jerrett, Brandon Ashley, and Gabe York to the fold. The three are getting early exposure to Miller's program in the Bahamas, debuting this weekend in a 136-66 thrashing of the Real Deal Shockers. Ashley got the start at forward and went 7-7 from the field for 14 points.
UA's incoming class ranked No. 3 according to ESPN, which makes Lunardi's projection of UCLA so much higher than UA interesting. The Bruins will rely heavily on youth -- more so than UA, which returns an experienced core that senior Solomon Hill headlines. Senior transfer Mark Lyons will factor prominently into the Wildcats' plans, sophomore Nick Johnson is stepping into his second season as starting two-guard, and sophomore Angelo Chol should see a vastly increased role after showing vast improvement down the stretch of the '11-'12 campaign.
The two Wildcat-Bruin offerings are likely to be worthy additions to the annals of an illustrious rivalry, and should determine Pac-12 supremacy. The return of each program to national prominence is a big positive for a conference desperately in need of it.
The Pac is primed to return to upper echelon status with UA and UCLA as its banner carriers. Aforementioned Cal and Oregon should be in the NCAA tournament hunt, and 2012 NIT champion Stanford could be improved. Colorado proved itself deserving of its NCAA berth last spring, winning its first round contest. The Buffaloes will again be a threat in the Pac-12 South.