Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said it was flattering two months ago when his Huskies were picked for the first time to win the Pac-10 basketball title.
"That's all it is," he said. "You've still got to win the games."
The Huskies get to work on that part of the equation tonight when the Pac-10 schedule begins. If anything, UW appears somewhat more vulnerable after falling short in its only three high-profile nonconference games.
A year after the Pac-10 finished the season with only two entries in the NCAA tournament and no representatives in the final Associated Press Top 25 (for the first time since 1949), the conference seems only marginally better.
"I think our league is going to be pretty good by the end of the year," USC coach Kevin O'Neill said.
USC and Washington State could have much to say about that, provided they add to some encouraging recent performances. But the league is young -- with no seniors at UCLA, Stanford or WSU -- and Pac-10 teams are just 5-13 against Top-25 opponents.
Cal coach Mike Montgomery rates Washington and Arizona as the league's elite.
"After that I think there's a bunch of hopefuls, really," he said. "Everybody has had a loss or two that would raise an eyebrow."
Here's how we see it unfolding:
Coach: Lorenzo Romar (ninth season)
Nonconference record: 8-3
Outlook: The Huskies are the deepest and most
Coach: Sean Miller (second season)
Nonconference record: 11-2
Outlook: Sophomore forward and Pac-10 player of the year candidate Derrick Williams is an efficient scorer who has added a new wrinkle to his game: He leads the league in 3-point accuracy. The Wildcats have improved their depth, rebound well and have made as many or more free throws than five Pac-10 teams have attempted. They need more consistent play from guards MoMo Jones and Kyle Fogg, who are shooting a combined 30 percent from 3-point range.
Coach: Ben Howland (eighth season)
Nonconference record: 8-4
Outlook: The Bruins boast the league's most imposing frontcourt. The sophomore forward tandem of Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson generates 29 points and 16 rebounds per game, and if 6-foot-10, 305-pound freshman center Joshua Smith can limit his fouls he can become a monster inside. The key will be guard play, so erratic last season that Howland brought in JC transfer Lazeric Jones to play the point. Progress? The Bruins won their final five nonconference games after a stunning home loss to Montana.
Coach: Kevin O'Neill (second season)
Nonconference record: 8-5
Outlook: The Trojans absorbed a surprising 20-point home loss to Rider in mid-November but won four of five entering the conference, dropping only a last-second decision at Kansas. They own wins over Tennessee and Texas and have toughened themselves with four true road games. Transfer point guard Jio Fontan provides stability and scoring, and Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson are ranked 1-2 in the Pac-10 in rebounding. The Trojans look like a contender.
5. Washington State
Coach: Ken Bone (second season)
Nonconference record: 10-2
Outlook: The Cougars, with victories over Gonzaga, Mississippi State and Baylor, appear to be legit. They are improved at both ends of the floor and their depth is substantially better, in part because of JC arrival Faisal Aden, who is contributing 16.1 points per game. Junior wing Klay Thompson, who leads the conference at 22.3 points per game, continues to add to his game. One concern: Can the perimeter-oriented Cougars battle the big guys inside?
Coach: Mike Montgomery (third season)
Nonconference record: 7-5
Outlook: The Bears are playing capably on defense, but they rank at the bottom of the Pac-10 in scoring, shooting and 3-point accuracy. They have been held to 57 points or fewer in five games, and freshmen starting guards Allen Crabbe and Gary Franklin entered Tuesday's game shooting a combined 26.7 percent from 3-point range. Montgomery hopes playing the league's toughest nonleague schedule pays off.
7. Arizona State
Coach: Herb Sendek (fifth season)
Nonconference record: 7-4
Outlook: There is little that jumps out about the Sun Devils, who entered the conference schedule with four straight wins over teams with losing records. But Sendek's teams play defense, dictate tempo and rarely fail to produce an upset or two. Keep an eye on freshman forward Kyle Cain, who has three games with at least 14 rebounds.
Coach: Johnny Dawkins (third season)
Nonconference record: 7-4
Outlook: The Cardinal is very young and showed that inexperience in its first two road games of the season, losing by a combined 44 points at Butler and Oklahoma State. Stanford allowed an average of 81 points in those games and shot just 25 percent from the 3-point line. Junior Jeremy Green is dependable, but the Cardinal needs contributions from its freshmen, especially Dwight Powell and Aaron Bright.
Coach: Dana Altman (first season)
Nonconference record: 7-5
Outlook: The Ducks were competitive in a home loss to Missouri, but their wins came against teams whose combined record is 18 games under .500. Forwards Joevan Catron and E.J. Singler have combined to produce 30 points and 13 rebounds per game, but they don't have much help. The Ducks could get an emotional lift with the Jan. 13 opening of the new Matthew Knight Arena.
10. Oregon State
Coach: Craig Robinson (third season)
Nonconference record: 5-6
Outlook: It's hard to believe the Beavers aren't better than this, but there is little evidence to prompt optimism. OSU lost at home to Utah Valley and Texas Southern, and its five wins came over teams with a combined record of 21-38. Sophomore guard Jared Cunningham (San Leandro High) averages 13.9 points per game and leads the Pac-10 in steals, but OSU is the league's worst rebounding team and shoots poorly from the 3-point line.