It's pretty hard to surpass the expectations of the die-hard UA basketball
fan who has come to view Pac-10 titles and runs deep into the NCAA Tournament as a matter of course. But surprise everyone is exactly what last year's team did. Starting two freshmen at the all-important guard spots, a transfer center who hadn't played in two years, and an underachiever at one of the forward spots, the Cats roared out of the gates, grabbed the preseason NIT title, and just kept on going. Despite losing leading scorer Richard Jefferson to a broken foot during the game, they smacked top-ranked Stanford in Palo Alto to start the league schedule and never looked back. A season-ending back injury to All-Conference center Loren Woods took some of the wind out of their sails late in the year. They ended up winning the Pac-10 crown and a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, but were ambushed in the second round of the NCAAs by a red-hot Wisconsin team that made it all the way to the Final Four. With all five starters back and healthy this year, there will be no sneaking up on anyone. This is a national championship team in the making.
READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: UA Women's Softball. UA softball coach Mike Candrea is an absolute giant, a legendary figure walking among us. For the first decade or so of women's softball competition in the NCAA, UCLA dominated the sport in such a way as to make it completely uninteresting. A compelling sport is one in which there is an intense rivalry, and Candrea built the UA into such a powerhouse that the Cats caught, then overtook UCLA to make softball one of the biggest women's college sports of all. The excellence at the UA prompted other schools to upgrade facilities and rosters to the point that last year, all eight Pac-10 schools that field softball teams were tabbed for post-season play by the NCAA. An amazing five reached the College Softball World Series, leaving only three spots for the rest of the country. Arizona didn't win the crown, but they did knock pre-tourney favorite Washington out of the mix. Next year's team promises to be one of Candrea's best.