With a solid backcourt and four starters returning, Mike Montgomery and the California Golden Bears will be the team to beat in what should be a down year for the Pac-10.

If there’s such a thing as first to worst in college basketball, you’re looking at it.

Mike MontgomeryThe Pacific-10 Conference was the best in the nation in 2008-09 according to Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency stats. UCLA, Washington, Arizona State and Arizona all finished in the final ESPN/USA Today Top 25 poll, with USC not far behind. Each of them won at least 20 games, as did California, enough to convince the Selection Committee to give all six invitations to the NCAA men’s Tournament.

They’ll be lucky to get more than three bids this year. Here’s our Pac-10 rundown for 2009-10, in order of expected finish, including last year’s record and this year’s betting odds for the national championship.

1. California Golden Bears (22-11 SU, 16-14 ATS, 18-1)
California returns four starters; the change will be at center, where JUCO transfer Markhuri Sanders-Frison will likely start over intriguing 7-foot-2 Chinese import Zhang Zhaoxu, aka Max Zhang. Head coach Mike Montgomery has what could be the best backcourt in the nation in point guard Jerome Randle and shooting guard Patrick Christopher, both seniors looking for one last shot at glory.

2. Washington Huskies (26-9 SU, 19-12-1 ATS, 40-1)
The Huskies are the defending conference champions (regular season) and should compete neck-and-neck with Cal this year. Point guard Abdul Gaddy is the preseason choice as the top freshman in the country. They’ll miss Jon Brockman and his 11.6 rebounds per game in the low post, but coach Lorenzo Romar is a strong recruiter and the Huskies can out-run just about anybody.

3. UCLA Bruins (26-9 SU, 16-17 ATS, 30-1)
Coach Ben Howland has to reload after losing four starters: one-and-done Jrue Holiday, Darren Collison, Alfred Aboya and Josh Shipp. There’s plenty of talent waiting in the wings, including shooting guard Malcolm Lee, who gets a chance to prove himself after playing scant minutes in his freshman year.

4. Arizona State Sun Devils (25-10 SU, 19-12 ATS, 600-1)
Arizona State lost James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph, the top two players on the team with 34.6 points and 13.8 rebounds between them. But coach Herb Sendek has a strong defensive gameplan and a possible game-changing superfrosh on the wing in Demetrius Walker. A Tournament berth is still possible.

5. Oregon Ducks (8-23 SU, 9-21 ATS, 250-1)
The Ducks rebuilt last year and finished at the bottom of the conference. Coach Ernie Kent hired associate Mike Dunlap away from Arizona to help him work with Oregon’s eight sophomores, who join senior guard and leading scorer Tajuan Porter (15.4 points per game) in what should be a promising bounce-back campaign.

6. Arizona Wildcats (21-14 SU, 20-14 ATS, Field 25-1)
Lute Olson is gone for good this time, but the Wildcats aren’t likely to fold their tents, especially with preseason Wooden Award candidate Nic Wise (15.7 points, 4.6 assists per game) returning to campus to man the point for one more year. New coach Sean Miller led Xavier to the Elite Eight and is already drawing top-shelf recruits like flies.

7. Oregon State Beavers (18-18 SU, 17-14 ATS, Field 25-1)
That’s 18-18 including the College Basketball Invitational, where the Beavers beat UTEP two games out of three to cap off a successful season under coach Craig Robinson, brother-in-law to President Obama. Robinson returns most of last year’s players and has recruited well; OSU could outperform expectations for the second year in a row.

8. Washington State Cougars (17-16 SU, 11-18-1 ATS, Field 25-1)
It’s rebuilding time in Pullman. New coach Ken Bone graduates to a major conference after taking the Big Sky’s Portland State Vikings to the Big Dance in 2008 and 2009. Bone has 13 underclassmen to work with this year, led by sophomore Klay Thompson (12.5 points, 4.2 rebounds per game) on the wing.

9. USC Trojans (22-13 SU, 18-15 ATS, Field 25-1)
It’s a long way down for USC. They lost three starters (Taj Gibson, DeMar DeRozan and Daniel Hackett), then coach Tim Floyd came under scrutiny for possible NCAA violations regarding former Trojan one-and-done O.J. Mayo. Potential recruits stayed away, Floyd stepped down, and Kevin O’Neill is there to pick up the pieces.

10. Stanford Cardinal (20-14 SU, 19-12-1 ATS, 750-1)
Again, Stanford’s 20-win season was made possible by the CBI, where the Cardinal fell to the Beavers in the semifinals. They’ve lost three senior starters (Anthony Goods, Lawrence Hill and Mitch Johnson) and don’t have much left in the cupboard for this year. Coach Johnny Dawkins is in his second season with the Cardinal and won’t see his recruiting efforts pay off until 2010-11.