The Utah Utes certainly didn’t expect much from their first basketball season in the Pac-12 Conference, with almost a whole new roster of overmatched players toiling under a relatively inexperienced new coach.
But, boy, shouldn’t they have expected more from everybody else?
The so-called “Conference of Champions” that the Utes joined last summer has been a disaster this season, by almost every measure, its once revered reputation in tatters and some of its best teams brought to their knees. Just about the only question left now is how badly the nose dive is going to hurt the league when the field for the NCAA Tournament is unveiled a week from now.
Many experts think the Pac-12 still will land three teams in the 68-team field, but others figure it might be just two.
Even one remains a remote possibility — something that has never happened to a major conference since the tournament expanded in 1985 — if just the right (or rather, wrong) confluence of events occurs over the next week. That would be a killer at a time when the Pac-12 is trying hard to rebrand itself across the country, and increase its exposure with a new television network that will debut in a few months.
The larger issue, though, is just what has happened to a league that used to produce some of the best basketball in the country?
Just last season, the league put four teams in the tournament (as long as you count USC losing what was technically a play-in game), and had Arizona reach the Elite Eight. Not that long ago, bellwether UCLA made three straight trips to the Final Four.
The 11-time national champion Bruins are smoldering under the wreckage of a report in Sports Illustrated that blamed their recent collapse on a lack of coaching control that led to widespread disobedience, fighting and drug and alcohol use among players. At 17-13 heading into their final game of the regular season, they won’t reach the NCAA Tournament unless they win the Pac-12 Tournament in Los Angeles this week and claim its automatic berth.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, are 21-9 and merely on the bubble to make the tournament, and the league as a whole ranks 10th nationally, according to RealTimeRPI.com and other similar sites, just ahead of the West Coast Conference, the WAC and the Ivy League.
The Washington Huskies — picked fourth in the preseason media poll — were poised to win the regular-season title.
“One thing about the conference, historically,” basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy said, “they’re very dependent on UCLA and Arizona being good. If UCLA and Arizona are down, [the perception is] the whole conference is down.”
Of course, the rest of the league has done its part this season.
Teams in the Pac-12 went 1-29 in nonconference games against teams now ranked in the top 50 of the Ratings Percentage Index rankings system that is used to help select the field for the NCAA Tournament. They also lost to the abysmal likes of Pepperdine, Northern Arizona, Cal Poly and UC-Riverside.
That’s why no team from the Pac-12 has been ranked in the AP Top 25 in the last three months, and why prominent bracketologist Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com recently described the league as “a bunch of NIT teams, every one of them.”
“I’ve been around since the Pac-8,” one pro scout recently told the Denver Post, “and I’ve never remembered it this bad.”
It has happened, most observers believe, in part because the Pac-12 has lost a lot of talent to both the NBA and other schools in recent years, and coaches have strained to recruit well enough to keep the turnstile moving.
Twenty-one players who still had college eligibility remaining at Pac-12 schools have been picked in the NBA Draft over the last four years, and nine of them would still be playing if they had stayed in school — including Pac-10 player of the year Derrick Williams of Arizona.
That’s a big deal in college basketball, where one or two players can make a big difference.
On top of that, so many highly rated players have been either injured, ruled academically ineligible, dismissed or transferred from Pac-12 schools that they could comprise their own all-star team.
Oregon’s Jabari Brown left after two games, for example, and headed to Missouri. Arizona State’s Keala King was kicked off the team in December, after star recruit Jahii Carson was ruled ineligible, just like Cal’s Richard Montgomery. Reeves Nelson was thrown off a UCLA team that already had watched a fleet of its players transfer to star elsewhere — including UNLV’s Mike Mason and Chance Stanback, Brigham Young’s Matt Carlino and New Mexico’s Drew Gordon.
Coaches in the Pac-12 say the downturn is part of a cycle; the league sent six teams to the NCAA Tournament just four years ago, after all.
And Pomeroy buys that argument, recalling that six of the 10 teams in the old Pac-10 finished with losing records in 2003-04 — no more than four teams will do so this year — not long before the Bruins ignited the conference’s most recent run of success.
“The problem is none of the teams are going to get a good seed” in the NCAA Tournament, he said. “So whatever negative reputation the league has now, it’s going to be very difficult to do anything about that in the tournament.”
As always, recruiting has been at the heart of it all.
Since 2008, the league has had only three top-10 recruiting classes, according to the Rivals.com recruiting service. Two of them belonged to UCLA, which obviously couldn’t sustain them.
The other belonged to Arizona, which had the No. 4 class last season and is one team with a particularly bright future. Coach Sean Miller is so far assembling the top current recruiting class in the country loaded with frontcourt talent, while the Bruins were not far behind — until the SI article, anyway — and had locked up swingman Kyle Anderson, one of the top-rated players in the country.
In other words, there is hope for a brighter future. It just isn’t going to come this season.
Stumblin’ with the Pac
Team League Overall RPI
Washington 14-3 21-8 49
Cal 13-4 23-7 36
Oregon 12-5 21-8 48
Arizona 12-5 21-9 66
Colorado 11-6 19-10 77
UCLA 10-7 17-13 131
Stanford 9-8 19-10 105
Oregon State 6-11 16-13 156
Washington St. 6-11 14-15 182
Arizona State 5-12 9-20 253
Utah 3-14 6-23 259
USC 1-16 6-24 272
Through Thursday’s games Source: RealTimeRPI.com