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In recent years, the NCAA Tournament Selection committee has taken (warranted) criticism for favoring middle-of-the-pack power conference teams over the best mid-major teams when handing out at-large bids. Teams from lower-ranked conferences that trip up in their conference tournaments are tossed aside and the also rans from the top six conferences are gifted a spot they don’t really deserve.
This year will present the selection committee with a chance to turn the tide on this phenomenon, thanks to our westernmost power conference. The Pac-12, as currently constituted this year, is an embarrassment. Thanks to a variety of missteps, misfortunes, and flat-out mistakes, the 12 programs in the conference have been a collective mess this season. Barring a change in play or conference tournament surprise, no Pac-12 team should earn an at-large big to the NCAA Tournament.
According to Ken Pomeroy’s conference rankings, the Pac-12 ranks as the sixth best in the nation, but is statistically closer to the 9th ranked Mid-American Conference than any of its power conference siblings.
How did this happen? You’re welcome to posit any theory of your own, but there’s certainly plenty of factors at play.
First, the rise of Gonzaga and Nevada as legitimate powers on the West Coast has made recruiting a touch more difficult for any Pac-12 school. Mark Few brings legitimate five-star talent to Spokane, and has a particular knack for finding international players. Eric Musselman has made Nevada the premier program nationally for transfer players. He has built a top ten team this season on the backs of players looking for a new home. Both coaches have recruited circles around the Pac-12 in the last three years and neither has been tempted by the football money of a larger program.
Beyond just those two schools, we have seen a rise from many other mid-majors west of the Rockies. There are big name former-NBA players head coaching at Pacific (Damon Stoudemire), Portland (Terry Porter), and Grand Canyon (Dan Marjerle). Thunder Dan has turned GCU, a former for-profit school, into a relevant program. Thanks to shiny new facilities and some generous donations from noted and bloated snake-in-the-grass Jerry Colangelo, Grand Canyon has a rocking student section and a commitment from a four-star recruit for next season.
All of these gains by mid-majors out West have detracted from the Pac-12’s overall standing within college basketball. To truly understand how we’ve gotten to this point, it makes sense to dissect the conference program by program. We’ll try to figure how each has dipped so low given recent history, then analyze just how bad things look this year and in the long term.
In the five years prior to last season, the Wildcats lost single digit games and reached four Sweet Sixteens and two Elite Eights. Four Arizona players were taken in the first round of the NBA Draft in that time. Things couldn’t have been going much better.
Then the FBI started sniffing around.
Wire taps, bags full of money, and Freedom of Information Act requests looked like the downfall of the entire Arizona program. Despite a wildly talented team, the Wildcats were blown out by Buffalo in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
This year, Arizona has been an afterthought. Top level talent avoided Tucson for fear of ending up entangled in the FBI’s next sting. The Wildcats best non-conference win came over an injury and suspension-laden Iowa State team in Maui. Their second best non-conference win was a home victory over Montana. That hardly makes for an attractive resume.
We’re less than a year away from people discussing real program altering sanctions for Sean Miller and company, and yet it seems like the school’s response has been to act as if nothing has changed. Maybe if the Wildcats can stay out of the police blotter for a year or two, they’ll return to national prominence. This year though, Miller and Arizona will stay out of the spotlight.
Sadness Level This Season: 50,000 out of 100,000
Long Term Outlook: They’ll be fine. I think. Are you wearing a wire? If you’re a cop you legally have to tell me.
The Sun Devils were among the last bubble teams invited to last year’s tournament and washed out in the First Four in Dayton, unable to recapture whatever magic allowed them to start the season 12-0.
This season, Bobby Hurley again had his team off to an impressive start. The Sun Devils were 9-2, with three Top 50 wins, including top ranked Kansas. It looked like they were the class of the conference.
Then Arizona dropped back-to-back home games to Princeton and Utah.
Hurley’s teams in Tempe have been one of the nation’s most exhilarating roller coaster rides with wild ups and downs. They should win the Pac-12 and represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament. If they don’t, they will have made some serious mistakes in conference play. People will begin to wonder when Hurley, a New York native who played his college ball at Duke, would look to return to the East Coast where his recruiting pitch might hit home a little more effectively.
Sadness Level This Season: 1 out of 2 Hurley brothers.
Long Term Outlook: Somehow among the best in the mess of a conference.
The Golden Bears are on their third coach in six seasons and first-time head coach Wyking Jones does not appear to be the answer in Berkeley. His teams are 13-32 in two seasons on the job and the Bears have yet to beat a top 100 team this season.
Cal has played eight games against other teams from the state of California this season and is just 4-4, including losses to San Francisco, St. Mary’s, and Fresno State. The young Golden Bears have been one of the worst defensive teams in the nation so far and look to be years away from contention, even in this watered down conference.
Cuonzo Martin leaving Cal for Missouri after just three season was unexpected and left things dire in Berkeley.
Sadness Level This Season: 10 out of a California 10 (That’s 11)
Long Term Outlook: It would be best to simply ignore Cal for a while.
This marks Tad Boyle’s ninth seasons as head coach of the Buffaloes. In his first eight seasons, Colorado has never lost fewer than 12 games and has won just one NCAA Tournament game. Maybe it’s not working out!
To be fair to Boyle, from 1970 to his hiring in 2010, Colorado won just one NCAA Tournament game in 40 years so maybe it’s not really his fault. Maybe there’s something about Boulder that’s just not conducive to basketball success. It’s more of a hiking and cannabis town at heart.
Sadness Level This Season: 420 out of 420.
Long Term Outlook: At least expectations are low?
It’s hard to fault Dana Altman and his program for their uphill climb this year. The Ducks are consistently bringing in top level recruits and have been successful at turning that talent into success in March. They won at least one NCAA Tournament game for five straight seasons and reached the Final Four in 2017.
Troy Brown, Jordan Bell, Tyler Dorsey, and Dillon Brooks all left Altman’s program early for the NBA, leaving Oregon behind schedule and searching for answers sooner than expected.
Freshman phenom Bol Bol, son of former NBA player Manute, looked like the answer this season. He is a sure-fire top 10 NBA Draft pick and was doing things rarely seen by college freshman. Now that an injury has sidelined Bol for the season, the Ducks will be short-handed the rest of the way.
Oregon likely has the best long-term outlook of any program in the conference, yet will not be a factor this year thanks to Bol’s injury.
Sadness Level This Season: 1 Bol out of a possible Bol Bol.
Long Term Outlook: Quack-tastic!
Much like Colorado, Oregon State has never been known for basketball success. The Beavers haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 1982. That streak includes the careers of both Gary Payton and Gary Payton II.
Current head coach Wayne Tinkle is now the sixth straight man to be Oregon State’s head coach without winning a game in the Big Dance. In his five seasons in Corvallis, Tinkle has reached the tournament once and has never won 20 games.
In good news, Tinkle’s leading scorer and best player this season is his son, Tres. Good for them!
In bad news, despite the Tinkles’ best efforts, the Beavers aren’t very good this season. They have yet to beat a power conference foe and have lost games to St. Louis and Kent State.
Sadness Level This Season: 2 out of 2 Tinkles.
Long Term Outlook: I was not born the last time Oregon State was ranked. I will be long dead before they ever are ranked again.
In 2016, Stanford fired Johnny Dawkins and hired Jerod Haase as head coach. Dawkins had made just one NCAA Tournament in eight seasons on the job, making the Sweet Sixteen in 2014.
That move is beginning to look like a case of the grass always being greener. Dawkins is now the head coach at UCF, where like the Tinkles at Oregon State, his team is led by his son Aubrey. Unlike the Tinkles, The Dawkins boys are 11-2 and will have a chance to reach the NCAA Tournament. Perhaps Stanford fired Dawkins because he was unable to recruit his own son, who first chose to play at Michigan before transferring to play for dear ol’ Dad.
Haase had made just one NCAA Tournament at UAB before taking the reins in Palo Alto and has yet to reach the promised land at Stanford. The Cardinal have struggled this season, failing to beat a power conference opponent, just like Oregon State.
Stanford, like their Bay Area rival Cal, lost to the University of San Francisco this season. There’s no shame in that this year, as the Dons are a top 50 team with tournament aspirations. It’s just nice that USF was able to schedule and beat both nearby Pac-12 schools, saving us the trouble of a hypothetical “Is San Francisco the best team in the Bay Area?” debates. It’s no debate. They are.
Sadness Level This Season: “The Harvard of the West” is an insult to the Harvard basketball team.
Long Term Outlook: Probably a coaching change and a half decade away from a return to relevance.
Boy, where do we start?
Steve Alford brought in top 5 recruiting classes each of the last three years.
The first of those classes included Lonzo Ball and helped the Bruins reach the Sweet Sixteen. The second of those classes included LiAngelo Ball, who was arrested on a trip to China, and the Bruins lost in the First Four. This year, UCLA went 2-4 in the month of December and Alford was fired following the last of those losses (a 15-point spanking at the hands of LIBERTY UNIVERSITY at Pauley Pavilion).
Now the Bruins are looking for a new coach who is capable of returning the program to national prominence. No pressure!
Musselman will likely be their first call, but will need a few million reasons to leave Nevada for a program willing to fire a coach midseason just two years after going 31-5 and reaching the second weekend of the tournament. After that, the number of potential names on UCLA’s list is seemingly countless. UCLA could hire Chris Beard, Chris Mack, Mick Cronin, Bruce Pearl, David Kennerick, Kevin Keatts, Fred Hoiberg, Greg Timmons, Will Wade, or Kevin Willard. And almost all of those are actual college basketball coaches! OK, maybe two are names I made up just to make sure you’re paying attention…
My point is that UCLA faces a coaching change at a crucial time. The program is in flux and there are thousands of different paths the school could take.
UCLA is the North Star of the so-called “Conference of Champions” and as long as the Bruins are lost in the shuffle, the Pac-12 likely will be as well.
Sadness Level This Season: Steve Alford out of a possible John Wooden (This is bad.)
Long Term Outlook: God himself doesn’t know who they’ll hire to lead this program. God himself probably doesn’t want the job either, given the pressure. At least it’s sunny and warm there!
After Andy Enfield built Dunk City into a tournament darling in just the school’s sixth season in Division I, he seemed like an interesting bet to take over a major program. The Trojans gave him that chance and at times, he’s looked the part. Enfield has had no trouble bringing talent to Southern Cal, but like Arizona, may have been doing so by skirting a rule or two. USC was also prominently featured in the FBI reporting from the past year. DeAnthony Melton, a first-round NBA talent, sat out all of last season due to fears he’d be ruled ineligible or bring about sanctions to the Trojan program.
This season, the Men of Troy have struggled. USC capped off a four-game losing streak with a double-overtime stinker at Santa Clara. Enfield was bold for scheduling a true road game against a mid-major and it cost him, with his team losing to the Broncos (currently outside the KenPom top 200). Highly ranked recruit Kevin Porter Jr. is injured, having not played since the first week of December and missing all four games in that losing streak. Should he return and bring a scoring punch with him, USC actually has a chance to rebound this season.
It may not be enough to remain in the at-large discussion, but of the struggling Pac-12 teams across the West Coast, the Trojans might be the most promising.
Sadness Level This Season: They’ll be better than UCLA!
Long Term Outlook: Surprisingly solid.
The Utes tenure in the Pac-12 has featured a steady climb, followed by steady decline. Their first year in the conference, the Utes won just three conference games in a 6-25 season in 2012. By 2015, Larry Krystkowiak had Utah ranked in the top ten and into the Elite Eight. Three more years later and the magic has worn off.
Utah is just 7-7 despite a soft non-conference schedule, including a loss to Hawaii. Before conference play started, the Utes failed to register a win over a top 100 team. Things looked bleak with a trip to Arizona State and Arizona to kick off league play.
Then Utah beat Arizona State and took Arizona to overtime, nearly becoming the first team in several seasons to sweep a trip through the Grand Canyon State. Most took those results as an indictment against the Arizona teams, not as a chance to compliment Utah.
We’ll see if West Coast Coach K actually has some tricks up his sleeve or if that trip through the desert was just a mirage.
Sadness Level This Season: Spelling Bee contestant working on “Krystkowiak” levels
Long Term Outlook: With the level of talent coming to Utah, it will be a steady up and down for years to come.
Quietly, the Huskies are having a solid season. Compared to the dregs of the conference around them, Washington has been downright impressive. Unlike every team we’ve already mentioned, they do not have a garish loss on the resume. All four teams that have beaten Washington are in the KenPom top 50. The Huskies took Gonzaga to the buzzer on the road, after losing to the Zags by 27 in back-to-back years.
On the other hand, while they’ve avoided the disaster loss, Washington hasn’t done much in terms of an impressive win either. The Huskies have just one win against the KenPom top 100 (a neutral site victory over 92nd ranked Texas A&M). For the most part, Washington is beating down the cupcakes on the schedule, but hasn’t proven themselves with a major victory yet.
In Mike Hopkins’ second year as head coach, this is far from the worst case scenario. Lorenzo Romar had two first round draft picks on his roster in 2016 and failed to make the NCAA Tournament, then had the #1 pick in the NBA Draft the following year and the team was even worse.
A rebuild was expected and is going according to schedule in Seattle.
Sadness Level This Season: I got sad while thinking about Markelle Fultz’s year at Washington.
Long Term Outlook: Better than Fultz’s!
OK, so those last couple positive paragraphs took a little steam out of this rant. Let’s get back to some real schadenfreude.
The Cougars are the second-lowest slotted power conference team in KenPom’s rankings at 179th this season. The only lower power conference team is fellow Pac-12 school, California!
At least Cal has played six non-conference games against top 100 competition, even if they’ve lost all six. Washington State played just two such games, both(!) against New Mexico State and both losses for the Cougs. Washington State’s best win is undoubtedly a home victory over Rider. The Cougars other six wins have all come against the bottom 60 teams in college basketball. They have also lost games this season to Seattle, San Diego, Montana State, and Santa Clara.
It feels like ten lifetimes ago that Tony Bennett had his Washington State club ranked as high as fourth in the nation in 2008. Since then, Washington State has never won 20 games in a season (despite three years of Klay Thompson in Pullman) and has been coached by two actual human beings who are real people and not just made up names (Ken Bone and Ernie Kent?). They had a coach named Ken Bone!
Sadness Level This Season: 100 Klay Thompson threes out of a possible 100.
Long Term Outlook: the darkness, it will consume them
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.