Unquestionably, the Pac-12 is as strong this season as it has been since Ben Howland took three consecutive UCLA teams to the Final Four starting in 2006, and since six teams made the NCAA tournament field for three straight years beginning in 2007.
With California’s recent upswing, most of the computer-generated projected brackets have five Pac-12 teams solidly in the 68-team NCAA field with two weeks left in the regular season and another, Arizona State, capable of getting there with a strong finish.
Just like the old days, Arizona and UCLA – who will meet in prime time Saturday at Pauley Pavilion – are in the thick of the conference race.
And for better or worse, having the Wildcats and Bruins in that position seems to have a positive impact on the national perception of a league that struggles for respect when one or both is not on top.
Part of that perception probably has to do with history of the two programs – UCLA’s 10 NCAA championships in 12 years under John Wooden, Arizona’s one national title and 25 consecutive NCAA appearances, mostly on Lute Olson’s watch.
To the league coaches, it breaks along simple lines.
UCLA and Arizona are good? So is the league.
UCLA and Arizona struggle? The league is down. Not that other teams are making progress. Simply that the league is down.
They would wish for a broader outside perspective.
“That’s the problem we’ve got,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery said Tuesday.
Stanford furthered the image under Montgomery with a strong decade from the early-1990s to the early 2000s, but it can be a hard climb.
“It took a while for us to gain that reputation,” Montgomery said. “They don’t give a lot of credit to the schools across the board in this league. If UCLA loses a couple of games early, or Arizona, the perception is usually down regardless.”
“You are going to have to do well for a fairly sustained period of time. We managed to do that at Stanford and kind of jumped into that mix and got a reputation of just being good, but it takes a long time for somebody that has not been in the headlights for people to perceive that they might actually be a good basketball team.
“It’s going to take a sustained period of really good basketball for anybody to buy into that.”
Cal is making inroads. The Bears are playing the best basketball in the Pac-12 in recent weeks, beating Arizona, UCLA and Oregon (twice), and they have about as good a chance as any of winning the regular-season title and getting the No. 1 seed in the postseason tournament considering present form. Their final three games — Utah, Colorado, Stanford — are all at home.
Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs are the best guard combination in the Pac-12 when right, Montgomery knows how to run Crabbe off screen after screen after screen to get him the ball, and the interior players, an early season question mark, seems to understand their roles better.
The Bears have moved not only into the thick of the race but also into the national conversation. They have made the largest jump of any team in the last two weeks in NCAA tournament projections.
At least someone is paying attention.
The Pac-12’s new travel schedule has presented a new set of challenges with Wednesday-Saturday and Thursday-Sunday road trips, and the league is kicking around ideas to solve that. One possible solution would be breaking up the road travel pairings when possible.
It would not make much sense to have the Arizona schools make separate trips to Washington and Washington State, but it could work for the Oregon schools, for example. The Arizona schools are scheduled to spend four days in Los Angeles this week, with games Wednesday and Saturday. Why not play one in Los Angeles and one in Arizona? It is worth discussing, especially since the travel costs would be minimal.
Twelve teams makes scheduling unwieldy, and the Pac-12 has juggled the coaches’ need to play a full nonconference schedule by not playing a complete round-robin. The 12-team Big Ten does it the same way. The 12-team SEC uses a division format. Each SEC team plays the others teams in its division twice and the teams in the other division once. The Big 12 did the same until its numbers dropped this year.
Colorado’s Tad Boyle likes the Pac-12 system better, even though the Buffs miss home games against second-division Washington and Washington State this season.
“We probably get more of a true champion,” said Boyle, who has worked in the SEC and Big 12. “When you play only six teams one time, it leads to a lot of inequities.”
GAME OF THE WEEK
No. 11 Arizona (23-4, 11-4) at UCLA (20-7, 10-4), Saturday. UCLA gave the then No. 6-Arizona the full Shabazz in an 84-73 victory in Tucson on Jan. 24, the Bruins’ most impressive victory of the season. Bruins freshman Shabazz Muhammad had 23 points, scoring early, when the Bruins scored 19 of the first 22 points, and late. After Arizona got to within four points late in the second half, Muhammad hit a 3-pointer to stretch the lead back to 10 and added two free throws to keep the Bruins in charge.
“When the lights come on and the cameras are on, he really comes to life,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said of Muhammad.
The Wildcats are more physical and a much better rebounding team, which could factor in this time.