NCAA BK

Pac-12 struggling to find identity

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Billy Witz

Billy Witz has contributed to The New York Times and covered a multitude of sporting events. A Tulane University grad, Witz has won Associated Press Sports Editor awards for investigative reporting, feature writing and game stories. He covered the Lakers' every move last season for FOX Sports West.

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One of the noteworthy stories of the young college basketball season is the rise of Harvard, which cracked the Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time and could be headed for the NCAA Tournament – even with an at-large bid – for the first time.

It’s the story of how maybe you can have it all – good players, good students and good citizens.

And then, on the other side of the country, there is the other end of the spectrum: The Pac-12 Conference, which can’t seem to win games or good citizenship awards.

After Arizona’s commendable effort came up short in an overtime loss at No. 12 Florida on Wednesday night, the Pac-12 is now winless in nine games against Top 25 teams.

And the Wildcats, like so many others in the conference, had to wonder if problem players might have been the difference in defeat.

They were playing without freshman guard Josiah Turner, one of the conference’s top prospects, who was suspended for breaking team rules, and backup center Sidiki Johnson, who transferred after being suspended.

There were similar questions for Utah on Wednesday – though nothing good to take away from an 81-50 loss to Cal State Fullerton. Missing its suspended leading scorer, Josh Watkins, the defeat – to a middling Big West school – was the worst in the 42-year history of the Utes’ Huntsman Center.

Perhaps the Utes, in coach Larry Krystkowiak’s already miserable first season – their only win is against San Diego Christian – are simply following the example of Watkins, who gained 30 pounds in the offseason and, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, was disciplined for falling asleep in class and arriving late to a 7:45 a.m. practice.

AP TOP 25

Where is your team ranked in this week's poll? See the complete top 25 here.

That right there may be a first: a player succumbing to late nights in Utah. Sleepless in Salt Lake? Go figure.

Then again, there is plenty that is not adding up for the Pac-12, which is riding the buzz of its landmark television deal, three top-10 football teams and intriguing football hires (Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez and Washington State’s Mike Leach).

Maybe the Pac-12 is becoming the SEC, where nobody (outside Lexington) pays attention to basketball – and nobody seems to mind.

This season it is easy to see why.

UCLA forward Reeves Nelson, who graced the regional cover of Sports Illustrated’s college basketball preview, is seemingly trying to collect transgressions the way he collects tattoos. After being suspended twice for conduct unbecoming a Bruin, Nelson was dismissed from the team Friday.

"This decision is not one that I take lightly," UCLA coach Ben Howland said, "but it is in the best interest of both the program and the student-athlete."

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Aside from the discipline issues with Nelson, Howland's team is having trouble on the court, where the Bruins are 2-5 and have been overwhelmed by Kansas, Michigan and Texas.

Those three consecutive Final Four appearances are starting to feel as distant as the trek across town to play at the decrepit Sports Arena while Pauley Pavilion is renovated.

The door at Oregon is not a revolving one. Five players have left since the spring, including Dana Altman’s prized recruit, freshman guard Jabari Brown, who departed two weeks ago.

Cal center Richard Solomon has been suspended for at least two games, though coach Mike Montgomery said he was not in trouble with the law. Well, thank goodness for that.

If only these problems were mitigated by good basketball. (Guess Jerry Tarkanian’s not coaching anymore.) But there’s been no such luck.

Arizona, Cal and UCLA each began the season ranked, but a sign that all was not well came when Arizona lost an exhibition to Seattle-Pacific. Then UCLA opened with a loss to Loyola Marymount. And Cal lost to Missouri – by 39.

TOTAL COLLAPSE

Football and fear fueled the demise of the Big East. Scout.com

The conference’s best win this season might be a loss – Arizona’s gutty performance at Florida, Stanford’s competitive defeat to Syracuse, Washington’s heartbreaker to Marquette and Oregon State’s come-from-ahead defeat to Vanderbilt. For an actual signature win, you have to look hard.

Stanford over North Carolina State?

USC over UNLV?

The best team in the conference appears to be Stanford, which was picked to finish sixth and whose coach, Johnny Dawkins, earned a two-year extension last summer despite no NCAA Tournament bids and a 49-48 record in three seasons.

The Cardinal are 8-1, but it is hard to get an idea of how good they are because the only significant test they have faced was Syracuse.

The idea that the Cardinal might be the best in the Pac-12 may be sending San Diego State, which has beaten Cal and Arizona, scrambling to see if it’s not too late to join the Pac-12 in basketball to go along with their football-only membership in the Big East. Or possibly Nevada, which has beaten Washington and Arizona State.

Then again, in the new Pac-12, who cares? There are still football games to be played.

Tagged: Oregon, Arizona, UCLA, Washington, Stanford, Utah, Reeves Nelson

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