As Oregon was halfway through thumping Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl, three days after Stanford handled Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, the subject of the national polls came up.
“How do you tell when an SEC teams loses?” someone said, pausing for the punch line.
“It goes up in the polls.”
It was not funny to the Pac-12 then, in the same way the basketball rankings and the corresponding perceptions of the league are not funny now.
You do not need to have a West Coast bias to believe that when, say, a Big East team loses to another in a close conference game, the takeaway is how good both teams are and how difficult it is to (a) win on the road or (b) hold home court against a scrappy opponent.
The same kind of game in the Pac-12 is more viewed as a case of two middling teams muddling right along.
Pac-12 coaches are tired of hearing that.
“I feel we have defended the Pac-12 constantly, as if we had to apologize for our conference,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
“I know especially two years ago when Derrick Williams was a part of our team and we went to the Elite Eight, if you look back at the Pac-10 that year, we had incredible depth. If you look at some of the players who played in our conference then and what they are doing in the NBA now, it is much more misrepresented.”
Williams, Isaiah Thomas and Klay Thompson are among the former league players who are successful at the next level.
The best example of the Pac-12’s elevated play this year came last week, when three of the top four teams – No. 9 Arizona, No. 23 Oregon and Arizona State – lost at home, leaving eight teams within two games of first place. Cal pulled the shocker of the season in its victory at Arizona behind Allen Crabbe’s 31 points. Only UCLA emerged unscathed among the leaders, winning twice in Pauley Pavilion.
Not that many seemed to have noticed. Arizona and Oregon slipped in the polls, but there was no offsetting gain. It has been a constant struggle.
Big Ten Minnesota (17-7) had to lose six of its last eight games to finally fall out of the national rankings this week. The Big East’s Cincinnati (18-6) had to split its last 12 games to be dropped, and Missouri (17-6) had to lose four of its last eight. But all three still have many more votes than UCLA (18-6), which beat Missouri and won at Arizona. St. Louis (18-5) has more votes than all but the two ranked Pac-12 teams.
“It’s difficult for all of us as coaches in our conference to stomach any type of criticism, or somebody pointing out that almost anybody can beat anybody, and because of that mediocrity is associated with it,” said Miller, who played in the Big East and coached in the Atlantic-10.
“I continue to hear and have always heard that those conferences that have teams that can beat each other on a given night are among the best conferences in the country, and that’s what makes it so special to be in that conference. Now that we have that going on in our conference, it has to be associated with the same thing.
“We have a great league, and when you have a great league teams, can beat each other on given nights. That doesn’t make us less. That makes us more.”
Former Arizona player, NBA champion and Phoenix Suns general manager Steve Kerr sees the same thing.
“I think the conference is much-improved,” Kerr said during the Washington-USC telecast Saturday, while adding, “I don’t think there are any great teams.”
Both Miller and Howland said they believe the Pac-12 deserves five teams in the 68-team NCAA field. BIG RED TOUR
Bill Walton has been entertaining on his bus tour of the Pac-12 during conference season, and he adds an exuberant, sometimes outrageous voice on the nights he serves as a TV analyst. He has saved much of his criticism for his old school, UCLA, which he has often said should play at a faster pace.
Ben Howland was asked about that on a conference call Tuesday.
“Bill has been critical since he started doing our games,” said Howland, who has taken UCLA to the Final Four three times (2005-08) in his first nine seasons although the Bruins have missed the tournament two of the last three years.
“He’s an analyst. That’s his job and his right to be critical. I understand that. It’s just part of our business, especially at a high profile position like UCLA, where you are always going to be in the shadow of the greatest coach (John Wooden) in the history of the game. The game. At any level. Bill’s college coach. That’s Bill’s point of reference. I understand that. You have to remember, his frame of reference is 60-and-0 in his first two years of college eligibility. Anything less than what he experienced I think is very difficult for him to accept.” GAME OF THE WEEK
Arizona (20-3, 8-3) at Colorado (16-7, 6-5), Thursday. We all remember what happened in the first meeting. Arizona won … after Colorado won. The Buffaloes lost all of a 10-point lead in the final 1:55 before guard Sabatino Chen hit the apparent game-winning 3-pointer from the top of the key with milliseconds remaining for what would have been an 83-80 victory at McKale Center.
Officials waved off the basket after checking a TV replay courtside, although other replays appeared to show the ball just out of Chen’s hand when the red light on the backboard came on. Arizona went on to win, 92-83, in overtime.
This is Colorado’s chance for revenge, and more than that, a chance for a signature victory to enhance its NCAA tournament chances. The Buffaloes’ strength of schedule is good enough for a bid right now.