Basketball masochists still exist in the world, and they’re not in hiding. You find them this weekend out in the open, smack dab in the middle of the nation’s second-largest city. There aren’t many left — just a few hundred, really — but they keep showing up no matter how bleak this formerly major conference looks. It might be the only charming thing left about the Pac-12.
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The notion of what puts the power in a so-called “power conference” is an endless debate in the college basketball world. The six leagues affiliated with automatic bids to football’s Bowl Championship Series are generally thought of as major conferences, a designation that would include the Pac-12.
But there is nothing major about what’s happening this weekend at Staples Center. Nothing major about a tournament with 12 basketball teams that range from decent to abhorrent. Nothing major about a 19,000-seat arena that had no more than 1,000 seats filled Wednesday afternoon for a game between USC and UCLA, two schools within a 20-minute drive. Nothing major about a league whose regular-season champion could very well miss the NCAA tournament.
“I would think the Pac-12 champion would find itself in the tournament,” No. 1 seed Washington’s Lorenzo Romar said yesterday after his team lost to No. 9 seed Oregon State, 86-84, in the quarterfinals.
The fact Romar even has to speak in such terms tells you everything you need to know about the state of the Pac-12. Use whatever measurement you want — nonconference records, advanced statistics, the quality of play, the number of NBA prospects — and the truth is inescapable. The Pac-12 isn’t just a bad basketball league. It’s become an embarrassment.
“There’s no doubt our conference this year hasn’t been at the level that people are used to it being at,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said. “All conferences go through cycles, but I’ve got very little worry about the mid to long term, this remaining one of the elite basketball conferences.”
There are plenty of theories about why the Pac-12, which sent four teams to the NCAA tournament last season and won a combined five games, has sunk so far that it might receive just one bid this year.
Some coaches talk about the large number of players that left early for the NBA, but that’s no different than what happens annually in the Pac-12 or the Big East or Big Ten. Others have forwarded the notion that talent on the West Coast has been down of late, which is true to an extent. But the Mountain West is likely to have four teams in the NCAA tournament this year, and the West Coast Conference could have three. Both leagues, which are traditionally considered a level below the Pac-12, recruit heavily from California.
“It’s terrible,” said one NBA personnel director, who didn’t even bother sending a scout to the Pac-12 tournament this year because there was nothing worth seeing.
Pac-12 teams collectively played 32 nonconference games this year against teams ranked in the top 50 of the Ratings Percentage Index, the primary tool used by the NCAA selection committee to measure schedule strength. The Pac-12 was 1-31, with the lone win on Nov. 15 when Stanford beat Colorado State, 64-52.
It is almost impossible for any decent league to be that bad, much less a league with traditional powers such as UCLA and Arizona. But one look at the quality of play in this league, and it’s not terribly hard to figure out how it happened. There simply aren’t enough good players with top-line athleticism and basketball skill to stack up with other leagues.
Practically every conference is average in the middle, and the Pac-12 is no exception. But the teams that actually have legitimate talent have either been distracted by off-court issues (UCLA), too young to compete at a high level (Arizona) or beset by an astounding lack of basketball IQ (Washington). Compounding the problem is that three of the nation’s worst teams in any league reside in the Pac-12 in Arizona State (10-21), Utah (5-25) and USC (6-26).
At least USC had an excuse, losing five rotation players to season-ending injuries. Everyone else? It was nothing more than bad recruiting and mediocre coaching while potential Pac-12 players have thrived in other leagues. Four former UCLA players alone — BYU’s Matt Carlino, New Mexico’s Drew Gordon and UNLV’s Chace Stanback and Mike Moser — will be significant factors in the tournament this year with different teams.
And even the Pac-12 can’t spin it. Every year, you hear coaches at these tournaments around the country talk about how their league doesn’t get enough respect, how it should get more teams in the tournament. But that kind of narrative has become so fruitless here; even Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins passed up the opportunity to politick for his 21-10 team after it won a first-round game Wednesday. There is simply no way to excuse how poorly the Pac-12 performed against other leagues this year.
“We all have to play great nonconference schedules and get great nonconference wins,” USC’s Kevin O’Neill said. “You are judged on the nonconference. Once you start playing each other, if you haven’t set your reputation, you’re not going to be able to do that. We lose an inordinate amount of guys to the pros for a relatively small league every year, and that hurts us, but it’s our job to replace those guys and move forward.”
And if Washington gets shut out of the NCAA tournament despite going 14-4 in the conference (not including yesterday’s loss), it won’t be hard to figure out why. The best team it beat outside the league? UC-Santa Barbara.
That explains why only a few hundred have bothered to show up to watch the Pac-12 tournament, once a marquee event during championship week set in the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. It’s become a conference only a masochist could love.