Pac-10 hoops are hurting as conference play nears

BY foxsports • December 17, 2009

The bowl season can't start fast enough for Pac-10 basketball teams.

If only for a few weeks, the conference's respected football teams will pull the spotlight away from what has been an ugly hoops season.

``You're not going to find anyone who has a stronger affinity for the Pac-10 than me,'' ESPN analyst and former UCLA coach Steve Lavin said. ``But a team of Johnnie Cochran, F. Lee Bailey and Robert Shapiro couldn't build a defense of the Pac-10 in the state that it's in now.''

The evidence is overwhelming: The Pac-10 is hurting.

A combination of NBA draft defections, coaching turnover and a paucity of standout players has created a tide of mediocrity from the Pacific Northwest to the Sonoran Desert.

Fall semester grades can be misleading, because coaches are tinkering with rotations and inexperience is often costly. But it's almost impossible to find a bright side in the Pac-10's first month - except that it's over.

Through Tuesday, Pac-10 teams were a combined 5-19 against members of the other five Bowl Championship Series conferences. The Pac-10 has even struggled against the Mountain West (3-4) and West Coast (3-6) conferences, long regarded as its regional little brothers.

The Pac-10 is winless in 10 tries against the Top 25. Its only ranked squad is No. 24 Washington, which has dropped two of three.

``The league is down, obviously,'' USC coach Kevin O'Neill said. ``We haven't had signature wins, per se. That's not to say we won't as the season goes on.''

Not only does the Pac-10 have few notable wins, it has suffered mind-boggling losses.

UCLA dropped its opener to Cal State-Fullerton in double overtime, then absorbed an 11-point loss to Long Beach State. USC lost to Loyola Marymount, and Oregon got beat by Portland and Montana before losing by 37 points at Missouri. Oregon State lost to Sacramento State, which went 2-27 a year ago, while Stanford lost by 13 at San Diego.

``Based on the fact that we've had some tough losses to ... people that you would look and say, 'Jeez, how'd they lose to them,' you'd have to question it a little bit,'' said Cal coach Mike Montgomery, whose team dropped from the rankings after a 95-73 loss to Syracuse on Nov. 19.

Perhaps it's natural that the Pac-10 has slipped, because the conference is coming off three of the finest seasons in its history.

Since 2006-07, the conference has produced the most NBA draft picks (27) and first-round picks (17) in the nation. Two years ago, the league's all-freshman team included Arizona's Jerryd Bayless, Arizona State's James Harden, UCLA's Kevin Love and USC's O.J. Mayo - all eventual NBA first-rounders.

``It's just unreasonable to expect us to be as strong as we would have been had we retained those guys,'' Montgomery said. ``If you put all those people back on their rosters at their respective schools, my goodness, this would be an unbelievable league right now.''

That's true. But many of the NBA draftees were expected to leave early, and coaches haven't been able to recruit nearly enough replacements. As a result, several teams are relying on inexperienced players.

``The fact that there are more sophomores (52) on Pac-10 rosters than juniors (26) and seniors (25) combined is telling that our conference is in a transition period,'' commissioner Larry Scott said in an e-mail. ``I am confident that our teams will continue to improve.

``History shows that we've had similar transition periods where the conference was reloading - 1993 and 2004 - and followed those seasons with some spectacular years,'' Scott said.

Star players generate NCAA tournament trips. The Pac-10 drew 18 berths in the last three years - fewer than only the 16-team Big East, which had 21. And the Pac-10 has had balanced representation, with nine of its 10 schools reaching the NCAAs at least once in that span.

But that was then and this is now.

The conference appears so feeble that it may draw only two NCAA berths next March. It has had at least three every year since 1988.

Two perennial tournament teams - Arizona and UCLA - are a combined 7-11.

NCAA tourney speculation is serious stuff in Tucson, where the Wildcats have reached the NCAAs 25 straight years, the longest active streak and two shy of North Carolina's record run from 1975 to 2001.

``That streak's very much in jeopardy,'' Arizona coach Sean Miller said.

After reaching the NCAA's third round last March, the Wildcats lost Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger to the NBA draft. They have only two upperclassmen in senior point guard Nic Wise and junior forward Jamelle Horne.

As Arizona's fourth head coach in as many seasons, Miller's mission is to restore stability, though he's hardly alone. USC hired O'Neill after Tim Floyd abruptly resigned in June amid allegations that he paid to have Mayo delivered to the Trojans.

Most of the Trojans' recruiting class bailed out, leaving O'Neill with a collection of former backups and transfers. In the space of three days this month, the Trojans lost at No. 2 Texas by 19 and at Georgia Tech by 26.

At Texas, O'Neill said, ``We were just trying to hold onto the damn thing and get a shot.''

Next up for the Trojans: a visit by No. 9 Tennessee.

An upset finally would give the Pac-10 a signature victory, but it's one of the few remaining chances for the league to polish its national image before conference play begins.

``The last three years, we heard coming into each of those three years that the Pac-10 was going to be down,'' Oregon coach Ernie Kent said. ``This year, it is down.''

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