Notebook: Pac-12 basketball back on the rise

Published Oct. 17, 2013 4:24 p.m. ET

SAN FRANCISCO — Arizona freshman Aaron Gordon was easily the most talked-about player at Pac-12 Media Day Thursday, and he wasn't even in attendance in San Francisco. Nearly every coach that took the podium had something to say about the Wildcats' prized recruit.
When asked what player might change the Pac-12 Conference this season, a reporter barely got Gordon's name out of her mouth before Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar said, "Yeah, yeah – that one."
The 6-foot-8 power forward out of San Jose was praised for everything off the court by his head coach, Sean Miller.
"He's a very easy guy to deal with because his greatest strength isn't his ability as a basketball player," Miller said. "To me, his greatest gift that he's given his teammates and us is that he's an incredibly hard worker. He's extremely focused. He's somebody that is tireless in his own approach to be great."
Gordon showed some decidedly un-diva-like behavior when went so far as to reach out to veteran guard Nick Johnson. It was a move that both surprised and refreshed Johnson. It showed why Gordon is the complete package that so many coaches coveted.
"When he first got here this summer he actually sent me a text and he just told me, 'Anything you need or anything that you want to tell me to help ease in my transition, go for it,'" Johnson said. "And, I mean, coming from a McDonald's All‑American and that highly rated of a player, I knew right away what kind of a person we had in him."
Down no more
Once upon a time, the Pac-12 was one of the premiere college basketball conferences. But in recent years, that hasn't been the case. There are the haves and the have-nots of the conference and in 2012, only two teams received a bid to the NCAA Tournament – Colorado and California, two schools not typically associated with their basketball prowess.
"We went through a period of time when we had more NBA draft picks than any conference in the country. We were spitting out lottery picks like nickels," said Arizona State head coach Herb Sendek. "Recruiting couldn't keep pace with that, when you coupled that with the senior graduation we were experiencing."
But five bids were awarded last postseason and the depth in the conference this season is back up to where it has been in years past. It's shaping up to be a banner year for the Pac-12.
"I think the league is going to be probably as good as it's been in the five years that I've been here," said Oregon State head coach Craig Robinson.  "I don't think you're going to have a night off this year."
Building in Boulder
Colorado has never been looked at as a basketball school. When the Buffalo decided to leave the Big 12 for the Pac-12, many detractors said the Buffs wouldn't be able to keep up in basketball or football, key revenue sports.
"We can't worry about what the outside world is thinking about us or talking about or saying," said head coach Tad Boyle. "Because I think when they picked us 11th our first year in the league that didn't matter – we ended up winning the conference tournament."
They have received bids to the NCAA Tournament in each of the last two seasons they have been in the Pac-12, which was the first back-to-back bids for CU in 50 years. 
Junior guard Spencer Dinwiddie, a Taft High School alum, and his team-leading numbers in scoring and assists has made him an integral building block.
The Buffs of years past are just that – in the past. Now?
"Now they're picking us maybe in the upper half of the league," Boyle said.
- A very bold question was posed to Oregon head coach Dana Altman about the amount of money that the university and the athletic program in particular receive from Nike's Phil Knight. Knight recently funded the upgrade to Matthew Knight Arena and the football and track and field facilities speak for themselves. But Altman doesn't feel that it's an outrageous resource.
"We built an arena that's very nice. It's not over the top by any means, but it's a nice facility," Altman said. "I think every university has benefactors that benefit their programs, athletically, academically. Ours just happens to be someone that runs Nike."
- Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak recently helped stop not one but two crimes being committed in Salt Lake City -- he stopped a thief from stealing a bike outside of the Huntsman Center and helped catch another thief that had stolen 17 laptops from a university computer lab.
He can thank the NCAA for the extra time. Or maybe, the NCAA, and the Salt Lake City community, should thank him.
"With the practice changing a little bit, having six weeks to get 30 practices in, it allows your coaches to step out and take on some other career opportunities," Krystkowiak said. "So we had an awful lot of fun with that. It's good to have people behind bars."