The “Conference of Champions” has failed miserably to live up to its name, and it might have just hit rock bottom.
The Pac-12 is unequivocally horrific.
Let’s start right there. While guys like Bill Walton laud the “Conference of Champions,” the Pac-12 continues to disgrace that title again and again. Maybe Walton’s UCLA teams in the early-70’s made this a conference to be reckoned with, but to call today’s Pac-12 even a “major conference” is beginning to look generous.
Last season, the Pac-12 sent just three teams to the dance, with Arizona as the lone team qualifying for the Round of 64, only to be embarrassed by 13th-seeded Buffalo on the opening Thursday. That marked the first time in more than 20 years that a major conference failed to have a team win a single NCAA Tournament game.
If anything, this season looks even worse. According to ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi, if the NCAA Tournament were to start today, the Pac-12 would have just two teams in the field—Washington and Arizona State—neither of whom would hold higher than a nine seed. To put that in perspective, the Atlantic-10, Mid-American, and American conferences would all have as many or more teams in the field, with a higher average seed.
To make matters worse, no Pac-12 teams were included in the latest AP Top 25 poll, with only Washington receiving votes (11). Washington is also the only team in the conference that ranks in the top 50 of the KenPom ratings.
Anyone who’s watched Pac-12 basketball this season can surely attest to the downward spiral that has occurred. Non-conference play featured Arizona State losing to Princeton, Oregon State losing to Kent State, Oregon losing to Texas Southern despite being 24-point favorites, and Cal losing to Yale, Seattle, San Francisco, and Fresno State by a combined 67 points. Colorado dropped games to Indiana State, Hawaii, and San Diego; UCLA lost by double-digits to Liberty, and Washington State’s non-conference slate is so terrible that it’s tough to even lay eyes on.
So how did the so-called “Conference of Champions” descend from power so quickly? How did a conference with a rich tournament history have just one team make the Final Four in the past decade? (The Big East, ACC, Big Ten, and SEC all have 6+ appearances.)
If you’re looking for excuses, lack of talent isn’t one of them. Per ESPN’s recruiting rankings, the Pac-12 had the third (UCLA), fourth (Oregon), 15th (USC), 19th (Arizona State), 23rd (Washington), 29th (Stanford), and 31st (Arizona) recruiting classes in the country this season. Over the past four years, years that feature virtually all of the players that could possibly remain in college basketball today, the Pac-12 has had a total of 36 top-50 recruits. For context, the Big Ten has had just 21.
And those players haven’t exactly flopped either. Several Pac-12 standouts have become lottery picks in the past few years, including Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Jaylen Brown, Lauri Markkanen, Marquese Chriss, and Jakob Poeltl.
With an equal playing field from a talent perspective, it’s hard to fathom the conference’s lack of success compared to the rest of the nation, particularly its 10-45 record (18% win percentage) against quadrant one opponents. A lot of the fingers have to be pointed away from the court and onto the sidelines. Frankly, Pac-12 coaching has been an abomination for years, and this group continues to get outcoached game after game.
The top dog status in the Pac-12 continues to rest in the palms of Sean Miller, and while Miller has shown to be a strong recruiter in the past, Arizona constantly falls short in the tournament, and no Final Four appearances to his name doesn’t lend to a strong résumé. Bobby Hurley and Andy Enfield both took major jumps from smaller programs. However, neither can rid themselves of the annual bubble-team designation despite really strengthening recruiting over the past couple years with the likes of Kevin Porter, Elijah Weaver, Taeshon Cherry, and Luguentz Dort.
Other coaches like Jerod Haase, Wayne Tinkle, Wyking Jones, and Tad Boyle have struggled to show that they were worth hiring in the first place. None come from strong basketball programs and they’ve all failed to make a big splash.
Then there’s UCLA.
The Bruins have landed a top-five recruiting class in each of the past three seasons. Only Duke and Kentucky can share that claim, and the distance between UCLA and the other blue bloods is miles long. The Blue Devils and Wildcats are both surging toward title contention, and the Bruins are in the midst of another lost season. The Steve Alford experiment failed miserably, yet he found a way to drastically overstay his welcome in Los Angeles.
Up and down the Pac-12, the constant theme has been poor coaching. Dana Altman gets a pass for his recent Final Four berth and the injury to superstar Bol Bol. Mike Hopkins is starting to put together Lorenzo Romar’s pieces at Washington. But everyone else hasn’t been up to par, and that becomes a problem when the Pac-12 doesn’t have the appeal of other major conference programs.
The top flight coaches of the world simply aren’t coming out West. Each major conference has a couple premier coaches that are able to sustain success. Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams own the ACC. Tom Izzo and Jon Beilein constantly show out in the Big Ten. John Calipari and Rick Barnes have put together powerhouses in the SEC. Jay Wright has perhaps the best culture in college basketball in the Big East. Bill Self has Kansas on top of the Big 12 nearly every season. All of those coaches have maintained success and all of them have Final Four appearances to their names.
The Pac-12 doesn’t have coaches with that type of pedigree. Sean Miller and Dana Altman are still step below that level, and it’s tough to lure great coaches out west. The average salary is far less than any of the other major conferences, and there’s virtually no national exposure due to television deals that don’t compare to ones made in the SEC, ACC, and Big East.
For now, the Pac-12 has a lot of problems with very few solutions. Washington is doing its best to keep the conference relevant, but without a legitimate contender, tournament success, great coaching, and stronger national appeal, things will continue to stagnate.
The Pac-12 is on the hot seat as a major conference, and proving it belongs in the daily conversation will be the first step in reclaiming its “Conference of Champions” label.
Edited by Emily Berman.
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