SAN FRANCISCO – Long ago, back in, say, 1990, Pittsburgh point guard Sean Miller rooted against conference opponents in nonconference games.
“I didn’t want them to do as well as us,” Miller said.
Now? Not so much. The Arizona coach was one of a handful at Thursday’s Pac-12 men’s basketball media day to speak of the need for Pac-12 teams to win their nonconference games, something that didn’t happen last season when the conference sent just two teams to the NCAA tournament.
“It is hard sometimes to root for other teams, but in the big picture you need to,” Washington State coach Ken Bone said. “Down deep, we need our conference to be strong.”
“This year in particular,” Miller said, “every time a team plays a nonconference opponent, we want them to win. The most success we can have as a conference only helps each other.”
So begins what Miller and his peers hope will be a rebuilding year for a conference that took its share of criticism from pundits and fans last year. Those jabs were compounded when Washington, the regular-season Pac-12 champion, wasn’t selected to play in the NCAA tournament.
But it’s a new year and optimism abounds, most fervently from USC coach Kevin O’Neill who said he thinks “five or six” conference teams could qualify for the tournament this season.
“There’s a ton of new talent,” O’Neill said, another theme heard throughout the day. “There’s a lot of returning players. There’s great coaches in this league.”
And if the media are correct, there will be a return to normalcy atop the league. Arizona was chosen by voters to win the conference, earning 402 total points to UCLA’s 401.
Criticism of the conference last season existed in part because UA and UCLA weren’t their usual selves, each of those teams falling short of the NCAA tourney.
But with both squads boasting impressive recruiting classes – freshmen Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski the pride of Arizona’s, Kyle Anderson and still-not-eligible Shabazz Muhammad highlighting UCLA’s – and they’ll be expected to compete for the Pac-12 championship again.
Each of those teams can help itself – and the Pac-12 as a whole – by winning its marquee nonconference matchups. UCLA plays two games in Brooklyn against Georgetown and the winner of a game between Georgia and No. 1 Indiana. Arizona hosts No. 10 Florida and plays at Clemson.
And yet …
“I think you could make an argument for every team in our league,” said defending Pac-12 tournament champion Colorado coach Tad Boyle, who dismissed his team’s sixth-place finish in the voting as “irrelevant.”
“I kind of feel like we haven’t gained enough respect yet,” said sophomore Colorado forward Andre Roberson, one of the conference’s sure-fire NBA draft picks. “Just have to go out there, work hard every day in practice, continue to get better, continue to prove everyone wrong once again.”
WSU might do well to take the same approach. For the second consecutive season, the Cougars were picked to finish 10th in the conference, ahead of Arizona State and Utah.
Bone answered more questions about his team’s point-guard situation, saying again that the Cougars will handle it by committee in the wake of Reggie Moore’s dismissal.
“We need our guards to work together and bring the ball up court against maybe pressure, be able to initiate the offense and then also at the end of the shot clock be able to organize the team and execute a play that can be efficient, depending on the personnel and matchups,” Bone said. “But there’s a few of them that I think can fill that role.”
A number of coaches also voiced excitement over the Pac-12’s expanded television footprint. To that end, the effect on WSU will be as noticeable as anywhere – all but one of the Cougars’ games this season will be televised.