After a strong run in the mid-2000s, the Pac-12 has been a “power” men’s basketball conference in name only.
Things got so bad that when Washington won the conference in 2012 with a 14-4 record, the Huskies were left out of the NCAA tournament, indicating a level of national respect on par with the Southland Conference or Patriot League.
But the Pac-12 is back, something Washington State will find out today when the Cougars face No. 1 Arizona. The Wildcats have borne the conference’s standard in November and December, heading a group of teams that have shown that the West Coast is once again a college hoops destination.
“The depth of the conference has never been better since I’ve been the head coach at Arizona,” coach Sean Miller said. “I just feel like every game that you play is going to be a real test. It’s going to be difficult to win any game on the road.”
Jabari Parker of No. 7 Duke may be able to enter an NBA starting lineup and not look out of place, but he couldn’t beat Arizona. Nor could Michigan, UNLV or any other team that tried.
“They’ve put themselves in a position where once conference play begins and the schools are beating each other up a little bit, as long as the right schools are beating each other up, they come out of conference play in good shape,” said Ernie Kent, who coached at Oregon and is a Pac-12 Networks analyst.
It’s easy to see why the conference went from the forefront of the national conscious to an afterthought at best. West Coast basketball became a force because of star players like O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Jerryd Bayless and the Lopez twins.
None of those players made it to their junior year, however. Each opted to enter the 2008 NBA Draft as underclassmen and all were selected in the first round. The conference had 12 players drafted that year, and nine the next, as such cornerstone players as Jon Brockman and James Harden ascended to the next level.
That exodus of talent crippled the conference for years. But the early evidence is that players like UA’s Aaron Gordon, Brandon Ashley and Nick Johnson; Arizona State’s Jahii Carson; Colorado’s Spencer Dinwiddie and others have replenished the talent coffers.
Even the conference’s lesser teams have more playmakers than in the past.
“Oregon State shouldn’t be down. They’re as talented as anybody else in their personnel,” Kent said.
The result is a more competitive conference, one that has acquitted itself well on the national stage. And Pac-12 teams haven’t shied away from competition.
“I think playing good competition allows the truth to be revealed more readily in different aspects about your team,” said ASU coach Herb Sendek.
Not every team has been successful. The Huskies dropped both attempts to pick up a quality win against UConn and San Diego State, and are suddenly one of only two five-loss teams in the conference. The other is WSU, which picked up a pair of losses in the talent-filled Old Spice Classic in Orlando.
Those efforts have still benefitted the Pac-12 as a whole, however, which ranks fourth overall in conference RPI.
“It makes it hard, but it’s a good hard,” said Beavers coach Craig Robinson. “Because you get more opportunities to get some of those showcase-type wins against ranked competition. For everybody, the conference is tougher, even the guys at the top.”