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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Commentary: Pac-12’s woes continue with men’s NCAA tourney exits. Is it a conference of also-rans?

Coach Tommy Lloyd argues a call during Arizona’s first-round loss to Princeton in the NCAA Tournament Thursday in Sacramento, Calif.  (Getty Images)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Granted, there aren’t a lot of people walking around with sweatshirts sporting their favorite conference. The hardcore college sports fans’ moods are traditionally dictated by how well their schools perform, not their conferences.

But if there is any sense of Pac-12 pride left, it’s been whittled to the size of an amoeba. At least in the revenue sports. Call it the Pack Up and Go Home 12.

One team (UCLA) from this time zone’s Power Five conference remains in the men’s NCAA Tournament – and the Bruins are headed to the Big Ten in 2024. Three of the four schools (Arizona, USC and Arizona State) that made the tournament were eliminated in the first round, and Arizona was a No. 2 seed and conference tournament champs.

Combine with this the fact that the Pac-12 hasn’t won an NCAA men’s hoops title in 26 years, hasn’t reached the title game since 2006 and hasn’t made the College Football Playoff since 2016, and you have to wonder if this conference really deserves to be called part of the “Power Five.”

At this point, the Pac-12 is to college sports what The Players Championship is to men’s golf. Folks like to call the Players the “fifth major,” as it’s bigger than any of the “regular” PGA Tour events – but it’s not on par with the actual majors.

Again, there is one team left from the conference in the men’s tournament – and that team is a Pac-12 short-timer.

Yes, part of the beauty of March Madness is that you truly never know who can be bounced in a given round. A slain Goliath doesn’t necessarily represent a declining conference. When Virginia lost as a No 1 seed in the first round in 2018, it won the national title the next season – and that was two years after fellow ACC school North Carolina claimed the title.

But as Virginia’s dud vs. UMBC five years ago felt like an anomaly, the Pac-12’s disappearance feels like the norm. And it reeks of evidence that the conference might never again be one of national prestige.

A Los Angeles Times report this month suggested that there could be a $200 million drop-off for the Pac-12 when it negotiates its next media-rights deal. Some kind of dip was inevitable given that two schools from the country’s second-biggest media market are on their way out, but this would be a massive plunge.

No doubt Larry Scott was the media’s piñata during much of his tenure as Pac-12 commissioner, but his successor, George Kliavkoff, has yet to offer much reassurance that the conference can rebound under his watch.

Just think about your schools for a second, and for the majority of you, I assume it’s Washington or Washington State. When UCLA and USC announced their departures before last season, were you thinking about how the Pac-12 would bounce back and make them regret wanting to part ways? Or were you thinking about how the Huskies or Cougars (or whoever else) better start improving so they can latch on to a major conference should the Pac-12 dissolve?

Perhaps this is an overreaction to a rough couple of days for the conference in men’s hoops. More likely, it’s a realistic response to a conference that is stuck in a perpetual rut.

The 2023 football recruiting rankings, according 24/7 sports, have Oregon with the eighth-best class nationally, soon-to-be-gone USC 12th, Utah 21st and Washington 25th. That doesn’t indicate much of an upswing.

The 2023 men’s basketball recruiting rankings have Oregon eighth, USC 10th and UCLA 15th – with no other Pac-12 school in the top 25. Again, little sign for optimism.

A few years ago, former UCLA and Washington football coach Rick Neuheisel commented on the size disparity between players from the Pac-12 and other major conferences

“We, as a conference, have to get bigger,” Neuheisel said. “We play in this league that is small, skilled and makes all kinds of plays, but we don’t look the part physically.”

That hasn’t changed much. The Pac-12 doesn’t look the part in any capacity, really. When it comes to the two sports driving the revenue, this conference isn’t one of champions. It’s one of also-rans.

One school from the Pac-12 remains in the men’s tourney – and that school will be out of the conference by next year. Perhaps the Bruins will have their shining moment, but it’s a dim time for the conference they represent.