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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Pac-12’s demise steals the show from basketball players and coaches at media day

Washington State head coach Kyle Smith during a 2022 basketball practice in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Ben Bolch Los Angeles Times

LAS VEGAS – Bill Walton would linger in the back of the room at Pac-12 Media Day in years past, the breathless broadcaster listening for a change as coaches and players ran through the usual spiel about their prospects for the season.

The big redhead indulged anyone who approached to chat, engaging on any desired topic while making his usual absurdist asides.

His absence Wednesday said a broadcast’s worth about the sad, surreal state of a beloved conference in its final days.

“We’re going to have to do a wellness check on him,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin joked of the former Bruins star who has been openly critical of his alma mater’s move to the Big Ten as part of a colossal shakeup of the college sports landscape.

As the first of many lasts started in this farewell season, the quiet resignation was literal. In a departure from normal protocol, Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff did not speak – or even appear – at the event inside the Park MGM, across the street from T-Mobile Arena.

Even the highlight video featuring dunks, hand-slapping and chest-bumps wasn’t accompanied by the usual blustery narration.

There might have been fewer questions about the Pac-12 than its conference counterparts among reporters who did not work for the Pac-12 Network. One reporter sitting in a velvet comfy chair in a hallway speaking with Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley asked him about the challenge of … Big 12 basketball.

“I mean, it’s already hit you,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said of the sense of finality. “You get your schedule, last media day, all these things that are happening, so I’m sure people are going to be sentimental.”

This was a reunion and a farewell.

UCLA and USC are among the four teams bound for the Big Ten next summer. Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah are going to the Big 12. California and Stanford are a year away from cross-country flights to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

That leaves Oregon State and Washington State in limbo. Do they stay put and fold in other teams from smaller conferences? Get absorbed by one of those conferences?

“I’d love to keep the name, I’d love to save the league,” Washington State coach Kyle Smith said. “Add, build and also be a home for when they want to come back because I think it’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever seen, those guys going to play basketball across the country.”

Coaches lamented the storylines buried by the focus on the future. Cronin noted that all one had to do was see 7-footers Oumar Ballo (Arizona) and N’Faly Dante (Oregon) roaming the hallways alongside the 6-foot-9 Adem Bona (UCLA) and Ben Carlson (Utah) to recognize how the Pac-12 would feature some of the country’s best big men.

“What’s amazing,” Bona said, rattling off a list of teammates that includes 7-3 center Aday Mara, 6-9 forward Berke Buyuktuncel and 6-5 point guard Jan Vide, “the league got big and we got bigger.”

USC was picked second and UCLA third in the preseason media poll, behind favorite Arizona. The Wildcats received 18 of 26 first-place votes (The Times does not participate in media voting, per policy), with the Trojans and Bruins each getting four votes.

Oregon was picked fourth, followed by Colorado, Arizona State, Utah, Stanford, Washington, Washington State, California and Oregon State.

Scheduling figures to be a big issue for Cronin for years to come. UCLA and Arizona initially were set to face each other only once this season before Pac-12 coaches and athletic directors voted to abandon the schedule rotation model prior to the collapse of the conference in August, clearing the way for two games between the rivals in this final season.

It appears they won’t be the last. Lloyd said he expected the teams to play each other in future seasons after they navigate their respective future nonconference obligations.

“We’re going to do it,” Lloyd said, “more than open (to it), 100%.”

“We’re going to try to figure something out,” Cronin said.

Lloyd said he hoped the final Pac-12 basketball season could mimic the conference’s football success. Six football teams are nationally ranked, putting the Pac-12 in position to make the College Football Playoff for the first time since Washington went in 2016.

“If this is the last year,” Lloyd said, “let’s see if basketball can take a swing like that too.”

The Pac-12’s end comes with a few beginnings. Mark Madsen, the former Stanford standout who won two NBA titles with the Lakers, is the new coach at California in a return to his home conference. Unfortunately, it comes on the eve of its demise.

“I’m incredibly sad about the breakup of the Pac-12,” Madsen said.

Moments later, Madsen pivoted to the benefits of ACC membership, mentioning the conference’s “phenomenal” reputation and the recruiting boost of operating on dual coasts. The praise was unprompted, reflecting the awkward reality of playing in one conference while planning for another.

If Smith’s prediction comes true, Cal and the other defectors will be back once football is uncoupled from other college sports. Smith promised not to rub it in once geographic sanity is restored.

“Hopefully, we still have the Pac-12-whatever name and I’m not going to be mad when they want to come back and embrace them,” Smith said. “I understand why you did it at the time – kind of, not really – but we’re here, hopefully.”