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The Big Dance is nearing its crescendo. Meanwhile, with the focus of the sports world squarely tuned to college basketball, the best teams in the Pac-12 Conference already are back at home, licking their wounds from a tough season on and off the court in 2017-18 while attempting to regroup by next fall.
It was a frustrating if somewhat fitting fizzle at the end of a tumultuous basketball season for the league, which saw its participation in the NCAA Tournament end by the conclusion of the first full day of opening-round action last week.
Arizona State and UCLA squeaked into the tournament’s “First Four” games early last week, but suffered quick exits. The same occurred with fourth-seeded Arizona, whose season began with the arrest of assistant coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson as part of an ongoing FBI college recruiting corruption probe and ended with a blowout loss against 12th-seeded Buffalo in Boise, Idaho.
This was the best one of the so-called Power 5 conferences had to offer. And, nationally, while the Pac-12 awaits the end of an FBI investigation that might ultimately result in NCAA sanctions against Arizona and USC, Colorado coach Tad Boyle knows the on-court product is something the league must collectively improve in 2018-19.
“This is not a banner year by any means and not something any of us are proud of,” Boyle said. “But I do think it speaks to the fact of how hard it is to win at this time of year. Virginia had as good a year as you can have in college basketball, and they lose to a 16-seed for the first time ever. This time of year, you get in that tournament, and anything can happen.
“Things are never as good as they seem when you have good years, and they’re never as bad as they seem when you have bad years. And this was a bad year, there’s no doubt about it. Not advancing anybody, that’s not good. But next year’s a new year. I don’t think it’s a trend. I don’t think it’s something we have to hit the panic button on.”
Not only did the Pac-12 suffer through an embarrassingly quick exit from the NCAA Tournament, but the five league squads that reached the NIT hardly made a splash there either, with only Utah surviving the first two rounds heading into a Wednesday night quarterfinal date against St. Mary’s.
Some of the downturn the Pac-12 endured this year was cyclical in nature. Just two years ago the league sent a record seven teams into the NCAA Tournament, and last year Oregon reached the Final Four before the Pac-12 had a league-record 14 players selected in the two rounds of the 2017 NBA draft. It’s difficult for any league to lose that sort of top-tier talent and not suffer a letdown.
The Pac-12 can take solace with a glance at the SEC. Two years ago it was considered the weakest basketball league among Power 5 conferences after getting just two programs into the tournament. Last year that number jumped to five, with the SEC represented by three schools in the Elite Eight and South Carolina in the Final Four. This year, eight SEC squads made the tourney, with Texas A&M and Kentucky still alive in the Sweet 16.
“I do think when you lose 14 NBA draft picks out of your league, and it’s a 12-team league, there’s going to be some rebuilding going on, there’s no doubt about it,” Boyle said. “Obviously with us being a freshman-laden team this year, it was a year of growth and development. That’s going to pay off as we move forward. That’s the idea. The SEC has been down in years past and they had a really good year.”