Rooney: Beleaguered Pac-12 basketball should still provide entertaining tourney

Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, front right, and Colorado head coach Tad Boyle express their frustrations during Saturday's game at the CU Events Center.
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, front right, and Colorado head coach Tad Boyle express their frustrations during Saturday’s game at the CU Events Center.

It took all of about 10 seconds for the rest of the college basketball world to take to the Twitterverse a few nights ago to pile it on the reeling Pac-12 Conference.

The Pac-12 as a one-bid league to the 68-team NCAA Tournament? The thought has been a punch line throughout the season. Yet after the wild turn of events — even by Pac-12 standards — over the past few days, that lowly designation may very well become reality.

As everyone except the Colorado Buffaloes and Utah tipped off Thursday night in a crowded Pac-12 slate, few things in the league were certain yet this much was clear: Washington, ranked 25th and well in command of the top spot in the standings, was on its way to becoming the first one-loss regular season champ since Stanford in the 2003-04 season, a commendable achievement in any year that nonetheless would forever be branded with the stigma of how mediocre the Pac-12 was in 2018-19.

Likewise, Cal was on its way to the first winless season within the Pac-12 since Oregon State went 0-18 in 2007-08. Naturally, when the polar opposites met late Thursday night, the winless Golden Bears celebrated their first win over a ranked foe in over 25 months.

For the average college basketball fan, the drama in Berkeley was compelling. For those hoping the Pac-12 ultimately sends more than just its league champion to the Big Dance, it was gut-wrenching to a strangely fitting degree. The best the league has to offer was taken out by the program threatening to go winless in a historically mediocre year.

It wasn’t always like this. As recently as three years ago the Pac-12 sent a record seven teams into the NCAA Tournament field. A year later the Pac-12 set another league record with 14 selections in the two-round NBA draft, including the Buffs’ Derrick White late in the first round. A downslide that began last year with Arizona State and UCLA barely squeaking into the round-of-68 First Four, and those two schools along with Pac-12 tourney champ Arizona getting eliminated immediately, has been exasperated this season.

If Washington wins its remaining games and doesn’t make a quick exit at the league tournament, the Huskies likely will still escape a similar fate as UW’s 2012 team, which won the Pac-12 regular season crown but didn’t reach the NCAA tourney. However, the loss to lowly Cal proves the Huskies are as vulnerable as any team in the crowded league pack. Other than the extra day off afforded to the top four finishers in the regular season, seeds will be as meaningless in this year’s Pac-12 tourney as any conference basketball tournament in history.

That tournament begins in Las Vegas in less than two weeks, and what the field may lack in top-tier talent — like Arizona’s Deandre Ayton decimating UCLA and USC by going 27-for-36 with 64 points and 32 rebounds in the Wildcats’ semifinal and championship game wins three months before becoming the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft — it might make up for in unpredictable plot twists. If the Buffs can go into Saturday’s game against Utah tied for ninth and still have a shot at a top-four finish, and indeed if Cal can take down Washington, there will not be a single game in Vegas in which one of the competitors doesn’t have a chance at victory.

“Our league made its bed in November and December,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen at the Pac-12 tournament, but we’re all responsible for ourselves. We’re responsible to represent the league certainly, but more importantly ourselves.”

The action in Vegas probably won’t be the prettiest postseason basketball on record. But the Pac-12’s mediocrity overshadows its parity, and that parity should at least make things entertaining in Vegas.

Pat Rooney: or